Tag Archives: Northern Westerns

Canadian Pacific

Nicholas Chennault ~ May 11, 2015

Canadian Pacific—Randolph Scott, Victor Jory, J. Carroll Naish, Nancy Olson, Jane Wyatt, Robert Barrat (1949; Dir: Edwin L. Marin)

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Randolph Scott seemed to have bad luck in romantic triangles in western movies.  In the earlier stages of his career, in Virginia City, Western Union and Jesse James, he was an ethical guy with a shady past or even a good guy in an insipid role, doomed to lose the girl to Errol Flynn, Robert Young and Tyrone Power.  Later in his career, plots of his movies sometimes found him interested in two women, one of whom insists that he give up his guns (Angela Lansbury in A Lawless Street, Jacqueline White in Return of the Bad Men and Jane Wyatt in Canadian Pacific).  In two of those movies he actually ends up with the woman who wants him to change, but in this case Jane Wyatt loses out.

Tom Andrews (Randolph Scott) is a surveyor and troubleshooter for the Canadian Pacific Railway, now trying to find a path over the Rocky Mountains.  The railroad is meeting resistance from the local metis (a group of mixed French-Canadian and Indian ancestry) led by fur trader Dirk Rourke (Victor Jory).  The animosity between Rourke and Andrews is complicated by the fact that they both fancy the same girl—Cecille Gautier (Nancy Olson, in her first significant screen role), daughter of a metis leader.  Andrews finds a pass for the railroad and is not scared off when Rourke takes a shot at him.  He is unsuccessful at dissuading a metis meeting from supporting Rourke, and returns to the railroad.

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Publicity stills of Andrews and his romantic interests:  Cecille Gautier (Nancy Olson) and Tom Andrews (Randolph Scott) in the Canadian Rockies; and Tom Andrews successfully romances the lady doctor (Jane Wyatt).

The railroad extension effort is led by Cornelius Van Horne (Robert Barrat), who persuades Andrews to come back to the railroad instead of marrying Cecille.  Andrews encounters railroad lady doctor Edith Cabot (Jane Wyatt), a beautiful and intelligent but priggish easterner with her own hospital railroad car who views him as a gun-wielding barbarian.  Nevertheless, she patches him up from the occasional bullet wound, and presides over his lengthy recovery when he is grievously injured by a dynamite blast triggered by a shot from Rourke.  Meanwhile, Rourke persuades the Blackfoot Indians to attack the railroad, and Cecille rides to warn Andrews.

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Dynamite Dawson (J. Carroll Naish) lives up to his name, smoking a little dynamite with the Blackfeet.

Just recovering after several months and having found an attraction to Dr. Cabot, Andrews leads the defense, while his friend Dynamite Dawson (J. Carroll Naish) rides for help.  During the battle, while Rourke and Andrews are shooting it out, Andrews sees Rourke killed by a convenient falling tree, but not before Rourke has successfully given the signal for the Indians to attack.  At the end, Dr. Cabot can’t forgive Andrews his return to violence, and he ends up with the (much younger) Cecille.  And the railroad goes through.

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Andrews (Randolph Scott) and the railroad men desperately fight off a massive Indian attack from behind a makeshift barricade.

This was an attempt in a way to remake Cecil B. Demille’s Union Pacific story from ten years earlier.  However, the writing isn’t as good and the story doesn’t hang together convincingly.  It was filmed on location in the beautiful Canadian Rockies around Banff National Park.  It was shot in color, but the print hasn’t aged well. 95 minutes long.

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For Randolph Scott enthusiasts, note that this is one of the few instances when he wears (and uses) two guns.  He was more persuasive with one.  And this is one of the earliest appearances of Scott’s famous leather jacket, which would show up periodically in progressively more worn condition for the rest of his career (Hangman’s Knot, Ride the High Country, etc.).  Director Edwin L. Marin was at the helm for several of Scott’s westerns in this era (Abillene Town, Fighting Man of the Plains, The Cariboo Trail, Fort Worth), but his work is generally unremarkable.  For another adventure involving Randolph Scott north of the border, this time with a herd of cattle, see The Cariboo Trail the next year (1950).

This was Nancy Olson’s first significant screen role, and the usually-blond Olson doesn’t seem very persuasive as a dark-haired metis girl.  At 21, she was thirty years younger than Scott.  Next, she went on to one of her biggest screen roles, as screenwriter William Holden’s girlfriend in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), for which she received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination.  Other than that, she may be most familiar now for her wholesome work as the frequent girlfriend/wife in Disney comedies of the early 1960s, like The Absent-Minded Professor (1961) and Son of Flubber (1963).

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Fort Vengeance

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 30, 2015

Fort Vengeance—James Craig, Keith Larson, Rita Moreno, Reginald Denny (1953; Dir: Lesley Selander)

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This low-budget effort from journeyman director Lesley Selander is a northern western.  It takes place in Canada, during Sitting Bull’s sojourn there after fleeing the U.S. in the wake of the Battle of Little Bighorn.  (See Saskatchewan [1954], with Alan Ladd, for another story of Mounties and Sitting Bull in Canada.)

