Tag Archives: Technological Westerns

A Ticket to Tomahawk

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 30, 2015

A Ticket to Tomahawk—Dan Dailey, Anne Baxter, Rory Calhoun, Walter Brennan, Arthur Hunnicutt, Chief Yowlatchie, Will Wright, Connie Gilchrist, Jack Elam, Charles Stevens, Marilyn Monroe (1950; Dir: Richard Sale)

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One more musical number, and this western comedy would have been a full-fledged western musical.  The fictional Tomahawk & Western Railroad needs to get a train to Tomahawk, Colorado, in early September 1876 to fulfill its charter, or it will lose its right to operate there.  But it has enemies, primarily Col. Dawson, who runs the stage line in the area and doesn’t want the competition, and his henchmen; and the disgruntled Arapahoes led by Crooked Knife.  And a few minor problems, such as the fact that of the final sixty miles of the line from Epitaph to Tomahawk, forty of those miles have no track.  (Apparently fabricated in England, the rails were lost in transit off Cape Horn).

A paying passenger has bought the ticket of the title; he is Johnny Behind-the-Deuce (Dan Dailey), a footloose, well-traveled card shark and drummer selling mustache cups.  He arrives in Epitaph in company with Dawson henchmen, who wound Marshal Kit Dodge (veteran character actor Will Wright) so that his straight-shooting granddaughter Kit Dodge Jr. (Anne Baxter) has to take over the effort to get the train the last sixty miles.  And they are joined by Dakota (Rory Calhoun), secretly another of Dawson’s henchmen; Madame Adelaide (Connie Gilchrist) and her troupe of theatrical “ladies”; a Chinese laundryman; and Kit’s stoic Indian watchdog Pawnee (Chief Yowlatchie, best remembered now for his role in the classic Red River).

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Miss Adelaide (Connie Gilchrist), young Kit Dodge (Anne Baxter) and Johnny (Dan Dailey) survey the damaged trestle, backed by Dakota (Rory Calhoun) and Pawnee (Chief Yowlatchie).

Figuring that determination will overcome all obstacles, strings of mules are hitched up to the locomotive to tow it where the tracks don’t go.  Initially that works, until they arrive at Massacre Creek to discover the railroad trestle has been blown up by Dawson’s men. It turns out that Johnny knew Crooked Knife from their time together in a wild west show, and Johnny persuades the Arapahoes to help disassemble the locomotive and get the train up over an alternative route via Funeral Pass.  As the deadline approaches, the train is still just outside of Tomahawk until Johnny convinces the Tomahawk town fathers to extend the city limits to where the locomotive is.  He plans to be on his way, but young Kit has other ideas.  “Maybe you wouldn’t be so loose-footed if I gave you a permanent limp!”

[Spoilers follow.]  In the last scene, Johnny is about to board yet another train.  But finally he puts on the conductor’s hat and bids a temporary farewell to young Kit and their five daughters, who seem to bear the same names as Miss Adelaide’s girls.

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Miss Adelaide (Connie Gilchrist) and her girls. The one in yellow might look familiar.

Of course, none of this is very serious and the sensibility is very much like Annie Get Your Gun, from about the same time.  The gender roles and romantic expectations are very much of the 1950s, too, although Anne Baxter’s role as the younger Kit Dodge is a reversal of sorts.  Dan Dailey showed up in musicals of the time (There’s No Business Like Show Business, Give My Regards to Broadway) but this may have been his only western.  Anne Baxter was an excellent actress, but this isn’t among her most memorable outings generally (All About Eve, The Ten Commandments) or in westerns (Yellow Sky, Three Violent People, Cimarron).

There’s a superb supporting cast, many of whom are underused.  Walter Brennan does his shtick as the engineer of the Emma Sweeney (the locomotive involved).  Rory Calhoun, in the early part of his movie career, keeps to his pattern of playing bad guys in big-budget productions like this (River of No Return, The Spoilers) and good guys in more modest efforts (Dawn at Socorro, Apache Territory).  Arthur Hunnicutt was in his most productive period as a character actor (Two Flags West, Broken Arrow, The Big Sky) but has nothing here as Sad Eyes, the locomotive tender.  If you have quick eyes, you might recognize Marilyn Monroe in an early role as one of Miss Adelaide’s girls; so you would be wrong if you thought her only western was River of No Return (1954), with Robert Mitchum and Rory Calhoun.  Will Wright is perfectly cast as the elder Kit Dodge, and veteran villain (and former studio accountant) Jack Elam shows up without many lines as one of Col. Dawson’s henchmen.

