THE HANGING TREE is a 1959 western that starred Gary Cooper, Karl Malden, Maria Schell, and was the screen debut of a young actor named George C. Scott. Based on a novel by Dorothy M. Johnson, two of her short stories were the source material for THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE and A MAN CALLED HORSE(also used for a Wagon Train episode).
Skull Creek is the name of the mining camp, one of that type that spring up overnight and disappear just as fast as soon as another strike elsewhere happens. Doctor Joseph “Doc” Frail(Cooper) arrives in town and bus a cabin to set up shop. He’s interested in getting rich like everybody else, but he’s a man of contrast as his doctor instincts keep getting in the way. He also wears a gun and is skilled with it.
He saves a young man, Rune(Ben Piazza), shot and pursued by a mob, a bullet in his shoulder. He conceals the fact that the boy was shot, Frenchy Plante(Karl Malden) is a shady miner who shot Rune, a type that straddles the line between out-and-out thief and miner, often stepping onto the wrong side whenever it suits him.
Doc Frail quietly “lends” a couple a cow to fatten up their little girl, suffering from malnutrition, and accepts a buss on the cheek from the little waif as payment for his services.
He’s obviously got a secret as he, on the other hand, allows no one to get close. He treats Rune as an indentured servant, threatening to tell the miners about the bullet unless he does anything and everything he tells him to do.
We get the secret in bits and pieces as the story moves along. George C. Scott is Dr. George Grubb, an alcoholic preacher type that calls him the butcher doctor and wants him run out of town. He wears a duster and carries a long stick, looking more the outlaw type than preacher.
When Elizabeth Mahler arrives in town, things go downhill fast. The stage is held up. We don’t see what actually happens, but a signal from one rider above to his partner below, hear a couple of gunshots, and suddenly the stage is racing away. The horse break loose and the stage tumbles down a hill, we hear a woman screaming, and then back to town. When the driver stumbles into town half dead, the search is on. The stage is soon found, but it’s empty, the woman having wandered off.
The days are hot, the nights very cold, and by the time she’s found, by Frenchy, she’s suffering from exposure and possible concussion. Second degree burns on her face, blinded by the sun(temporarily Doc Frail hopes). He shows his solicitous side once more, tending her in a cabin owned by the couple that run the general store across from his own. As she recovers, he gets her story. Elizabeth Mahler and her father(killed in the hold-up) had came over from Switzerland for a new start. She loved the country, but was now broke(her father had their money, taken by the bandits),
One can tell he’s beginning to fall for the young woman, but that just pushes them farther apart. Whatever secret he’s running from has a powerful hold on him. He wants her to return to Switzerland and she says she’s staying. There’s nothing to return to.
Her presence in town has the “respectable” women all agog. If she’s a decent woman, she shouldn’t be spending all that time alone with Frail. And if she’s not a decent woman, she shouldn’t be either. A contingent led by the wife of the general store owner is intercepted and shown the door by Frail. Later, the general store owner’s wife calls her a harlot when she learns a truth, one that even Elizabeth doesn’t known.
When fully recovered, Elizabeth decides finding gold is her only chance to stay in America. She and Rune become partners and she seeks a grubstake from the general store owner. She offers a piece of jewelry, a family heirloom, as collateral. It’s easy for the man to see it’s virtually worthless and we learn that Doc Frail is backing her, “whatever she wants.” She partners with Frenchy and the stake out a claim and go to work building a sluice.
That doesn’t go well either, five ounces in three weeks, and all are on the verge of giving up when a massive rain storm causes a tree to uproot, taking out the sluice run. But among the roots, embedded in the dirt they find large amounts of gold nuggets.
They’d found a glory hole!
We’ve soon got celebrations going, Frenchy throwing gold nuggets right and left, “No glasses, bottles for everybody!” Fires are started, And Frenchy decides to make his move then. We’ve known he wanted the woman all along and Doc had warned him of the consequences. Doc Frail is out of town, attending to wounded at a cave-in at another camp.
But the Doc arrives, gets angry, and that’s when the tree of the title, a huge, gnarled and twisted thing, comes into play.
Quite enjoyed this one. Gary Cooper was backing this one with his film company. Ill at the time, suffering from stomach cancer, his appearance lent gravitas to his role as a tormented man, the secret from his past eating away at him.
Directed by Delmer Daves, mostly, the lush scenery and cinematography makes for a beautiful picture. The mostly on the directing job I mentioned, was that Daves fell ill near the end and was unable to continue. Copper prevailed upon Malden to finish the picture, Unprepared, he was reluctant to take the job, but finally agreed, though shunning any screen credit.
For more overlooked movies, as always, Todd Mason is on duty at Sweet Freedom to collect them all.
I couldn’t find a trailer on Youtube for THE HANGING TREE, but I did find the theme song sung by Marty Robbins. It has some nice stills from the film incorporated.