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MOVIE REVIEW : ‘HARD TRAVELING’ NOT WORTH THE TRIP

Times Staff Writer

“Hard Traveling” (citywide) lives up to its title in more ways than one. It’s so ineptly made that it easily seems twice its 98-minute running time and is a real test of endurance. In his feature debut, Dan Bessie adapted and directed the film from the 1941 novel “Bread and a Stone,” written by his father, the late screenwriter Alvah Bessie, best remembered as one of the blacklisted Hollywood 10.

It’s a shame the film is so tedious because it boasts good material, a fine sense of period and even better actors. Ellen Geer plays Norah Gilbert, a poor young widow with two small sons living on a farm near Watsonville, circa 1940. Ed Sloan (J. E. Freeman), an itinerant handyman, happens by and eventually they fall in love and marry. (Sloan was based on Dan Bessie’s actual stepfather and his fate.)

The gaunt Freeman and the pretty but worn Geer look as if they stepped out of one of Dorothea Lange’s Dust Bowl portraits. “Hard Traveling” is entirely touching when this ex-schoolteacher gradually succeeds in giving the illiterate Sloan a sense of worth. Through her love, Sloan is able to let down his defenses to the degree that she can teach him to read and to rid his speech of double negatives.

But early on he’s hauled away on a murder charge, and the film begins a series of awkwardly handled flashbacks. Unfortunately, the consequences aren’t merely structural but morally evasive and even insulting in effect. Right up front Bessie should have let us know that Sloan did indeed shoot a man fatally in circumstances that could be viewed as extenuating, and then start enlisting our sympathy and building suspense as to his fate. Bessie’s holding out on this crucial information subsequently cuts down on our concern for Sloan because it makes him seem the object of special pleading. It’s as if Bessie didn’t think we could be trusted to come to care about Sloan if we were to know the truth at the outset.

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As sad as it is to add further criticism of so personal and intrinsically worthy an attempt, it must be said that “Hard Traveling” is vitiated even in its best moments by a leaden sense of pacing that allows scenes to go on and on long after they’re really over. “Hard Traveling” (rated PG for adult themes) is all the more disappointing because it so clearly could have been so much better.

‘HARD TRAVELING’ A New World Pictures release of a Shire Films production. Producer Helen Garvy. Director Dan Bessie. Screenplay Bessie; based on the novel “Bread and a Stone” by Alvah Bessie. Camera David Myers. Music Ernie Sheldon. Art director Kevin Constant. Costumes Karen Mitchell. Film editor Susan Heick. With J. E. Freeman, Ellen Geer, Barry Corbin, James Gammon, Jim Haynie, W. Scott DeVenney, Joe Miksak, William Patterson, Al Blair, Anthony Danna, T. J. Thompson.

Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes.

MPAA rating: PG (parental guidance suggested; some material may not be suitable for children).

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