Harold Bell Wright was a 35-year-old minister in the Disciples of Christ Church in Redlands, Calif. when he resigned his ministry in 1907 after the success of The Shepherd of the Hills, his second novel. Thereafter, he devoted himself full-time to writing as a way of spreading the Gospel (of decency, of hard work, of caring for the downtrodden) by other means.
You can get the whole story at Gerry Chudleigh’s comprehensive Harold Bell Wright Web site, including this page specifically dedicated to movies from Wright’s stories and novels. The Reader’s Digest version, as brief as I can make it, is that Wright, dissatisfied with a 1916 picture based on his Eyes of the World, decided to film his books himself. To that end he formed the Harold Bell Wright Story-Picture Corporation with his publisher, Elsbery Reynolds. The company made only one picture, The Shepherd of the Hills in 1919, adapted and directed by Wright himself. Perhaps the picture was not well-received, perhaps the company was torn asunder by the falling-out between Wright and Reynolds when the writer decided to sign with a different publisher. Whatever the cause, by 1922 the two men were on the outs and the Harold Bell Wright Story-Picture Corporation was no more.
This is where Sol Lesser enters the picture. Lesser is remembered as a low-to-middle-budget independent producer who turned out such pictures as Our Town, Stage Door Canteen, and a long spate of Tarzan movies in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. In 1922, however, he was an eager young go-getter, an exhibitor looking to get into production after making a killing on a quickie exploitation flick about the passing of San Francisco’s Barbary Coast. He approached Wright for the movie rights to his books, but Wright’s first nine books were co-owned by Reynolds, and the two weren’t speaking; if Lesser would deal with Reynolds, Wright said, then they could talk. Lesser bought out Reynolds’s full interest for $174,500, then made a straight trade with Wright: publication rights, including Reynolds’s original printing plates, in return for the movie rights to all nine books.
Wright saw in time that he’d made a bit of a fool’s bargain. His books were hugely popular, but their very popularity had saturated the market; there simply wasn’t that much to be made from republishing them. The real money was in putting them on the screen, and he had traded that chance to Lesser. After the coming of sound, Wright tried to get the rights back — or at least get more money for them — with the creative argument that he had given Lesser only the rights to make silent movies, not talkies. Nice try, Harold, but that one didn’t hold up, and Lesser’s rights to the works “regardless of technical changes or additions in the film medium” were confirmed. And those rights were extensive; they were universal and in perpetuity, and they included the right to make any changes whatsoever in the story, title, or characters of a given work “to such an extent as the purchaser [Lesser] may deem expedient.” In effect, Lesser could make pretty much any picture he wanted and call it “Harold Bell Wright’s This and Such.” That’s what he did, for example, with Wright’s cowboy morality tale When a Man’s a Man, turning it into a rather paltry little B-western in 1935.
So Wright may well (and I wouldn’t blame him) have sighed and rolled his eyes at what was happening to his books in Hollywood, being powerless to alter it. Then again, his curiosity may have drawn him to check out what Paramount did in 1941 with his most popular novel; if so, perhaps he took comfort that, unlike that cheapskate Lesser, at least Paramount brought Technicolor, an “A” budget, and top-shelf talent to the table — beginning with Henry Hathaway and scenarist Grover Jones.
Hathaway and Jones had collaborated successfully before, having first worked together on 1929’s The Virginian, where Hathaway served as assistant to Victor Fleming. When Hathaway himself became a director, Jones worked with him on the scripts of The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, The Trail of the Lonesome Pine and Souls at Sea. Shepherd of the Hills would be their last picture together; on September 24, 1940, while Shepherd was in post-production, Grover Jones died of complications following surgery. He was 46.
The script for Shepherd is credited to Jones and Stuart Anthony, in that order. I don’t know how much the two collaborated; maybe they didn’t. Anthony may have been the writer brought in to add some connective scenes after Hathaway left the picture (more about that later). In any case, the script jettisons all the melodramatic curlicues of Harold Bell Wright’s plot and leaves only a few basics, expanding and elaborating on those.
The setting is a remote mountain valley (Wright was living in the Ozarks of southern Missouri when he began the book) where the sparse populace ekes out a hardscrabble life based on subsistence farming, small-scale sheep ranching, and running moonshine past impotent federal authorities. Everyone cowers under a pall of superstitious misery centered on an empty homestead called Moaning Meadow, where walks (so they say) the ghost of a woman whose man left her to die of a broken heart. Feeding off this festering unhappiness like a spider is the dead woman’s sister Mollie Matthews (Beulah Bondi); she has raised her nephew, Young Matt (John Wayne), on a diet of hate, telling him every day that the curse on all their heads can be lifted only when he finds and kills the unkown man who brought it on: his father. Matt is a gentle, tormented soul who doesn’t relish the thought of killing, but he sees no way out; not even his growing feelings for pretty Sammy Lane (Betty Field), who plainly adores him, can be allowed to sway him from the task Aunt Mollie has set for him.
