Tag Archives: Barbara Stanwyck

The Furies

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 20, 2015

The Furies—Barbara Stanwyck, Walter Huston, Wendell Corey, Judith Anderson, Gilbert Roland, Beulah Bondi, John Bromfield, Thomas Gomez, Blanche Yurka, Albert Dekker, Wallace Ford (1950; Dir: Anthony Mann)

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Niven Busch was a well-known novelist and screenwriter during the 1930s and 1940s and into the early 1950s, leaving Hollywood in 1952.  Among his non-western screenplays were He Was Her Man (1934) with James Cagney and the original The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) with John Garfield and Lana Turner.  But by the 1940s, he was also writing significant westerns, like The Westerner (1940) with Gary Cooper and Walter Brennan and Pursued (1947), one of the early westerns noirs, with Robert Mitchum, Busch’s then-wife Teresa Wright and Judith Anderson.  His biggest-selling novels tended to be western sagas with a lot of melodrama, family angst, overtly classical references (like this one, trying to make connections with Greek tragedy) and Freudian overtones.  His best-known such novel was Duel in the Sun (1946), made into an overheated potboiler by David O. Selznick.  But The Furies was probably the best movie based on his novels, just as it was probably the best of Barbara Stanwyck’s cattle queen sagas from the 1950s (The Maverick Queen, Cattle Queen of Montana, The Violent Men, Forty Guns, et al.).  And maybe the best of anybody’s cattle queen movies, although Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954) with Joan Crawford has its partisans, too.

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Adversaries T.C. Jeffords (Walter Huston) and Rip Darrow (Wendell Corey) frame Vance Jeffords (Barbara Stanwyck).

Set in New Mexico of the 1870s, the title “The Furies” refers to the self-conscious name of the huge ranch of T.C. Jeffords, as well as to the female deities of vengeance in Greek mythology.  The aging Jeffords (Walter Huston in his last role) has long been a law unto himself, now spending most of his time in San Francisco.  He put together the cattle empire, sometimes issuing his own scrip (called “TCs”) when money was tight.  The best part of his land is referred to as the Darrow Strip, which T.C. acquired through dubious legal means and by killing the Darrow who owned it.  There are also “squatters” on Jeffords’ range, most prominently the Herreras, who have lived there for generations.  It is not primarily an “Anglos vs. Hispanics” situation, though.  The most ardent anti-squatter is Jeffords’ range boss El Tigre (Thomas Gomez), who is obviously of Hispanic origin.

At the beginning of the film, T.C.’s two grown children are waiting for his arrival.  The son Clay (John Bromfield) is about to get married; he doesn’t get along with his father and is not the favored child.  That would be daughter Vance Jeffords (Barbara Stanwyck), who has more of her father’s aggressive personality and can manage him better.  He has promised that she will get The Furies and a $50,000 dowry if she marries some one of whom he approves.  At the ball celebrating Clay’s marriage, one of the less desirable attendees is gambler and saloon owner Rip Darrow (Wendell Corey).  When Vance is taken with him, he maintains his independence.  And when Vance wants to marry him, T.C. offers him the $50,000 dowry if he won’t.  Darrow takes the money without blinking and starts a bank in town.

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T.C. Jeffords (Walter Huston) and daughter Vance (Barbara Stanwyck) don’t always get along, either.

Vance takes some solace in her long-time “friendship” with Juan Herrera (Gilbert Roland).  She is taken aback when T.C. returns from Washington with a widowed companion, Flo Burnett (Judith Anderson).  Flo is after independence/money, and T.C. gives her his remaining $50,000.  More significantly for Vance, Flo is planning to take over as the lady of The Furies and to sideline Vance, despite T.C.’s promises to Vance.  Furious, Vance attacks Flo with scissors, severely gashing her face and causing facial paralysis on one side.  Seeking refuge with the Herreras, Vance is followed by T.C. and his men.  Using dynamite to shake the Herreras into surrender in their mountain home, T.C. ruthlessly hangs Juan Herrera, and Vance enters her vengeance phase.

