Dodge City—Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Alan Hale, Bruce Cabot, Ann Sheridan, Guinn “Big Boy” Williams, Victor Jory (1939; Dir: Michael Curtiz)
Movie stars didn’t get much bigger than the team of Flynn and De Havilland in 1939. Although this was the fifth of nine Warner Brothers movies they made together, it was also their first and perhaps best western. It obviously had a big budget, being filmed in Technicolor at a time when most movies, and certainly most westerns, weren’t. (For purposes of comparison, the other big color movies that year were Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz—pretty heady company.) The director, the Hungarian Michael Curtiz, had been responsible for Flynn and De Havilland’s most successful movies, such as The Adventures of Robin Hood (also in color the previous year) and, of course, Flynn’s earlier breakthrough, Captain Blood.
Flynn is Wade Hatton, and the movie explains his accent by saying that he’s an Irishman with wanderlust and a background in the English military in India. He fought in the Civil War for the South, and as the movie starts he and pals Rusty Hart (Alan Hale) and Tex Baird (Guinn Williams) are finishing a stint as buffalo hunters for the railroad that has just been completed to Dodge City. After a run-in with Jeff Surrett (a young Bruce Cabot), they return to Texas while Dodge City itself falls into chaos and lawlessness, under the corrupt domination of saloon owner Surrett. (His saloon is called The Gay Lady, and features Ann Sheridan in a modest role as his presumably eponymous headliner.) Interestingly enough, the bad guys are Yankees, and the good guys are southerners, a reversal of the usual situation in westerns, although there have always been some exceptions.
A bit later, Hatton is the honcho for a trail herd coming up from Texas to Dodge City along the Chisholm Trail. Coming along are Abbie Irving (Olivia de Havilland) and her neer-do-well brother, whose parents have died. The brother is a drunk who is killed when his constant careless shooting causes a stampede, and Abbie blames Hatton for his death. Obviously, that relationship will be repaired by the end of the movie. After (a) Surrett is clearly responsible for the death of a competing buyer for Hatton’s cattle, and (b) out-of-control gunfire results in the death of a boy on a Sunday School outing, Hatton agrees to clean up the town and make it safe for decent people, women and the Pure Prairie League. Abbie goes to work for Joe Clemens (the name an obvious homage to Mark Twain); Clemens is the crusading anti-Surrett newspaper editor of the Dodge City Star (Frank McHugh), the sort of part you can easily see Thomas Mitchell playing if he hadn’t been busy getting his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for being Doc Boone in Stagecoach that year. McHugh is fine, though, until he is whipped and then killed by vile Surrett henchman Yancey (the reptilian Victor Jory). Ward Bond shows up in an early (and brief) role as Yancey’s unconvincing alibi. (See him also in a fleeting role in the same year’s Frontier Marshal.)
When Hatton and Abbie get the goods on Yancey and Surrett for Clemens’ death, the climax of the movie is a shootout on a burning train. Ultimately, of course, Hatton, Rusty and Tex kill Surrett and his minions in the shootout, saving everybody a lengthy and uncertain trial. The end of this movie sets up the next western for Flynn and De Havilland, with Col. Grenville Dodge asking Hatton to spend his honeymoon cleaning up the mining town Virginia City which is, if anything, in worse shape than Dodge City had been.
De Havilland with Flynn as sheriff (smaller hat, baby blue tie).
Hatton’s initial wide-brimmed hat in this movie is unusual. Note how he changes hats to one with a smaller brim (along with changing all his other attire) when he becomes sheriff. The baby-blue string tie is a stretch; it probably should have been black. Flynn, especially the younger Flynn, is always watchable, but some don’t find him very convincing in westerns. De Havilland makes a lively western female lead and has her usual good chemistry with Flynn on screen. The accounts say that she had a miserable time making the movie, and would have preferred the Ann Sheridan dance hall floozy role, even though Sheridan didn’t actually have much to do. Of course, this film hasn’t much to do with the real history of cleaning up Dodge City.
Written by the young Robert Buckner, who also wrote Virginia City and Santa Fe Trail (both Flynn western vehicles), as well as Jezebel, The Oklahoma Kid, Knute Rockne, All-American, Yankee Doodle Dandy and The Desert Song. Virginia City, the follow-on, when it gets made, is not an actual sequel and has Miriam Hopkins instead of Olivia de Havilland as Flynn’s romantic interest.