The Proud Rebel (1958)
While I will concede that Shane is accepted as the greatest film Alan Ladd probably ever appeared in, it still stands as my second favorite. The Proud Rebel has always been the film with Ladd that I love to revisit and count as my personal fave. I have a deep affection for it and always find myself lost in it’s warmth and charm.
The reasons are many. First off is my love of dogs and the joy they have brought me from my childhood stands out. I think it’s one of Ladd’s most likable characters and better performances that he gave us which might have something to do with having his own son David as a co star. Growing up I developed a crush on Olivia de Havilland. She was in so many Errol Flynn movies on Sunday afternoon television I just couldn’t help myself. Lastly, it’s a western. The genre that I always fall back on when cornered into picking the one I most enjoy.
Our film starts with father and son, Alan and David in search of a medical man who can help little David find his voice. During the Civil War he had suffered a shock that caused an emotional block leaving him without the benefit of speech. While in a Northern town, Ladd’s “Johnny Reb” isn’t exactly welcome and before long he finds himself in a street brawl with slippery Dean Jagger and sons. With a shady judge taking sides he finds himself with a sentence of 30 days.
Taking pity on Ladd and his handicapped son is Olivia de Havilland. She pays the fine in exchange for Ladd’s services in helping to work the land of her failing farm. As an added bonus she is in a standoff with Jagger over his desire to push her off her land in order to give his large flock of sheep more room to graze. This only adds salt to her relationship with mean spirited Jagger.
This sets up the plot for a very Shane like atmosphere from director Michael Curtiz that also includes a solid score from Jerome Moross. Curtiz was no stranger to Olivia having directed her opposite Errol Flynn in seven of their features together.
Part of the film’s real charm is seeing Olivia’s spinster coming out of her shell and falling in love first with David and ultimately with Alan himself. She begins to see him as a man of principle and dedication. Admirable qualities. Especially when compared to Dean Jagger and his son Harry Dean Stanton. Before long she is routing through an old chest to size up a dress and fix her hair in a mirror. Ladd in turn sees that she is a diamond in the rough and presents to him a place to make a home and raise his son with a woman who will accept the boy as her own.
The boy has a special connection with his dog Lance as most young boys do. Perhaps more so due to his lack of speech. The dog figures prominently in how the plot plays itself out but I’m not ruining it. Let’s just say that Ladd will pick up the gun before the fade out.
This western presents a nice opportunity for Ladd just as his box office appeal was winding down. It has an honesty about it that surely is the result of acting alongside his young son. It also afforded him the opportunity to appear opposite a leading lady of stature in Olivia. They have a great screen chemistry and it leaves me wishing they had done more films together.
As is always important in turning out a successful film is to round out the cast with top notch performers. Employing Dean Jagger is always a solid idea and to have Cecil Kellaway as a Quaker doctor join in has to be considered a positive. Scenery chewing Henry Hull turns up as does John Carradine as a traveling salesman.
Making one of his earliest appearances on film is cult favorite Harry Dean Stanton as one of Ladd’s enemies. Stanton is of course still acting today and a favorite amongst casting directors and a younger generation of actors who want the chance to share a scene with him on film.
Special mention must go here to Ladd’s son David. Although one might assume how he got the role, make no mistake the younger Ladd delivers a powerful performance as the child who has lost his ability to speak and carries with him a powerful love for his canine companion.
Hopefully I have inspired a reader to check out some of Alan Ladd’s films and at the same time urge the powers that be to restore some of his films and ensure that they get proper releases on home video. In closing should you sit down to watch my favorite of Ladd films, don’t forget to keep the box of tissue handy.