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Saturday Matinee

Saturday Matinee #82, Great Movie Ride Summer Movie Marathon, Week Four: The Searchers (March 13, 1956) & "The Lone Chipmunks" (April 19, 1954) - published July 28, 2012

by Albert Gutierrez

Saturdays and summer vacations are often the best times to have movie marathons. I rarely have time to sit down and have a back-to-back-to-back marathon of films, so I'll usually spread the movies out across several days. For example, in anticipation of Marvel's The Avengers, I watched each of the five films - Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger - in the days leading up to the premiere. Last year, I prepared myself for Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides by watching each of the previous three films every Friday before the fourth film hit theatres. These marathons usually help to get me in a summer blockbuster mood, in which I'll be inundated with splashy effects and loud noises more often than anyone should be.

There's something exciting about just letting yourself get absorbed into a series of movies. You become a part of that world, and you enjoy moments and situations that generally don't occur in real life. People sing and dance. Fight scenes are elaborate and choreographed. Explosions are thrilling and only marginally life-threatening. To celebrate summer movie marathons, Saturday Matinee will devote the whole summer to a very special movie marathon. Each week, we'll take a look at one or two films represented in Disney Hollywood Studios' The Great Movie Ride, along with an accompanying Disney short that fits thematically for viewing. This week's film is John Ford's 1956 western classic: The Searchers. It is joined by Chip 'n' Dale's last theatrical cartoon under their banner, 1954's "The Lone Chipmunks."

The western section in The Great Movie Ride also includes an animatronic for Clint Eastwood, as seen in in his "Man with No Name" attire from A Fistful of Dollars. However, due to lack of time and resources, I was unable to acquire a DVD of the film for screen-capping purposes (I only have it on Blu-Ray). Like last week's Tarzan the Ape Man, I've decided - regretfully - to omit a summary and brief analysis of the film, although I'd still highly recommend including it in a Great Movie Ride marathon.

The Searchers

Former Confederate soldier Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) returns to his brother's home five years after the war has ended. Shortly after his return, a neighbor's cattle is stolen by Comanches. Ethan and his adopted nephew Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) go with several others to retrieve the cattle, but soon learn that it was bait to draw men away from the homesteads. When Ethan returns, he finds his brother and sister-in-law dead, as well as his younger nephew. His two nieces have also been kidnapped, likely to be killed later. Ethan and Martin spend the next five years in search of the Comanches, hoping to recover his two missing nieces. Early in their search, Ethan finds the older niece, Lucy, and buries her in a cave. When Ethan and Martin finally find Debbie, she has already been assimilated into the Comanche culture and tells them she does not wish to return.

"The Lone Chipmunks"

Pete's robbed a bank, and has ridden off into the horizon, intent on stashing his ill-gotten gains. He grabs his treasure chest from inside a tree, in which resides Chip 'n' Dale. They decide to do the right thing and capture Pete. First, they try tying him to a rock that falls down a cliff. However, that plan goes awry and makes Pete mighty jumpy. Chip decides to put gunpowder in Pete's tobacco bag, so that when he rolls a cigarette, it explodes. Once more, the plan goes badly, with Pete deciding to leave. He gets his chest, only to find it filled with acorns. However, following a trail of money leads him to Chip 'n' Dale setting a trap. He shoots at them and they scurry.

Chip 'n' Dale then decide to steal Pete's gun, but it's much too heavy. Chip and the gun fall, as it shoots every which way but loose. Pete, thinking he's being shot at, pulls out Dale, believing him to be his gun. Dale yells out "Bang! Bang, bang, bang!" to Pete's confusion. Chip takes this opportunity to hold Pete at gunpoint. Soon, the cavalry arrives, and Chip 'n' Dale have fun torturing Pete a bit before he's taken away.

The following excerpts are from an essay I wrote for a film class some years ago, condensed and edited into four brief paragraphs. I cheekily entitled the piece "John Ford's The Searchers, or How I Learned To Stop Brooding and Love My Comanche Niece," which amused my professor. As they still remain relevant to my views on the film today, they are included here for your reading pleasure.

Perhaps one of the most definitive icons of a western film is actor John Wayne, who appeared in countless westerns over the years such as Stagecoach, McLintock!, and Rio Bravo. His character is a brooding self-interested outsider, an older and more bitter man who is countered by the handsome "good guy" (Jeffrey Hunter as Martin), and for several important moments, the long arm of the law (Ward Bond as Rev. Clayton). All three are rather basic forms of characters in westerns, as well as other minor western archetypes like the passive motherly figure (Martha), the seemingly heartless Injun (Scar/Cicatriz), and the impatient woman left behind (Laurie). The Searchers also uses several recurring types of visual shots within the film, namely that of the waiting woman standing on her porch. We see this in the beginning, middle, and end of the film. Each time, this depicts the homecoming of "prodigal" characters. Other common shots is the sweeping cinematography featuring Utah's Monument Valley. Director John Ford had done location shooting there for 1939's Stagecoach, and would return again for several more movies.

