Ride the Trail to DODGE CITY with Errol & Olivia (Warner Brothers 1939)

1939 has been proclaimed by many to be Hollywood’s Greatest Year. I could make a case for 1947, but I won’t go there… for the moment. Be that as it may, 1939 saw the release of some true classics that have stood the test of time, including in the Western genre: DESTRY RIDES AGAIN, JESSE JAMES, STAGECOACH , and UNION PACIFIC. One that doesn’t get a lot of attention anymore is DODGE CITY, the 5th screen pairing in four years of one of Hollywood’s greatest romantic duos, heroic Errol Flynn and beautiful Olivia de Havilland.

DODGE CITY was Warner Brothers’ biggest hit of 1939, and the 6th highest grossing picture that year, beating out classics like GOODBYE MR. CHIPS, GUNGA DIN, NINOTCHKA, and THE WIZARD OF OZ. It’s a rousing actioner with plenty of romance and humor thrown in, shot in Glorious Technicolor by Warners’ ace director Michael Curtiz . And with a cast that includes Errol, Olivia, Ann Sheridan, Alan Hale, Guinn “Big Boy” Williams, and a trio of Hollywood’s orneriest baddies (Bruce Cabot, Victor Jory, Douglas Fowley), it’s hard not to love this exciting sagebrush saga!

The railroad comes to Kansas, bringing progress and prosperity to the frontier town of Dodge City. Handsome Wade Hatton (Errol, of course!) and his pardners Rusty and Tex (Hale, Williams) have cleared the territory of buffalo years before, as well as clearing it of buffalo poachers Jeff Surrett (Cabot) and his henchmen Yancey (Jory) and Munger (Fowley). Now Wade’s leading a combination cattle drive/wagon train from Texas to Dodge, including beautiful young Abbie Irving (Olivia) and her wastrel brother Lee (William Lundigan), whose drunken shooting causes a cattle stampede to trample him, and Abbie blames Wade for it.

Meanwhile, back in Dodge, Surrett and his goons have turned the town into a lawless jungle of “gambling, drinking, and killing”, with his saloon girl Ruby (Sheridan) by his side. Surrett’s reign of terror has made Dodge the most lawless town in the West, until old rival Wade pulls into town, gets himself elected sheriff, and rounds up all the rowdies into the hoosegow. Surrett’s not licked yet though, but when Wade’s young pard Harry (child star Bobs Watson) is caught in a crossfire and dragged by horses to his death, the kid gloves come off…

It all culminates in an exciting climax aboard a burning railway car, and it’s not a spoiler to tell you the good guys emerge victorious, and Errol and Olivia live happily ever after! DODGE CITY serves as the template for many a Western to come, and Curtiz does his usual fine job in handling both the actors and the action. Some of the highlights include Hale swearing off liquor (!!!) and joining a Ladies’ Pure Prairie League meeting while a knock-down, drag-out saloon brawl rages on next door; the shadowy murder of crusading newspaper editor Frank McHugh ; and the aforementioned stampede, horse-dragging, and fiery finale. All of it brilliantly captured in Technicolor by Sol Polito and set to a typically majestic Max Steiner score!

And you want Familiar Faces? DODGE CITY has ’em in droves: classic era actors like Clem Bevans (the town barber), Monte Blue, Ward Bond (who has a good scene as one of Cabot’s henchmen), Wally Brown , George Chesebro, Chester Clute, Joseph Crehan, Thurston Hall (the railroad man), Charles Halton (Surrett’s weaselly lawyer), Gloria Holden (sympathetic as the little boy’s mom), Milton Kibbee, John Litel, Henry O’Neill (Col. Dodge himself!), Renie Riano (leader of the Pure Prairie League!), Russell Simpson, Henry Travers (as Olivia’s uncle), Cora Witherspoon, and others too numerous to mention!

