Directed by Jacques Tourneur
Written by Ernest Pascal
When assembling the list for this marathon, Canyon Passage was consistently a title that kept popping up, recommended by more than a few people. I wasn’t sure why, I had never heard of it and knew very little about it. With 40 other Westerns under my belt at this point, I do recognize some of the names here: Dana Andrews, Brian Donlevy, Andy Devine, etc. but what is it that makes this particular western so special? What I found was a wonderful change of pace. Something so different and so refreshing that I was able to put my feet up and absolutely enjoy this film from start to finish. It easily reminded me why I started out on this wagon trail in the first place. Thus far, Canyon Passage is among my favorite films I have seen for this marathon. I expect it will stay in that conversation as we continue as well.
To start, this is not a dusty western. It takes place in Oregon, where there are beautiful forests and consistent rainfall. Enterprising businessman Logan (Dana Andrews) comes to Portland to help escort Lucy Overmire (Susan Hayward), who is engaged to Logan’s friend and compulsive gambler George (Brian Donlevy), home to Jacksonville, Oregon. Along the way, they encounter the Dance family (Andy Devine) and Logan’s girl Caroline (Patricia Roc). But once they reach Jacksonville, George goes into debt and finds himself in hot water after he takes his customer’s gold to finance his gambling problem, Logan’s foe Honey Bragg (Ward Bond) is still after him, and Logan finds himself stuck between the two women he loves, Lucy and Caroline. Devout to his friend, Logan must navigate the trouble and find a way to keep living his free, nomadic lifestyle.
Canyon Passage surprised me, in the best possible way. It surprised me because while there is conflict, it doesn’t seem to play a central role, while there is romance, it doesn’t seem to play a central role. It felt like a slice of life, frontier western, covering what it would have been like for a normal person living in Oregon in the 1850s. Life comes with conflict, life (hopefully) comes with romance. Here these things which are typically main plot drivers are just things that happen, things that are there. We get to enjoy Hoagy Carmichael sing us a song, and Andy Devine be jolly and friendly. The cast is a true ensemble, as I’ve already mentioned a number of actors. They work so well together, and while Dana Andrews plays the lead, everybody gets involved and no one feels underdeveloped.
We get the little things in life and that makes it such a different and welcoming western. You don’t often get to see that style at play. I mentioned in my last review of The Virginian the use of technicolor photography, which is still rare in films of this time. It pops up again here and is as lush and beautiful as you would expect frontier Oregon to look. I couldn’t imagine what this film would look like in black & white, and the forest and sense of space and beauty really enhances the experience along with the style of story being told.
The community of Jacksonville feels like the story, above all else. We explore the dynamic between citizens, relationships, the climate and terrain. There is a tremendous wedding/cabin raising scene which is full of joy and togetherness which helps illustrate the sense of community here, and how important that aspect of frontier life was. It ends in an unsavory way, which only further goes to show both the wonders and dangers of living on the frontier. Slice of life really is the phrase here, which is what draws me so closely to this film. As a major history buff, especially about this time period, the social history that this film depicts feels like comfort food. It’s different. It’s good. It’s worth checking out.