Using the $50,000 given to Rip Darrow, Vance travels the west, buying up TCs at a huge discount.  She persuades T.C.’s San Francisco bankers to extend the Jeffords loans for another 90 days by going through the banker’s wife, Mrs. Anaheim (Beulah Bondi) and giving T.C. enough time to round up and sell 20,000 cattle.

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Vance Jeffords (Barbara Stanwyck) gets ready to attack Flo Burnett (Judith Anderson).

T.C. is desperate enough to try to get back Flo’s $50,000, but in a surprisingly touching scene she refuses now that she’s uglier, lonelier and drinking more.  T.C. makes his roundup on time and sells his cattle, only to discover that the buyer is Vance, using his own TCs.  The two make a sort of peace with each other, and Vance plans to marry Rip at last, giving him back the Darrow Strip for his part in the maneuver.  As T.C. announces his plans to start over, he is shot down by Juan Herrera’s mother (Blanche Yurka).

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Mom Herrera (Blanche Yurka) prepares to take her revenge.

All of this is carried out with tempestuous emotions, overweening hubris, Shakespearean drama and psycho-Freudian father-daughter overtones that never become explicit.  On the whole, with all that’s going on in this plot, the film could have been a bit longer; it seems a little compressed at 109 minutes.  The cast is excellent, especially Walter Huston (only a couple of years after his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Treasure of the Sierra Madre) and Barbara Stanwyck.  The two seemed to get along well off-screen as well.  Huston observed of his co-star, “Barbara Stanwyck loved doing westerns more than anything where she had to dress up frilly and chase after a man.  At heart, she’s a cowgirl.  Or a cowboy—she’s one of the toughest, most no-nonsense women in this town, and she stopped playing the old cat-and-mouse game years ago.”

Judith Anderson is very good in a small but critical part (see her also in Pursued), and Beulah Bondi in what amounts to a cameo.  Gilbert Roland, after almost 30 years in movies since the days of the silents, is always a pleasure to watch, although he seems a little too old for Juan Herrera here.  The weakest spot in the cast is Wendell Corey, who usually played forms of policemen (see The Wild North and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window) and was kind of a stone-faced actor; he doesn’t seem to have the personality or flamboyance to be gambler Rip Darrow.

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Gambler-banker Rip Darrow (Wendell Corey) and Vance Jeffords (Barbara Stanwyck) try to work things out.

1950 was a good year for the great director Anthony Mann, who was then making the first of his westerns:  Devil’s Doorway, with Robert Taylor, Winchester ’73 with James Stewart, and this.  They’re all worth watching, and you can’t consider you’ve seen the best of westerns without Mann’s work from this period.  This one shows some of his noir-ish tendencies, with lots of wild night skies and dark shadows, especially with the frequent shots of the sign over the main gate of the ranch against the night sky.  The best way to watch The Furies (other than on the big screen) is on the 2008 Criterion Collection DVD, with the usual Criterion interesting extras and excellent print transfer.  The screenplay is by Charles Schnee.  Shot in black and white, mostly on location in Arizona by Victor Milman.  Music is by Franz Waxman.

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For other western family sagas in addition to Duel in the Sun (1946) and The Furies, see The Sea of Grass (1947), with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, and, more recently, Legends of the Fall (1994), with Anthony Hopkins, Brad Pitt and Aidan Quinn.  And maybe even Robert Redford’s A River Runs Through It (1992).  For other westerns based on the works of Niven Busch, see Belle Starr (1941), Distant Drums (1951) with Gary Cooper, Budd Boetticher‘s The Man From the Alamo (1953) with Glenn Ford, and The Moonlighter (1953) with Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck.