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This is watchable, but not terribly memorable.  Director Richard Sale was known more as a writer (he provided the improbable story and the screenplay for this) than a director, and his directing career (twelve films, of which this was the third) was not particularly notable.  Shot in color, in and around Durango, Colorado, using the Denver & Rio Grande track.  90 minutes.

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Whispering Smith

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 9, 2015

Whispering Smith—Alan Ladd, Robert Preston, Brenda Marshall, William Demarest, Donald Crisp (1948; Dir: Leslie Fenton)

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A frequently-told western railroading story with Alan Ladd in the title role of the railroad detective.  It was at least the sixth filmed story featuring the character Whispering Smith.  It’s melodramatic, with Ladd looking not entirely comfortable in his first western role and his first color film as a major star.  He was more convincing by the time he did Shane four years later.

Whispering Luke Smith is a railroad troubleshooter, and his old friend Murray Sinclair (Robert Preston) has started a ranch of his own and married Marian (Brenda Marshall), whom they both loved.  This is one of Preston’s patented old-friend-goes-bad roles, in which he seemed to specialize in the 1940s (see Union Pacific, North West Mounted Police and Blood on the Moon, for example).  Donald Crisp, instead of playing the personification of occasionally misguided rectitude as he usually did in westerns (The Man From Laramie, Saddle the Wind, Ramrod), is here not terribly persuasive as Barney Rebstock, a bandit chief and rustler.

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Alan Ladd as Whispering Smith; and production still of Brenda Marshall and Alan Ladd.  Having Ladd sit down disguises his short stature, always a visual problem when he wasn’t sitting on a horse.

In addition to running his ranch, Murray still works for the railroad, leading crews that clean up when a train is wrecked.  But he is edging more into wrecking trains for his own profit, after feeling disregarded by the bureaucracy of the company.  His relationship with Marian is becoming more strained as well, and he becomes more obsessed with the idea she might leave him for Smith.  This ends as it usually did for Preston in such roles.  Smith spends the movie balancing the duties of his job against his friendship with Murray, as well as his continuing regard and affection for Marian, while Murray gets deeper into anti-railroad crime.  Smith grapples with multiple bad guys, including the train-robbing Barton boys, Rebstock and his gunslinger Whitey, and it’s not clear until the end how his long-time friendship with Murray will turn out.

Brenda Marshall, then married to William Holden, made only one more film before retiring from the movie business.  Ladd and Preston were good friends, and this was the last of five movies in which they appeared together (This Gun For Hire, Variety Girl, Wild Harvest, etc.).  Ladd later became more comfortable and persuasive in westerns.  Not only did he go on to make the iconic Shane, for example, but he made a string of westerns in the 1950s, such as Branded, Drum Beat, Saskatchewan, Red Mountain and The Badlanders.  In color, at 88 minutes.

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Frank H. Spearman wrote the 1906 novel first using this character; at least one edition was illustrated by N.C. Wyeth.  The first Whispering Smith film was made in 1916, with the character said to be based at least in part on Joe LeFors, an actual western lawman (and sometime Union Pacific detective) based in Denver and Cheyenne who had chased Butch Cassidy and caught Tom Horn at the turn of the century.  Whispering Smith was played by silent star George O’Brien when he drifted into the lower-prestige genre of westerns during the 1930s.  After this 1948 film, the character was used once more in Whispering Smith Hits London (1952), after which he was retired from the movies, apparently for good.  He showed up on television for twenty episodes beginning in 1961, played by Audie Murphy.

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Whispering Smith (J.P. McGowan) in a scene from the 1916 movie of that name.

 

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Westerns and Technology, Part 2

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 17, 2014

Westerns, Technology and Manifest Destiny, Part 2

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A.J. Russell’s famous photograph of the driving of the golden spike on completion of the transcontinental railroad at Promontory, Utah, in 1869.