The Ross brothers, Dick (James Craig) and Carey (Keith Larsen), head north from Montana into Canada, pursued by a posse that pulls up at the international border.  Riding into Fort Vengeance, said to the western headquarters of the Mounties (that would actually have been Fort Macleod in southwestern Alberta), Dick applies for a position as a Mountie, although Carey has reservations.  Inspector Trevett (Reginald Denny) leads the Mounties out to the camp of Blackfoot chief Crowfoot, whom Sitting Bull has been trying to convince to join him in an uprising.

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The Ross brothers, Dick (James Craig) and Carey (Keith Larsen), join the Mounties.

Out scouting one day, Carey sees trapper Luboc stealing a cache of Blackfoot furs and convinces him to share the stolen proceeds.  However, Crowfoot’s son Eagle Heart is the owner of the furs and complains to the authorities.  Trader Fitzgibbon has bought the furs, but Eagle Heart can identify them.  Fitzgibbon fingers Luboc as the seller and probable thief.  But Carey gets to the trapper’s cabin first, kills Luboc and then disappears.  Dick goes after and finds him; while Dick is making the arrest Carey is shot by a Sioux warrior.

Meanwhile, Eagle Heart has been blamed for Luboc’s killing, but Dick showing up with Carey’s body and telling the real story vindicates him.  Having seen the Queen’s justice to work in fairness to the Blackfeet, Crowfoot declines to join Sitting Bull.

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Blackfoot chief Crowfoot finds that the Queen’s justice is good.

On the whole, this is lacking in star power and is not one of Selander’s most memorable works.  Rita Moreno plays the half-Indian daughter of Fitzgibbon; Selander often used her as an Indian or Mexican maiden at this early stage of her film career (see Yellow Tomahawk, for example), which she performed without much subtlety.  All the Indians look like white actors, and Sitting Bull is much too young.  If it doesn’t look much like Canada, it was shot at the Ray Corrigan ranch in Simi Valley in southern California.  The red coats and fur hats must have been uncomfortable.

Crowfoot was an actual Blackfoot chief in Canada.  Victor McLaglen’s son Andrew is listed as an assistant director on this, learning his trade before going on to direct Gun the Man Down, McLintock! and The Way West.  In dingy color, at 75 minutes.

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North West Mounted Police

Nicholas Chennault ~ June 27, 2014

North West Mounted Police—Gary Cooper, Robert Preston, Madeleine Carroll, Paulette Goddard, Preston Foster, Lynne Overman, George Bancroft, Montagu Love, Akim Tamiroff, Robert Ryan, Lon Chaney, Jr., Wallace Reid, Jr. (1940; Dir: Cecil B. DeMille)

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This is a typical Cecil DeMille production for its time, with a large cast and shot in Technicolor at a time (1940) when that was still rare for westerns. Gary Cooper stars in the second of his three DeMille westerns. The first was The Plainsman (1936), and the third would be Unconquered (1947), set in colonial times. Cooper was a big star, and, although he initially made much of his reputation in westerns, he only made a handful of them in the 1940s. (See The Westerner, 1940, and the western comedy Along Came Jones, 1945.)

It is 1885, and the Second Riel Rebellion is brewing among the mixed-ancestry Metís (pronounced “meet-us” in this movie) people of Saskatchewan in Canada. Louis Riel (Francis McDonald) is retrieved from Montana, where he has been teaching school, by Dan Duroc (Akim Tamiroff) and Jacques Corbeau (George Bancroft, who had played the good-hearted sheriff in Stagecoach the previous year).  Riel has reservations about any association with the rough Corbeau, who has a history of running liquor and guns to the Indians, but Duroc persuades him to go along because Corbeau has a gatling gun which will equalize things with the Queen’s forces.

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Ronnie Logan (Robert Preston) and the fiery Louvette (Paulette Goddard).

Two red-coated Mounties, Sgt. Jim Brett (Preston Foster) and Ronnie Logan (Robert Preston) discover in Batoche, the Metís capital, that the rebellion has reached dangerous proportions, with Big Bear’s Crees on the verge of joining the Metís. Romantic interests are established for both of them, Logan with Metís maiden Louvette Corbeau (daughter of Jacques Corbeau, played by Paulette Goddard as kind of a dark-skinned, blue-eyed Gypsy) and Brett with Logan’s sister April Logan (Madeleine Carroll), a selfless nurse among the Metís in Batoche.  She doesn’t seem convinced that Brett’s for her.

Into this cauldron of brewing rebellion and budding romance rides a Texas Ranger, Dusty Rivers (Gary Cooper), who is looking to arrest Corbeau for a murder in Texas.  He is received dubiously at Fort Carlton, especially by Sgt. Brett, when he develops an immediate attraction to April Logan. Brett goes off to persuade Big Bear to remain allied to the Queen, but when Corbeau promises to bring him red coats covered with blood, Big Bear gives him three days to do that before he will join the rebellion.

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Sgt. Brett (Preston Foster) negotiates with the Crees for Rivers (Gary Cooper) and a Scottish scout (Lynne Overman).

