We've got some more in-depth commentary coming down the pike, but we wanted to kick off with a collection of musings on our favorite moments in Shane (1953) and some that confuse us a bit. It's a perfectly constructed film, but with some idiosyncrasies that, once you notice them, change everything.
What Did They Think of Next? Marvels in Home Preservation
There's a scene in Shane in which Marian Starrett (Jean Arthur) is seen marveling at a canning jar in Grafton’s general store. “My, my, my,” she says, “What’ll they think of next?” I cannot for the life of me figure out what the big deal is, though.
Shane takes place in 1889 according to the book by Jack Schaefer. The most recent innovation in canning would have involved the patent from John L. Mason in 1858, which did indeed revolutionize home preservation. Prior to Mason, glass canning jars were fitted with a flat tin lid and sealed with wax. The process was messy and far from foolproof, and it apparently made the jars impossible to reuse (though I’m not sure why it would). Mason figured out how to cut the glass with a threaded top so a threaded zinc lid could seal it. In 1869 Mason added a rubber gasket atop the rim to improve the seal, usually paired with a glass top fitted inside a zinc or tin threaded ring.
These are indeed a big step forward in home canning, hugely important for a prairie family dependent on their own small garden harvests. But not only would these jars have been available at the store and by catalog far sooner than 30 years after their patent was registered, we clearly see a threaded jar filled with jam on the Starrett table during dessert in an earlier scene.
The bail-top lids we still use today on some home brewing bottles were patented in 1882 as “lightening jars,” but that’s quite clearly not what Marian is holding.
Ball started making glass jars in 1884 using essentially the same method as Mason (his patent had expired in 1879). It doesn’t sound like they were doing anything “my, my, my, what’ll they think of next?” worthy.
I had initially assumed the innovation involved the vacuum-sealing lid, but that was the Kerr jar, and not invented until 1903. The two-part ring and flat lid we still use today was not invented until 1915.
So I can’t figure out what is so exciting here, but it's pretty adorable.
Emile Meyer, Master of Hand Business
There is a scene in which Stonewall Torrey (Elisha Cook, Jr.) begins flirting with disaster while Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer) and Jack Wilson (Jack Palance) discuss in hushed tones a budding strategy for getting rid of the homesteaders and manipulating Torrey’s temperament to that end.
But watch Meyer (front left) throughout the scene as he conducts the most natural, subtle and intricate mannerism of slicing off and eating a bit of some nearly invisible food in his hand.
I can’t stop watching him.
Stonewall Torrey's Funeral and Those Mysterious Birds
The cemetery scene (1:22:33- 1:30:47) is magical for a number of reasons, but especially for the intrusion of animals and children amongst the mourners and serious talk. Watch the scene once when you just focus on the animals and the kids.
A horse is spooked by a tumbleweed.
Torrey’s dog whimpers as Shipstead leads the settlers in the Lord’s Prayer and scratches at the coffin as the men lower it into the grave. The women sit on dining room chairs they’ve brought from home or borrowed from the packed wagon of Fred Lewis (Edgar Buchanan) and his family who attend the funeral on their way out of the valley. The harmonica player pipes a now mournful rendition of “Dixie,” previously played to gently mock Torrey for fighting for the confederacy and his stubborn southern pride.
The scene cuts to the children as Joey approaches a pony and is warned by a live-action American Girl Doll, “It’s gonna bite ya!” She giggles and hides her face when the pony gently nips at Joey. The camera slowly pans across the entire scene as the harmonica plays “Taps.”
Wilson and his family say their goodbyes, and another one of the homesteaders asks to leave with them, but Joe Starrett has another speech in him.
STARRETT: Torrey was a pretty brave man, and I figure we'd be doin' wrong if we wasn't the same.... We can have a regular settlement here, we can have a town and churches and a school....
Shane tries to help out and while he speaks, something happens that I’ve rewatched maybe 100 times now, something so emblematic of why this movie is perfect.
SHANE: You know what he wants you to stay for. Something that means more to you than anything else. Your families. Your wives and kids. Like you, Lewis, with your girls. Shipstead with his boys. They’ve got a right to stay here and grow up and be happy. That’s up to you people to have…nerve enough and not give it up.
That last ellipsis there is at about 1:27:41. Joe, Marian, Shane, and the dog are looking right of frame where Lewis in standing. Joey is looking at Shane and holding the dog’s leash. And then there’s a twitter of birds in the left speaker and the dog’s attention shifts center, almost right at the camera, but the scene keeps going on because who cares where a dog is looking.
I think, though, I think, that George Stevens cared, or someone cared. Someone thought that there needed to be a reason for the dog to turn its head, and they added bird sounds to account for that stupid dog not looking where it was supposed to. It’s an anomalous sound, different than the ambient outdoors noises, and it is never repeated in the scene. And if the bird sounds really are ADR it speaks to the incredible attention to detail in this film.
Were there cuts of this scene where the dog behaved perfectly but something else was the matter? Was there a cut where Brandon deWilde’s attention was distracted but they couldn’t figure out how to fake a reason for it? Imagine if this is just the best cut, and there’s that one thing, that dog looking somewhere it wasn’t supposed to, and that bothered someone enough that they added in those birds to make it work.
That little girl, that ill-behaved pony, that dumb perfect distracted dog and those probably fake bird sounds. It’s an amazing scene full of fascinating choices. Every choice adds to a sense of community and pathos, and underscores the argument the film overall, and Starrett and Shane in this scene, make about family and home.
Every Moment of Jack Palance
Especially this dissolve which is a positively chilling bit of editing:
And this scene:
Torrey and Wilson square off, Wilson provoking Torrey to draw so he’ll have an excuse to fire. And there’s a literal line in the sand (mud, but still) that Shipstead pleads with Torrey not to cross, but his pride eggs him on.
And that pause before the shot. And how loud the shot is, how it makes you jump every time. How you can never remember exactly how long it takes for it to happen, how long that pause actually is, so it surprises you even when you know it’s coming. And that smile.
Also, how Elisha Cook, Jr. gets the best actual joke in the whole movie right before he dies. “And who’d they name YOU after? Or don’t you know?” Solid trash talk, dead man. Solid trash talk.