Despite being a western in characters and setting, The Searchers thankfully doesn't resort to some of the more familiar concepts of westerns. There's no quick-draws at high noon, no tumbleweeds blowing in the winds, and no slinky call girl wooing a poker-playing cowboy. Instead, The Searchers provides a more evolved form of the Western. The picture is epic in scale, but intimate in story and character. Characters are no longer in the black and white confines of good and bad, but are given more delicate shades of gray, offering more flawed - and thus more realistic - personalities. On the surface the search for the missing nieces seems to be the primary plotline, but there are also intimate character studies regarding our heroes Ethan Edwards and Martin Pawley.

Ethan Edwards represents the outsider, he is content with being alone, despite his strong sense of devotion to his brother's family. However, throughout the course of the film, he realizes that his way of life no longer complements the lives of the family that exists now. He leaves, unnoticed and alone. Symbolizing the new hero is young Martin, a half-breed who holds more scruples than his uncle. He is torn between his heritage and his family; this is especially apparent in the first shoot-out across the river. Martin shoots several Comanches, then buries his head in shame. Soon after, he remembers that these were the men who killed his adoptive family, and he pulls out a revolver and resumes shooting, with tears in his eyes.

Surprisingly, the film was only a minor success at the box office and was virtually ignored by the Academy, despite its lush cinematography and a rather strong performance by Jeffrey Hunter. In the years since its release, The Searchers received a newfound appreciation by moviegoers and critics alike. Many consider it one of the definitive westerns, and it has been voted one of the top 100 films by the American Film Institute.

Like The Searchers above, "The Lone Chipmunks" sets out to tell an evolved western tale. Underdog vs. Big Boss isn't exactly new, although it's never been told from the point of view of tree-dwelling chipmunks. The characterizations for Chip 'n' Dale are also slightly expanded beyond fun little imps. Dale seriously considers turning in Chip when he believes him to be a bandit. It's a short and minor scene and consideration, and likely was done for laughs. However, it shows just how fleeting our loyalties might be when presented with a financial advantage. And Chip, always the more uptight of the two, knows how to hold his own against Pete when holding him at gunpoint. He even gets the lingo down and tells Pete, "You comin' along peaceful-like? Sweet talkin' will get you nowhere!" Granted, all that bravado disappears when the chamber falls out and there are no bullets. However, both Chip 'n' Dale still act valiantly, riding off into the sunset when their work is done. The Lone Chipmunks strike again!

"The Lone Chipmunks" was the third and final cartoon in Chip 'n' Dale's short-lived cartoon series. They would continue to make appearances in a few Donald Duck cartoons, then return in full force in the television series "Chip 'n' Dale Rescue Rangers." As it stands, "Lone Chipmunks" is a fitting end for the duo's theatrical adventures. We see them engaging in shenanigans outside of the normal "Take something from Donald and drive him crazy." Actually, that's essentially what "The Lone Chipmunks" is, with Pete filling the Donald role. Still, it's an enjoyable and diverting short. By the mid-1950's, Disney's shorts division was winding down. 1954 was the last major year for new animated shorts (it produced ten), as the following year saw only four new cartoons. Disney's attention was shifting - as we've seen in the past. This time, emphasis was on live-action and television fare. "The Lone Chipmunks" also stands out as one of the few western cartoons by Disney in the 1950's. Despite the nation's own craze with the west, as well as Disney's contributions with popular "Disneyland" serials, the western-themed Disney cartoon is few and far between. Alongside "The Lone Chipmunks" we can only look to shorts like "Pests of the West" (1950), "Two-Gun Goofy" (1952), and "A Cowboy Needs a Horse" (1956).

The Searchers has seen DVD release by Warner Bros. in 1998 and 2006, the first as a single-disc release, and the second as a two-disc Special Edition (also available in "Ultimate Collector's Edition" with special print materials). A Blu-Ray release followed later that year, and has since been repackaged in a "Triple Feature" set with How the West Was Won and The Wild Bunch.

Disney's "The Lone Chipmunks" can be only found in Davy Crockett: Two-Movie Collection, released in 2004. If you're interested in viewing more Chip 'n' Dale cartoons, check out "Classic Cartoon Favorites, Volume Four: Starring Chip 'n' Dale." In addition, their shorts are spread out in any of the "Walt Disney Treasures" sets devoted to Pluto or Donald Duck, their constant foes. Or, if you're a child of the 90's, two volumes of "Chip 'n' Dale Rescue Rangers" are available on DVD.

Finally, all three parts of Sergio Leone's "The Man with No Name Trilogy" are available on DVD and Blu-Ray: A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.


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