This is the second of two posts on technology as depicted in westerns.  The previous post described in general terms how westerns have treated the push westward of both population and such technologies as railroads and telegraphs during the 19th century.  Now we get more specific, with lists of movies in which such technologies and business form a significant element.

As always the lists below have likely left out some examples.  If you can think of others that belong, leave a comment.

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1871 print by Currier & Ives, featuring “Prairie Fires of the Great West.”  And what would a prairie fire be without a train?

Technological Expansion Westerns, Mostly Featuring Railroads

The Iron Horse (1924; Dir: Ford)
The Telegraph Trail–Wayne (1933)
Wells Fargo—McCrea, Dee (1937)
Union Pacific—McCrea, Stanwyck, Preston (1941; Dir:  DeMille)
Western Union—Scott, Young, Jagger (telegraph, 1941; Dir:  Lang)
Whispering Smith—Ladd, Preston (1948)
Canadian Pacific—Scott, Wyatt (1949)
A Ticket to Tomahawk—Dailey, Baxter, Calhoun (1950)
Carson City—Scott, Massey (1952; Dir: De Toth)
Denver and Rio Grande—Hayden, O’Brien, Jagger (1952)
Kansas Pacific—Hayden (1953; Dir: Nazarro)
Pony Express—Heston (1953)
Overland Pacific—Mahoney, Castle (1954; Dir: Sears)
Rails Into Laramie—Payne (1954)
Santa Fe—Scott (1951)
How the West Was Won—Stewart, Peppard et al. (1962)
Scalplock—Robertson (1966)
Once Upon a Time in the West (1968; Dir: Leone)

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The special posse led by lawman Joe LeFors that set out after Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch after their train robbery at Tipton, Wyoming, on August 29, 1900.  It didn’t catch them.

Train Robbing Westerns

The Great Train Robbery (1903, Dir. Porter)
The Great K & A Train Robbery (1926, Dir: Seiler)
Most historically-based movies about Jesse James
Dodge City (1939)
The Return of Frank James (1940)
Whispering Smith (1948)
Colorado Territory (1948)
Rage at Dawn (1955)
Night Passage (1957)
Cat Ballou (1965)
Shenandoah (1965)
The Professionals (1966)
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
The Wild Bunch (1969)

The Five Man Army (1970)
Rio Lobo (1970)
One More Train to Rob (1971)
Red Sun (1971)
The Train Robbers (1973)
The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing (1973)
Posse (1975)
The Frisco Kid (1979)
The Long Riders (1980)
The Grey Fox (1982)
American Outlaws (2001)
The Lone Ranger (2013)

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One of the three train crashes in The Lone Ranger, 2013.

Train Crashes

Dodge City (1939)
Union Pacific (1941, two crashes)
Duel in the Sun (1946)
Whispering Smith (1948)
Denver and Rio Grande (1952)
The Spoilers (1955)
How the West Was Won (1962)
Custer of the West (1967)
The Good Guys and the Bad Guys (1969)
100 Rifles (1969)
Rio Lobo (1970)
Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970)
Joe Kidd (1972)
Breakheart Pass (1975)
The Wild Wild West (1999)
The Legend of Zorro (2005)
The Lone Ranger (2013, three crashes)

Catching Trains

High Noon (1952)
Dawn at Socorro (1954)
3:10 to Yuma (original, 1957, and remake, 2007)
Last Train from Gun Hill (1959)

Train Chases

The General (1926)
Rails into Laramie (1954)
The Great Locomotive Chase (1956)
The Lone Ranger (2013)

Private Trains

Cat Ballou (1965)
Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
Posse (1975)
The Lone Ranger (2013)

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Hackman and Coburn are forced to use modern technology in Bite the Bullet.

Motorcycles in the Changing West

Big Jake (1971)
Bite the Bullet (1975)

Automobiles in the Changing West

The Moonlighter (1953)
Ride the High Country (1962)
The Good Guys and the Bad Guys (1969)
Big Jake (1971)
The Shootist (1976)

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John Wayne and an unusual steed in 1970, when he was filming Big Jake, a western set in 1909.

Steampunk Elements in Westerns

The Wild Wild West (1999)
Jonah Hex (2010)
Cowboys & Aliens (2011)

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A steampunk Kenneth Branagh in The Wild, Wild West, 1999.