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The Violent Men

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 23, 2015

The Violent Men—Glenn Ford, Babara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson, Brian Keith, Dianne Foster, May Wynn, Richard Jaeckel, Basil Ruysdael, James Westerfield (1955; Dir: Rudolph Maté)

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This belongs to the “cattle queen western” subgenre, along with Johnny Guitar, Rancho Notorious, Forty Guns and various others from the 1950s, in which a dominant character is played by an established and prominent Hollywood actress of a certain age.  The violent men of the title are played by Glenn Ford, Edward G. Robinson and Brian Keith, but it turns out to be Barbara Stanwyck who dominates the course of the plot.

Capt. John Parrish (Glenn Ford) is a wounded veteran of the Union cavalry in the recent Civil War. He had come west three years previously to recover from a wound that went through his lung.  He receives a clean bill of health at the start of the movie and intends to marry Carolyn Vail (May Wynn), sell his ranch and movie back east.  The only potential buyer is Lew Wilkison (Edward G. Robinson), the crippled owner of the huge Anchor Ranch, by far the largest in the valley.

Lew Wilkison:  “Here at Anchor we don’t pay much attention to that hogwash about the meek inheriting the earth.”

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Meeting the Wilkisons: Cole (Brian Keith), Lew (Edward G. Robinson), and Martha (Barbara Stanwyck), with John Parrish (Glenn Ford).

Wilkison has long been trying to expand his Anchor Ranch to encompass the entire valley.  Twelve years previously during a burst of violence in the valley he was crippled, and he now walks only with crutches and even then with difficulty.  Parrish notices the Anchor men, especially gunman Wade Matlock (Richard Jaeckel), renewing their efforts to chase off other landowners; Matlock shoots the local sheriff in the back, and he is replaced by the unctuous Magruder (James Westerfield), who is more completely in Anchor’s pocket.  Lew Wilkison and his brother Cole (Brian Keith) offer Parrish only $15,000 for his ranch.  Wilkison’s alienated daughter Judith (Dianne Foster) is outraged at her father’s behavior, but his wife Martha (Barbara Stanwyck) appears to be pulling the strings and to have developed a relationship with Cole.

John Parrish:  “Don’t force me to fight, because you won’t like my way of fighting.”

Matlock and several Anchor riders try to push Parrish by killing one of his hands, but Parrish, who has been a determined pacifist to this point, takes the hand’s gun, confronts Matlock, and kills him.  No one attends Wade Matlock’s funeral, and one of Parrish’s riders wonders if there will be reprisals from Matlock’s friends.  John Parrish: “Matlock wasn’t the kind to have any friends after he was dead.”

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Gunman Wade Madlock (Richard Jaeckel) meets Parrish (Glenn Ford).

[Spoilers follow.]  Parrish brushes off his military skills from the war and prepares for battle.  Carolyn is appalled and ends their engagement when Parrish refuses to go east immediately.  Using his own ranch as bait, he sets up an ambush in a canyon when Anchor riders burn it down and take the shortest way home.  In retaliation,  Parrish and his men stampede Anchor’s horses and cattle, and use the distraction to burn most of the Anchor buildings.  Martha escapes the burning mansion, tossing away Lew’s crutches and leaving him to die in the flames.  Cole and Magruder lead a small army of riders attacking all the smaller ranchers and farmers, until Parrish finds that Judith has rescued her father.  In a confrontation at the Anchor ranch, Lew orders the riders away.  Parrish and Cole have a classic showdown, and Martha is killed by Cole’s Mexican paramour.  At the end, Lew wants to hire Parrish to run the Anchor ranch, and Judith and Parrish appear to be striking up a relationship.