Into all this walks kindly old Daniel Howitt (Harry Carey), a man of some (though mysterious) means with a hankering to settle down there. He befriends Sammy Lane and her father Jim, staying with them until he persuades the Matthewses to sell him Moaning Meadow. His effect on the whole valley is nearly miraculous: he heals the sick (treating Jim Lane’s wounds when he is shot by a federal agent), raises the dead (saving a little girl who nearly chokes to death while her grieving parents look helplessly on), and makes the blind to see again (sending an old woman to the city for an operation to restore her eyesight). As Howitt tends his flocks on Moaning Meadow, folks roundabout come to regard him, both literally and figuratively, as a good shepherd.
It isn’t long before Sammy figures out what has long since dawned on us: Daniel Howitt is Young Matt’s long-lost father, the man Matt has sworn to kill. What happens from there constitutes the last act of The Shepherd of the Hills.
Whether the credit goes to Grover Jones or Stuart Anthony (my own money’s on Jones), the script for Shepherd has passages that rise to a kind of mountain poetry, like something by James Whitcomb Riley or an Ozark Robert Burns. We hear it in the everyday speech, when a mother tells the village storekeeper about her sick daughter: “I put a dried tater chip and two crawdad legs in her bed. But she’s still got that seldom feelin’, complainin’ from head to heel.” And at more important moments, such as when Sammy first tells Mr. Howitt about Moaning Meadow: “That’s where the ha’nt comes from. Frogs as quiet as graverocks, and the lake comin’ from nowhere, and the trees don’t rustle, and the flowers grow big but they don’t have pretty smells.” Then, when Howitt disregards her advice and buys the meadow: “On account o’ ye disobeyin’ me ye bought a unhappy land. Moanin’ Meadow! Won’t nobody come an’ pay ye company there, nor warm by your fire with ye … Them that goes in there has daylight dreams they allus disremembers! An’ there’s pizen plants an’ pokeberries, an’ nightshades dancin’ with the bats!” The dialogue paints us a picture of an isolated people without schooling in the rules of grammar, but who have learned to make their language measure the deepest reaches of their simple hearts.
Casting Harry Carey and John Wayne as father and son was an inspiration, and it resonated for audiences in 1941 as much as it does for us today, if for a slightly different reason. Wayne was still sweeping along on the momentum of his A-picture breakthrough in Stagecoach after nearly a decade in Poverty Row horse operas. It’s a bit of a myth that John Ford and Stagecoach made a star out of an “unknown” John Wayne. He was already a star, albeit in the kind of movies that didn’t play Radio City or the Roxy, or win Oscars or make the New York Times 10-best list. But after Stagecoach Wayne was batting in a whole different league. He reported to the set of Shepherd directly after wrapping Seven Sinners with Marlene Dietrich over at Universal. The Duke Wayne of Santa Fe Stampede or King of the Pecos couldn’t have shot his way into a Dietrich picture; that’s what Stagecoach did for John Wayne. And in 1941 the Wayne persona was still malleable; studios were still experimenting with what kind of vehicles best suited this tall, handsome, earnest young man. The persona wouldn’t really become rigidly set until 1948, with Red River, when writer Borden Chase handed Wayne the script and said, “Here’s a part you can play for the next twenty years.” (Which Wayne pretty much did.)
In 1941, naturally, audiences couldn’t be sure where John Wayne was going, but they all knew where Harry Carey had been. Born in the Bronx in 1878, Carey was a self-made westerner and by 1917, as “Cheyenne Harry,” he was a western star on a par with William S. Hart. By the late ’30s he had made well over 200 pictures and graduated to Respected Elder Character Actor, snagging an Oscar nomination in 1939’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Even without knowing what the future had in store for Wayne, audiences could see that he and Carey were two of a kind, and Shepherd of the Hills — especially in a scene at a fishing hole where Young Matt finds a tentative rapport with the man he doesn’t yet know is the father he’s sworn to kill — has an unmistakeable passing-the-torch aura to it.
