John Payne, the epitome of tall-dark-and-handsome, and with a build that made most of Hollywood’s golden-age leading men look anemic, nabbed his piece of screen immortality when he played the lawyer and pal of Edmund Gwenn’s Kris Kringle (while simultaneously romancing a defiantly unromantic Maureen O’Hara) in the Christmas classic Miracle on 34th Street (1947). Even though most of that film’s admirers couldn’t identify Payne by name, they surely remember his good looks and attractively low-key manner, and were always happy to see O’Hara warm up to him by the fade-out.
Payne, who died at age 77 in 1989, would have turned 100 on May 28th. Though Miracle will keep him visible indefinitely, there are other reasons to remember Payne and seek him out. His debut film was a big one, William Wyler’s very fine drama Dodsworth (1936), featuring Walter Huston’s superb title-role performance (which he had created on Broadway). The role of Huston’s son-in-law is a minor one, but is surely was nice to start a film career with one of the year’s best movies. True stardom came to Payne in the early 1940s as a top musical-comedy leading man at Fox, looking swell in Technicolor, even revealing a pleasant singing voice. His musicals had escapist titles with words in them like Tin Pan Alley, Frisco, Havana, the Rockies, Sun Valley, and Iceland. You can guess that his leading ladies were Alice Faye, Betty Grable, and Sonja Henie.
The 1950s Payne was barely recognizable as the guy who had romanced his way through all those lightheaded musicals, or even as the guy who had helped out Santa. Payne was now a much more roughened fellow, a western and film-noir star, not having to smile nearly as much as he did in a typical Fox musical. Not that the ’50s revealed new depths in Payne. Though he could be sturdily effective, always getting the job done, he was never much more than a capable actor. His standout noir is Kansas City Confidential (1952), which you can read about elsewhere on this blog. As for his westerns, the winner is Allan Dwan’s Silver Lode (1954), one of those oaters in which a good guy spends the whole movie trying to clear his name.
As in High Noon, Silver Lode is set on the wedding day of its main characters, played by Payne and Lizabeth Scott. (The title is the town’s name.) Baddie Dan Duryea arrives, passing himself off as a U.S. marshal and accusing Payne of murder and robbery. The townspeople stand behind Payne, for a while, but then things start to disintegrate. This is a fairly undisguised comment on Senator Joe McCarthy, as the movie shows how easy it can be for good people to believe in and be roused by bad guys and then betray their friends. (Duryea’s character is named McCarty.) If Silver Lode is a stand-in for all of the United States, this is augmented by the fact that the film is set on the Fourth of July. It’s a potent, scary little western, despite often trite dialogue and a supporting cast so lame that they appear to be in a spoof, right out of Blazing Saddles. Payne’s stolid rigidity doesn’t inject much excitement, and Ms. Scott was never much of an actress. As for Duryea, well, he does one of his stock “slimy” villains.
There is some stunning camerawork as Payne runs through this backlot western town, suddenly up against the terror of mob violence. The vitality in the plot and director Dwan’s filmmaking inventiveness trump the primitive supporting characters and the low budget. Payne was no longer the glossy dreamboat of simpler times, but a haggard and emotionally numbed fellow dealing with the injustices and cruelties of the world. Whether out West or in darkened urban settings, Payne had abandoned Hollywood magic and was attempting to expose some of the harshness that Fox had shielded him from, say, on his Week-end in Havana (1941).