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North to Alaska, a light-hearted western from 1960, did not come easily into the world. The weather posed no problems, since the picture was shot in Point Mugu, California, a far cry from wintry Nome, where much of the story takes place. But a particularly contentious writers' strike had just begun in Hollywood, and Richard Fleischer, originally slated to direct the movie, refused to start without a finished script. Henry Hathaway took his place, inching the production along on an improvised day-by-day basis.
The only person who seemed pleased with this situation was costar Ernie Kovacs, always a connoisseur of the absurd. "This is great," he told a New York Times reporter as he lounged by a pool in dark glasses and swimming trunks. "I've been here since 9 this morning and we're behind schedule, so I haven't even put on my costume. I didn't do anything during the actors' strike and now I'm back at work and I'm still not doing anything. It's a great way to make a living." He soon found himself back before the camera, though, and biographer Diana Rico says that the climatic scene - a rowdy fight on a mud-covered street - entailed "the most physically demanding work of his career."
North to Alaska begins in 1900 in Nome, a ramshackle settlement that resembles an ordinary frontier town except that it's always chilly outside. Hunting for gold is the leading industry and most of the inhabitants are prospectors, former prospectors, failed prospectors, or people about to become prospectors. John Wayne and Stewart Granger play Sam McCord and George Pratt, partners who have made a strike, staked their claim, and started dreaming of the luxuries their newfound fortune will bring. Sam hops a boat for Seattle with two errands to accomplish: purchasing equipment for the mine, and bringing George's beloved Jenny back to Nome so they can get married and move into the comfy little cabin George is building.
Arriving at the magnificent Seattle mansion Jenny lives in, Sam is disappointed to discover she's only the maid - and worse yet, she's already married, to the butler. Not wanting to let George down, Sam visits a local establishment called the Hen House and finds a Jenny substitute, confident that she'll please his partner equally well. Her name is Angel, and although she's obviously a hooker, she has a winning manner, a beautiful face, and a lovely French accent. She agrees to the arrangement, but when they get to Nome complications ensue. Claim jumpers are killing miners and filing bogus documents; Angel has fallen in love with Sam; George's teenage brother Billy has fallen in love with Angel; and Angel turns out to have a secret past with Kovacs's character, Frankie Canon, an incorrigible con artist.
Wayne was less amused by the production delays than Kovacs was. As all the world knows, Wayne has been Hollywood's quintessential American hero since at least 1939, when John Ford's classic Stagecoach turned him from a trusty action-adventure actor into a blazing international star. Like the plots of many Wayne pictures, however, that storyline is too simple to be entirely plausible. His career had valleys as well as peaks, stormy days as well as pleasant ones. A difficult stretch came around 1960, when he had poured the resources of Batjac, his production company, into The Alamo, a pet project that filled the screen with twelve million dollars' worth of action, violence, and patriotism, losing a fortune and shooting down much of Wayne's personal wealth in the process.
In his early fifties and looking his age, Wayne scrambled to recoup his losses by doubling down in the genre he knew best. His westerns of the early 1960s range from epic ones like How the West Was Won (1962) to forgettable ones like McClintock! (1963) and brilliant ones like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), all of which turned a profit. Among them was North to Alaska, which not only made money but partly shaped the later phase of Wayne's career, helping him reinvent himself as a cowboy with a comic touch and pointing the way to True Grit (1969) and Rooster Cogburn (1975), the first of which won him his only Academy Award.
North to Alaska is as wild and woolly as its Klondike setting, but it's constructed as neatly as a well-engineered goldmine. The action is bookended by big fights, one played for laughs in a saloon, the other played for guffaws in the mud. The story commences in Nome, travels to Seattle on a nicely outfitted ship, and returns to Nome; then at exactly the halfway mark it leaves municipalities behind and moves to spacious mining country, remaining there until just before the end. The sets are believable, the scenery is handsome, the CinemaScope is splendid, and the costumes are elegant enough to look extraordinarily messed up when they land in that muddy street. Few would claim Hathaway as a major auteur, but he had all the skills needed to turn out a smoothly running entertainment machine like this.
Wayne had displayed a sense of humor in earlier pictures, but North to Alaska is perhaps the most effective showcase his comic abilities had yet received. His timing is terrific, his face is more elastic than usual, and in a brief set piece where he's framed by a doorway, his gestures and even his tone of voice seem modeled on Jack Benny's mannerisms, or at least consciously influenced by them. Comedy specialist Kovacs predictably shines as well, playing conman Frankie to the hilt without quite passing over into caricature. Granger gives a creditable performance even though he didn't get along with the director; he wrote in a memoir that he was "terrified" by Hathaway, a "cigar-chewing, bullying kind of director who...became a monster directly [when] he walked on to a set," which may explain why Granger's efforts to sound American, or at least not English, collapse from time to time. Capucine, the svelte French actress recruited to play Angel, provides the picture with a welcome touch of class, and as teenager Billy, the pop heartthrob Fabian shows that he can act better than he can sing, which is admittedly not saying much.
Not everyone finds North to Alaska an amiable romp. One detractor is biographer Diana Rico, whose admiration for Kovacs doesn't stop her from calling the picture "misogynistic, carelessly structured, overlong, and filled with Three Stooges-style burlesque." Reviewers greeted it warmly, though. Variety called it the kind of "easy-going, slap-happy entertainment that doesn't come around often anymore in films," and the Hollywood Reporter said the "thoroughly enjoyable" picture "plays for laughs, and in its purely male, boisterous way, it gets a good many of them." It's worth adding that some of the humor is slightly risqu, and it's fun to scan the film for evidence that Hollywood's long-entrenched censorship rules were beginning to break down; a few "hells" and "damns" pop up in the dialogue, and jokes about paternity, hookers, and oversexed adolescence abound. In sum, North to Alaska is forgettable fun, well described by the Variety critic who called it "a product that wins friends without influencing people."
Director: Henry Hathaway
Producer: Henry Hathaway
Screenplay: John Lee Mahin, Martin Rackin, and Claude Binyon; based on the play Birthday Gift by Laszlo Fodor; from an idea by John Kafka
Cinematographer: Leon Shamroy
Film Editing: Dorothy Spencer
Art Direction: Duncan Cramer, Jack Martin Smith
Music: Lionel Newman
With: John Wayne (Sam McCord), Stewart Granger (George Pratt), Fabian (Billy Pratt), Ernie Kovacs (Frankie Canon), Capucine (Angel), Mickey Shaughnessy (Peter Boggs), Karl Swenson (Lars Nordquist), Joe Sawyer (land commissioner), Kathleen Freeman (Lena Nordquist), John Qualen (logger judge), Stanley Adams (Breezy)
by David Sterritt