En route to becoming one of movie land’s most iconic stars – ensconced as an emblematic presence in the eternal landscape of the Hollywood western – John Wayne’s public persona went through several permutations: the romanticized buck, embittered recluse, caustic comic, and finally, defiant (though rarely defeated) sage. In Henry Hathaway’s North to Alaska (1960) Wayne’s movie iconography is clearly in transition; still clinging to the vestiges of the far-away and careworn loner, but also having developed a yen for curmudgeonly comedy. At 53, Wayne was still bankable box office. He could also hold his own with leading ladies half his age and come off the viable bronco-bucking stud. Based on a play by Ladislas Fodor, John Lee Mahin, Wendell Mayes and Martin Rackin’s screenplay is, at times, veering dangerously close to becoming episodic and cliché. North of Alaska’s John Alden premised plot – that of a good friend interfering with his partner’s romance after he discovers the betrothed girl already married – is fairly ridiculous. Sultry international sensation, Capucine somewhat miscast as Michelle, is the tough French prostitute with a proverbial heart of gold who becomes the unwitting substitute for the friend’s affections, only to have our hero realize he too is in love with her.
Wayne and Capucine have some wonderfully acidic repartee. Where North of Alaska tends to falter is in its supporting cast; beginning with Stewart Granger’s rather hammy George Pratt, best friend and mining partner to Wayne’s stoic Sam McCord. With the overwhelming success of Howard Hawk’s Rio Bravo (1959) firmly in mind (featuring several songs sung by teen heartthrob Ricky Nelson), North to Alaska’s producers have also penciled in a squib of a role and a real milquetoast of a song for teen idol, Fabian, herein cast as George’s younger brother, Billy; an oversexed and altogether clumsy, fresh-faced kid desperate to become a man, but constantly getting tossed around and/or pushed aside by either George or Sam. Ernie Kovacs is in this one too, doing a variation on his loveably irreprehensible slickster, this time as Frankie Canon.
Superficially, there’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these performances, except that the screenplay can never establish consistent character traits for any of the aforementioned. As example; Capucine’s Michelle – nicknamed ‘Angel’ by Sam – starts off the hard-bitten realist. But she quickly illustrates a heart that can be easily broken. Midway through our story, Michelle goes from world savvy gal pal to love-struck scatterbrain. Stewart Granger’s George suffers a similar fate; an eager romantic transformed into matchmaking buffoon after he discovers Michelle’s heart has run away with her head…but for Sam. Ernie Kovac’s scheming saloon/hotel keeper/con artist is arguably the most consistent of the lot – finding new ways to turn old tricks into future underhanded prospects. This leaves Fabian’s as the only genuinely grating performance; his wide-eyed ‘gosh and golly’ more singing capon than crowing rooster. Poor Billy Pratt - his undeniably raging hormones repeatedly landing him in ‘cold’ water - literally.
North to Alaska really owes more to the classic 1930’s screwball than the traditional western, its cardboard cutout fops and floozies photographed against a lusty, rustic backdrop, exuberantly lensed by master cameraman, Leon Shamroy. This is one utterly gorgeous movie to look at, right down to its garters and even featuring a brief and rather shocking ‘nipple’ shot as Capucine leans forward beyond the white porcelain barrier of her bathtub. (Frankly, I don’t see how this fleeting glimpse of flesh ever made it past the censors. If I can see it on my 65 inch HD monitor imagine how big it must have looked spread across the expansive Cinemascope screen in a legitimate theater! But, I digress.)