Ronnie Logan and another Mountie are sent off to remote guard duty at Duck Lake.  When April hears of the seriousness of the rebellion, she sends Louvette Corbeau to warn Ronnie.  Instead of warning him, she lures him into a situation where she can take him prisoner.  In his absence, a column of Mounties are mostly massacred at Duck Lake, including the commander (played by Montagu Love).  His dying command to Brett is that he get Ronnie and make him pay for his desertion.

While Sgt. Brett takes command of the few surviving Mounties left at Fort Carlton, heading on an apparent suicide mission to Big Bear, Rivers helps April flee the burning fort and heads for Batoche, where he distracts the defenders by cutting their canoes loose and destroying the gatling gun.  He helps Ronnie escape the clutches of Louvette, only to see him cut down by an Indian assassin hired by Louvette to get Rivers.

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Rivers liberates Ronnie Logan from his scheming captor Louvette;  River woos nurse April Logan (Madeleine Carroll).

At Big Bear’s camp, Brett is improbably successful at retrieving the Crees’ loyalty and the rebellion seems to be over, with Duroc dead and Riel and Corbeau captured.  A Mountie tribunal is on the verge of convicting Ronnie of desertion, until Rivers comes in and attributes to Ronnie his own efforts in destroying the gatling gun at Batoche, saving Ronnie’s reputation.  At the end, he abducts Corbeau to take him back to Texas, but as he leaves with his prisoner, Brett and April find him and announce that April is marrying Brett.  But Brett allows Rivers to take Corbeau and leaves Rivers’ version of Ronnie’s heroism to stand even though he suspects otherwise.

Joel McCrea had starred for DeMille in Union Pacific in 1939 and was the first choice to play Rivers.  But he dropped out to do Alfred Hitcock’s Foreign Correspondent and was about to be cast in two Preston Sturges films (all included in the best work of his career), so the role went to Gary Cooper.  English actress Madeleine Carroll had made her reputation working with Alfred Hitchcock as the first of his cool blondes (The 39 Steps, Secret Agent) and in costume dramas (Prisoner of Zenda, Lloyd’s of London).  By 1938 she was said to be the highest-paid actress in Hollywood.   After her sister Marguerite was killed in a London bombing raid, she spent the rest of the war as a field nurse and in other war efforts.   She became a U.S. citizen in 1943, but her career never revived after the war.  At this stage of his career, Robert Preston often played the friend or brother who went bad (Union Pacific, Blood on the Moon, Whispering Smith), and his character usually died because of that.  Several young actors, including Robert Ryan, Lon Chaney, Jr., Regis Toomey, Rod Cameron and Wallace Reid, Jr. (son of a silent star who died of drug addiction) play young Mounties or Indians.

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DeMille directs Carroll and Cooper as they flee Fort Carlton in a canoe.

One of the screenwriters here is Alan LeMay, author of the novel The Searchers was based on.  But the dialogue is clunky, and Cooper’s, in particular, is excessively of the aw-shucks homespun variety.  Between that and his character’s too-precious name, it’s not one of his more successful performances.  He could play frontier characters naturally and was doing so convincingly at this time in his career (playing western in The Westerner the same year, and playing Appalachian backwoods in Sergeant York, for which he won the Best Actor Oscar the following year), but it doesn’t work well here.  Neither the abrupt end of the rebellion nor the abrupt change of heart by April Logan are entirely convincing, either.  After the opening scene, Riel largely disappears, and we never discover why he’s essential to the rebellion.  He certainly has little charisma as depicted here.

This is one of the fifty movies listed in The Fifty Worst Films of All Time (and How They Got That Way) by Harry Medved and Randy Lowell (1978).  It’s not that epically bad, but is it worth watching? It is if you are interested in either Cooper or DeMille, not to mention the beautiful Carroll.  For another (and better) story of an American gone north, see Gunless (2010).  For another story of Mounties and Indians, see Raoul Walsh’s Saskatchewan with Alan Ladd (1954).  If you’re interested in the background of Canada’s Second Riel Rebellion, see Strange Empire by Joseph Kinsey Howard (first published in 1952).

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In color, at 126 minutes.  Shot principally around Big Bear Lake in California, San Bernardino National Forest.  The movie won an Oscar for Best Editing.

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Belle of the Yukon

Nicholas Chennault ~ May 24, 2014

Belle of the Yukon—Randolph Scott, Gypsy Rose Lee, Dinah Shore, Bob Burns, Charles Winninger, William Marshall, Guinn “Big Boy” Williams, Robert Armstrong, Victor Kilian (1944; Dir:  William A. Seiter)

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This as much a musical as a western, with new songs by Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke, often sung by a young and dark-haired Dinah Shore.  As the title suggests, this takes place during the Canadian Gold Rush, mostly in a saloon, in the isolated city of Malamute.  This was two years after Randolph Scott played a con man in a northern gold rush in The Spoilers (1942), and in his return he is apparently again a con man as Honest John Calhoun, owner of the largest saloon in town.

