When it’s on: Thursday, 5 July (12.45 pm)
Channel: Channel 4
This week’s second Stewart Granger film finds our man playing George Pratt, a prospector at the turn of the twentieth century who’s struck lucky in Alaska. Along with his young brother Billy (Fabian) and business partner Sam McCord (John Wayne), George settles down to a life of gold mining and defending the vein against ‘claim jumpers.’ Sam is dispatched to Seattle in order to collect supplies and bring back George’s fiancé. She turns out to have given up on George and married another in the intervening years, so Sam does what any man would and visits a burlesque house to pick up a substitute for his friend. Enter Michelle (Capucine), an exotic French prostitute who, to no one’s real surprise, is quite happy to drop everything and follow Sam north. But here the complications arise. Michelle takes a quick shine to Sam. Once in Alaska, Billy falls for Michelle. Sam has underlying feelings for her too, but these are mixed in with loyalty to George, and it’s anyone’s guess what he’ll do about this turns of events…
None of these issues are quickly resolved in North to Alaska, a light-hearted adventure flick switching from farce to slapstick to romantic comedy with the kind of overlapping that suggests it wasn’t an easy film to make. A writers’ strike was underway, which left the project without a completed script and ended the association of Richard Fleischer, its original director. Fox instead turned to Henry Hathaway, who had to move things along on a day-by-day basis, sometimes working on bits of script for that day’s shooting before a camera rolled. It must have been a frustrating experience, and the seven screenwriting credits imply a chaotic process of turning John H Kafka’s idea into anything approaching a polished script. The film’s around half an hour too long, bloated to a running time of just over two hours – economy appears to have been a victim of the production difficulties.
Wayne needed a hit. His personal losses from investing heavily in The Alamo took their toll on his fortune and prompted him to take any project that offered an easy buck. By now a bona fide screen icon, Wayne was beginning to look like the pentagenarian that he was, but this didn’t stop him from accepting a role that had him playing the romantic lead with a French actress young enough to be his daughter, and the comic elements just about overcome any discomfort. Besides, Wayne developed on his skills of comedy timing, putting in a winning performance that subverted and parodied his usual screen persona. His easy chemistry with Granger, a similarly aged veteran, shone with the pair emerging on screen as natural pals, which just leaves teen idol Fabian as the odd one out. Movies of the time appeared to demand a young, proto-Elvis heartthrob to make a play for the teenage dollar, and Fabian is never bad, perfectly willing to make a tit of himself for Capucine and only really striking a bum note when he hopelessly serenades her.
The film is bookended with two fight scenes that take place in Nome, Alaska’s harbour town on the chilly Bering coast. These brawls are filmed as mass, slapstick affairs, and it’s no surprise to note that Richard Tamladge, whose career stretched back into the silent era, was involved in shooting them. A range of comedy sound effects used in these scenes are either irritating or add to the charm, depending on your tolerance. The studio backlot that doubles as Nome looks suitably muddy, the streets churned into medieval levels of sodden muck, but the gold mine appears to have come straight from a picture postcard. In reality filmed in California (naturally), the panoramic shots of Alaskan mountain ranges are quite lovely, particularly when an animated Aurora Borealis puts in an appearance.
Despite its length and the slowing of any progress in the mid-section, North to Alaska is entertaining enough, carrying just about enough charm to sustain it. Wayne at his most charismatic certainly helps, and I enjoyed him more here than in that other comedy Western, McLintock!, which seemed to me to really labour for its few laughs. Ernie Kovacs shows up in the film as a grifter and the tangled web of his history with Capucine’s character is only teased at, though guessing their past story isn’t difficult. Guess you must, as the focus here is on good clean fun, with even the cut-throat business of claim jumping playing second fiddle to the pratfalls and innocent romance.
North to Alaska: **