The Trail of the Lonesome Pine Review

Paramount’s first full Technicolor film and the maiden attempt at using the process outside a studio is now on R2 DVD from Eureka. Sylvia Sidney, Henry Fonda and Fred MacMurray star, clydefro reviews.

Published in 1908, the novel The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, written by journalist and native Kentuckian John Fox, Jr., was apparently well known enough to justify being described as “famous” in the opening credits of Henry Hathaway’s 1936 film version. The story had previously gone before the cameras no less than three times, all silent versions including a 1916 reworking by Cecil B. DeMille. It’s not been filmed again since, but does remain in print in the U.S. Further evidence of the book’s popularity at the time might be gleaned from the fact that Hathaway’s version was filmed in three-strip Technicolor, Paramount’s initial foray into that process and the first feature ever to use it outside a studio stage. In its review of the film, The New York Times applauded Hathaway’s decision to not let color “shackle the cinema” and noted that it “improves the case for color by lessening its importance.” Hathaway, then, films in color without really utilizing the strengths of the three strips at his disposal. I understand what the Times was getting at with its approval of color being integrated naturally, but the flip side to that is to see Hathaway’s limited ambition as a missed opportunity. What may have been a positive, innovative idea at the time now contributes to the film being a mere footnote in movie history.

Fox’s plot is preserved here, with Sylvia Sidney, Henry Fonda and Fred MacMurray as the corners in a mountain folk love triangle. Sidney plays June Tolliver, cousin and presumed future wife of Fonda’s Dave Tolliver. The Tolliver family has had a longstanding feud with the Falins. It’s the type of fighting that’s lasted generations and seems unconcerned with specific reasons or history. If a Tolliver sees a Falin he’ll box his eyes in or shoot at him, and vice versa. Dave’s gangrenous arm is a victim of the feud. Not really deigning to unite the families in anything but the ink of separate contracts, MacMurray’s Jack Hale enters as an outsider to the area. Hale works for a railroad company and wants to build through land owned by each family. The male Tollivers are suspicious, but eventually won over after Hale attends to Dave’s arm and with some encouragement from June, who’s smitten with Hale. The Tolliver-Falin battle plays out amid Hale’s railroad building and with increased tension from June’s feelings for Hale despite the planned marriage with cousin Dave.

Throughout, there’s an insistence on using language and accents supposedly befitting the people portrayed. Both families are illiterate and distrusting of what they perceive as foreigners. They see no reason to better themselves in terms of education or stray from the violent entanglement with their bitter rivals. There’s a way to film this sort of thing with a necessary degree of humanity and understanding, but I don’t see that being done here. The families’ methods are justifiably questioned, even internally by the Tolliver matriarch played by Beulah Bondi and from June. Without a doubt, feuds like this one existed in the early 1900’s and probably persist in some form even today. However, there’s a sense here of Hollywood exploiting these types of people in much the same way MacMurray’s character, who’s never really held accountable for his slash and burn actions in the film, uses the families for his own benefit. It’s not shining a light for anthropological reasons. This is a far too simplistic attempt to tidy up the backward hillbilly with a nice lesson of anti-violence.

I’m cognizant that some viewers will likely not care about any of that. The old-fashioned yarn quality that The Trail of the Lonesome Pine has will be the main draw for those people. It does have three movie stars to keep our attention. All three are slightly wrong for their parts, but they still coast by without major issue. Sidney, an actress I generally admire, is unconvincing and miscast through little fault of her own. She simply doesn’t seem like an illiterate hill dweller. The male leads fare better, though MacMurray still does his typical combination of goofy and strapping that we see in nearly every part he did until Double Indemnity. Eyes afire with youthful intensity, Fonda foreshadows Tom Joad a little with his naturalness and gives the most interesting performance. He wasn’t yet a true movie star, and this was just the actor’s fourth film, but he’s remarkably magnetic. The supporting cast blend in well, including Spanky McFarland as June’s little brother and the musically inclined Fuzzy Knight.

Even though there’s not much to necessarily dislike in Hathaway’s picture, it does tend to give off the same middle-of-the-road, artistically unadventurous quality that the director’s movies so often have. Hathaway had a solid career that spanned over forty years, but he only rarely took any chances either in material or execution. His movies are typically watchable, often westerns or crime dramas or something else in the adventure mold (though it’s his most atypical film, Peter Ibbetson, that is perhaps the most interesting). They provide mild diversionary entertainment but never sparkle. The Trail of the Lonesome Pine remains consistent with that. Hathaway’s use of color is boring. The characters and story execution are bland. His overall direction is competent without being interesting. A key fight scene near the film’s end is sped up, a trick that might indicate Hathaway wasn’t confident enough in the sequence keeping our attention otherwise.

The Disc

The Trail of the Lonesome Pine is new to DVD in the UK, released for R2 on a single-layered disc by Eureka. Universal has recently announced an edition in R1 for its Universal Backlot Series that is scheduled for July.

Three-strip Technicolor was obviously still in its infancy when the film was made and one couldn’t realistically expect the image to look like the Technicolor of five or ten years later. Even so, this is pretty rough. It’s watchable certainly, and damage is mostly limited to reel change markers. The color is heavily in the direction of green. Everything except unnaturally peachy faces takes on shades of green. The colors also look somewhat smeared and give the image a soft appearance, with close-ups sharper than longer shots. Blood more closely resembles grape jam. Interiors can be a dark mess, poorly contrasting between levels of darkness to instead make everything seem almost black. Colors also can change slightly in the middle of a scene (not an uncommon issue with Technicolor even later). Eureka has used a progressive transfer in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The materials provided may have simply been in this unavoidable condition, and I’ll be curious to see how Universal’s version compares. Again, it’s all watchable, but don’t expect any miracles.

The English mono track offered is limited, but not terrible. Audio sometimes goes up and down without warning. I heard a really distinctive pop once in the film. Otherwise, no droning hiss or crackle. It’s roughly on par with other films from the mid-1930’s that have been thrown onto DVD with limited care. There are unfortunately no subtitles provided, a significant omission. No extra features either.

clydefro jones

Updated: Apr 12, 2009

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