The Point Mugu and Hot Creek, California locations (convincingly subbing for Nome) are visually breathtaking; the detailed interiors recreated on soundstages at 2oth Century-Fox by Duncan Cramer and Jack Martin Smith resplendent evocations of ‘roughing it’ Hollywood style. Today’s movie makers, with their equilibrium-altering ‘steadicam’ photography have all but forgotten that movies are a visual medium meant to be seen and appreciated. Shamroy’s camera makes love to the scenery, remaining stationary a good deal of the time. Yet none of his master shots ever appear static or without some utterly fascinating bit of set decoration to look at, ably supplied by art directors Stuart A. Reiss and Walter M. Scott. Because of its sumptuousness we can excuse North to Alaska’s less than perfect narrative. And there’s regrettably a lot to overlook here, from the rather mechanically staged fight sequences with their ten gallons tipped more to The Three Stooges’ slapstick than vintage western brawling, or the rather pointless dispatch of our love story in favor of a claim-jumping caper that goes absolutely nowhere very fast.
We first meet big Sam McCord (Wayne) preparing to leave Nome for Seattle to collect his friend and mining partner, George Pratt’s (Stewart Granger) fiancée, Jenny Lamont (Lilyan Chauvin). Sam, George and George’s kid brother, Billy (Fabian) make a pit stop at the local watering hole where Sam lets it be known that he and George have just struck it rich on their mine. The news is music to con artist, Frankie Canon’s (Ernie Kovacs) ears; that is, until he tries to swipe Sam’s leather satchel during a bar room brawl, then later at a steam bath where Sam catches him in a lie and promptly knocks him unconscious.
Sam vows to bring Jenny to Nome – a promise unfulfilled when he arrives in Seattle laden with presents only to find Jenny (a servant girl in a great house) already married to the under butler (Marcel Hillaire). Sam decides to whoop it up a little, stopping at a house of ill repute where he meets Michelle – one of the working girls. Despite the fact Sam is spending money like water Michelle is remarkably cold and aloof…at first. But when Sam offers her safe and very moneyed passage back to Nome she mistakenly assumes he’s offering her the world. Sam takes Michelle to a logger’s picnic where he wins a tree-climbing contest and introduces her to his longtime friends, Lars (Karl Swenson) and Lena Nordquist (Kathleen Freeman). Lena is, at first, skeptical of Michelle. But after a few drinks the kinks are ironed out and everyone gets along. Later, on the boat back to Alaska Michelle confides in Sam that she feels like a new woman and he, realizing she has mistaken his intensions, decides to clear things up by explaining that no such notion of a life together entered his head.
Naturally, Michelle is disappointed. But after a few days of isolation she warms to the idea of starting over in Nome. Meanwhile, Frankie attempts to snooker George and Billy out of their share of the gold mine. He is unsuccessful, but manages to launch a series of claim-jumping offensives on nearby prospectors. Sam and Michelle arrive at the mine and honeymoon cabin George built for Jenny, only to learn from Billy that George has gone several miles ahead to help a nearby prospector protect himself against Frankie’s posse. Leaving Michelle in Billy’s smitten care (he makes dinner and serenades her while she bathes), Sam rides off to the prospector’s slues and saves the day by launching a one man offensive using a runaway wagon to smash into the slues where the gunmen are hiding. George learns that Jenny did not make the voyage. But after meeting Michelle (and being rather cruel) George decidedly warms up to the idea of having her around.
It doesn’t take long for George to realize Michelle is desperately in love with Sam. So he conspires with her to make Sam jealous, a ruse that works only too well. In the meantime, Frankie has convinced the town drunk, Breezy (Stanley Adams) that he has a legitimate claim on Sam and George’s mine because he once built a bonfire on the land, thereby marking his spot ahead of them and thus, under Alaskan law, legally entitled to all of the riches the present mine has yielded. It’s a con of course, but one the Land Commissioner (Joe Sawyer) must entertain and investigate. Sam’s assets are frozen with Sam bitterly vowing to learn the identity of the man who filed the claim. Frankie complicates matters by hiding Breezy in his hotel under lock and key, a desperate act that fails to conceal the drunk for too long; especially after Sam takes to breaking down every door in the hotel until he finds and frees Breezy, forcing him to repeat his story to the commissioner. Frankie attempts damage control and, in the ensuing no holds barred fist fight that breaks out between him and Sam right in the middle of town, no extra – man nor beast – is spared. Michelle is thrilled for Sam but still electing to return to Seattle until Sam publicly proposes marriage.