It’s not just the name; he has taken pains to establish a reputation for honesty, turning down offers from George (Robert Armstrong), a more corrupt gambler, to set up games more explicitly rigged in the house’s favor.  As the movie opens, a boatload of new female entertainers from Seattle led by Belle de Valle (Gypsy Rose Lee) show up to supplement the singing of Lettie Candless (Dinah Shore), daughter of Honest John’s manager Pop Candless (Charles Winninger).  Belle and Honest John had some history back in Seattle, where he was more obviously a con man, then known as Gentleman Jack.

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Belle and Honest John meet again; Belle in her working gear.

The relationship between Belle and Honest John rekindles.  Lettie has her own relationship with Steve Atterbury (blonde William Marshall), who may or may not already be married, and also appears to be wanted by the Seattle police.  Honest John keeps trying to get him out of town so the Seattle police won’t arrive and take him and others in his employ into custody as well.  Young love keeps messing up his attempts.  Honest John also employs a professor (Victor Kilian) who purports to be able to predict when the harsh northern winter will set in.  He starts a bank to hold the gold produced by betting on the professor’s report, and it becomes a magnet for those who want to rob it, especially George and the sheriff, Mervin Maitland (Guinn “Big Boy” Williams).

Thereafter there are several currents running through the story.  (1) Is Honest John really honest now, or is he just running another scam?  (2) If it is a scam, is he scamming George and Mervin, or everybody?  (3)  Will Honest John be honest with Belle, or will he break her heart again, as he did in Seattle?  (4)  What is Steve Atterbury running from, and will young love win in the end?  Most of those questions you could answer without even seeing the movie.  The way they’re answered in the movie doesn’t always make sense.

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The Young Lovers:  Dinah Shore as Lettie Candless and William Marshall as Steve Atterbury.

It’s pretty light stuff.  Some say that Gypsy Rose Lee can’t act, but she certainly has a presence.  She and Dinah Shore wear some of the smallest-waisted costumes on film, obviously with the help of corsets.  And they are elegant costumes, with the exception of one dress worn by Shore on stage which looks like she has on a long-sleeved black T-shirt under the dress.  Randolph Scott is good as Honest John Calhoun, with enough of his usual rectitude to make you think he could be honest, and with enough charm so you’d forgive him if he isn’t.  There doesn’t seem to be much heat in the rekindled romance between Belle and Honest John.  Bob Burns plays a con-man subordinate of Honest John who repeatedly gets the better of Sheriff Mervin, both played for comic relief.  While it’s not clear that this is entirely a “western comedy,” it certainly has a number of comedic elements.

In color, so it had a good budget in 1944, when color westerns were still quite rare.  It’s short, at 83 minutes, and quickly paced, so you don’t have much time to think about the plot.  The screenplay is by James Edward Grant (Angel and the Badman), a favorite writer of John Wayne.  Dinah Shore sings “Like Someone in Love” and “Sleigh Ride in July,” which both became popular generally and were covered by such other singers as Bing Crosby.

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The Wild North

Nicholas Chennault ~ May 22, 2014

The Wild North—Stewart Granger, Wendell Corey, Cyd Charisse, Ray Teal (1952; Dir:  Andrew Marton)

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Swashbuckling Englishman Stewart Granger (real name:  James Leblanche Stewart) at the height of his American film career made this movie, the same year as The Prisoner of Zenda and Scaramouche. 

Here he is French-Canadian trapper and outdoorsman Jules Vincent; Wendell Corey is Constable Pedley, the Mountie sent to bring him in for killing another trapper.  Cyd Charisse has a non-dancing role as Vincent’s Chippewa romantic interest, with not a lot to do.  Basically, this is a tale of wilderness survival.  Pedley goes after Vincent in the wilderness and captures him, but getting him back to civilization is another matter.  Vincent is much better in the frozen wilderness than Pedley is.  Ultimately Pedley gets lost and loses his mind, and Vincent rescues him both physically and mentally.  In the end, of course, Vincent gets off, since he’s good-hearted and didn’t mean to kill the guy anyway.  The movie depends on Granger, and he’s reasonably charming here. 

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Pedley:  “You’re not a bad guy…for a murderer.  Why’d you kill the man?

Vincent:  “I shot at his shoulder.  The canoe swayed.”  (Shrugs.)

Pedley:  “You fought with him the night before, over the girl.”

Vincent:  “That was no fight.  It was nothing.”

Pedley:  “Is that why you ran away?”

Vincent:  “You don’t believe me, do you?”

Pedley:  “I don’t know.”

Vincent:  “That’s it, Pedley.  See?  You’re a man who should understand–and you don’t believe me.  What chance would I have in front of a jury of ribbon clerks?”

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Ray Teal is part of another trapper pair that has lost its own outfit, and he offers to help Vincent escape or kill the Mountie.  The Boulder Mountains of Idaho (not far from Sun Valley), the filming location, pass convincingly for the rugged Canadian northwest, apparently.

For other westerns involving survival in frozen conditions, see Jeremiah Johnson (1972) and Seraphim Falls (2006).  For stories of lawmen bringing in sympathetic outlaws and developing relationships, see The Ride Back (1957), 3:10 to Yuma (1957) and The Comancheros (1962).  For other westerns with Mounties, see North West Mounted Police (1940), Saskatchewan (1954) and Gunless (2010).

