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Sam and George strike gold in Alaska. George sends Sam to Seattle to bring George's fiancée back to Alaska. Sam finds she is already married, and returns instead with Angel. Sam, after trying to get George and Angel together, finally romances Angel, who, in the meantime, is busy fighting off the advances of George's younger brother, Billy. Frankie is a con man trying to steal the partner's gold claim. Written by
Wayne in easy going mood, still good entertainment
Hathaway's genial directing style, with its frequently rich mise-en-scene, seemed to suit Wayne's later career, and some of the films which resulted remain firm favourites today. Before the overrated True Grit (1969) and the underrated Sons of Katie Elder (1965) came this typically rumbustious piece. Wayne's first real foray into self-mocking comedy, North to Alaska is not as broad humoured as McLagen's McLintock! (1963) but still suffers from a degree of sexism which some modern viewers may find annoying, others just ironic. It is redeemed by being a very good natured film with a strong set of performances by the central cast, as well as some handsome production values.
It's interesting that the film opens as the all-important strike', at least in a conventional sense, has already happened. Despite the future depredations of Frankie Canon (a well-cast Ernie Kovacs), Sam (Wayne) and George (Granger) will continue to enjoy their new-found wealth. Sam in particular seems to be perpetually well heeled, with a thick wad of the folding stuff always to hand. These two prospectors are now concerned with a second, more pressing mother lode' - this time of the heart. The film is less about rich seams of ore than the veins of romance, with Sam, George and Billy (Fabian) each doing their own emotional prospecting'. When Sam heads South to recover George's fiance, it turns out that he is being just as adventurous as leading a pack
Hathaway was brought into the project after Richard Fleischer's departure, and the finished result shows an interesting balance between the veteran's predictably sure touch as well as the improvisational nature of some of the filming. Wayne apparently thought of the film as being little more than a contractual affair, and the great success of the finished product was presumably a surprise. While some modern viewers may balk at the comedic sound effects added during the two big fight scenes, more reminiscent of Tom and Jerry than a Western, arguably Wayne's great jealousy scene' is one of the greatest sustained moments of comedy in the actor's career. It seems likely that Hathaway recognised this during filming, as he dwells upon this enjoyable moment (George pretending to make out with Angel in the Honeymoon Hut while Sam fumes across the water) as long as possible, giving the scene amplification and timing which would have been impossible to write into a script.
Being respectively indifferent, enthusiastic, and besotted, in their own ways Sam, George and Billy each represent varying attitudes to women and romance. It's their continuing education in such matters that's at the heart of the film, and provides the principal interest. Far more so than the claim-jumping plot which, while it provides some dramatic excitement and degree of suspense, is actually of little consequence. (It provides an useful parallel, though, when George assumes that Sam has usurped his claim' on his newly arrived fiance's affections.). Sam's change of heart is fittingly the most momentous - moving from the cynical "(The) wonderful thing about Alaska is that matrimony hasn't hit up here yet." to the grudging public announcement "I love you!" to Angel, and the wedding bells that surely follow. Billy's romantic naivite also undergoes a transformation of sorts, as he experiences his first strong crush then gentle, inevitable rejection. By the end he has to reconcile the loss' of Angel with Sam's obvious happiness. George's radical transformation of outlook (despite his slightly underwritten role), in which he journeys from starry-eyed fiance, via outraged suitor to gleeful romantic conspirator, while demanded by the story, is far fetched in dramatic terms. Would a man really be that fickle, and then that forgiving, in such a short length of time?. One wishes that the script had allowed us to see more of his earlier anguish, perhaps while Sam was absent fetching his longed-for fiance home.
North to Alaska is divided into two halves, covering respectively Sam's sojurn down south, then his return to Nome, Angel in tow. The broad comedy of romantic embarrassment so characteristic of the film is contained in the second half. That this is the most enjoyable part is no coincidence. Removed from his eager beaver partner, and with an absence of any cutting-back to Alaska during these scenes, while Wayne and Cappucine work well as an acting couple, their characters Sam and Angel need more context than they get to be effective dramatically. Angel's initial rejection at the social by the lake, then her response, does suggest the self possession of her character, which acquires a calm strength of its own. Its an explicit dignity, rarely accorded the Western whore, (a memorable example, albeit posthumous, exists in Ford's The Sun Shines Bright (1953)), although there are bad girls enough in the genre who try to make good.
As the love-puppyish Billy supporting the Duke, Fabian instantly recalls Ricky Nelson in Rio Bravo (1959) as Colorado'. An obvious sop to the emerging younger audience, such a character can sit uneasily with the elder statesmen in a genre where a man's world, for the time being anyway, was that of mature men. Recognising this in Rio Bravo, Chance (Wayne) goes out of his way to praise and assimilate the youth into his world. A year on, as North to Alaska proceeds, Billy is less assured as a character, thus easily dismissed by an overriding Wayne/Sam. The youngster is clearly out of his depth in the love-making contest - just as (one is tempted to add) Fabian the actor is sandwiched unsatisfactorily on screen, between a larger than life Wayne and the experienced Stewart Granger. Extracting what pathos there is from his one note character, especially in the long cabin dining scene with Angel, he manages a final, if understated reconciliation with the idea that Sam is the victor in love.
Its apt that Hathaway's Alaska' was actually much closer to Hollywood (being filmed at Point Mugu, California). Ultimately it is a warm-hearted, forgiving film which just happens to be set in a cold place. Perhaps the humanity of a rare Western with few or no deaths on screen is what sustains its popularity. Or it could be because a genial Wayne was allowed to relax into a role so successfully. Either way, it is still revived frequently on TV and has just received a DVD release.
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