North to Alaska is good-natured fun to be sure. It just isn’t particularly great story-telling. The Mahin/Rackin/Binyon screenplay seems intent on throwing every cliché and catalyst into the mix, hoping something will stick. Alas, too much does. Is this an impassioned story of a man and a woman finding one another? Well, yes – in spots. Is it the comic tale of a lover’s triangle? Occasionally. Is it a rollicking adventure yarn about rough and tumble claim jumpers going after the gold rush? Could be. Are we meant to view this latter conflict through a good vs. evil rubric? Hmmm. Where’s the villain?
Frankie Canon isn’t so much evil personified as loveably perverse. When Frankie sees Michelle in Nome he attempts to rekindle an old flame they presumably shared in another lifetime back in Seattle – just another momentary wrinkle in this Shar Pei puppy of a plot. However, she rebuffs him and Frankie steps aside; threatening to wreak havoc on Michelle’s daydream of a life with Sam. In fact, Frankie never follows through on these wicked intentions. Nor does he ever remotely prove himself a match for Sam; either physically or intellectually. No, he’s just a good-time weasel who briefly gets the upper hand. Hence, we’re deprived of a good solid villain we love to hate.
Another problem: there are too many sidekicks to consider. George and Billy Pratt are lumbering cornballs at best; especially Fabian’s smooth-skinned pretty boy crooner, unable to hold his liquor one minute, the next eloquently serenading Capucine in her bathtub (with a curtain dividing them – for modesty). And Wayne’s Sam seems to know he’s caught adrift in this sea of buffoons, frequently losing his temper with both George and Billy before succumbing to his own bought of idiocy; accidentally releasing the handbrake on a runaway cart hurdling down the embankment toward the slues and claim jumpers without first bothering to get out of the cart himself.
At some point we simply have to ignore the plot and appreciate what’s left. The selling features for North to Alaska are, of course, plentiful. John Wayne doing what John Wayne does best; Capucine looking utterly radiant in either her prostitute’s red sequin and feather boa ensemble or, for that matter, any of the other decidedly more virginal costumes she wears throughout the rest of the film; a lot of meticulously redressed back lot sets given Fox’s A-list production values and some location work exquisitely showing off for the camera, and finally, folk singer Johnny Horton warbling the rambunctious title tune ‘a way up there’ – regrettably, his last. Horton died in a horrific car accident that same year.
Viewed today, North to Alaska is a rather boisterous hodgepodge. We watch it mainly for Duke Wayne; an enduring testament to Wayne’s continuing pull at the box office. No other star of his vintage – and certainly none from our present day line up – has anywhere near the staying power. John Wayne was an original; arguably the star by which all stardom is ranked and judged. North to Alaska isn’t his best effort – not by a long shot. But it affords Wayne some absolutely wonderful moments and it is these that his fans continue to live for. On that score, Wayne in particular, and the film in general, never disappoint.
No one will be disappointed with Fox’s exquisitely remastered 1080p Blu-ray. When North to Alaska was released on DVD it suffered from a horribly faded print heavily favoring a brownish/beige palette with ruddy flesh tones and decidedly muddy colors. The Blu-ray exemplifies the need for remastering all classic movies in hi-def. North to Alaska is ravishing. Blu-ray colors are bold, rich and fully saturated. There are several very brief moments when the color seems just a tad off; Capucine’s fine bone features almost ghost-like in one particular close-up. This is a very minor quibbling, however. The outdoor locations pop in 1080p, revealing a level of detail unseen since the movie’s theatrical release. Everything crisps up as it should with fine detail vastly improved and contrast levels absolutely pitch perfect. The remastered 5.1 DTS audio is equally impressive; Cinemascope’s vintage six-track stereo holding up remarkably well. Extras are the only disappointment. As before, we only get a very brief MovieTone’s news clip marking the premiere and a very badly worn theatrical trailer. Recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)