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The antagonists face off, with an Indian princess between them.

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Other Wests: Canada, Alaska and Australia

Nicholas Chennault ~ May 6, 2014

Other Wests:  Westerns Set in Canada, Alaska and Australia

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Northern Westerns:

In the early days of the movies, the Alaska and Klondike gold rushes were only twenty years in the past.  Many people remembered them, including those who had only read of them when they were taking place.  The gold rushes had also given rise to popular novels that used the wild northern country as a setting for adventure stories, like the stories of Jack London, James Oliver Curwood and Rex Beach.  The narrative poems of Robert W. Service, about “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” and “The Cremation of Sam McGee”, were well known.  In the 1920s, Charlie Chaplin (The Gold Rush) and Buster Keaton (The Frozen North) made movies set in the northern gold rushes, as did Rin Tin Tin.  Some of these stories, like The Call of the Wild and Rex Beach’s 1906 novel The Spoilers have been made as movies multiple times.  Although used less frequently as a setting now, more than a hundred years after the northern gold rushes took place, they still have some interest for modern audiences, as seen in the recent (2014) television miniseries Klondike.

The use of the frozen north as a setting has much in common with westerns—themes of civilization vs. lawlessness, self-reliance in defense of one’s life and property, surviving in an often-hostile nature, ranching and mining, Indians and outlaws.  It just happened there a decade or two later than it did in what we normally think of as the American west.  Indeed, many of the figures in the American west, such as Wyatt Earp, drifted northward with the gold strikes.  If Bill Hickok hadn’t been dead for more than twenty years, he might have been tempted as well.

As usual, there are probably other movies that could be added to these lists.  If you have one, please leave a comment.

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The Silent Era

The Spoilers (1914)

Etienne of the Glad Heart (short, Tom Mix, 1914)

The Man from the Yukon (1916)

The Dawn Maker (1916)

The Flame of the Yukon (1917)

The Savage (1917)

The Girl Alaska (1919)

Back to God’s Country (1919, 1925, 1953)

The Silver Horde (1920)

The Cyclone (Tom Mix, 1920)

Flower of the North (1921)

The Frozen North (Buster Keaton, 1922)

The Spoilers (1923)

Where the North Begins (Rin Tin Tin, 1923)

Shadows of the North (Rin Tin Tin, 1923)

The Alaskan (1924)

North of 36 (1924)

Curses (Al St. John; Dir:  Roscoe Arbuckle, 1925)

The Gold Rush (Charlie Chaplin 1925)

Call of the Klondike (1926)

A Hero of the Big Snows (Rin Tin Tin, 1926)

Trail of ’98 (1928)

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Poster for Gary Cooper in The Spoilers (1930); Mae West in Klondike Annie (1936).

The Sound Era

The Silver Horde (Joel McCrea, Evelyn Brent, Jean Arthur, 1930)

The Spoilers (Gary Cooper, 1930)

McKenna of the Mounted (Buck Jones, 1932)

Call of the Wild (Clark Gable, 1935)

Northern Frontier (Tyrone Power, 1935)

Klondike Annie (Mae West, 1936)

Call of the Yukon (Richard Arlen, 1938)

Susannah of the Mounties (Shirley Temple, Randolph Scott, 1939)

North of the Yukon (Charles Starrett, 1939)

Queen of the Yukon (Charles Bickford, Irene Rich, 1940)

North West Mounted Police (Gary Cooper, 1940; Dir:  DeMille)

The Spoilers (John Wayne, Randolph Scott, Marlene Dietrich, 1942)

Pierre of the Plains (1942)

North to the Klondike (1942)

Northwest Rangers (1942)

Klondike Kate (1943)

Riders of the Northwest Mounted (1943)

Belle of the Yukon (Randolph Scott, Gypsy Rose Lee, Dinah Shore,1944)

Where the North Begins (1947)

Trail of the Yukon (1949)

Canadian Pacific (Randolph Scott, 1949)

Call of the Klondike (1950)

The Cariboo Trail (Randolph Scott, 1950)

Gene Autry and the Mounties (1951)

The Wild North (Stewart Granger, 1952)

Pony Soldier (Tyrone Power, 1952)

Back to God’s Country (Rock Hudson, 1953)

Fort Vengeance (1953)

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The Far Country (James Stewart, Walter Brennan, Ruth Roman, 1954)

Saskatchewan (Alan Ladd, 1954)

Yukon Vengeance (1954)

The Spoilers (five versions on film, most recently 1955)

North to Alaska (John Wayne and Stewart Granger, 1960)

The Klondike Fever (Rod Steiger,1980) 

The Canadians (Robert Ryan, 1961)

Death Hunt (Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson, 1981)

The Grey Fox (Richard Farnsworth, 1982)

Getting Married in Buffalo Jump (Wendy Crewson, Paul Gross, 1990)

White Fang (Ethan Hawke, Klaus Maria Brandauer, 1991)

Black Robe (1991)

North Star (James Caan, Christopher Lambert, 1996)

The Call of the Wild (Rutger Hauer, 1997)

Promise the Moon (Henry Czerny, 1997)

Gunless (Paul Gross, 2010)

The Way of the West (The Mountie, 2011)

Gold (German, 2013)

Klondike (MfTV miniseries, 2014)

The Timber (2015)

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Heath Ledger as Ned Kelly (2004); the real Ned Kelly in 1880, the year he was captured.

