Brandon deWilde's Last "Innocence" Film
The Missouri Traveler, Not Just "A Kid's Movie"
There is a well-known verisimilitude in the entertainment industry. Produce a movie about a holiday and it will live forever...and get dragged out for an airing at least once a year.
I have used this line before, but I will paraphrase it here again..."So where then is The Missouri Traveler?"
Having entered adolescence, this is the last of Brandon deWilde's "innocence" films. His next 3 roles (in Blue Denim, All Fall Down and Hud) would all be steeped in the sexuality of the times, the 1960s. With this film you are still experiencing the youth and innocence of 1950s Brandon deWilde, that is to say the boy you know from The Member of the Wedding, Shane and Good-bye, My Lady.
All too often The Missouri Traveler is labeled as simple children's fare. It is so much more.
TMT is a 1958 family-oriented coming-of-age period piece in Technicolor by C.V. Whitney Pictures, a concept of Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, American businessman, philanthropist, writer and government official, as well as the owner of a leading stable of thoroughbred racehorses. (In 2000, his widow helped finance the publication of The Legend of Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney by Jeffrey L. Rodengen.)
The company had high hopes for this project, which was loosely based on and adapted from a novel by John Burress. In a letter to the Austin American, Head of Publicity Frank Perrett wrote, "Mr. Whitney plans to present a warmly human story and to show his fellow Americans and the rest of the world the wonders of the Middle West which he regards as the Heartland of America."
"Mr. Whitney entered motion picture production two years ago for the special purpose of making an American Series, of which John Ford's The Searchers was the first."
Thanks to a recent discovery, you can read Mr. Perrett's original letter, dated November 9, 1956, by clicking on the file presented here for your inspection.
This film, Whitney said, would prove that it is possible to make a "picture with American youth without resorting to switchblade knives and marijuana." Based on that statement, it is ironic to note that a number of cast members in TMT starred in 1953s The Wild One, including biker Lee Marvin.
during filming of The Missouri Traveler
The lead female character in The Missouri Traveler was that of Miss Anna Love Price, as portrayed by newcomer Mary Hosford. It was during the production of TMT in 1957 that national headlines were made when it was announced to the press that C.V. Whitney sought to divorce his third wife, the former Eleanor Searle, because of "increasing conflicts" and that he planned to wed Mrs. Hosford "as soon as I am free to do so". Their marriage lasted until his passing on December 13, 1992, at age 93.
The Missouri Traveler
Brandon deWilde leads a cast lengthy in character actors playing subdued Biarn Turner, a 15-year-old runaway from the Eatondale Orphan Asylum bound for Florida in the year 1926. He receives a ride into the rural Missouri town of Delphi with rich land-owner Tobias Brown (Lee Marvin, ornery as ever even at this early point in his career). Even if you are a Marvin fan, you probably have never seen this one, so that alone makes a watch worth while.
There, after an incident in the town square involving most of the populace, Biarn meets crusty newspaper man Doyle Magee (Gary Merrill, aka Mr.Bette Davis and and an old army buddy of Brandon's father, Fritz). Add Finas Daugherty (Paul Ford, whose other 1958 role was Horace Vandergelder in the film The Matchmaker) as the local tavern-turned-chili parlor owner and a handful of other 1950s character actors for just the right flavor of comedy.
Brandon's contemporaries for his Biarn character in the film are Barry Curtis, playing Jimmy Price, and Eddie Little, playing the slightly younger Red Poole. Both do an excellent job here and, unfortunately, TMT seems to be a highlight for each of them. Both their careers seemed to fade off into TV guest appearances after this film was released, suggesting they each sought out non-acting careers in adulthood. Freckle-faced red-head Eddie Little's name is often (but should not be) confused with Native American actor Eddie Little Sky.
I would be amiss if I didn't include a word on actor Billy Bryant playing Delphi's only livery barn owner Henry Craig. I cannot locate any other film credits for this name, so one might assume he is a senior alumni of vaudeville days. In any event, he absolutely "steals" every TMT scene he is in, even in the parade sequence where he outshines the populace of the entire town...and usually without a single word of dialogue.
And I have taken some heat for not having mentioned earlier the name of Ken Curtis. Ken is forever immortalized in Western celluloid for his many appearances -- the most remembered one being as Festus Haggen in the long-running television Western Gunsmoke. Curtis is the only actor to appear in all 3 of the C.V. Whitney Pictures films.
The finale is a turn-of-the-century small-town 4th of July celebration, including a parade where Union and Confederate veterans march together, a horse race of trotters and a head-to-head between Magee and Brown.
The 30-second exchange between the indigent share-cropping farmer teaching his son to remove his hat as the "Stars and Stripes" comes down the street, although played for laughs, is just one of a number of poignant snippets in the film...and a father-to-son tradition well worth continuing today.
Anyone with an eye towards production will spot some standout flubs. The action sequences and the horse race could both have been better shot and edited. The stunt doubles were sure not as polished as they are today. And count up how many times Biarn says "sir"; it can actually get annoying. A number of people working the project, including director Jerry Hopper (The Addams Family, Gilligan's Island, Get Smart), would later make television home. Music composer Jack Marshall would be best remembered for his original score to 1960s TV The Munsters. The cinematography was by Technicolor developer Winton C. Hoch who never made a film in black and white.
TMT has flaws, to be sure, but all in all the down-home folksy story presented here really isn't hurting anyone. Whether or not you leave TMT with the "good feeling" the producers originally intended will depend on your predisposition to "no harm done". Remember, television was still young in 1958 and movies at around this time were still an evening's night out entertainment; it wasn't all meant to be Shakespeare.
The Missouri Traveler seems to have fallen into the abyss of public domain films. It has been offered for several years now on low-budget DVD releases with similar other family-type films, those being mostly old VHS full-screen conversions. I have never seen it broadcast on television.
I would like to suggest that you include a viewing of The Missouri Traveler in your 4th of July plans this year. It may not be par with the films 1776 or Independence Day, but rather a glimpse at, shall I dare say, a kinder, gentler time in American History, a time when maybe people cared more for the "other" and when the 4th in small town America was a community season highlight (The 4th of July has long been a barometer by which farmers could estimate how good the fall harvest would be).
This 6th of July is the 41st anniversary of Brandon deWilde's passing. Rather than mourn him on the 6th, celebrate the life of this rather unique individual in American cinematic history with this film on the 4th. And then go enjoy the remainder of your 4th of July Holiday!
I can only hope as attempts continue to preserve our film heritage that TMT will survive and thrive in the future. It is well-deserving of your annual play on the 4th and by all means should be broadcast as well. A digitally-restored widescreen high-definition version DVD release would be equally as welcome.
The Missouri Traveler is one of Brandon deWilde's few Technicolor projects and the only feature film where he receives first billing. It is, indeed, a 4th of July treasure.
Watching The Missouri Traveler
You can watch and/or download a free version of TMT on the Internet Archive by clicking on the banner below.
A DVD version is available for purchase at Amazon.com as well as Video on Demand.
A DVD can also usually be picked up on eBay for around $5. The Missouri Traveler has been released in many family DVD sets over the years and is still a relatively easy tile to find.
It has not appeared on television in years.
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The Missouri Traveler