'Rio Bravo' a Stop on the Road to Hollywood

Whether playing Feathers or Pepper, Angie Dickinson tickles

Angie Dickinson in Rio Bravo
Angie Dickinson in Rio Bravo

In his essential book on the films of Howard Hawks, the trailblazing film critic Robin Wood wrote, "If I were asked to choose a film that would justify the existence of Hollywood, I think it would be Rio Bravo." The 1959 Western stars John Wayne as a frontier-town sheriff who stands up to hired killers who are menacing the community. The only people who take the sheriff's side are an alcoholic former lawman (gracefully played by Dean Martin), a peg-legged old coot (embodied by the inimitable Walter Brennan), and a guarded young recruit (ably essayed by pop sensation Ricky Nelson). Also supporting the sheriff is the card-playing newcomer who has just arrived in town on the latest stagecoach. Her name is Feathers, and she's played by Angie Dickinson, who was 27 at the time and being featured in her first major film role. Dickinson will be at the Paramount this Saturday with TV host Ben Mankiewicz to present Rio Bravo, courtesy of TCM's Road to Hollywood series.

I spoke with Dickinson last week by phone about her memories of the movie, but before I could ask a single question, the Hollywood legend launched into our discussion by declaring, "I happen to love this movie. As many times as I've seen it, it colors differently every time. I'm just so proud of it and happy to be in it. I've been to Austin one time in my life, and I liked it so much. The one thing I remember was the signs on the highway read 'Drive Friendly.' Not 'Drive Carefully' or 'Caution,' but 'Drive Friendly.' I don't know if it's still there; this was about 1983."

Hawks is well-known for his "discoveries" of young film actresses – not necessarily newcomers but talents who were yet to break into the Hollywood star cosmos. Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not and Rita Hayworth in Only Angels Have Wings are but two prominent names that accompany Dickinson on that list. Asked for her thoughts about Hawks' casting perspicacity, Dickinson modestly replied: "I think he did that, to tell you the truth, [because] he didn't want anybody pushing him around. He [wanted] the autonomy, which I don't blame him for at all. Thank god he did, because he made a great picture. I think a lot of that discovery of a new person was so that he could get them to do what he wanted. Whereas with an established star, she'd already have her own style."

The effortless screen chemistry between Dickinson and Wayne (whom Dickinson refers to throughout our conversation as Duke, likewise Martin as Dino) is one of Rio Bravo's most frequently cited distinctions. Despite an age difference that was greater than 30 years, Wayne and Dickinson create a palpable sense of romantic interest and sexual desire that is not always evident in Wayne's other films. Dickinson describes the creation of these scenes as "tough. We had four or five really wonderful scenes. We had to work hard at it because Duke was not Marlon Brando, and I certainly was no Garbo. So Hawks had to juggle. He really made the scenes fabulous. ... But the thing is, this is the one movie where Duke is so adorable. He's tough and courageous all the time – [in his films] with Maureen O'Hara, it's more of the Irish duel of the sexes or a straight-out romance – [but Rio Bravo] is where he's just so adorable."

Rio Bravo screens at the Paramount Theatre Saturday, April 16, 7:30pm, with Ben Mankiewicz and Angie Dickinson in attendance. Tickets to this presentation by TCM and Time Warner Cable are free and must be obtained online at www.tcm.com/roadtohollywood.

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Angie Dickinson, Rio Bravo, John Wayne

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