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Lanky American character actor Arthur Hunnicutt won his only Oscar® nomination for his supporting role in The Big Sky (1952), an unusual RKO Western directed by Howard Hawks and starring Kirk Douglas. Hunnicutt serves as narrator of this adventure as well as playing the grizzled uncle of Dewey Martin as one of two Kentucky frontiersmen (Douglas is the other) who attempt the first keelboat trip up the Missouri River in 1830. A specialist at playing "old codgers" far beyond his own years, Hunnicutt was only 41 when he played cantankerous old Uncle Zeb. In the opinion of some reviewers, his character is the film's central protagonist.
The story, based on a popular novel by A.B. Guthrie, Jr., has Douglas and Martin joining trapper Hunnicutt, fresh from prison, as he leads a French expedition to visit the friendly Blackfoot Indians to trade furs. Accompanying the expedition on its 2,000-mile journey is a beautiful Blackfoot princess (Elizabeth Threatt) with whom both younger men fall in love. The journey is complicated by interference from the powerful Fur Trade Organization and attacks by Crow Indians.
Also Oscar®-nominated was Russell Harlan's magnificent black and white cinematography, which captures the splendid scenery in a style suggestive of Ansel Adams photographs. The film was shot on location along the Snake River in Wyoming's Jackson Hole Valley and Grand Teton National Park. Hawks takes pains to show what early keel boat travel may have been like and utilizes real Frenchmen and authentic accents in the supporting roles.
Hunnicutt, a native of Gravelly, Arkansas, was a veteran of the stage, where his leading role in Tobacco Road set the tone for the film career that began in 1942. He appeared in close to 60 movies, almost always as a country bumpkin or Western sidekick. He won his Walter Brennan-like role in The Big Sky when Brennan himself proved unavailable. In 1956, although a couple of decades younger than costar Marjorie Main, Hunnicutt took on Percy Kilbride's old role of Pa Kettle in The Kettles in the Ozarks. Hunnicutt, who made his last feature film in 1975, also appeared in numerous television shows before his death from cancer in 1979.
Producer: Howard Hawks, Edward Lasker (Associate Producer)
Director: Howard Hawks
Screenplay: Dudley Nichols, from novel by A. B. Guthrie, Jr.
Cinematography: Russell Harlan
Original Music: Dimitri Tiomkin
Editing: Christian Nyby
Art Director: Albert S. D'Agostino, Perry Ferguson
Costume Design: Dorothy Jeakins
Principal Cast: Kirk Douglas (Jim Deakins), Dewey Martin (Boone Cardell), Elizabeth Threatt (Teal Eye), Arthur Hunnicutt (Zeb Calloway/Narrator), Buddy Baer (Romaine), Steven Geray ("Frenchy" Jourdonnais), Jim Davis (Streak).
BW-139m. Closed captioning.
by Roger Fristoe