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This is a good melodramatic range war western for its time, but pedestrian direction takes it out of the really excellent category.  Neither the Stanwyck nor the Dianne Foster character has much nuance.  Glenn Ford is good in his tenth western; he’s wearing the same hat he’ll be wearing for the next 15 years, and it’s not yet as disgusting and shapeless as it would become.  Edward G. Robinson was an excellent actor, and his presence, along with Stanwyck’s, reminds us of Double Indemnity (1944), giving this more of a western-noir flavor.  Robinson didn’t make many westerns, in part because, like James Cagney, he seems to have a modern, urban presence.  But he works well here, hard but able to shift tone convincingly.  Brian Keith, in dark hair and a thin mustache, makes a fine bad guy early in his career.  And Richard Jaeckel is good as a gunman without conscience.  An uncredited Richard Farnsworth is one of the Anchor riders.

During its second half, the action is interesting enough but not well developed, as the two sides progress through strike and counter-strike.  In particular, the shootout between Ford and Keith at the end is not well-edited (compare it with Budd Boetticher’s handling of Randolph Scott and Lee Marvin in Seven Men From Now [1956] in a moment of similar dramatic intensity, for example), nor is Stanwyck’s death.  The end seems very quick, not fleshed-out, and a bit out of character for Parrish.

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For another crippled cattle baron in a range melodrama, see Lionel Barrymore in Duel in the Sun (1947).  For Barbara Stanwyck as another cattle queen, see her in Forty Guns (1957, with Barry Sullivan); she doesn’t win there, either.  She’s better in Trooper Hook (1957, with Joel McCrea) and The Moonlighter (1953, with Fred MacMurray).  For Glenn Ford in another range melodrama, see him in Jubal (1956), which is better than this.  For James Westerfield displaying the same unctuousness in a range war, see Man With a Gun (1955, with Robert Mitchum).  For another Union Civil War veteran trying unsuccessfully to revert to pre-war pacifism because of the horrors of the war, see Rock Hudson in Gun Fury (1953).

There is some well-written dialogue here, by Harry Kleiner.  The music is by Max Steiner.  Shot in Lone Pine and the Alabama Hills, in California, and in Old Tucson, Arizona.  In color, at 96 minutes.

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The Moonlighter

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 3, 2014

The Moonlighter—Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Ward Bond, William Ching, Jack Elam (1953; Dir:  Roy Rowland)

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Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck had been making movies together since 1940’s Remember the Night, and of course their best-known collaboration was in one of the screen’s all-time greatest films noir:  Double Indemnity (1944).  This time they’re in a western, and, while pleasant enough to watch, it’s not in the same category as Double Indemnity.  It’s probably the weakest of their four films together.

The film starts with Wes Anderson (MacMurray) in jail, having been arrested as a moonlighter—one who rustles cattle by moonlight.  He is in fact guilty, but an irate rancher wants to lynch him.  Circumstances conspire so that they hang the wrong man (as in The Ox-Bow Incident), and a black man in the jail sings spirituals so we’ll get the connection with more modern lynching in the American south—also like The Ox-Bow Incident. 

Anderson escapes and arranges for a funeral for the supposedly deceased Wes Anderson, robbing those who attend to pay for the festivities.  He takes some revenge on the spread that did the lynching and heads home for Rio Hondo after a five-year absence with a wound in his shoulder.

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His brother Tom (William Ching) works respectably in the local bank and has finally convinced Wes’ former girlfriend Rela to marry him.  However, Tom gets fired, and Cole Gardner (Ward Bond), an old outlaw acquaintance of Wes’, shows up with a plan to rob the bank.  Wes tries to keep Tom out of the plan, but Tom now insists on being included.  As they escape, his former employer pulls a hidden gun and shoots Tom in the back.  Wes and Cole make their escape in the bank president’s horseless carriage, placing the time of this movie around 1900.

As Wes and Cole hole up in a remote cabin, a posse searches for them ineffectively.  But Rela knows where they probably are, and she convinces the sheriff to deputize her.  Meanwhile, Cole decides he doesn’t want to share the loot.  He and Wes fight, and, hampered by his wounded shoulder, Wes is knocked out and tied up.  As Cole descends the mountain, Rela spots him and a gun battle breaks out between them.  Rela eventually wins, finds Wes and unties him.  She insists they go down the dangerous way. 

