There are two 1940 movies starring Henry Fonda, both featuring Jane Darwell and the basso-voiced character actor John Carradine, that involve the Fonda character hitting the road to escape trouble at home. Movie buffs will quickly be able to identify one as The Grapes of Wrath, with Fonda as ex-con Tom Joad, joining his family of dispossessed Okies on their trek to the promised land of California from the drought-ravaged Midwest. This stark black-and-white document of the Depression is justly famous, featuring direction by John Ford and masterful deep-focus cinematography by Gregg Toland (Wuthering Heights, Citizen Kane, The Best Years of Our Lives).
However, if you’re not in the mood to watch the struggles of the 99%, Chad Hanna, now out on DVD from 20th Century Fox Cinema Archives, features a more lighthearted look at leaving home. Set in upstate New York in the 1840s, it’s in Technicolor and features Fonda as a simple blue-eyed country boy who joins a ragtag traveling circus.
Fonda is one point in a love triangle that also features Dorothy Lamour, the heterosexualizing force in the Bob Hope-Bing Crosby proto-bromance “Road” movies, and Linda Darnell. There’s also a gang of familiar character actors: in addition to Darwell (who would cop a Best Supporting Actress Oscar that year as Ma Joad in Grapes) and Carradine, the most recognizable is bald, blustering Guy Kibbee as the perpetually harried circus owner. Spoiler alert: there’s also an elephant that arrives, like the proverbial cavalry, to save the day in the last reel.
There are brawls with thugs employed by a rival circus owner, some heartbreak at the death of the circus’ main attraction (a not-so-fearsome lion) and some relatively harmless corny comedy. There is also just a bit of social conscience: Fonda’s flight from his safe, boring home town is precipitated by the fallout from his helping a fugitive slave (Clarence Muse) escape to Canada. Darnell is the slave-catcher’s daughter, who also runs away after dad beats her for inadvertently helping his bounty slip away.
Chad Hanna also features a breathtaking sequence of Darnell being trained as a bareback rider. She’s attached to a “flying harness” that is mounted on a device that swings in a 360-degree circle, allowing her to learn how to stand up on the fast-moving horse that is continuously circling the sawdust ring.
The scene is done in a single take with minimal camera movement. It goes on for a couple of minutes, and it’s definitely Darnell herself trying to get up on her knees, having the horse slip out from under her and, still circling fast on the contraption, trying to remount by catching on to the still-galloping horse’s tail. We see her fear, her panic, her bravery, and her determination to “make something of herself” as she gets back on the horse after being thrown off. Sometimes the best special effects are the simplest ones.
Give credit to versatile veteran director Henry King for this and a surprisingly strong performance by Lamour as a slightly trampy girl with a heart of gold. King never made a masterpiece but he did helm a lot of enjoyably watchable movies in a 30-plus year career. He was good with all different kinds of actors, guiding veteran Alice Brady to a supporting Oscar for In Old Chicago, helping mildly talented neophyte Jennifer Jones win a Best Actress award for The Song of Bernadette and earning Dean Jagger a supporting actor Oscar for the still-compelling salute to World War II bomber crews, Twelve O’Clock High.
Chad Hanna is a mild diversion, the kind of thing Hollywood used to turn out in its sleep, but it’s certainly not the worst way to while away 90 minutes of a rainy Sunday afternoon. The DVD transfer is visually fine but has no extras, not even a trailer.