John Fox Jr.’s novel was a favourite during the early years of cinema, and was filmed three times during the silent years: in 1914, in 1916 by Cecil B. DeMille, and more interestingly in 1923, with Mary Miles Minter appearing in her second-last film before disappearing from the silver screen after her alleged involvement in the William Desmond Taylor murder mess.
Perhaps because of the novel’s recognition factor and its setting in a rural mountain town, Paramount figured Trail of the Lonesome Pine was a good choice for the first 3-strip Technicolor film to be shot on location, so the production became one of five 3-strip Technicolor productions released in 1936 (the others being The Coronation of King George VI, The Dancing Pirate, Ramona, and the David O. Selznick extravaganza, The Garden of Allah).
What’s delightfully surprisingly about Trail is how engaging the film remains, in spite of being ostensibly a variation on the Hatfield vs. McCoy feud that has two families losing members in cruel tit-for-tat revenge exchanges. Unique to the plot, though, is the introduction not only of another love interest – an industrialist determined to build a railroad through land held by both warring families – but the novelty is of progress being the reason the feud ultimately runs out of steam, and causes young and old family members to ponder whether all the hate and bloodshed is worth the agony.
A promise of emancipation through education is what industrialist Jack Hale (Fred McMurray) uses to lure pretty June Tolliver (Sylvia Sydney, and her big sad eyes) from the family cabin to the city, where she stays with his sister, even though one suspects June would’ve left either way, after watching her mother reduced to a sad and tired figure in the household.
At odds with June’s hunger for cerebral activities and her growing affection for Jack is her intended beau Dave Tolliver (Henry Fonda), a young farmer with traditional values, and one willing to keep up the feud in spite of being responsible for the grand spark that’s kept the Falins and Tollivers at war.
The film’s dialogue hasn’t aged too well – June’s ferocious rage at Jack upon returning to her family after a tragedy is unbelievably clunky – but the conflicts are engaging, as are the performances by a really interesting group of veteran character actors and newcomers – all shot in brilliant colour.
As Mriam Hopkins’ fiery persona blazed onscreen in the first 3-strip Technicolor film, Becky Sharp (1935), waifish Sylvia Sidney (Fury, Sabotage)) glows as she progresses from farm girl to a more learned woman in the film’s second half, only to be torn between her new ‘civilized’ self and the sister wanting cold revenge for a terrible death.
MacMurray (Double Indemnity) has a strong, likeable presence as the somewhat arrogant industrialist who manipulates things in his favour, even though love isn’t something he’s readily after. Fonda’s screen presence is quite powerful in his fourth film, and one can see why he easily became a favourite with director John Ford in subsequent classics like Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) and The Grapes of Wrath (1940), as well as the Technicolor classic Drums Along the Mohawk (1939). Fonda’s character transition from a man ready to shoot his enemy to later offering himself up to establish some peace feels natural and earnest, and certainly sets up the closure at the end for both families, as Jack’s railway is being erected in the distance.
Also of note in the cast is Nigel Bruce in his pre-Sherlock Holmes years as Jack’s trusty, wry colleague; Beulah Bondi as June’s long-suffering mom, and Spanky McFarland as June’s brother – a rare dramatic effort (more comedy relief, really) during the years whe he was a popular member of the Our Gang troupe (1932-1942).
Henry Hathaway’s direction is unsurprisingly solid, and he makes sure to establish the mountains as an important character in the drama, as well as the industrial team that comes to fell trees, set up camp, and hack their way through the forest to nail down railway tracks. Some of the land transformation scenes are riveting in colour, composition, and scope, and it’s amusing to see the core Technicolor scheme at work – such as each of the film stock’s primary colours (red, green, and blue) in a batch of pencils placed before a framed picture of June on Jack’s desk.
Fuzzy Knight’s role as a singing farmer/ good ‘ol boy is clichéd, but he also functions as an overt venue for the studio’s efforts to plug a few songs into the score, including a vocal piece that becomes pivotal to the drama. The score’s orchestrations are quite modern, with sophisticated theme variations and punchy action writing.
Universal’s DVD sports a strong transfer with a large bit rate – the film actually occupies a good chunk of the dual layer DVD – but the film still needs a major restoration. The elements are in pretty good shape, and the image sharpness is much better than subsequent forties and fifties 3-strip films that have appeared on DVD. (Warner Bros.’ King Solomon’s Mines ad Fox’ Belles on Their Toes have poor registration, resulting in an annoying orangy-red halo effect, and fuzzy focus in wide shots).
Also absent in this ‘Universal Backlot ‘ volume are extras that could’ve really shown film fans why Trail is an important step in colour film evolution. It makes no sense why the label couldn’t have contacted an historian or two for an edifying commentary track, as well as some historical extras from the American Society of Cinematographers (where one suspects there’s at least one person who’d have killed for a chance to wax on about this important film).
It’s great that the Trail is finally on DVD, but labels really need to understand that some of their old back catalogue titles are significant, and deserve more than a banal bare bones release.
© 2009 Mark R. Hasan