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Hollywood history is distinctly different from real history. When seeing any biopic of a famous historical figure, one should accept from the outset that what is really being shown is a fictional story in which the characters' names happen to be the same as actual people in history. Such is the case with The Iron Mistress (1952), a great entertainment focusing on one short episode in the life of Jim Bowie, inventor of the knife that bears his family name, but leaving out enough real history that the lead character could have been named anything.
The movie starts as Jim Bowie (Alan Ladd) leaves his brothers and mother to head to New Orleans to trade the lumber his family has produced for market. Naturally, the first person Jim meets when he arrives in New Orleans is another famous figure from history, John James Audubon (George Voskovec), who is supposed to be painting the portrait of the beautiful Judalon de Bornay (Virginia Mayo) but can't stop painting birds and even enlists Jim's help to find a certain type of bird to paint. Meanwhile, Jim is taken with Judalon but when her brother, Narcisse (Douglas Dick), bullies Audubon, he intervenes and gets challenged to a duel. He avoids it by cleverly making it impossible. Since he is the challenged party he gets to name the time and place and weapons of choice. His time and place? New Orleans on the first snow of the year. Weapons? Snowballs. So much for that duel.
Narcisse and Jim quickly become friends and Judalon does her best to entice Jim only to rebuff him later. It's Virginia Mayo so not only is it believable that a man would gladly walk into being manipulated by her, it's also easy to believe Jim falling for it more than once. Mayo was, after all, one of the most charming "bad" women in Hollywood history. After one of those rebuffs, her other suitor, Henri Contrecourt (Ned Young), challenges Jim to a duel but Narcisse intervenes. After that intervention doesn't exactly work out for the best, Jim accepts Henri's challenge and chooses a knife for his weapon to Henri's rapier. The two fight in a darkened room with only its center lit by a skylight. It's easily the best sequence in the film and one of the best duels ever filmed, shown only in lightning flash glimpses amidst shadows and blurs.
The movie follows Bowie through his trials with Judalon and others until he leaves, invests in land and heads for Texas. It stops before any more history, like the Alamo, can get in the way. It's a slice of life, Jim Bowie style, including the magical moment when Bowie and a local blacksmith create the legendary Bowie knife.
Alan Ladd had a reputation for underplaying roles and it worked more often than not (such as his great turn as Raven in This Gun for Hire, 1942). Here he underplays once again and once again, it works. Ladd seemed to understand that to give a narrowly written character, like his famous Shane or the Hollywood historical Bowie, more mystery, the key was to play it low and quiet. The other thing Ladd understood was that given his height, around 5'6", any type of hyperventilated bravado would come off as small dog insecurity. Understanding that made Ladd the perfect actor for the quiet hero.
Virginia Mayo is the delight she always is in movie after movie. Her scheming, conniving Judalon is played with a relish that bounces off of Ladd's understatement to perfect complement. Most of their scenes are played in close-up but for long shots, such as a dance they attend, Mayo had on flats underneath her dress so as to not tower over Ladd. Other actors were chosen more for their height than anything else. Playing his two brothers were Richard Carlyle and Dick Paxton, two actors both shorter than Ladd. Casting actors smaller than Ladd meant that scenes could be shot in medium to long range, showing the actors' entire frame. In other movies, where the other actors were taller, trenches had to be dug to make them appear eye-level to Ladd.
The Iron Mistress was Alan Ladd's first movie with Warner Brothers and probably his best. It has enjoyable characters, interesting story developments, and one of the best duels ever filmed. Plus, it's got Virginia Mayo. As long as it's understood going in that it's not a history lesson by a long shot, it's a great entertainment.
Director: Gordon DouglasProducer: Henry BlankeScreenplay: James R. WebbCinematography: John F. Seitz Music: Max SteinerFilm Editor: Alan Crosland, Jr.Art Direction: John BeckmanCast: Alan Ladd (Jim Bowie), Virginia Mayo (Judalon de Bornay), Joseph Calleia (Juan Moreno), Phyllis Kirk (Ursula de Varamendi), Alf Kjellin (Phillipe de Cabanal), Douglas Dick (Narcisse de Bornay), Anthony Caruso (Black Jack Sturdevant), Nedrick Young (Henri Contrecourt), George Voskovec (John James Audubon), Richard Carlyle (Rezin Bowie), Robert Emhardt (Gen. Cuny), Don Beddoe (Dr. Cuny), Harold Gordon (Andrew Marschalk), Jay Novello (Judge Crain), Nick Dennis (Nez Coupe), Sarah Selby (Mrs. Bowie), Dick Paxton (John Bowie)
By Greg Ferrara