Barriers and Lances Broken

Barriers and Lances Broken

Posted by Mike Finnegan on Jan 16th 2018

Two towering, Oscar®-honored Westerns of the early 1950s, each led by pantheon male stars, nonetheless gained power and stature by the presence of an immigrant woman in a supporting role that burnished both films with a haunting gravitas. Born 94 years ago today, Mexican acting eminence Katy Jurado (1924-2002) would appear in 71 movies throughout her enduring career in her native land as well as the United States and abroad, eventually winning three Ariel Awards, Mexico’s Academy Award® equivalent, and would revisit the Western genre from time to time in The Badlanders (1958, for director Delmer Daves), One-Eyed Jacks (1961, for director/star Marlon Brando) and Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973, for director Sam Peckinpah). But her two best remembered screen outings will likely always be the two for which she made Hollywood history as the first Latina to receive the Best Supporting Actress Golden Globe® Award (1952’s High Noon, starring Gary Cooper and directed by Fred Zinnemann) and a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award® nomination (1954’s Broken Lance, starring Spencer Tracy and directed by Edward Dmytryk). Each picture showed her in a different light. Her Helen Ramirez in the Hadleyville, New Mexico, of High Noon is a tough, exotic beauty more reflective of her then 27-year age, a former lover of both Cooper’s Marshal Will Kane and Ian MacDonald’s vengeful convict Frank Miller, en route to the settle a score. In contrast, her “Señora” Devereaux, the second, Native American wife of cattle baron Matt Devereaux (Tracy), is a loving but careworn earth-mother figure that has parented twentysomething Robert Wagner as one of Tracy’s four sons. 

Both generationally different women are fully formed, vividly drawn portrayals who enrich the emotional weight of the dilemmas faced in each film. In High Noon, her powerful scene with Grace Kelly, as the lawman’s conflicted, violence-renouncing Quaker bride who wants the flee the inevitable showdown, is crucial in conveying the overarching theme of taking a stand and not retreating from the harsh challenges of doing what’s right in the face of universal censure. The world of the sprawling Devereaux cattle empire is in some ways meaner due to the racist underpinnings of the tensions between the settlers and the Native-born heritage represented by chief’s daughter Jurado and half-breed offspring Wagner; here, Jurado’s quiet strength and soulful loyalty are marshaled in service of keeping the peace between frontier oligarch spouse Tracy and his contentious “white” sons (played by Richard Widmark, Hugh O’ Brian and Earl Holliman). In both stories, Jurado’s spare words and iron determination matter, but Broken Lance introduces a richer component, as resident Twilight Time essayist Julie Kirgo observes about the Tracy/Jurado dynamic: “In an early scene, the love between these two – born out of desire, admiration and pure friendship – is palpable. With her face like a Mayan sculpture – flat nose, pursed lips, enormous eyes – and beautiful voice, Jurado is fascinatingly both submissive and in charge: the heart and soul of the Devereaux family and a dignified, loving partner to Matt, whose violent spirit is tamed only in her presence. It’s because of his passion for her – and passion it is, playfully revealed on several occasions – that he particular favors his son Joe [Wagner], who shares her ‘tendency to be soft-hearted.’” Our tendency is to celebrate the breakthrough work of birthday honoree Jurado, whom Zinnemann considered "an exuberant woman with a volcanic sense of humor and full of the joy of life," in Broken Lance, unleashed in its full Cinemascope glory on a fine TT hi-def Blu-ray.