Tuesday 24 November 2015

Ice Palace [1960]

ICE PALACE is an American drama that was directed by Vincent Sherman and originally released by Warner Brothers in January 1960.  It stars Richard Burton, Robert Ryan and Carolyn Jones, with supporting turns from Jim Backus, George Takei and Shirley Knight.  It's a tale of a kind of love quadrangle, of friendship turned to hate, set against the backdrop of the fight for Alaskan statehood.

Like GIANT [1956], this was adapted from a novel by Edna Ferber.  I'm not sure she is read much these days; if the films are anything to go by she seemed interested in larger-than-life characters feeling strong but simple emotions.  I'm not saying she was Mills & Boon level, nor particularly sensationalist but I suspect these were populist page-turners.  I mean, look at some of the names of her characters: in this movie the two leads are Zeb Kennedy and Thor Storm; in GIANT we have the likes of Jett Rink and Vashti Snythe; in SO BIG [1953] Pervis DeJong and Dallas O'Mara; in SHOW BOAT [1951] Magnolia Hawks and Gaylord Ravenal.  These are Jackie Collins-type names and that means these tales are difficult to take seriously; not that there is much to take seriously anyway.  Once you accept that what you're watching is melodrama then there's a lot to enjoy.  Well, perhaps not "a lot" but something anyway.

Robert Ryan (L) and Richard Burton (R)

First of all, and probably the only reason I watched it at all, you get Burton and Ryan, two of my favourite actors.  ICE PALACE is one of the very few films in which Burton actually has some action scenes; it's odd to see him getting in to punch-ups or working on a trawler because, as I've said before, in his later films he became increasingly wooden, physically.  It clearly didn't come naturally to him and he's not great at it but it does at least provide a contrast with the immobile bulk he became.  And let's not forget he was a very handsome guy in his younger days (he was 34 when he made this) and that, combined with his incredible voice, was what established him as a proper movie star.

Richard Burton as Zeb Kennedy

I don't think I've had the pleasure of writing about a Robert Ryan picture before on these pages.  I'm surprised I haven't because he is probably my all-time favourite actor.  There are many reasons I like him but the main three are that he was a fine actor with a wide range; he consistently made excellent films; and he was a man of integrity with strong social and political convictions.

Robert Ryan as Thor Storm

It has been said before that his off screen persona was often at odds with some of the reprehensible characters he played and it's true that he had plenty of roles as despicable bigots, perhaps most famously in John Sturges' BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK [1955] but most significantly in Edward Dmytryk's CROSSFIRE [1947].  I say "significantly" because it was a landmark film for Ryan in several ways: in career terms it was a breakthrough for him; it identified him with the public as a 'bad guy', in this case a rabid anti-Semite; and it brought him to the attention of HUAC.

Ryan had enlisted in the US Marine Corps and served as a fitness instructor in San Diego.  Ryan's biographer, Franklin Jarlett (whose excellent book you can buy here), speculates that it was this experience - of seeing injured and broken men return to the US, of feeling that he had personally contributed to the "killing machine" - which led him to become a pacifist.  This stance, along with his contribution to the perceived liberal principles of CROSSFIRE, is what made him known to HUAC.

Ironically, since it was the source of his pacifism, it was Ryan's service career that saved him from further investigation.  Typically, the black-or-white generalisations of McCarthy and his cronies saw anyone who had served as beyond reproach.  However, other talents who worked on the film were not as fortunate: director Dmytryk was briefly jailed before he ratted out his former friends and colleagues; producer Adrian Scott was blacklisted and made only one other feature film in his lifetime.

I don't want to go on at length about Ryan's personal beliefs - this is after all a cinema blog, not a political one - but his philosophy, if one can call it such, seems to me to be an integral part of what informed his acting choices.  He was an active member of the ACLU; he established a co-operative school, Oakwood, which taught a liberal curriculum and was once vandalised for raising the United Nations flag; he campaigned alongside Adlai Stevenson during the 1952 US Presidential election and supported the anti-war Eugene McCarthy (no relation) for Democrat nomination in 1968.

Maybe it's because he held himself to such high personal standards that he was able to imbue these villainous characters with bitter self-loathing that makes them understandable, credible yet repellent.  For me, this all comes together in the character of turncoat Deke Thornton in Sam Peckinpah's THE WILD BUNCH [1969].  Self-disgust is written all over the face of a man who has betrayed his own code and his own friends in order to survive.

As Deke Thornton in THE WILD BUNCH

I'm not sure where ICE PALACE fits in to this context.  Ryan plays against type to an extent as Thor Storm is basically the good guy: betrayed not betrayer; fighting for his fishermen colleagues and the rights of the Alaskan people more broadly.  However, the films begins with a dreadful sub-Ayn Rand prologue about how it is the manifest destiny of brawny men to inherit the earth and ends with a cringe-inducing epilogue inviting all Americans to rape as much of their land as they can before anyone else beats them to it.  If this is a 'liberal' message it is the (relatively) moderate rugged individualism of the Republican right; it has nothing to do with the true liberalism espoused by Robert Ryan.

Beautiful Alaska...

...and the not so beautiful.  But still, it's there so fill yer boots!
He's great to watch, as is Burton, but the film doesn't work as a whole. The script is too shallow for the dramas being played out: I lost count of the number of women who die in childbirth.  The production itself which with a canvas as broad as Alaska you'd expect to be stunning is instead mainly set-bound and artificial.  Beyond Burton, Ryan, Jones and Backus the supporting cast is made up of blandly good looking guys and gals most of whom make very little impression.

Carolyn Jones as Bridie Ballatyne

However, it does do one thing exceptionally well and that is the relationship between Zeb, Thor and Bridie (Carolyn Jones).  The torment felt by all three characters is palpable and a credit to the actors because that emotion certainly doesn't come from the dialogue.  In particular Carolyn Jones, who must have the most beautiful eyes in all cinema (well, maybe her and Maria Casares), is heart-breaking as the woman torn between love and lust and who misses all the chances she gets to establish happiness on her own terms.

Jim Backus as Dave Husack

There a few interesting credits that make the film worth seeking out for genre fans.  Jim Backus was of course the voice of Mr Magoo but he had a genuine acting career in his own right, memorably as James Dean's uncomprehending dad in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE [1955].

Ray Danton as Bay Husack

Ray Danton, who plays Backus's scheming son, had a solidly Delirious career which you can read about at slightly greater length here.  George Takei is and always will be Sulu.

George Takei as Wang

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