Debbie at the Dome

 2012 TCM Classic Film Festival

Robert Osborne and Debbie Reynolds. Photo courtesy of TCM.

Robert Osborne and Debbie Reynolds. Photo courtesy of TCM.

The 50th Anniversary screening of How The West Was Won (1962) was a high point of the festival. Equipped with 3 projectors and a massive curved screen, Arclight’s Cinerama Dome is one of the last remaining Cinerama capable theaters in the country. Seeing How the West Was Won in 3 strip Cinerama at the old Fox Hollywood was one of the great cinematic experiences of my early life. I’m happy to report that time has not diminished the effect that this most spectacular of movies generates. And, in 1963, Debbie Reynolds wasn’t there to talk about it at the end.

With her stunt double Loren Janes in the house, Reynolds related how two people were killed during the filming of the river rapids sequence. Yvonne DeCarlo’s husband Bob Morgan lost a leg when logs on a train broke free. Henry Hathaway, who took over filming when John Ford became ill, wanted absolute realism and got it, at a high cost, in human lives as well as the then astronomical 15 million production budget.Heard through the Dome’s 7 channels of stereo, Alfred Newman’s majestic score equaled the film’s visual scope. A few songs are worked into the storyline and sung by Reynolds including the poignant “A Home in the Meadow.”

Lilith  (Reynolds) and Eve (Carroll Baker) are equally headstrong sisters, part of a pioneer family headed by Zebulon Prescott (Karl Malden). On their westward trek, they meet the buck-skinned mountain man Linus Rawlings (James Stewart). Eve is immediately attracted to the drawling, inarticulate Linus. Apparently, a fear of commitment was a problem even on the frontier. Stewart and Baker’s scenes together have humor and warmth. There’s no escaping their shared destiny.Lilith becomes a singing and dancing saloon girl, giving Reynold’s a chance to show off her glorious gams. She falls for a duded up Cleve Van Valen (Gregory Peck) who’s never done an honest day’s work in his life. Together, they will help build (and rebuild) San Francisco. A dynamic aerial shot that closes the film takes us from the Los Angeles Freeways to the Golden Gate Bridge. If this grand movie were the only legacy of the pioneers, that might be enough.