Director: Douglas Sirk
By Marilyn Ferdinand
I had a Top 10 best time at the movies last night as the invaluable Northwest Chicago Film Society treated film buffs to another rare morsel—Douglas Sirk’s Old West confection Take Me to Town—something this classic film program has done for 40 years. When it lost its home after the last of a series of bank owners sold the Portage Park bank building where the cinema was housed, young film buffs Julian Antos and Becca Hall struck a deal with the nearby Portage Theater to join their revival programming. When the NCFS had to move from its previous Saturday-night slot to Wednesday night, many of us were worried that audience numbers would dwindle and that the program would gasp its last. Happily, audiences have been enthusiastic, and NFCS will be back in September for another season.
Antos and Hall seem to be stuck on Sirk, inaugurating their new home with Written on the Wind and securing the very rare The First Legion at the previous venue. Hall explained that the 35mm archival print of Take Me to Town they secured from Universal is rarely screened because it was made with a transitional soundtrack that most projectors are not equipped to read. However, a simple change of a red LED bulb to a white bulb made the sound, if not perfect, quite acceptable, and the Technicolor print was visually vibrant. By showing Take Me to Town, Antos and Hall have championed yet another film in the Sirk canon that deserves to be better known.
Take Me to Town is a Western with music and dancing girls, cops and robbers, preachers and pious townspeople—the whole nine yards. It is not a musical, but rather another one of Sirk’s brilliant realizations of a milieu that seems familiar from a hundred different films, but that takes the time to be individual and confound our expectations with careful observations of how people really live and act.
The film opens on a train. A vendor is hawking apples, magazines, cigars, and other sundries as he walks the aisle of the two-car train. Isolated in one of the cars is a “fancy” woman—Mae Madison (Ann Sheridan)—sitting with two men. She asks the vendor for something to keep her cool, pulls a magazine out of his basket, and hands the vendor a quarter, though he says the stories are not likely to cool her off. She begs to differ, as she fans herself with her purchase. When Mae learns they are an hour from their destination, she announces she needs to use the facilities. Only then do we see that she is handcuffed to the man sitting next to her. The man sitting opposite her unlocks her cuff, locks his own wrist to the man, and Mae steps into the ladies room.
Mae breaks out the window and jumps to freedom. The man she was cuffed to, Newton Cole (Phillip Reed), is dragged out of his seat by the U.S. Marshall, Ed Daggett (Larry Gates), as he investigates the noise. Cole takes the opportunity to brain Daggett with a vase and grab the key to unlock the cuffs. He dumps the unconscious Daggett off the train. Mae makes her way to a train station where she buys a ticket north to the logging community of Timberline. She assumes the name Vermillion O’Toole and stars in the dance-hall show at the Elite Opera House, which is owned by her friend Rose (Lee Patrick).
In a neighboring town, folks aren’t too happy that the Elite Opera House exists. Most of the residents are pious and prudish, particularly Edna Stoffer (Phyllis Stanley), who has her eye on handsome widower Will Hall (Sterling Hayden). She offers to look after his three young sons, Corny (Lee Aaker), Petey (Harvey Grant), and Bucket (Dusty Henley), while he takes off for a few days’ work at a nearby logging camp. The adorable, blond boys don’t like her (“I hate her,” Bucket says, which, with “I like her (it),” is the only sentence he utters.) and decide to look for a more agreeable woman to be their new mother. The three boys ride together on one horse to the opera house, dismount with the help of a convenient tree stump, and are instantly smitten with Vermillion. They invite her to stay with them, and when both Cole and Daggett show up in town after having seen her picture in the Pictorial Gazette, she agrees. While cooling her heels away from Timberline, she and Will meet, fall in love, and confound the prejudices of the community by making their “housekeeping” relationship permanent.