 

 

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Westerns and Technology, Part 1

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 15, 2014

Westerns, Technology and Manifest Destiny

Beginning in the 1920s, only a generation after historian Frederick Jackson Turner had pronounced the frontier closed, the westward movement of the nation and its accompanying development of technology found their way into the movies in epic form.  After all, there were still people living who could remember the joining of the transcontinental railroad at Promontory, Utah, in 1869.  To most of them, the concurrent triumphs of 19th-century technology and westward movement of the population represented the fulfillment of the nation’s Manifest Destiny, a phrase used in its politics since at least the 1840s.

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Many of those making the movies had family who could remember participating in what the movies depicted.  One of the reasons director James Cruze was drawn to the story of westward expansion in The Covered Wagon (1923) was that he was the son of Mormon immigrants and had grown up on such stories.  The next year, John Ford told the story of the railroad in The Iron Horse, another epic of the silent era.  Both were great successes at the box office, and as the movies grew, so did the productions depicting western expansion and technology.

The most obvious such technology was the railroad, but other expansion-related technologies and businesses found their way into the movies:  the telegraph, Wells Fargo, the Pony Express and such.  The course of expansion was seldom smooth, and westerns tended to show expansion as an unmitigated good thing, representing progress.  Of course, trains no sooner entered new parts of the country than they found themselves the object of attention from outlaws.  Jesse James made a large part of his reputation robbing trains, and one of the first notable American-made movies was Edwin Porter’s 1903 The Great Train Robbery, which is better known today than just about any other movie of its time.  And it is used in The Grey Fox as an inspiration to former stagecoach bandit Bill Miner as he tries to figure out what’s next for him in his outlaw career.

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In general railroad builders were seen as admirable, and the troubleshooters who solved problems and dealt with Indians and outlaws were the heroes of westerns, representing the forces of good and progress (Joel McCrea in Union Pacific, Randolph Scott in Western Union, Alan Ladd in Whispering Smith, James Stewart in Night Passage, etc.).  That lasted through the 1950s.  The last large-scale triumphalist view of railroads in a western was probably in 1962, in How the West Was Won, with George Peppard as the railroad builder and troubleshooter.

As the decades passed, the post–World War II generation (the Baby Boomers) began to question authority and the motives of those who had been in charge of businesses and technologies during the westward movement.  Big business came to be seen an a tool for villainy, and in westerns, those in charge of the railroads began to be depicted as greedy and corrupt, beginning in the late 1960s with such movies as Sergio Leone’s magnum opus Once Upon a Time in the West.  Nefarious railroads and their tactics out west had long been present in such literary works as Frank Norris’ The Octopus.  But that view became more common in westerns in the 1970s.

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By our time, 150 years after the completion of the transcontinental railroad, those who built and operated railroads in the west are routinely depicted as downright conspiratorial, despising individual rights and subverting government.  The evil railroad baron has become a cliché, like the moustache-twirling, top-hatted villains of the early serials.  For a recent example, see Tom Wilkinson in 2013’s The Lone Ranger.

The development of another technology—the use of computer-generated graphics in films—has meant that such flamboyant disasters as train crashes have also become much more common in movies, including westerns.  When Cecil B. DeMille, who seemed to love train crashes, had two of them in his 1939 epic Union Pacific, he could only do that with a huge budget for his time.  Now, if a train shows up as a significant element in a western, it is likely to be wrecked before the movie is done.  The recent The Lone Ranger broke DeMille’s record with three train wrecks, all computer-generated.

Interestingly, the railroads’ drive westward has recently become the setting for one of the very few current westerns on television in recent years, with Hell on Wheels, beginning in 2011.  There have been three seasons so far, and it continues

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By the 1960s, there was a new sort of western in which a significant element of the story was the passing of the old west (Ride the High Country, The Shootist, Big Jake, etc.) and the obsolescence of the lone man with a gun as his own law.  In these, even newer technologies appeared: automobiles, motorcycles, and fancier guns, for example.  And with the popularity of steampunk as a genre in literature and movies, elements of steampunk technology have crept into more fanciful westerns (The Wild Wild West, Jonah Hex and Cowboys & Aliens, for example).