As Rela and Wes cross under a waterfall, Rela slips and falls in a pool.  Wes could escape but chooses to rescue her and he takes her back to the remote hideout.  They have a discussion with lots of “suddenly I realized …” on both sides.  Rela always loved Wes and he loves her.  Now he’s decided to turn in himself and the money so that he and Rela can be together when he gets out of jail.  (He’s ignoring the fact that under the felony murder rules, he is likely to be accused of Tom’s murder, since it happened in the commission of a felony in which he was participating.)  Anyway, the second ride down the mountain goes smoothly, and they fade out.

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The action sequences (the jailbreak and lynching, and the fight between Cole and Wes, for example) are good.  But all of the sudden realizations are not convincing.  At the least, they needed more time to develop.  It brings to mind the ending of Remember the Night, which was not quite as unsatisfying.  MacMurray and Stanwyck rekindle their relationship in 1956 in Douglas Sirk’s melodrama There’s Always Tomorrow.  And MacMurray is better in 1957’s Quantez.  In black and white.  Short, at 77 minutes.  Like John Wayne’s Hondo and Raoul Walsh’s Gun Fury, The Moonlighter was originally shot in 3-D during Hollywood’s brief flirtation with that technology in the early 1950s.

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Forty Guns

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 18, 2014

Forty Guns—Barbara Stanwyck, Barry Sullivan, Gene Barry, Dean Jagger, John Ericson, Robert Dix, Hank Worden (1957; Dir:  Samuel Fuller)

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The forty guns referred to in the title are employees of the boss of the range, Jessica Drummond (Barbarbara Stanwyck) in Cochise County, Arizona, in this Earpian-cattle queen melodrama.  U.S. marshal Griff Bonnell (Barry Sullivan) comes to town with two of his brothers, with a warrant for one of those employees. 

Drummond has run things pretty much as she pleased, with her private army and the local sheriff Ned Logan (Dean Jagger) in her pocket.  Her wild younger brother Brockie (John Ericson) has a tendency to drink too much and to father illegitimate children, whose mothers Drummond then has to pay off.  The Bonnell brothers are bathing when Brockie and his friends shoot up the town, including shooting the elderly near-blind town marshal (Hank Worden).  After some entreaties, oldest brother Griff (Barry Sullivan) tackles Brockie and arrests him.  The corrupt sheriff then lets him go with no consequences.

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Griff serves his warrant at the Drummond ranch and meets Jessica.  She seems intrigued by him.  Bonnell brother Whit (Gene Barry) meets the local female gunsmith and is taken with her.  Griff keeps trying to send youngest brother Chico (Robert Dix) off to California, but he resists because he wants to join the family business.

The man Griff arrested is shot in jail, and Griff looks for the shooter.  He develops more of a relationship with Jessica, while Ned Logan sets up a trap for Griff with the supposed shooter as bait.  When Griff walks into the trap, Chico gets the shooter who would have shot Griff.  Brockie goes crazy, displaying the corpse of the shooter at the local undertaking establishment.  Griff and Jessica deepen their relationship while all this trouble also gets deeper.  She fires Sheriff Logan, who hangs himself in despair at being cut out of Jessica’s life.

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On the day of Whit’s wedding to the lady gunsmith, Brockie tries to kill Griff from afar with a rifle and kills Whit instead.  Jessica pays for his legal defense and bribes judges, but he’s convicted and she refuses to help him escape.  Her empire, based on bribery and other sorts of crime, is falling apart around her ears, while she tries to do the right thing and square herself with Griff.  Brockie breaks out and uses Jessica as a hostage/shield.  Griff shoots Jessica non-fatally and then empties his gun into Brockie when he drops her.  Chico takes Whit’s position as the town marshal, and Griff heads off to California in his two-seater buggy.  Around the end credits we can see a distant shot of Jessica running up the dirt street after Griff and catching up to him at the fade-out.  Presumably they make up and live happily ever after, rebuilding Jessica’s empire.

