John Wayne tackles the Bard in McLintock!, our second film in the last week of The July Five. Loosely based on Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, McLintock! is a broad, bawdy comedy about a squabbling husband and wife. Our couple is evenly squared, with Maureen O’Hara starring as Wayne’s commanding equal. While not nearly as misogynistic as Shakespeare’s tale, or the Richard Burton adaptation co-starring Elizabeth Taylor for that matter, it’s hard not to see this as an antiquated declaration of Wayne’s values, no matter how funny it is.
George Washington McLintock (Wayne) and his wife, Katie (O’Hara) have fought about everything, from their lifestyle choices to cries of infidelity. When their daughter, Becky (Stefanie Powers) returns home, the question looms as to whether the girl will live with her mother in the city or her father in the country with Katie hoping to get a divorce either way. Forced to live under the same roof during Becky’s return, the couple comes to realize they may love each other more than expected.
We’ll go back in time tomorrow with The Searchers, but by the 1960s Wayne’s films – produced by his own company, Batjac – were a forum for his views on politics, government, family, and women. His timing couldn’t have been more perfect with the rise of the Vietnam War (a conflict Wayne wasn’t shy about discussing) and the ensuing feminist movement. I still have The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and True Grit to watch, but there’s a definite shift away from the suspenseful frivolity of The High and the Mighty. Wayne uses broad comedy in McLintock! in order to espouse his thoughts on the flaws of the nuclear family and his increasing frustration with women and marriage.
As I already mentioned, McLintock! isn’t nearly as hostile to women as Shakespeare’s play, but both feature a stalwart female whose male suitor, in order to secure her love, has to take her down a peg or two. You wonder how much Wayne’s personal life plays in to the relationship between G.W. and Katie. Wayne had just remarried for the third time, to a woman many said he had a contentious relationship with. However, Wayne made no bones about his old-fashioned views of marriage and women, despite fostering a deep love for Maureen O’Hara, the only woman who could stand toe-to-toe with Wayne.
O’Hara’s Katie is the snobby city girl who finds everything about the frontier dirty and uncivilized, and yet she isn’t a weeping damsel. When fighting breaks out, she’s right there stabbing people in their backsides with a feather from her hat (a backwards salute to Yankee Doodle?). She also tells men, time and again, she doesn’t need someone to take care of her; “I’m a big girl.” Her relationship with G.W. is contentious and you don’t doubt she’ll follow through on her plans to shoot her husband, a threat everyone brings up now and then. However, the audience is firmly in G.W.’s pocket, finding Katie confrontational and standoffish. Taking her down off the pillars of civilization is a blessing, if it’ll remove the stick we know is inserted firmly up her backside.
It was hard not comparing G.W. to Stanley Kowalski of Streetcar Named Desire because both are salt of the Earth men who believe they’re belittled by a sophisticated woman. But where Stanley feels entitled and Blanche isn’t on the same level mentally, G.W. and Katie are on a fairly even keel with each other. They push each other’s buttons, react appropriately, and keep pushing. When someone is nice to Katie, she feels ashamed she’s been so rude, and when G.W. discovers his love for Katie he softens a bit. For every time I believed the movie was pushing an agenda against women, there’s a balanced perspective turning the audience the other way…to a point. The ending definitively gives us a moral on what do with women.
Sure, there are some jokes about violence against women, like housemaid Louise (Yvonne De Carlo) asking Katie if her black eye she “won” during a fight was given to her by G.W., or when another character tells G.W. there’s only so many times a woman can push a man before he should hit her – a notion G.W. won’t stop to entertain, rightly. However, by the end he does use some form of infantile punishment against his wife, spanking her with a coal shovel, a similar technique G.W. lets his hired hand, Devlin (Wayne’s son, Patrick), use on Becky. The “all’s well that end’s well” element doesn’t bother me, but for all G.W.’s bluster about not laying hands on his lady, a coal shovel is an okay substitute? And humiliating her like a child? Katie’s shown enormous pluck and fights like an adult, don’t reprimand the character like a little girl. Just throwing Katie in a water trough and shoving her down a mudhill seems like enough punishment for one character.
Another character with George Washington’s name this month, the other being George Washington Smith of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. This G.W. is a bastion of respect and individual freedoms. “Youngsters call me Mr. McLintock,” and they understand why. Wayne is comfortable in this type of comedy. He isn’t throwing out zingers, but reacting to the crazy woman in his life and the events of his town. The comedy though is underscored by all Wayne’s personal causes, mainly a rather sympathetic portrayal of Native Americans and the negative effects of colonialism, “there’s no such thing as free land” which all slow the main thrust of the comedic situation. This is where McLintock! becomes a “John Wayne picture” and Wayne certainly gets in the mode when necessary. There are moments though, the scenes opposite O’Hara, where the sparkle in his eye has nothing to do with saving Native Americans. There’s a definite blind lust for the leading lady, and these two exhibit all sorts of manic chemistry with each other. The serious plotlines aren’t bad on their own, just disconnected with the romance.
The subplot involving Patrick Wayne and Stefanie Powers is cute but, like the serious moments, nowhere near as passionate as Wayne and O’Hara’s narrative. These two are the “crazy kids” who’ll hopefully grow up to have a modicum of the two stars joie de vivre…and you don’t believe it. Patrick Wayne is okay as the bohunk but too often he’s on his rump with one punch. Powers is cute, but she’s all snoot and no charisma, and it doesn’t help she’s saddled with the cheesiest dialogue. Here’s an example where Becky praises her boyfriend (Jerry Van Dyke) to Devlin: “Junior’s not a dude! He’s nifty.” I half-expected her to say “keen” or some other anachronistic saying. The two aren’t bad, just unnecessary. Yvonne De Carlo is also worth watching as the possible rival for G.W.’s affections. There’s some naughty humor about De Carlo’s…biscuits, and she also plays a woman of class despite her lower-class background. It’s surprising the movie doesn’t play on the rivalry of the two women more – not complaining, just taken aback – but it’s possible that with all the plots this movie throws at you, there just wasn’t enough time.
McLintock! has its merits, particularly the trifecta of Wayne, O’Hara, and De Carlo. The romantic entanglements between Wayne and O’Hara are magnetic, even if the movie is too content to take potshots at uppity ladies being put in their place. It’s antiquated and preachy, but the comedy works.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.