Hittin’ the Dusty Trail with THE DESPERADOES (Columbia 1943)

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There’s a lot to like about THE DESPERADOES. Not that it’s anything groundbreaking; it’s your standard Western outing with all the standard clichés. you’ve got your two pals, one the sheriff (Randolph Scott ), the other an outlaw (Glenn Ford ). You’ve got your gambling hall dame (Claire Trevor ) and sweet young thing (Evelyn Keyes) vying for the good/bad guy’s attention. You’ve got your goofy comical sidekick (Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams). You’ve got your  supposedly respectable heavy (Porter Hall ), a mean heavy (Bernard Nedell), and a heavy who has a change of heart (Edgar Buchanan). What makes this one different is the movie seems to know it’s clichéd, giving a nod and a wink to its audience as it merrily makes its way down that familiar dusty trail.

Based on a novel by pulp writer Max Brand (who also created the Dr. Kildare series), this was one of Columbia’s big releases of the year, and their first in Technicolor. Charles Vidor, not usually associated with the sagebrush genre, directs with a light touch, even having some of his characters break the Fourth Wall on a couple of occasions. Robert Carson’s screenplay has a sense of humor and a definite touch of playfulness to . But don’t misunderstand, THE DESPERADOES is not a parody, the story’s taken seriously, and there’s plenty of action including a barroom brawl and a wild horse stampede. It just doesn’t take itself too seriously, and that’s the key to its success.

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Randolph Scott is stalwart as always as the hero sheriff. By this time, he was already well-established as a Western star. This was his first film for producer Harry Joe Brown, and the pair would collaborate on a series of oaters in the late 1950’s that are among the genre’s best (THE TALL T, RIDE LONESOME, COMANCHE STATION). Most of those were directed by Budd Boetticher, who worked as an assistant director on this film.

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A still-wet-behind-the-ears Glenn Ford plays the good/bad guy Cheyenne, alias ‘Bill Smith’. Ford was definitely on his way up in movies and, after serving in World War II, hit the jackpot with his role in another Vidor directed film, GILDA. Claire Trevor as The Countess does her patented bad-girl-with-a-heart-of-gold routine as Ford’s ex-gal, while Evelyn Keyes is her rival for his affections. Keyes would also win her man in real life, marrying director Vidor later that year. Edgar Buchanan had his loveable scoundrel part down pat by this time, a role he later perfected on TV’s PETTICOAT JUNCTION. Williams is goofy as ever, Hall as weaselly as ever, and there are fine bits by Raymond Walburn as a ‘hanging judge’ who loves his work so much he builds his own gallows, and Irving Bacon as the local bartender whose saloon gets wrecked more than his patrons.

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The movie features some gorgeous Technicolor shots of Kanab, Utah’s beautiful landscapes by DP George Meehan, though most of it was filmed at the famed Corriganville Western Ranch. Familiar Faces like Joan Woodbury, Glenn Strange , Chester Clute, Francis Ford , Charles King, and a host of others dot the landscape as well. The cast of pros in gorgeous Technicolor and good-natured humor make THE DESPERADOES a must for classic movie lovers, even those non-Western fans among you. Just sit back and enjoy the ride, pardners.

 

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Rally ‘Round The Flag: Errol Flynn in VIRGINIA CITY (Warner Brothers 1940)

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VIRGINIA CITY is a big, sprawling Western, filled with action, humor, and star quality. It’s the kind of movie they used to show around these parts every afternoon at 4 O’clock on DIALING FOR DOLLARS (George Allen was the local host), helping to spark my interest in classic films past, a flame which still burns bright today, two hours of pure entertainment, with square-jawed Errol Flynn going against square-jawed Randolph Scott backed by a Civil War setting and yet another sweepingly epic Max Steiner score.