This is the first of two posts on technology and westerns.  In our next post, see more extensive lists of movies with technological themes, most involving railroads and railroading.

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How the West Was Won

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 11, 2014

How the West Was Won–James Stewart, Richard Widmark, John Wayne, Gregory Peck, Debbie Reynolds, George Peppard, Robert Preston, Henry Fonda, Walter Brennan (1962; Dir:  Henry Hathaway, John Ford, George Marshall)

NY Times, by Dave Kehr, Sept. 8, 2008.  Written on the occasion of the release of the restored version of the movie on DVD.

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The first Cinerama features were travelogues, transporting 1950s spectators to parts of the world most would never see.  (Many of the earliest Edison and Lumière films, at the turn of the 20th century, fulfilled a similar function.)  Released in the United States in 1963, How the West Was Won would be the first — and, as it turned out, the last — narrative film to be shot in the three-strip Cinerama process.

In a sense the film’s guiding aesthetic is still that of the travelogue, but instead of visiting various scenic locations, it makes brief stops at most of the symbolic locations of the western genre, from the embarkation points of the Erie Canal to the California mountains of the Gold Rush.

The script, by James R. Webb (Vera Cruz), does its best to touch all the thematic bases of the genre too:  the male characters include a mountain man (James Stewart) and a river pirate (Walter Brennan); a wagon master (Robert Preston) and a riverboat gambler (Gregory Peck); a builder of railroads (Richard Widmark) and a frontier marshal (George Peppard).  The main female characters are even more broadly archetypal: a pair of sisters, portentously named Lilith (Debbie Reynolds, who becomes a saloon singer and budding capitalist) and Eve (Carroll Baker, who stakes out a farm on a Mississippi riverbank and mothers two boys).

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As a dramatic narrative How the West Was Won doesn’t work all that well.  Few of the characters are on screen long enough to establish identities beyond those of the stars who play them.  Most of the episodes are thinly developed, and over all the film has a jerky, stop-and-start rhythm, perhaps because it is the work of three different directors.

Henry Hathaway (True Grit) reportedly was in charge of the project and directed three episodes (“The Rivers,” “The Plains” and “The Outlaws”).  John Ford directed one (“The Civil War”), and George Marshall another (“The Railroad,” although Hathaway later said he had to reshoot much of Marshall’s material).

Instead this is a movie of visual epiphanies, ingeniously realized in the face of crippling stylistic challenges.  The Cinerama camera — an 800-pound behemoth that resembled a steel-girded jukebox — could move forward and backward with ease and elegance, resulting in some of the most impressive moments in the film (like the long tracking shot through a river town that opens “The Rivers”).  But it couldn’t pan from side to side without creating registration problems, and close-ups were all but impossible to achieve with the system’s short 27-millimeter lenses.

Moreover, characters couldn’t move freely across the wide screen, because crossing the two join lines — where the images overlapped — would create a distracting jump, and the action (beyond the broad movements of rushing trains or stampeding buffalo) had to be restricted to the center of the screen.

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Hathaway and Marshall are resourceful and craftsmanlike in dealing with these limitations, finding ways to position the actors so that the join lines are hidden, or filling the unused space beyond the center frame with vertiginously detailed landscapes that fall off into infinite distance.

But it is John Ford who rises to the challenge most poetically, chiefly by ignoring it.  “The Civil War” is an exquisite miniature (unfortunately padded out by some battle sequences lifted from Raintree County, an earlier MGM Civil War film) that consists of only three scenes: a mother (Ms. Baker) sends a son (Peppard) off to war; the son has a horrible experience as night falls on the battlefield of Shiloh; the son returns and finds that his mother has died.  The structure has a musical alternation: day, night, day; exterior, interior, exterior; stillness, movement, stillness.

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In the first and last scenes the famous Fordian horizon line extends the entire length of the extra-wide Cinerama frame.  In the aftermath of the battle the horizon line disappears in darkened studio sets.  The sense of the sequence is profoundly antiwar — Generals Sherman and Grant, played by John Wayne and Henry Morgan, briefly appear as a couple of disheveled, self-pitying drunks — and it gradually becomes apparent that the elderly Ford is revisiting one of his early important works, the 1928 drama Four Sons.

