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Experimental Cult Classic Among New ‘John Wayne Company’ DVDs

Experimental cult classic Track of the Cat Tab HunterExperimental cult classic Track of the Cat with Tab Hunter. Featuring a stellar cast, William A. Wellman’s family drama is one of several new DVDs with a little-known connection to Hollywood star and indie production “mogul” John Wayne.
  • William A. Wellman’s 1954 experimental cult classic Track of the Cat is one of the five John Wayne-less Wayne/Fellows and Batjac titles to be released by Paramount Home Entertainment. Robert Mitchum, Teresa Wright, Diana Lynn, and Tab Hunter star.
  • Stars featured in the other four titles – Plunder of the Sun, Ring of Fear, Man in the Vault, and 7 Men from Now – include Glenn Ford, Randolph Scott, Gail Russell, William Campbell, Anita Ekberg, and Track of the Cat’s Diana Lynn.

William A. Wellman’s experimental cult classic Track of the Cat among new DVDs with little-known John Wayne connection

Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

In addition to the four John Wayne movies listed in the previous post, Paramount’s Wayne/Fellows and Batjac DVD releases include five titles from the mid-1950s in which production company co-owner Wayne is nowhere to be seen: Plunder of the Sun, Ring of Fear, Man in the Vault, 7 Men from Now, and, most notably, William A. Wellman’s experimental cult classic Track of the Cat.

Shot in color and in CinemaScope by William H. Clothier, Wellman’s 1954 psychological Western/family drama for the most part displays only black, white, and pale hues. A handful of vibrant exceptions, like the lead character’s (long before Schindler’s List) red jacket, are supposed to visually enhance the drama.

Adapted by A.I. Bezzerides from a 1949 novel by Walter Van Tilburg Clark, Track of the Cat – released the same year as the crowd-pleasing Wellman-Wayne collaboration The High and the Mighty – stars Robert Mitchum (Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee for The Story of G.I. Joe, 1945) as an abusive man spending a bellicose winter with his dysfunctional family in early 20th-century Northern California.

Track of the Cat marked the second time Wellman directed an adaptation of a Walter Van Tilburg Clark book. Clark’s anti-mob-lynching 1940 Western novel The Ox-Bow Incident was the source for the filmmaker’s well-received 1943 release of the same title, which went on to earn one single Academy Award nod – in the Best Picture category.

Stellar cast

Besides Robert Mitchum, the Track of the Cat name cast consists of the following:

  • Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner Teresa Wright (Mrs. Miniver, 1942) – seven years earlier, Mitchum’s (at the time more famous) romantic interest in another psychological Western, Raoul Walsh’s Pursued. Second-billed this time around, Wright plays an embittered spinster.
  • Former Paramount contract actress Diana Lynn (The Major and the Minor, Our Hearts Were Young and Gay), who also happens to be Glenn Ford’s leading lady in Plunder of the Sun.
  • Up-and-coming leading man Tab Hunter (Damn Yankees), who would join forces with William A. Wellman once again on the 1958 World War I romantic drama Lafayette Escadrille.
  • Two-time Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee Beulah Bondi (The Gorgeous Hussy, 1936; Of Human Hearts, 1938), the beloved mommy, granny, and/or auntie in countless movies of the 1930s and 1940s (e.g., Make Way for Tomorrow, Remember the Night), but here seen as a nasty religious freak.
  • Veteran theater performer Philip Tonge, previously featured in several Broadway stagings of Noël Coward plays (e.g., Design for Living, Blithe Spirit).
  • William Hopper, son of stage star DeWolf Hopper and powerful Hollywood gossip columnist and sometime actress Hedda Hopper (who had supporting roles in two Wellman movies, Wings and A Star Is Born).
  • Former Our Gang child actor Carl ‘Alfalfa’ Switzer, hidden under heavy make-up as an elderly Native American.

‘Pretty snow scenery’

Despite – or perhaps (at least partly) because of – its stylistic ambitions, Track of the Cat failed to make much of a splash upon its release.

The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther, for one, was unimpressed with Wellman’s cinematic exercise, complaining that the film “has no psychological pattern, no dramatic point. There’s a lot of pretty snow scenery in it and a lot of talk about deep emotional things. But it gets lost in following some sort of pretense.”

