Thursday, May 8, 2014

Jane Wyman Romances Charlton Heston and Natalie Wood Befriends a Miracle Dog

Compared to Jane Wyman's other "women's pictures" of the 1950s, Lucy Gallant is neither as good as All That Heaven Allows nor as bad as Magnificent Obsession. It also wasn't made by Douglas Sirk, though director Robert Parrish clearly intended to imitate Sirk's glossy melodramas.

Wyman stars as the title character, a plucky young woman who finds herself stuck in White Sage Junction, Texas, when her train is delayed. She quickly realizes that the town is undergoing rapid growth as its citizens gain wealth from oil fields. When Lucy sees the female residents admiring her New York fashions, she decides to sell all her clothes (we later learn this was her trousseau from a wedding that never happened). With a tidy profit in hand, she borrows enough money from the bank to open an upscale ladies' fashion store called Gallant's.

Meanwhile, she becomes attracted to Casey Cole (Charlton Heston), a rugged rancher who returns her affections. Unfortunately, Casey's old-fashioned values about marriage conflict with Lucy's business ambitions. It quickly becomes clear that one of them will have to bend if these two lovers are going to find happiness.

The opening scenes of Lucy Gallant are captivating, with Wyman creating a sassy, appealing heroine who knows what she wants and how to get it--from a business perspective. Alas, Lucy doesn't know what she wants when it comes to love. She obviously cares for Casey, but he's a boot-wearing outdoorsman and she's a stylish socialite. It's the Green Acres conundrum...except that Casey stops short of forcing Lucy into a life on the ranch.

Eventually, it becomes tedious watching this couple trying to find a compromise as the years roll by. A good supporting cast--which includes Thelma Ritter, Claire Trevor (shown at right), and William Demarest--maintains viewer interest (though one wishes they had more to do, especially the spunky Trevor). There's also a high-end runway show introduced by none other than Edith Head! That almost makes up for the film's ending, which I personally found unsatisfying and a little depressing.

Natalie Wood and collie.
Just like Lucy Gallant, Jenny Hollingsworth--the young protagonist of Driftwood--finds herself in a strange town when she wanders from her home after the death of her grandfather. Fortunately, Jenny (Natalie Wood) meets an apparently stray collie that becomes her protector. En route to the town of Panbucket, she and the dog are befriended by a kind small town doctor. Steve Webster (Dean Jagger) is not a country practitioner, though; he's conducting research on Rocky Mountain spotted fever. And while he treats Jenny affectionately, neither Steve nor his older friend Murph (Walter Brennan) intend for Jenny to spend longer than a single night in their house.

Driftwood, a Republic Pictures "B" movie, was made the same year as Miracle on 34th Street. While it lacks the magic of that Natalie Wood film, Driftwood remains a pleasant family drama. Yes, there's never any doubt how Driftwood will end. Each plot turn is telegraphed well ahead of time (hmm...will someone get Rocky Mountain spotted fever? Just where did that collie come from?). I didn't mind that, though, principally because it was played so well by the cast.

Natalie Wood was a natural on the screen--a gift she displayed as a child and later an adult actress. In films such as 34th Street, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, and in Driftwood, the young Natalie charms subtly and realistically without overplaying cuteness.

Ruth Warrick and Dean Jagger.
Of course, it helps when a youthful star is surrounded by screen veterans. Indeed, the best part of Driftwood may be watching its exceptional cast, most of whom carved out successful careers as performers known for their supporting roles in bigger films and on television. In addition to Brennan and Jagger, the cast includes Ruth Warrick (Phoebe on All My Children), Margaret Hamilton, Alan Napier (Alfred on TV's Batman), James Bell (The Leopard Man), H.B. Warner, and Charlotte Greenwood (Aunt Eller in Oklahoma).


  1. When all else fails, a cast of strong character actors will always make a movie worthwhile. I'll keep a lookout for these titles.

    1. What a great comment! I am with you. I will watch films to follow many character actors!

  2. Natalie and the collie are both scene stealers in "Driftwood" while the adults often need to grow up. "Lucy Gallant" is especially fun to see Edith Head and the fashion show.

  3. I really enjoyed the sudsy drama of Lucy Gallant even with it's dated attitudes it was still an entertaining ride. Jane Wyman's Lucy had a real fire in her belly and won't let anything stand in the way of her achieving her goal including young, towering Chuck Heston. I liked that she was such an independent woman, something that 50's cinema was not awash in. It would have been harder to understand her resistance to Heston's character if he wasn't such a macho jerk for much of the film. He was the right actor for the role though since his clinched jaw delivery matches much of the blow-hard dialog has to speak.

    I liked their story but what really pulled me in was the presence of Thelma Ritter and Claire Trevor. They're two of my absolute favorites and while their roles are one they could have performed in their sleep they give them their customary snap. It was nice to see Thelma dolled up in the height of fashion in the latter part of the film. I loved the totally superfluous fashion show with the surprise appearance of Edith Head, completely out of place but fun. The ending, steeped as it is in a 50's mentality, was frustrating but not enough that it ruined the picture for me.

    Driftwood was just another B brightened somewhat by Natalie Wood. The thing that surprised me the most about it was how venal Jerome Cowan's character was.

    1. Joel, your review of LUCY GALLANT is better than mine! I agree that the film was ahead of its time in terms of portraying an independent woman. Too bad the ending dilutes that theme somewhat.