Westerns in Australia:

The Australian frontier offers many of the same conditions that makes U.S. westerns so compelling:  deserts, ranching and mining, aboriginal inhabitants, lawless conditions, survival stories, and outlaws.  If anything, outlaws are an even stronger element of Australian stories, since Australia was settled by outlaws.  And Australia has its own famous historical outlaws, like Ned Kelly.

The Man from Snowy River (1920, now lost)

The Sundowners (Robert Mitchum, Deborah Kerr, 1960)

Ned Kelly (Mick Jagger, 1970)

Mad Dog Morgan (Dennis Hopper, Jack Thompson, 1976)

The Man from Snowy River (Tom Burlinson, Sigrid Thornton, 1982)

The Last Frontier (MfTV, 1986; Dir:  Wincer)

Return to Snowy River (Tom Burlinson, Sigrid Thornton, 1988)

Wrangler (Minnamurra, Outback, The Fighting Creed, 1989)

Quigley Down Under (Tom Selleck, 1990; Dir:  Wincer)

The Silver Brumby? (1993)

Ned Kelly (Heath Ledger, Orlando Bloom, 2004; Dir:  Jordan)

The Proposition (Guy Pearce, Ray Winstone, 2005)

Australia (Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman,  2008; Dir:  Luhrman)

Dark Frontier (2009)

Tracker (New Zealand; Ray Winstone, Tuemura Morrison, 2010, Dir:  Ian Sharp)

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Poster for The Proposition (2005); Mick Jagger as Ned Kelly, 1970.

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The Spoilers (1942)

Nicholas Chennault ~ April 26, 2014

The Spoilers—John Wayne, Marlene Dietrich, Randolph Scott, Harry Carey, Margaret Lindsay, Richard Barthelmess, William Farnum (1942; Dir:  Ray Enright)

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In the early 1940s, Randolph Scott had been the hero in a couple of better-than-average westerns (Last of the Mohicans, Frontier Marshal) and had persuasively played an unusually ethical villain in a couple more upscale westerns (Western Union, Virginia City), in which his character does not survive.  Here he is called upon to play a charming but unambiguously bad guy for a change.  His good-guy counterpart is rising star John Wayne, three years after his star-making turn in Stagecoach.  The balance between these two attractive actors makes this story work.

This was not the first (or the last) cinematic version of Rex Beach’s story of claim jumping in Nome, Alaska, in 1900, but it is probably the best.  Not only are the two main roles well-cast, but they are ably supported by Marlene Dietrich and Harry Carey.

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Cherry Malotte (Marlene Dietrich) meets Helen, the judge’s niece (Margaret Lindsay), and is not amused.

Roy Glennister (John Wayne) and his mining partner Al Dextry (Harry Carey) are the proprietors of the wealthy Midas gold mine, and things are going well when new mining commissioner Alexander McNamara (Randolph Scott) shows up.  Glennister has a regular relationship with Cherry Malotte (Marlene Dietrich), owner of The Northern saloon, and he’s returning from a trip to Seattle.  When he does, he’s in the company of the attractive Helen Chester (Margaret Lindsay), niece of the new federal judge Horace Stillman (Samuel S. Hinds).  He’s more attentive to Helen than he needs to be, and Cherry is offended.  Meanwhile, questions on the legitimacy of the Glennister-Dextry ownership of the Midas have been raised, and Dextry wants to respond directly with guns.  Glennister urges trying the legal way first.

What it gets them is having their mine and gold impounded, with several months before their case is heard, in which much more gold can be taken out by the authorities, McNamara and Stillman.  As Glennister and Dextry try to get their gold back, the local marshal is killed by Cherry’s manager-dealer Bronco Kid Farrow (played by silent star Richard Barthelmess in one of his last roles).  As tensions build between Glennister and Cherry, Bronco figures the blame for the marshal’s death will attach to Glennister, giving Bronco a better chance with Cherry.  It works to a point, and Glennister is jailed.

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Glennister (John Wayne), while wearing feathers, gets arrested by the bad guys.

McNamara hatches a plan for Glennister to be killed in an escape attempt, but Cherry gets wind of it and aids a real escape.  Glennister and Dextry take back the Midas, but Bronco is mortally wounded in a train crash during the attack.  As he dies, he admits he killed the marshal.  Cherry has been distracting McNamara while the Midas was retaken, and now Glennister shows up at the Northern to save her from McNamara’s attentions.  This leads to an epic fight, in which much of the Northern is wrecked.  In the end, McNamara, Stillman and supposed niece Helen are apprehended before they can get away.  The Midas is in the hands of its real owners again, and Glennister and Cherry are back together.

