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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I selected Denver Pyle's quote for my summary line from the film
because it best describes the theme of the picture. However there's a
more colorful one by Keenan Wynn when he invites David Wayne to have a
drink in the mining camp for the first time - "Here's to the lice
crawling up your back...". Man, I'm still itching from that one.
The picture relies somewhat on the way the seasons of the year are reflected in a person's life, focusing on the principal character Tracy Powell (Wayne). Powell and Bert Killian (Pyle) start out as prospecting partners, but soon part ways when Powell attempts to short cut his way to the mountain top and the riches in gold that are soon to follow. Con man Willis Haver (Jim Backus) knows better, as his henchman Sam Wilkins (Wynn) initially takes Powell under his wing, only to turn on him after a quick, early strike. It was unusual seeing Backus in a heel role after all those seasons as the wealthy Thurston Howell on 'Gilligan's Island'. As his partner, Wynn looked a little out of character too.
I think I would have found the picture a little better if Tracy Powell hadn't gone to the well with his obsession so many times. After an out of nowhere romance that led to marriage, Powell kept beating a path to the next big gold strike that was always just one more away. Wife Julie (Marcia Henderson), instead of patiently waiting out her man, probably should have called it quits well before the twenty year mark over which the story takes place. When finally persuaded by his grown son who he never really knew to come home, it felt like Powell was returning in defeat rather than having learned a valuable life lesson about the importance of family and friends.
The other main character I haven't mentioned yet was the old prospector Jimmo McCann, neatly played by James Barton. Like his partner Powell, he 'almost' made it as a millionaire until fate stepped in. I found it curious that when he, Powell and Wilkins started celebrating their strike, they started talking about all the money they would have. What I found puzzling was how in the world he would have come up with the number quadrillion.
If you're an avid Western fan, you'll recognize the early hints of the 'Yancy Derringer' TV show theme music, and by the end of the picture it's prominent in almost every scene. I know I've heard it in another Western film as well, but with Yancy, you got it in every show. Always upbeat, it seemed to fit that show's personality just right, while here it was effective only about half the time.
'The Naked Hills' is an Allied Artists picture, and it follows the very
distinctive format of that low-budget studio: at the very beginning of
the movie, we see a clip of the most exciting scene in the picture,
shown out of sequence as a teaser ... even though we don't yet know who
these characters are, nor their relationships to each other. After this
scene, the opening credits roll, and then the film proper begins.
Eventually, we reach the teaser scene in the middle of the movie, at
its proper point in the plot line ... at which point we sit through a
verbatim repeat of this scene exactly as it ran in the teaser. Other
Allied Artists films that use this structure are 'Indestructible Man'
and cult favourite 'Attack of the 50-Foot Woman'. I really dislike this
teaser structure: it always confuses the audience at the beginning of
the film ... and when we reach the most exciting scene in the picture,
we already know what will happen because we've seen it before. In 'The
Naked Hills', the teaser scene is a violent confrontation between meek
hero David Wayne and tough villains Jim Backus and Keenan Wynn.
'The Naked Hills' is a very low-key (and low-budget) western, extremely downbeat, with little emphasis on gunplay or the usual elements that appeal to horse-opera audiences. Wayne plays a family man obsessed with striking gold. He stakes a claim in the middle of the desert, which is his first mis-stake: any good prospector knows that the best place to look for gold is near running water, just as the best place to look for silver is above the timber line. Wayne incurs the anger of local tyrant Jim Backus. Backus was an underrated actor, now sadly remembered for 'Gilligan's Island' and Mr Magoo instead of for his dramatic roles. This film is the only one in which I've seen Backus play a villain, and he's excellent. Keenan Wynn is good too, as Backus's goon, but in Wynn's case the casting is no surprise.
The most pleasant aspect of 'The Naked Hills' comes during the opening credits, when James Barton sings a Western ballad. Barton was a Broadway star who never quite caught on in films; among his other stage roles, he starred in the musical 'Paint Your Wagon', in the role Lee Marvin did in the film. As a character type, Barton was similar to Walter Huston ... and had a similar singing voice.
SPOILERS COMING. 'The Naked Hills' has a very simple plot. Basically, family man Wayne gradually abandons every other aspect of his life in order to work a goldmine stake that shows absolutely no promise of ever striking gold. His wife and their son Billy plead with him to give up the mine and settle into a normal life with them. The end of the film is surprisingly downbeat: after years of following his obsession, during which son Billy has grown to manhood largely without a father, the defeated Wayne calls it quits. He gives up the mine, and rejoins his family. This is a very surprising ending for a Hollywood film. The clichés require that the obsessive hero must eventually be vindicated, finally striking gold. Failing this, he must die tragically. 'The Naked Hills' avoids those clichés in favour of a far more uncertain ending: the protagonist abandons his obsession, but we never learn if he goes on to a better life with his wife and son. This ending is the best, most original and most surprising aspect of 'The Naked Hills', which in all other ways is an extremely routine Western: slower, duller, less violent (and made on a much lower budget) than most. (Denver Pyle and Fuzzy Knight turn in precisely the same performances they've given in a hundred other sagebrush sagas.) For that courageous ending and the pleasant theme song - and the performances of Wayne, Wynn and especially Backus - I'll rate this movie 6 out of 10.