But the real revelation of The Shepherd of the Hills, its fervently beating heart, is the performance of Betty Field as Sammy Lane. Some writers have asserted that Henry Hathaway was strictly a man’s director, but they don’t know what they’re talking about. A simple look at what he drew from the normally decorative Dorothy Lamour in Spawn of the North and Johnny Apollo, from the ice queen Ann Harding in Peter Ibbetson, from Debbie Reynolds in How the West Was Won, or from Marilyn Monroe in Niagara (probably her best dramatic performance) is enough to put the lie to that.
The best of the lot just may be Betty Field in Shepherd
. Her Sammy is feisty and independent, uneducated and superstitious — muttering half-heard incantations, drawing symbols and spitting in the dirt before venturing into Moaning Meadow — but no fool. She knows her own world inside out, and when her moonshiner father stumbles home with a revenuer’s bullet in his side, she calmly goes about her business, slicing bacon and singing as if nothing had happened, until the suspicious lawmen have gone their way. When she meets Daniel Howitt, she’s wary at first, but she soon sees the good in the man and vouches for him to others; when he seeks to cash a check for the unheard-of sum of a hundred dollars, the storekeeper blanches, but says, “Sammy’s say-so is all right with me. I’ll look around.” Sammy senses the tender heart of Young Matt, too, and struggles to reach it, battering in futile frustration at the crust of hatred so carefully planted and tended by the malicious Aunt Mollie.
Hollywood never really knew what to do with this quirky, unique actress. She wasn’t really star material, never conventionally glamourous, and she didn’t always photograph well. Even when she did, she tended to be merely “attractive” in her youth, “handsome” in middle age. But you couldn’t ignore her on screen; whatever she had, she brought it to roles as different as the slatternly Mae in Of Mice and Men (1939), poisonous bad-news Kay in Blues in the Night (’41), and the tormented Cassie Tower in Kings Row (’42).
In Shepherd of the Hills she gave probably the best performance of her career, and for once she photographed like gangbusters. Her delicate, heart-shaped face, blue-water eyes and fair complexion never looked better than they did for the Technicolor cameras in the crisp mountain sunshine of Shepherd‘s Big Bear locations. (What a pity that this was her only Technicolor movie in her prime; she didn’t face Tech cameras again until 1955’s Picnic, when she was well out of her thirties and playing the kind of matronly roles that would occupy the rest of her life.) For perhaps the one and only time in her career, Betty Field is truly beautiful. Still not movie-star glamourous, no competition for Ava Gardner or Maureen O’Hara, but beautiful — in a way that perfectly suits the earthy, simple and pure-hearted character of Sammy Lane. The Shepherd of the Hills is Betty Field’s picture — lock, stock and barrel — and Netflix browsers who pop it into their queues expecting a “John Wayne movie” are going to be in for a very big surprise. I hope for their sakes that they’re open to it.
In a 1973 oral history interview with Polly Platt, Henry Hathaway told a frustrating tale of studio politics regarding Shepherd of the Hills. His first cut ran 120 minutes and was previewed in San Bernardino. The response, he said, was excellent: no walkouts, and nobody thought the picture was too long. At a second preview, with about ten minutes cut, a few people walked out and about five percent of the audience thought it was too long. A third preview confirmed the trend: the more they cut, the more people thought the movie was too long. Paramount refused to restore any of the cut scenes and just kept cutting; eventually they decided that new scenes needed to be shot to connect what was left. Hathaway said no, just put back some of what I’ve already shot. Instead, Paramount’s Y. Frank Freeman brought in another writer (Stuart Anthony?) and director Stuart Heisler to film the new scenes. Hathaway left the studio to work for Darryl Zanuck at 20th Century Fox; he didn’t return to Paramount until The Sons of Katie Elder in 1965.
Stuart Heisler was a textbook example of the reliable studio hack, and I think I can spot some of the scenes he directed after Freeman took Shepherd out of Hathaway’s hands. One is this studio-bound scene between Sammy and Young Matt, talking about things which I strongly suspect Hathaway showed us in some of those missing 22 minutes. Another is the picture’s hasty and too-pat final scene, where the writing has a let’s-wrap-things-up hurry to it, with little of Grover Jones’s ear for the artless poetry of rural speech — and the staging shows little of Hathaway’s instinct for where to put the camera.
But it’s no use crying now over 22 minutes of milk spilt 69 years ago. As it is, at 98 minutes, The Shepherd of the Hills gives us Harry Carey toward the end of his career and John Wayne and Betty Field near the beginning of theirs, all of them — and Henry Hathaway and Grover Jones, too — at their best.