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The Earp connection is made overt by having this take place in Tombstone, in Cochise County, Arizona, and by having the Bonnell brothers’ father named Nicholas (also the name of the Earps’ father).  It has some heavy-breathing passion, some apparent double entendres and some noir touches.  A good, watchable movie, with a fair amount of talking for a western.  The title song “High-Ridin’ Woman With a Whip” is reprised a couple of times.  Some of the interior scenes at the Drummond ranch are apparently shot in the remodeled set for Tara from Gone With the Wind.  Filmed in black and white; not a long movie, at around 80 minutes.  This has become a modest cult favorite, with some similarities to Johnny Guitar.  Stanwyck and Barry Sullivan also starred together in The Maverick Queen.

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Trooper Hook

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 14, 2014

Trooper Hook—Joel McCrea, Barbara Stanwyck, Earl Holliman, Royal Dano, John Dehner, Edward Andrews, Rodolfo Acosta (1957; Dir:  Charles Marquis Warren)

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This is both a cavalry movie and a strangers-on-a-stagecoach movie, based on a short story by Jack Schaefer (author of Shane and Monte Walsh).  It makes good use of the decency Joel McCrea always projected; the strong cast, led by McCrea and Barbara Stanwyck, elevates the movie slightly over what it might have been. 

Sgt. Clovis Hook (McCrea) is 47, a veteran of the Civil War and graduate of Andersonville Prison during that war.  He’s in charge of a detail that captures Chiricahua Apache chief Nanchez (Rodolfo Acosta) and his band, including Cora Sutliff (Stanwyck), a white woman captive who has borne Nanchez’s son.  She was taken by the Apaches a few years ago while traveling from the east to rejoin her husband on his new ranch in Arizona.  Most of the movie concerns Hook’s attempts to reunite her with her husband, while both Nanchez and well-meaning whites try to part her from her son.

Cora comes in for a fair amount of hostility and abuse from whites over the course of the movie.  Hook reacts with more humanity. One of the best scenes comes as their relationship develops.  Cora talks about the humiliations for her in dealing with the reactions of other whites; Hook tells her about his survival at Andersonville, where he pretended to be a dog in order to get more food in that hellish environment.  There are references to Hook’s own wife and family, who never appear.

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Hook with the captured Nanchez; the recently liberated Cora Sutliff and her son by Nanchez.

Hook, Sutliff and her son take a stagecoach toward the modest ranch her husband has built up.  The stagecoach passengers include young cowboy Jeff Bennett (Earl Holliman), a Mexican grandmother and granddaughter and a talkative Charlie Travers (Edward Andrews), with a colorful ex-Confederate driver (Royal Dano).  Along the way they hear that Nanchez has escaped, and he catches up with the stage.  Hook resorts to a strategem to get Nanchez to let them depart, but we haven’t seen the last of him.

When they arrive at the Sutliff ranch, Cora’s husband, who hasn’t seen her for years, takes the approach most whites have.  He hadn’t heard about, and wants nothing to do with, the half-Apache kid, and Cora won’t let the child go.  Nanchez finds them, and the four of them make a run for it in the Sutliff wagon.

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The ending is a bit contrived, with both Nanchez and husband Fred Sutliff (John Dehner) dead and Hook riding off into the sunset with the woman and her son. Hook admits he has no family; he just invented one to fend off the questions and good intentions of others.  He remarks, “I’m 47.  Nearly 30 of that in the Army makes a man rough.  Got four months ‘til the end of my last hitch.” It sounds like a proposal, sort of.