Yet in case Variety’s early 1956 estimates were on target, the Warner Bros.-distributed Track of the Cat, though no major hit, was likely no major flop either, earning $2 million in domestic rentals (the distributor’s share of the total box office gross).

Below is a brief overview of the other four John Wayne-less Wayne/Fellows and Batjac titles coming out on DVD. There is no other experimental cult classic among them, but, for disparate reasons, each movie should be worth checking out.

Man in the Vault William Campbell Karen SharpeMan in the Vault with William Campbell and Karen Sharpe. Andrew V. McLaglen’s directorial debut features two The High and the Mighty performers – Campbell and Sharpe – plus future La Dolce Vita sensation Anita Ekberg.

More Wayne/Fellows & Batjac DVD titles

Plunder of the Sun

Directed by Hondo’s John Farrow, the mostly Mexico-set adventure Plunder of the Sun (1953) stars Glenn Ford as an American insurance man who becomes enmeshed with archeological artifact smuggler Francis L. Sullivan.

Also in the cast: Track of the Cat actress Diana Lynn, Patricia Medina as a potential femme fatale (what is her actual relationship with Sullivan’s collector/smuggler?), Eduardo Noriega (unrelated to the Open Your Eyes actor), and Douglas Dumbrille. Jonathan Latimer adapted David F. Dodge’s novel, which actually takes place in Peru.

As found in Ronald L. Davis’ Duke: The Life and Image of John Wayne, Glenn Ford’s less-than-pleasant experience working with John Farrow led him to turn down the lead in Hondo.

Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

Ring of Fear

The low-budget Ring of Fear (1954) was the second and final film directed by Hondo screenwriter James Edward Grant.

The circus-set mystery yarn presents hunter and circus impresario Clyde Beatty as himself, author Mickey Spillane as himself, and former Warner Bros. star Pat O’Brien (Angels with Dirty Faces, Cowboy from Brooklyn) as the circus manager. Spillane is supposed to have drastically rewritten the original screenplay credited to Grant, The High and the Mighty actor Paul Fix, and Philip MacDonald (Rebecca).

Of note, James Edward Grant was a frequent John Wayne collaborator in the mid-20th century, having worked on the screenplays of 12 Wayne star vehicles, from the Western Angel and the Badman (1947), which Grant also directed, to another circus-set tale, Circus World (1964).

Grant’s sole Oscar nomination (with co-writer William Bowers) was for a non-John Wayne Western, The Sheepman (1958), starring Glenn Ford, Shirley MacLaine, and Leslie Nielsen.

Man in the Vault

McLintock! filmmaker Andrew V. McLaglen’s directorial debut, Man in the Vault (1956) is a minor thriller featuring The High and the Mighty co-pilot William Campbell as a bowling-alley locksmith forced into helping a gangster rob the safe-deposit box of a shady Los Angeles entrepreneur.

Also in the cast: The High and the Mighty newlywed Karen Sharpe as the socialite girlfriend of a crooked lawyer and the locksmith’s romantic interest, and Swedish import and future La Dolce Vita leading lady Anita Ekberg as the businessman’s untrustworthy lover.

7 Men from Now

Currently appreciated as a “minor” classic, Budd Boetticher’s Western 7 Men from Now (1956) stars Randolph Scott as a former sheriff in pursuit of the seven men who killed his wife.

Also in the cast: the lovely Gail Russell (The Uninvited, Night Has a Thousand Eyes) in one of her last film appearances, future Best Actor Oscar winner Lee Marvin (Cat Ballou, 1965), Walter Reed, Don ‘RedBarry, and, in a small role, future Best Actor nominee Stuart Whitman (The Mark, 1961).

7 Men from Now turned out to be the first in a series of seven Boetticher-Scott Westerns, five of which released by Columbia.

“Experimental Cult Classic” endnotes

Image of Tab Hunter in the experimental cult classic Track of the Cat: Batjac | Warner Bros.

Image of William Campbell and Karen Sharpe on the Man in the Vault DVD cover: Paramount Home Entertainment.

“Experimental Cult Classic Among New ‘John Wayne Company’ DVDs” last updated in December 2021.

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