The fight between John Wayne and Randolph Scott is one of the most storied in the history of westerns.  This sequence took about five days to lay out and film.  It’s unusually vigorous and well-staged, but not perfect.  For example, at one point a stand-in for Scott is a little too obvious, and there are a couple of spots in which it looks like the film was speeded up.  Still, in most of the key roles, the actors are a step up from the 1955 remake, for example.  John Wayne is a better actor than Jeff Chandler, Randolph Scott is more charming than Rory Calhoun, and Marlene Dietrich did this kind of role better than anyone else (although Anne Baxter was also excellent in 1955), even if her wigs are a bit extravagant.  And Harry Carey is more restrained but watchable than John McIntire.  The movie is tightly-paced and works well.

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Randolph Scott and John Wayne wreck the Northern during an epic cinematic battle.

Barthelmess is an interesting side note in one of his last movie roles, as is William Farnum, who plays the Glennister-Dextry lawyer Wheaton.  He was the brother of early silent star Dustin Farnum (The Squaw Man, credited with being the first feature-length movie), and he had played Glennister himself in the 1914 movie version of the story–probably the first of five movies to use Beach’s 1906 novel as its basis. And there’s a brief vignette where Cherry encounters the poet Robert W. Service, writing about the shooting of Dan McGrew in The Northern.

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John Wayne and Marlene Dietrich were having an affair at the time this movie was made.

Note that Wayne got third billing on the posters, after Dietrich and Scott.  That would not long be the case.  Wayne and Dietrich have good chemistry in their relationship, perhaps because it mirrored their three-year affair in real life.  This was also Wayne’s first opportunity to appear in a film with Harry Carey, who had long been a mentor.  They would work together again in Red River and Angel and the Badman.

 

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The Spoilers (1955)

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 28, 2014

The Spoilers—Jeff Chandler, Anne Baxter, Rory Calhoun, John McIntire, Ray Danton, Barbara Britton (1955; Dir: Jesse Hibbs)

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This is the fifth and most recent version of Rex Beach’s oft-filmed novel of claim-jumping, fraud and larceny in the Alaska gold rush of 1899.  Like some of the other frequently re-made stories from the earlier years of the movies (The Virginian, Whispering Smith), this one hasn’t been done again in 60 years, as tastes in stories and forms of entertainment have changed.  This story and various of its elements (the culminating fight scene, the female saloon owner in love with the good guy, the shared mine ownership, the con-man claim-jumping mastermind) obviously influenced better Alaska gold rush movies such as 1954’s The Far Country and 1960’s North to Alaska.  The 1930 version of the story with Gary Cooper is apparently lost; the 1942 version with John Wayne and Randolph Scott is generally thought to be the best, especially its climactic fight scene.  This one is watchable but not exceptional.

As the movie opens, the arrival of Roy Glennister (Jeff Chandler) and his partner Dextry (John McIntire) on the boat from Seattle is anticipated by his girlfriend, saloon owner and dance-hall girl Cherry Malotte (Anne Baxter).  There have been a number of claim-jumping incidents recently, and nobody knows where the new gold commissioner Alexander McNamara (Rory Calhoun) will come out on these things.  When the steamer arrives, Cherry is chagrined to find that Glennister has apparently been keeping company with the new federal judge’s attractive young niece, and she and Glennister have an explosive break-up.  Concern over claim-jumping dies down as the new judge generally seems to find for the original claimants.  But when Glennister and Dextry are served with a warrant about a competing claimant, we start to see that McNamara is crooked and has hired a fake federal judge.  He intends to take Glennister and Dextry’s existing $80,000 in gold and take another $250,000 from their claim while they wait for their case to be heard.  It never will be.

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Cherry Malotte (Anne Baxter) gets to know Alexander MacNamara (Rory Calhoun); Dextry (John McIntire) and Glennister (Jeff Chandler) defend their mining claim.

Originally Glennister takes a more law-abiding view than Dextry, but at this point he sees that things are crooked and stacked against them.  They try to take the gold from their sequestered safe, and the marshal is killed in the process—shot in the back by Cherry’s dealer Blackie (Ray Danton, who had a short-lived but memorable career as a bad guy in the 1950s before drifting into mostly television work). Blackie is apparently playing his own anti-Glennister game because he wants Cherry, too.  Glennister is blamed for the marshal’s death and thrown into jail, where McNamara plots to allow him to escape and then shoot him down in the process.  Cherry hears of the plan and aids a real escape for Glennister.  Glennister and Dextry violently take back their mine while McNamara is distracted by Cherry in town.  Blackie is killed in a train crash during the recovery of the mine, but not before admitting his killing of the marshal.  Glennister confronts McNamara and they engage in a lengthy fist fight that virtually destroy’s Cherry’s Northern Saloon.  McNamara’s gang is apprehended (including the comely faux-niece), and Glennister and Cherry are back together.

Chandler gives a serviceable performance, as does Calhoun.  The best are probably Anne Baxter and John McIntire (who had played the principal claim-stealer in the previous year’s The Far Country).  Anne Baxter’s most famous role was in All About Eve, of course, but if you’d like to see her in another good western, check out Yellow SkyIn color.