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We’re told “only the characters are fictional… The story is true” as we watch Union Captain Kerry Bradford (Flynn) and his two buddies Moose and Marblehead (Errol’s frequent co-stars/offscreen drinking compadres Alan Hale Sr and Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams) attempt to tunnel their way out of Libby Prison, aka ‘The Devil’s Warehouse’, when they’re caught by commanding Captain Vance Irby (Scott). He tells them Confederate troops are ready to shoot to kill wherever they pop up, then leaves them to their fate, as he has a visitor, former flame Julia Hayne (Miriam Hopkins ). Miss Julia knows the South is losing the war and virtually bankrupt to boot, but has some exciting news: rich Southern sympathizers in Virginia City, Nevada, have put up five million in gold for the cause. Vance goes to see President Jefferson Davis himself with a plan to transport the loot to Texas and help save the Confederacy.

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Kerry and his crew keep digging, right below the munitions dump, which they blow up and escape (a little foreshadowing here). They make it to General Meade’s camp and tell him they suspect a plot in Virginia City, so he sends them west by stage, which coincidentally also carries Julia. Riding along is bandit John Murrell (Humphrey Bogart , sporting a pencil-thin moustache and terrible Mexican accent!), who tries to hold them up but is foiled by I’m-smarter-than-you Kerry. They all make it to Virginia City (except Bogie, who’ll pop up again later), and Kerry and Vance run into each other at the Sazerac Saloon, where Julia works as a dance-hall singer, and seems to be smitten with both of them.

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The players are all in place, and the stage is set for action, romance, and intrigue, as Vance tries to move the gold out of Nevada, Kerry tries to stop him, Julia is torn between two lovers, and Murrell has plans of his own. There’s danger and excitement at every turn, with Vance forming a wagon train full of gold across the desert, Kerry and company in hot pursuit. Director Michael Curtiz uses some interesting lighting and shot selection to tell the tale, and there’s some fine stuntwork by Yakima Canutt, including one that echoes the previous year’s STAGECOACH . Curtiz was a master film storyteller, not only visually but utilizing strong characterizations to get his story across to the viewer. I know I’ve said it before, but Michael Curtiz is one of the most underrated directors in the Golden Age of Hollywood films.

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The ever-gallant Errol Flynn is always the good guy no matter what side he’s on, whether as a Yankee captain here, or portraying Jeb Stuart in SANTA FE TRAIL. His gallantry is equally matched by Randolph Scott, my second-favorite Western star (you regular readers know my first by now!). This is the only film the two appeared in together, and their chemistry made me wish there were more. Most reviewers pan Miriam Hopkins’ performance as Julia, but I thought she was more than adequate, with just the right amounts of proper Southern belle and sexy dance-hall floozie, though her emoting can become a bit too much. It’s Bogart’s last Western, unless you count TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE, and stardom was lurking just around the corner, so the less said about his role here, the better!

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Flynn, Hale, and Williams always seem to be having a grand old time onscreen together, probably because they were all buddies offscreen, or maybe they were passing a bottle of hootch around between takes! The two sidekicks add solid comic relief to the proceedings, as does Frank McHugh as a fellow stagecoach passenger. There’s more Familiar Faces than you can shake a stick at, including Ward Bond Douglass Dumbrille , Paul Fix, Thurston Hall, Charles Halton, Russell Hicks, William Hopper, Dickie Jones (later of TV’s THE RANGE RIDER and BUFFALO BILL JR), John Litel, Charles Middleton (as Jeff Davis), Moroni Olsen, George Reeves, Russell Simpson, and Frank Wilcox.

Victor Kilian appears at the end as Abe Lincoln and gives an impassioned speech that seems appropriate in these tumultuous political times: “We’re not enemies but friends… there is no spirit of revenge in our victory, there must be no harboring of hatred in their defeat… We’re now one people, united by blood and fire, and at that from this day forward our destiny is indivisible, with malice toward none, with charity for all… let us now strive to bind up the nation’s wounds”.

Couldn’t have said it better myself, Mr. Lincoln. Now let’s all dust ourselves off, go forward together, and watch an exciting classic movie like VIRGINIA CITY!