The movie has intrusive, clunky theme music (e.g., Rancho Notorious and Will Penny) sung by Tex Ritter; such music seldom works as well as it did in High Noon.  There are good supporting performances by Royal Dano as Mr. Trude, an ex-Confederate stagecoach driver, and Earl Holliman as Jeff Bennett, a good-hearted young cowboy.  Rodolfo Acosta as Nanchez isn’t bad, either, in a role very similar to what he did in Hondo.  Barbara Stanwyck isn’t very convincing at first, but she can act and becomes more believable as her character develops. 

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 A still of Hook (McCrea), Quito, Cora (Barbara Stanwyck) and Fred Sutliff (John Dehner).

This was the sixth and last film McCrea and Stanwyck made together.  McCrea and Stanwyck teamed in this modest western 18 years after being in DeMille’s more epic Union Pacific.  The boy who plays Cora’s mixed-race son in a black wig (Terry Lawrence) isn’t great; the direction may be at fault for some of that.  Unresolved question:  Who got Charlie Travers’ $15,000?  In black and white.  Both the Four Corners setting and the stagecoach elements recall John Ford, but the direction obviously isn’t as good.  In black and white.

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Union Pacific

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 15, 2013

Union Pacific—Joel McCrea, Robert Preston, Brian Donlevy, Barbara Stanwyck (1939; Dir:  Cecil B. Demille)

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In the movies’ greatest year, we had this rare western by one of the cinema’s greatest showmen.  It obviously had a big budget, being made in the DeMille style, and was promoted very expensively.  As well as being a great year for movies generally, 1939 was also a good year for westerns, with this, Dodge City, Stagecoach, Destry Rides Again, Frontier Marshal and the misbegotten curiosity The Oklahoma Kid.

UnionPacificLeads The romantic triangle.

Joel McCrea, a bigger star than John Wayne at the time, is Jeff Butler, a troubleshooter for the Union Pacific Railroad at the End of Track, wearing two guns with pistol butts facing forward.  His childhood and Civil War friend is Dick Allen (Robert Preston, charming in his first big part), now in the process of drifting over to the dark side for a big score.  They are both romantically interested in Molly Monahan, played with a painfully thick Irish brogue by Barbara Stanwyck.  Brian Donlevy, as one would expect, is the principal villain as Sid Campeau, the slimy saloon owner who corrupts Allen.  (See a young Anthony Quinn briefly as a sleazy gambler and Campeau confederate Jack Cordray, who tries to shoot Butler in the back.  The screen’s original Tarzan, Elmo Lincoln, is said to be an uncredited player in this, too.)

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Its overarching story is the driving of the Union Pacific railroad line westward after the Civil War to meet the Central Pacific, overcoming all obstacles:  outlaws, Indians, snow, unmet payrolls and unfriendly mountain terrain.  The golden spike used in the meeting-of-the-lines scene is the real spike from 1869, borrowed from Stanford University.  McCrea and Preston are very good in this, Stanwyck a little less so, although that may not be her fault with her part written so faux-Irish.  Butler ultimately values his friendship with Allen and is able to escape hanging his friend, even when it becomes obvious that Allen has been involved in train robberies.  As one would expect, Allen redeems himself as he dies at the end.  At this stage of his career, Preston seemed to specialize in this kind of a role–the friend who goes bad (see Whispering Smith and Blood on the Moon, for example).

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There’s a fair amount of spectacle here, with two train crashes (one caused by Indians, one caused by snow) and a major Indian attack, in addition to the nefarious outlaws.  It’s in black and white, but so were most movies in 1939, especially westerns.  (The exception:  see Dodge City, below.)  Compare this with the later (1941) technological western and winning-of-the-west epic Western Union, featuring Randolph Scott as the conflicted lead who has to sort out his loyalties while (a) being tempted by the dark side and (b) playing off straight arrow Robert Young.  Both movies are quite watchable.

DeMille didn’t make many westerns, but some would say that he invented the feature-length western with The Squaw Man in 1914.  By 1939, he’d been making movies for more than 25 years already.

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