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The Proud Rebel

Saturday January, 12 2019 at 01:30 PM

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The Proud Rebel (1958) was made as a real-life family film -- involving two prominent Hollywood families. The first was the Goldwyns. Around 1946, 20-year-old Samuel Goldwyn, Jr., persuaded his famous father to sell him the rights to a recently-published short story by James Edward Grant. The younger Goldwyn had been struck by the story and wanted to nurture it to the screen as he began a producing career. And that's exactly what he did: all through his military service in Korea and Europe in the years that followed, Goldwyn polished the story, oversaw the script development, and designed plans for production. Finally, in 1956, he sent a screenplay by Joseph Petracca to the second family that would get involved -- the Ladds.

Goldwyn wanted Alan Ladd for the role of a southern widower journeying to Illinois after the Civil War in search of a doctor who can cure his son, who has been mute ever since witnessing the murder of his mother and the burning of his Atlanta home. To play the boy, Goldwyn wanted Ladd's own son, 11-year-old David Ladd, an idea Goldwyn hatched after seeing both Ladds on screen together in The Big Land (1957). The idea was a good one, for young David proved extremely effective in the role and drew much praise. The New York Times said he "contributes an astonishingly professional and sympathetic stint..... not only extremely likable but also projects movingly and with surprising naturalness and fidelity...as the mute."

Rounding out the key cast are Dean Jagger as a villainous, one-armed sheep farmer, Olivia de Havilland as a no-nonsense farm woman who takes father and son under her wing, and -- in the vital role of Lance the dog -- a real-life champion border collie named King. According to the film's production notes, King and his two canine stand-ins were deemed so important by the production team that they were given their own hotel room "in one of Utah's finest motels right next to Ladd's and de Havilland's quarters."

It might seem unusual for a film set in Illinois to be shot in Utah, but as Goldwyn said in an interview during production, "[There are] no high mountains in our camera. We're above them. This is Illinois right after the Civil War. That and the fact they've got sheep here is why we came." Indeed, the locations in and around Kanab were at a two-mile altitude, which took some getting used to for cast and crew. But cinematographer Ted McCord took full advantage of the breathtaking scenery, shooting in a muted Technicolor palette (avoiding flamboyant colors such as red) to great effect.

The Proud Rebel was budgeted at $1.6 million and released by Buena Vista. It did respectable, though not blockbuster, business and earned uniformly good reviews, with many critics saying the picture recalled Shane (1953). Variety declared it "heartwarming" and The New York Times found it "a truly sensitive effort... Cleaves to the premise that a 'little' story, honestly told, can be just as persuasive as the sound and fury of a 'blockbuster.'"

This was Alan Ladd's last major film, and his first time working with Olivia de Havilland and director Michael Curtiz, who themselves had worked together seven times -- twenty years earlier. According to Ladd biographer Beverly Linet, the two stars got on very well and formed a friendship that lasted for years afterward. "He was a proud and sensitive man," de Havilland said of Ladd. "Very sensitive. And throughout the picture he was very concerned about the boy. Because Mike Curtiz could be quite harsh with people, Alan was afraid that Mike would be rough on David." She added, "He needed the assurance of somebody who had faith in him as a performer... His confidence would be destroyed if he was handled without great tact by a director."

By Jeremy Arnold

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