Errol shines in his first of many Westerns to come, Olivia is more than a match for him, Hale and Williams are always welcome, Sheridan gets to belt a couple of tunes, Bobs Watson does his crying thing, the bad guys are totally hissable, and there’s enough material here for at least a half dozen other Westerns! DODGE CITY may not get as much love as other 1939 hits, but it deserves it’s place as one of the all-time greats.

 

Redemption Song: John Wayne in ANGEL AND THE BADMAN (Republic 1947)

John Wayne  starred in some of the screen’s most iconic Westerns, but I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for ANGEL AND THE BADMAN. Perhaps it’s because the film fell into Public Domain in the mid-70’s, and I’ve had the opportunity to view it so many times. Yet I wouldn’t keep coming back to it if it weren’t a really good movie. It’s Wayne’s first film as producer, and though it has plenty of that trademark John Wayne action and humor, it’s a bit different from your typical ‘Big Duke’ film.

Wayne plays Quirt Evans, an outlaw on the run. The wounded Quirt encounters a Quaker family, the Worths, who take him to file a land claim before the big guy finally passes out. They bring him back to their family farm to nurse him back to health, and pretty daughter Penny, unschooled in the ways of the world, falls in love with the mysterious stranger. A romance blooms just as Quirt’s arch-rival Laredo Stevens and his gang ride in. Quirt’s gun has been emptied by the peace-loving Father Worth, but he manages to bluff his way through the encounter in an effectively dark scene.

Also arriving on the scene is the ominous presence of Marshal ‘Wistful’ McClintock, a rifle-toting lawman who’d like nothing better than to put a rope around Quirt’s neck. When Penny and her family take Quirt to meeting, the love among the Quakers gives him cold feet, and he rides off with his old pal Randy to bushwhack Laredo’s crew, who’re plotting to rustle a cattle drive. Quirt relapses to his old ways of wine, women, and song before having a change of heart and returning to Penny. But while the lovers are out picking blackberries, they’re ambushed by Laredo and company, causing their wagon to go over a cliff and grievously injuring Penny. Quirt has to once again strap on his guns, and goes out seeking revenge…

Wayne’s Quirt Evans is not a “good guy”; he’s a killer and a thief who becomes a changed man by the love of Penny and her family. The theme here is spiritual vs secular, with love conquering all in the end, and not in a corny way. Writer/director Grant doesn’t hit the viewer over the head with a Bible to get his point across; he simply and effectively uses the “show, don’t tell” method. Grant was a former Chicago newspaper man who came to Hollywood in the 30’s and worked for MGM. After WWII, he began a long and fruitful collaboration with Wayne, working on ten of Duke’s films, including SANDS OF IWO JIMA , HONDO, THE ALAMO, and MCLINTOCK!. Grant, like most of Duke’s cronies, was a heavy drinker, who fortunately got sober through AA, and became actively involved in the program’s Hollywood chapter.

Not so fortunate was the beautiful but tragic Gail Russell, who sweetly plays the role of Penny. Gail was a Paramount contract player dubbed “The Hedy Lamarr of Santa Monica” by studio publicists. She was also what was then called “painfully shy”, suffering from an acute anxiety disorder. Someone suggested to the young Gail she take a few drinks before going on set to calm her nerves, and soon her alcoholism was off and running. She made a splash in the films THE UNINVITED and OUR HEARTS WERE YOUNG AND GAY before co-starring with Duke in ANGEL AND THE BADMAN; the scenes between the two show an obvious fondness for each other, and rumors of an affair abounded, which the ever-gallant Wayne always denied. They also appear together in WAKE OF THE RED WITCH, but a series of drunk driving charges curtailed her career. Producer Wayne gave her the female lead in Budd Boetticher’s 1956 SEVEN MEN FROM NOW opposite Randolph Scott . She continued to act in low-budget films and television, though by this time her disease was far too powerful for someone of her sensitive nature. In 1961, her body was discovered in her small studio apartment, dead of heart and liver failure, empty bottles strewn all over the place. Gail Russell was just 36 years old.