Allied Artists the former Monogram Pictures of the Bowery Boys and the
Bomba the Jungle Boy series occasionally did a film that had a certain
amount of class despite the lack of budget. The Naked Hills is a
western that starts in the California Gold Rush days about a man who
has the gold fever real bad, maybe worse than Humphrey Bogart in The
Treasure Of The Sierra Madre.
The lack of really big box office names in The Naked Hills makes it all the more real. David Wayne stars in this film as a man seized with the gold fever who is demon possessed with the idea of making that big strike, so much so that he abandons his wife Marcia Henderson and infant son who grows up to be Chris Olsen and later Steve Terrell.
There was a great line in The Oklahoma Kid where James Cagney opines that the strong take it away from the weak and the smart take it away from the strong. The strong here is Keenan Wynn, a claim jumper of no particular redeeming features and the smart is a crafty Jim Backus. You can almost see him as Thurston Howell the first. Could be that what we see here is how the Howell fortune was obtained and the bloodline kind of thinned over several generations until he and the Mrs. got caught up in that three hour tour.
Next to Wayne, Backus is who you will remember best from this film and this might be his best dramatic performance. For those of you who remember Mr. Magoo, Judge Bradley Stevens, and Thurston Howell and some other goofy comic parts this is the most serious film role Backus ever essayed. Even better than his part as James Dean's father in Rebel Without A Cause.
Narrating this story of Wayne's useless life is Denver Pyle who comes west with Wayne, makes a small stake and then starts a dry goods business. He is carrying a torch the Statue Of Liberty couldn't hold for Marcia Henderson. In many ways he's the most touching character in the film. And James Barton who originated the part of a hard rock miner starring in Paint Your Wagon on Broadway essentially takes that character over to The Naked Hills. Watch in the end how Wayne's character has morphed into Barton.
Most moving scene in the film is Wayne trying to nurse his dying mule back to health. He's so cut himself off from the world that the only living thing he has any relationship with is that pack animal. It's some of the best acting David Wayne did in his whole career.
Probably a large budget would not necessarily have helped The Naked Hills. But a solid cast and a wonderful story put this memorable film over. It will linger with you long after you've seen it.
The Naked Hills follows the four seasons of one man's life from youth
to old age without bothering to worry too much about ageing the
character who plays the lead role. David Wayne is our hero, and the
only thing that occasionally saves him from blandness is the fact that
he is so badly miscast. Hearing other characters call him 'son' and
'boy' when they are quite clearly the same age or possibly even
younger than him just makes everyone look faintly ridiculous. The
fact that Wayne isn't a particularly good or charismatic actor doesn't
help either. Watching him struggle through the role you can't help
thinking what a better job someone like Alan Ladd would have made of
Wayne plays a young man seduced by the lure of easy riches when gold is struck in the wild and woolly west. He heads there with his best friend, but they soon go their separate ways when, blinded by his desire for wealth, Wayne falls in with bad guy Keenan Wynn. Together they steal a claim from a couple of Mexicans and work it for themselves, only for Wynn to double-cross him when it comes to payday.
Wayne finds himself a good woman and tries to settle down to a life of domesticity, but the call of the gold in them thar hills proves too much for him and it's not long before he's abandoning wife and young son for another attempt with his new best friend Jimmo (a great performance from James Barton). For a while it looks like he has struck lucky, but things soon take a turn for the worse
The film's main theme the overriding and destructive desire for wealth portrayed as an addiction is fairly timeless, I suppose, and it's doubtful that, human nature being what it is, we will ever learn much from cautionary tales such as this. To hammer home the destructive qualities of Wayne's obsession his greed for gold is paralleled with his appetite for booze. To be fair to Wayne he makes a pretty good drunk: he allows his eyes to cross ever so slightly and adopts a vaguely quizzical expression. And while the theme is a righteous one, it's diluted by the fact that the film skips over the early scenes so that we know nothing about Wayne's character before gold fever grips him.
Considering the film is quite clearly made on the cheap, it's entertaining enough, but you won't remember much about it after a week or two.
The Naked Hills is directed by Josef Shaftel, who also co-writes the
screenplay with Helen S. Bilkie. It stars David Wayne, Keenan Wynn,
James Barton, Marcia Henderson and Denver Pyle. Music is by Herschel
Burke Gilbert and Pathecolor cinematography is by Frederick Gately.
1800s California and Tracy Powell (Wayne) is gripped by gold fever and deserts his friends and family to search the hills for the precious metal.
Very routine gold fever Oater that plays like a poor man's Treasure of the Sierra Madre. It spans decades as Powell lets the search for gold take over his life, while the background threads involving his partners, both romantically and gold seeking, make up the drama as he heads towards his day of destiny. An opportunity is wasted to really produce a psychologically strong film about an obsessive man who keeps failing, but Shaftel constantly resorts to formula fodder to tell his story and it hurts the piece. Cast are fine, especially Wayne, who gets a chance to be the lead man and delivers a performance of note in spite of the insipid screenplay. 4/10
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