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The films are based on Rex Beach’s 1906 novel, which was in turn based on the exploits and machinations of real-life Nome crook and claim-jumper Alexander McKenzie, who served three months in jail before being pardoned by Pres. McKinley in 1901.

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Saskatchewan

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 20, 2014

Saskatchewan—Alan Ladd, Shelley Winters, Hugh O’Brian, J. Carrol Naish, Jay Silverheels.  (1954; Dir:  Raoul Walsh)

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The very blond Mountie Inspector Thomas O’Rourke (Alan Ladd) has been raised by Cree Indian chief Dark Cloud and is now stationed at Fort Walsh about 20 miles north of the Canadian border with the U.S.  Jay Silverheels is Cajou, his Cree foster-brother.  The post-Custer Sioux under Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse are moving into Canada, threatening to overthrow the peace and lead a general Indian uprising.  They’ve wiped out the group of which Montanan Grace Markey (Shelley Winters) is part, but she’s rescued by O’Rourke. 

It turns out she’s wanted for murder back in Montana.  O’Rourke’s troop of Mounties has to get back to Fort Walsh to warn his commanders there about the Sioux, although they don’t believe him and O’Rourke’s in trouble for refusing to obey due authority.  Hugh O’Brian plays Carl Smith, a malcontent Montana lawman with the troop, who’s always trying to get them to leave a wounded Mountie behind.  It turns out that Smith is (a) a U.S. marshal taking Grace back to Great Falls, (b) the brother of the murdered man, and (c) the actual murderer of his brother.  That gets sorted out on the way to Fort Walsh.  Banks, the Mountie commander, leads his men into a Sioux ambush, and it looks like Custer’s fate will be repeated north of the border.  O’Rourke is able, with the help of the Crees, to save his commanders from the Sioux anyway, despite being locked in the stockade with his men. 

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Inspector O’Rourke (Alan Ladd, out of uniform), Grace Markey (Shelley Winters) and Cajou (Jay Silverheels).

J. Carrol Naish is particularly good as a French-Canadian trapper and scout.  Problems:  There’s very little chemistry between the Ladd and Winters characters, who supposedly are fascinated with each other.  Saskatchewan is actually a plains province and doesn’t have mountains like these.  Sitting Bull made it to Canada for a couple of years (Crazy Horse never went there), but he had neither the resources nor the disposition to cause much trouble before eventually being forced back to the U.S.  The Mounties have very clean red coats, and wear anachronistic Smokey the Bear-style hats that weren’t regulation until after World War I.  O’Rourke wears one of the bright red coats while sneaking up to spy on the Sioux without much cover, and surprisingly enough they fail to spot him.  Filmed beautifully in color in Banff National Park (in Alberta, not Saskatchewan).  Robert Mitchum and Marilyn Monroe were said to be filming The River of No Return (actually located in Idaho) in the same locale at the same time.

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Colorful Mounties, great scenery.

For another movie about Mounties, see Cecil B. DeMille’s North West Mounted Police (1940), with Gary Cooper, or The Wild North (1952), a manhunt in the frozen wastes with Stewart Granger, Wendell Corey and Cyd Charisse.

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The Cariboo Trail

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 12, 2014

The Cariboo Trail—Randolph Scott, Gabby Hayes, Bill Williams, Karin Booth (1950; Dir:  Edward L. Marin)

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The plot for this resembles Anthony Mann’s better known The Far Country, which would follow in a couple of years.  A cattleman takes a herd north to mining country in western Canada, only to encounter trouble from a corrupt town boss and his minions, while developing romantic interests with both a woman who runs a saloon and a more plebeian but more obviously honest young woman.  In this case, the cattleman is Jim Redfern (Randolph Scott, at the height of his box office appeal), bringing a small herd to the wild gold strike country of British Columbia with Mike Evans (Bill Williams), and a Chinese chuck wagon cook (Lee Tung Foo). 

Refusing to pay an exorbitant toll on a bridge, they stampede their herd across and meet prospector Grizzly Winters (Gabby Hayes).  The town is run by Frank Walsh (Victor Jory), a bookkeeper-looking boss with more obvious gunmen around him.  Walsh’s men rustle the cattle, and Evans loses an arm in the stampede.  Redfern and Evans find some sympathy with Frances Harrison (Karin Booth), who owns the Gold Palace and has refused to sell out to Walsh. 

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Getting the wounded Evans (Bill Williams) to a doctor.

Although he’s a novice prospector, Redfern finds a gold strike, which he uses to buy into a large herd being brought in from the south.  (The foreman of this new herd is Will Gray, played by Dale Robertson.)  Meanwhile, the embittered Evans both joins and fights Walsh, while he blames Redfern for the loss of his arm.  In the resolution, Walsh’s men try to stampede the new herd, and Evans leads miners to the rescue but is killed. 

In color, but a curiously flat color.  The plot’s not as coherent as it might be, and the end is abrupt.  Serviceable, but not as good as The Far Country or Scott’s later work with Budd Boetticher.  This is Hayes’ final film, and he’s not as obnoxious as in some of his earlier Roy Rogers vehicles.

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