Monday, May 23, 2022

Book Review: The Films of Delmer Daves by Douglas Horlock

At long last, the career of Delmer Daves, one of Hollywood's most under-appreciated filmmakers, has received an in-depth, scholarly treatment courtesy of Douglas Horlock's The Films of Delmer Daves: Visions of Progress in Mid-Twentieth Century America (University of Mississippi Press, 248 pages). Horlock examines Daves's films through the lens of political and social values, race and civil rights, and gender. He also provides an overview of Daves's life and career, painting the portrait of a screenwriter and director who crafted his own vision within the confines of the Hollywood studio system.

Daves became interested in acting, writing, and directing theater while studying law at Stanford University. His initial foray into the film industry was as a property assistant on The Covered Wagon in 1924. After graduating from Stanford in 1927, he pursued his interest in movies and received credit for his first screenplay with 1929's So This Is College. Over the next decade, he carved a highly successful career as a screenwriter with films such as Dames (1934), Flirtation Walk (1934), an adaptation of The Petrified Forest (1936), and Love Affair (1939). 

Delmer Daves.
Daves's career took a different turn in 1943 when, after co-writing the screenplay for the World War II drama Destination Tokyo, Warner Bros. executive Jack Warner "ask(ed) an initially reluctant Daves to accept his first directorial assignment." Over the next two decades, Daves became one of the most reliable and successful writer-directors for Warner Bros. Horlock points out that Daves's films Destination TokyoHollywood Canteen, Broken Arrow, 3:10 to Yuma, A Summer Place, and Spencer's Mountain were "among the top-grossing films of their respective years." Daves also showed his versatility by working comfortably in genres such as Westerns, Biblical epics, romances, and family dramas.

Yet, Horlock notes that "Daves has remained largely overlooked in scholarly literature and film retrospectives" and has not achieved the auteur status attributed to directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Samuel Fuller, and even Douglas Sirk (whose glossy 1950s melodramas are comparable to Daves's later films A Summer Place and Parrish). Yet, like Hitchcock, Daves was intimately involved in the screenplays for his films, even those with which he did not receive a writing credit. Horlock traces recurring themes in Daves's films in chapters devoted to political and social values, race and civil rights, and gender. Horlock also includes this insightful comment from actor Glenn Ford, who worked with Daves on 3:10 to Yuma, Jubal, and Cowboy"Nothing happened in a Delmer Daves film that wasn't intentional, from the camera set-ups to the wardrobe."

Delmer Daves's The Hanging Tree (1959).
Horlock's most engrossing chapter is the one in which he analyzes gender in Daves's films, focusing on the filmmaker's use of strong, independent female characters. Horlock provides a number of excellent examples. In A Summer Place, Molly (Sandra Dee) defies her domineering mother by spending time with Johnny (Troy Donahue). In the 1959 Western The Hanging Tree, one of Daves's finest films, Elizabeth (Maria Schell) seeks independence after being rejected by the man (Gary Cooper) she loves. She forms a partnership with two other men to dig for gold and impresses them with her work ethic. Even in the romantic travelogue Rome Adventure, Suzanne Pleshette plays a young woman who defies a school board and then goes traveling in Italy on her own.

As befits its subtitle, The Films of Delmer Daves: Visions of Progress in Mid-Twentieth Century America is a scholarly volume for movie fans interested in thoughtful analyses. Still, that's not to say it isn't filled with fascinating facts (e.g., Warren Beatty was the original choice for the title role in Parrish, Daves's admirers include Humphrey Bogart, Alan Ladd, and Gary Cooper). At one point in his book, Horlock states: "Despite his working within the confines of a restrictive studio system, Daves's films deserve to be examined as the work of a serious artist of the cinema." That is exactly what the author has accomplished with his new book.


  1. Dark Passage, with Bogart /Bacall as more "ordinary" folks. Full advantage of the new freedom to shoot on location. Bogart more proto Richard Kimble here. Novel's author even sued The Fuge.

  2. The first-person viewpoint opening of Dark Passage is just brilliant!

  3. Not exactly an auteur, but he made a lot of excellent movies. I'm particularly fond of his Westerns of the 1950s. They're right up there with the best ones of Budd Boetticher and Anthony Mann. For me "3:10" is his masterpiece.

    1. Douglas Horlock makes a pretty convincing argument that Daves was an auteur. There are recurring themes through many of his films and he was actively involved in all aspects of filmmaking, especially writing and directing (but also costumes, set, etc.).

  4. Never knew Delmar Daves was a screenwriter in the 1930s! Very interesting. I associate him most with his westerns, especially Jubal. Glenn Ford gave a fine performance in that one.

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