This week the journey in time will go back to 1962, and then even further back with the movie in question. The assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22nd (along with the deaths that same day of authors Aldous Huxley and C.S. Lewis), The Amazing Spider-Man #1 hitting newsstands in March and Dr. Martin King Jr’s Letters from a Birmingham Jail are all seminal moments that occurred during this year. But in the world of cinema and motion pictures, a triumph of the screen came out in February of that year. John Ford, Henry Hathaway and George Marshall’s epic film How The West Was Won opened on February 20th that year and would go on to become a big success. Hailed as the last “old-fashioned” epic film produced by MGM Studios, it’s a great Western story chronicling the lives of a family that makes their fictional mark on United States history over a 50 year span.
A western movie with one great director is sure to be a hit. Throw in three of the finest directors of the time, John Ford, Henry Hathaway and George Marshall, plus a wonder cast, then it’s a smash. Ford, Hathaway and Marshall were all cinematic geniuses, men who knew their craft and knew how to tell a good story in ways that made the movies they produced timeless. Each man leaves their mark on the film, as all of them were well-acquainted with the Western genre and so took to this undertaking like ducks to water.
Westerns are known for their stories and their casts, big or small. How The West Was Won sees the Prescott family through every major period of Westward expansion, from the frontier era (1839) to the waning years of the outlaws and marshals (1889). Together with the story is a cast boasting some of the biggest names of the movie industry. John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Spencer Tracy, Carroll Baker, Agnes Moorehead, Harry Morgan, Henry Fonda, the list goes on and on. One particularly stand-out member is Debbie Reynolds, a big star by this point in time, who plays a major role in the story.
Debbie plays Lilith Prescott, daughter of farmer and frontiersman Zebulon. While the plot tends to focus at times more on the men of the Prescott family (and the other families formed through marriage), Lilith sticks out because she drives several major sections and helps tie the family tale together. Fans of Debbie’s movies will appreciate watching Lilith’s character grow and mature during the movie, especially as the passage of time affects the family. A major development during Lilith’s story is that of contentment, being happy with what someone has. She starts out wanting so much, money, excitement and freedom, and ends up being happier later in life after years of marriage to a good man and then joining her nephew and his family in Arizona.
Noted for her singing ability, Debbie gets the opportunity to sing several fun songs during her sections. Two of her great numbers are ‘Raise a Ruckus’ and ‘A Home In The Meadow’. These songs are of an entirely different nature with lyrics and music that are vastly separate, but sung by a voice like Debbie Reynolds’ and they are great pieces that add to the plot. ‘Raise A Ruckus‘ is a loud and fun song, started by Lilith (Debbie) at night in camp while she makes her way westward. It gets louder and louder, with members of the wagon-train joining in with their own voices and instruments, until the whole party is dancing and whooping it up and having a fine time.
This song is a stark contrast to ‘A Home In The Meadow,’ which is a sweet and moving tune accompanied by violins. It speaks of love, family and living out under the stars in a peaceful meadow out west. Lilith sings it with a lot of passion, even though it’s not the same sort of loud sound as ‘Raise a Ruckus.’ What follows after scene-wise makes an even more sweet song, as Lilith (Debbie) is reunited with Cleve Van Valen (Gregory Peck) who admits he still loves Lilith and ask her to marry him, to which she happily agrees.
There’s two points of appeal to this 60’s Western epic. Point one is its proud status as a great movie with a story and cast that will draw anyone in. Point two is for fans of Debbie Reynolds and her work. People who love her singing will delight at the two songs mentioned in previous paragraphs, as well as other musical compositions sung by her throughout. Most of all, watching her performance as Lilith, who grows up, becomes a woman with years of adventures and happiness and love, all the while her family is setting its place in the western United States. Take the time to watch How The West Was Won this week, kick back with loved ones and friends, enjoy this classic 60’s film and get ready to ‘raise a ruckus’ tonight when you see Debbie Reynolds on-screen singing her heart out for all to hear.