Duke’s pal Bruce Cabot has the part of rival outlaw Laredo, and mentor Harry Carey Sr. turns up as the marshal. Other Wild West characters dotting the landscape include Symona Boniface , Joan Burton, Lee Dixon, Kenne Duncan, Louis Faust, Paul Fix Olin Howland (in a great comic relief part), Brandon Hurst, Rex Lease, Tom Powers, Marshall Reed, Irene Rich, and Hank Worden , as well as the beautiful vistas of Monument Valley. The rousing cattle rustling scene and obligatory barroom brawl are well staged by second unit director Yakima Canutt and his ace stunt crew, which included Richard Farnsworth and Ben Johnson .

ANGEL AND THE BADMAN may not be the Greatest Western Ever Made, but it’s as entertaining as all get-out, and as I stated holds a special place in my heart. Those who still believe John Wayne only played one type of character should watch this one, and the chemistry between Duke and the tragic Miss Russell is on a par with the great screen teams of the past. It’s a Western for people who don’t even like Westerns, filled with romance, action, good humor, and, most importantly, redemption. You really don’t want to miss this one, and if, like me, you’ve seen it before… see it again!

ANGEL AND THE BADMAN is now streaming on The Film Detective! 

Halloween Havoc!: KING KONG (RKO 1933)

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No matter how many times it’s remade, no matter what new technology’s available, the original 1933 KING KONG will never be topped. The story’s familiar to horror lovers: Showman Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) charters the ship Venture to take him to the unchartered Skull Island. He scours New York to find a “love interest” for his next picture. Finding down on her luck gal Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) trying to steal an apple, he offers her a chance for “money and adventure and fame….the thrill of a lifetime”. Denham’s brainstorm is to travel to the island to capture pictures of Kong, a beast that Captain Englehorn (Frank Reicher) thinks is just “some native superstition”. First Mate Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) is reluctant to have a woman on board, but soon warms up to her. They arrive at the island to observe the natives performing a strange ritual. A young native girl is being adorned with flowers. When they spy the white Ann, the chieftan (Noble Johnson) offers to buy her. The crew refuses, but the natives sneak onboard in the dead of night and capture Ann.

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When Charlie the cook (Victor Wong) finds a native bracelet on deck, Denham and the crew go ashore. Ann’s been tied to an altar behind the massive locked gate. The natives climb up the wall to wait for the arrival of…KONG! A giant ape appears and grabs Ann into the jungle. Denham, Driscoll, and some crew members go in hot pursuit, encountering monsterous dinosaurs along the way. Kong ends up killing all save for Driscoll and Denham. The mighty beast is downed by “gas bombs”, and carted away to New York.

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Denham stages a Broadway showing of “King Kong, The Eighth Wonder of the World”. The theater’s jam packed with curiosity seekers. The press is on hand, eager to see the beast. Kong is presented onstage in chains, in what reminds one of a crucifixion pose. When the photographers take picture, their flashbulbs disturb the ape and he breaks free. Pandemonium erupts as King Kong is loose in New York City. Snatching Ann through a window, Kong climbs to the top of the Empire State Building. Airplanes are sent to strafe Kong, machine guns a-blazing, and the great ape topples to his doom. Carl Denham gets the last words, sorrowfully stating, “It was beauty killed the beast”.

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Co-directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack keep the story moving along at a fine clip, aided immensely by Max Steiner’s score. Willis O’Brien’s stop-motion special effects hold up very well, and the matching shots of Kong with the actors are well integrated. Kudos should also go to Murray Spivak and the sound department, which adds to the excitement. Eagle-eyed film fans will be able to spot James Flavin, Roscoe Ates, Dick Curtis, Charlie Hall, Syd Saylor, and Sam Levine in small roles. Cooper and Schoedsack even have cameos as the pilot and gunner who take down Kong. KING KONG has stood the test of time, and is a bonafide classic that never fails to thrill viewers of all ages. A perfect way to spend a Halloween evening.