With a plotline as old as the West, what makes this film so different from so many others? Without question, it’s the film’s honesty, sincerity, and willingness to engage with reality. In a film of the same era and ilk, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, the lumberjacks swing their axes in time to the music and fall in love with the first women they see. In Take Me to Town, Sirk allows his actors to do real tree-felling work, like putting their shoulders into cross-sawing, and he seamlessly inserts footage of tree-topping, which is as dangerous as it is awe-inspiring to watch. Will repeatedly rejects Edna, while declaring her a good woman nonetheless, and knows how to respect his own space when Vermillion must spend a night in his cabin. We also hear about Daggett’s determination to get Cole and Vermillion because he was nearly killed when he was thrown from the train—this isn’t a cartoon fall, where a character punches a 10-foot hole in the ground and crawls out of it. A final fight scene that occurs is uniquely staged, as Cole scrambles up a steep incline, with Daggett and Will chasing after him and holding onto vegetation to keep from sliding down. A steep drop into a pool of water fed by a waterfall looms in the background, but instead of ending the scene with Cole’s death, he merely rolls toward the edge and stops, knocked cold from the fall.
Will turns out to be a part-time preacher who is trying to build a church. He forces his congregation to live their ideals when he welcomes Vermillion to stay on and pushes her into community affairs. When a congregant openly challenges him on letting a woman of Vermillion’s type sit in their church—an open-air affair until funds can be raised to build a proper one—Will points out that they are outside where the church wall would have stood and belts him for his unchristian insolence. It’s also the first substantial clue we have that Will has fallen for Vermillion.
Vermillion herself is a little too good to be true, perhaps a sign of the repressed times in which the film came out. She’s been convicted of being an accessory to Cole’s illegal operations at his Denver dance hall, but she asserts she didn’t know what was going on—in other words, it’s o.k. with the Hays Code for her to go free. She clearly is a good-time girl, but she knows how to cook, sew, and clean house, and she falls instantly for Will’s three boys. In other words, she’s actually a good mother and homemaker trapped inside a vavoom body and eager to clean up her act and serve as the town’s schoolteacher, as her theme song “The Tale of Vermillion O’Toole” tells us she becomes.
However, this is Ann Sheridan we’re talking about. Sheridan is one of the most talented actresses to come from mid-century America, infusing clichéd scripts with nuance and showing a willingness to play against the grain of the story. She’s given exceptionally good dialogue in the smart, full script by Richard Morris (who rather specialized in good-time girls, with The Unsinkable Molly Brown and Thoroughly Modern Millie to his credit). And she makes the most of it, treating the boys’ declaration that they are “looking for a woman” with a little surprise, but a lot of understanding and dignity. She’s a hard taskmaster to the townspeople as she rehearses them like the pro she is for a fundraising theatrical she has organized. When Edna quits, taking her piano with her, Vermillion is venomous to her. While we might understand Vermillion’s emotional outburst based on how she’s been high-hatted and put down by Edna, there’s an edge to Sheridan’s attack that makes it clear she’s got a strong streak of nasty in her that is pushing some good people too far. She’s also a sensualist who dances uninhibitedly and displays her sexual attraction to Will openly. Thus, Sheridan risks alienating our good will toward her character for the sake of a more truthful performance.
This is also Douglas Sirk we’re talking about. He was a religious man who explored faith in quite a few of his films. This film is no different, as Will’s congregation voices sincere and convincing belief that sin is real, and that Vermillion and the Elite Opera House are bringing it unwillingly into their lives. Their view is intolerant, and Will confronts them on it, but the debate is serious and not offered up for laughs the way other aspects of the film are. Hayden is a sexy, believable lumberjack, but he’s also a very convincing man of God, a departure from his more numerous tough-guy roles.
Sirk is also well known for racy innuendo in his famous melodramas, and he indulges the double entendres in the script with relish, allowing that Will likes Vermillion’s “meat pies,” a line put into little Corny’s mouth for a little extra kick of perversity. He ends the film happily, but leaves a question dangling in the air about whether the rather boring life of a preacher’s wife in a backwoods town will be enough for a worldly woman like Vermillion. As long as the sex with Will is good, I think it will be.