The expressionistic middle sequence, with its studio-built swamp, refers to F. W. Murnau, whose Sunrise was one of the great influences on the young Ford, while the open-air sequences that bracket it, with their unmoving camera, long-shot compositions and rootedness in the rural landscape, recall the work of the American pioneer D. W. Griffith.

When, in the final panel of Ford’s triptych, a gust of wind tousles Peppard’s hair in the foreground and then continues across to the forest in the middle distance and on to the stand of trees in the most distant background, it seems like a true miracle of the movies: a breath of life, moving over the face of the earth.  No less formidable a filmmaker than Jean-Marie Straub has called “The Civil War” John Ford’s masterpiece; for the first time, thanks to this magnificent new edition, I think I know what he’s talking about. Birth, death, rebirth.

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Note:  This epic of the west is long, at 164 minutes.  Voice-over narration is by Spencer Tracy.  Music was by Alfred Newman.  In addition to this piece, Dave Kehr was the writer of a 2005 documentary on director Budd Boetticher entitled Budd Boetticher:  A Man Can Do That.  After fourteen years of writing a column for the New York Times on new DVD releases, of which this was one, he now works as a film curator for the MoMA in New York.

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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).

UnionPacificIndianAttack Indian attack!

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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Western Union

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 8, 2013

Western Union—Randolph Scott, Robert Young, Dean Jagger, Barton MacLane, Virginia Gilmore, Chill Wills (1941; Dir:  Fritz Lang)

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Vance Shaw (Randolph Scott; note that he also played a character named Vance in the previous year’s Virginia City) is introduced as he’s apparently trying to get away from a posse.  In doing so, he saves a Western Union surveyor/chief engineer Edward Creighton (Dean Jagger, with a hairpiece), then escapes.  Shaw seems decent and more than normally competent, but he has an undefined relationship with Jack Slade (Barton MacLane) and his outlaw gang. 

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When the telegraph line gets serious about building between Omaha and Salt Lake (1861, apparently), Creighton gives Shaw a job as his chief scout.  The Oglala Sioux, through whose territory the line must go, present a problem, and Slade’s gang seems involved with them, too.  Shaw develops a romantic interest in Creighton’s sister (Virginia Gilmore), although Harvard-educated engineer Richard Blake (Robert Young) is also interested.  For a tenderfoot, Blake does pretty well, and Shaw’s situation becomes more complicated as Slade’s depredations against Western Union increase.  Slade, from Missouri, fancies himself helping the Confederate cause by stopping the transcontinental telegraph line.  Shaw loses Creighton’s trust.

Finally, Shaw goes to town to have it out with Slade, who turns out to be his brother.  Although his hands are burned, he gets several of Slade’s henchmen and wounds Slade, but Slade gets him.  Blake finishes off Slade, although wounded himself.  Shaw was so compromised he probably had to die to resolve matters, but it’s a bittersweet and vaguely unsatisfying ending. 

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Meeting the Harvard man.

Scott seems to have more dramatic heft than Young, who is featured more prominently on many of the posters.  John Carradine plays the company doctor; Chill Wills is a lineman; there’s broad comic relief in minor characters (e.g., Herman the cook, played by Slim Summerville) which doesn’t wear all that well.  In color (meaning a big budget for 1941); directed by Fritz Lang; based on a story by Zane Grey.  Compare it with another technological western, Cecil DeMille’s Union Pacific, released two years earlier.  In all, this is much better than average for its time, and better than much of Scott’s work in westerns during the late 1940s and 1950s up until his collaboration with Budd Boetticher.  This is more straightforward than Rancho Notorious (1952), the last western directed by Fritz Lang.  The producer was Harry Joe Brown; fifteen years later he and Scott would form the Ranown production company for the Budd Boetticher-Randolph Scott westerns.

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Shaw, Creighton and Blake head out to negotiate with Spotted Horse and the Oglalla Sioux.

There was a real western gunman Jack Slade, involved in a famous gunfight at Julesburg, eventually killed by Montana vigilantes in the early 1860s and mentioned in Mark Twain’s Roughing It.  But this character doesn’t bear much resemblance to the historical Slade and is much more obviously an outlaw.

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Lang (center) directs stars Robert Blake and Randolph Scott.

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