The Archivist #130: Birthday Month Edition [THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JUDGE ROY BEAN & SERGEANT YORK]

Celebrating a pandemic birthday with Joan and Paul.

The Archivist — Welcome to the Archive. As home video formats have evolved over the years, a multitude of films have found themselves in danger of being forgotten forever due to their niche appeal. Thankfully, Warner Bros. established the Archive Collection, a Manufacture-On-Demand DVD operation devoted to thousands of idiosyncratic and ephemeral works of cinema. The Archive has expanded to include a streaming service, revivals of out-of-print DVDs, and factory-pressed Blu-rays. Join us as we explore this treasure trove of cinematic discovery!

As much as I’d like to forget anything that reminds me I’m getting older, I just can’t leave my birthday month without a special edition of The Archivist. While this birthday certainly paled in comparison to last year’s for obvious reasons, there was still reason to celebrate thanks to Warner Archive and their endless amount of titles, both well-known and obscure. It didn’t take long in planning which titles I was going to choose to help me ring in the final year of my 30s before stumbling on the right pair of gems.

Because January birthdays by nature are no fun whatsoever due to everyone’s fatigue following the holidays, I thought I’d ring in this passing with a par of titles featuring stars which shared the unfortunate luck of having had to endure the same birthday as yours truly. First up, one of the most underrated actresses of the golden age whose natural radiance too often overshadowed a soulful screen presence. Second, a movie superstar like no other whose legacy continues to this day.

Sergeant York

Based on the true story, Sergeant York chronicles the life of Alvin C. York (Gary Cooper), a small town marksman known for being an expert shooter and all around hell raiser. However, an introduction to both religion and the beautiful Gracie (Joan Leslie) inspire him to turn over a new leaf just as he’s drafted to serve in combat during the peak of WWI.

Sergeant York is exactly the kind of movie experience you would expect it to be. The film is inspiring, heartwarming and rich with great performances, not least of all Cooper’s, who proves that his Best Actor Oscar win was justified. Director Howard Hawks also ensures that every inch of the film is filled with cinematic pleasure while the moral heart of the story shines through. Sergeant York was a milestone for Leslie. Only 16 at the time, the role was just the right one for the ingenue. Leslie may have been the love interest, but there’s such a fire and passion in her, which she instantly gives to Gracie. Although Alvin wastes no time in wooing his future wife, Leslie makes it clear that Gracie’s is a love that must be earned. Watching as the actress infuses the character with both a romantic sensibility and unshakable principles is what made her such a compelling actress to watch. Although Leslie enjoyed plenty of worthwhile screen roles, including The Sky’s the Limit and Repeat Performance (my personal favorite), Sergeant York remains one of her finest turns on the screen.

The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean

John Huston directed this 1972 Western comedy loosely based on another true story. Set in 19th century Texas, outlaw Roy Bean (Paul Newman) declares himself as Judge and the sole rule of law of a small two-stop town. Fueled by the devotion of the loyal Maria Elena (Victoria Principal) and his love for stage star Lily Langtree (Ava Gardner), Judge Bean wastes no time taking out any man who dares to challenge his word.

Newman reportedly said Judge Roy Bean was one of his favorite roles; and it’s not difficult to see why. The character is so larger than life with a way of thinking and actions which boggle the mind, including making a group of fellow outlaws his deputies and hanging a man for airing out his restlessness by shooting up a saloon. The tone of the film is simply all over the place; incredibly tongue-in-cheek that eventually borders on the farcical, particularly with the discovery of a black bear which Judge Bean adopts as the town’s pet. But Huston also gives The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean a quiet reflective quality during the moments when the main character spends time longing after Miss Lily (his ultimate muse) and pondering his place in the world. For a career which spanned so many memorable roles, Judge Bean saw a one-of-a-kind Newman. The legend is surprisingly playful and slyly hysterical as the title character, while also grounding the movie with the kind of magnetism and concentration only he could bring. The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean will never be recognized as a high mark for the star, but in many ways, it cannot help show what made him one of the acting world’s best.

Sergeant York and The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean are both available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Warner Archive.

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