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Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Western Movie Summer Part 1: DODGE CITY and JESSE JAMES

I had such a fantastic experience with last year's "Summer of Darkness"--studying film noir with TCM, Ball State University, and several thousand other eager 'students'--that I found a big hole this summer in my film-studying agenda.  To address that, I've decided to learn about the western genre with the help of a course recorded in 2008 by Richard Slotkin at Wesleyan University and now available in podcast form from "iTunes University."  The course is "Western Movies: Myth, Ideology, and Genre."  The western is a film genre that I wouldn't call my favorite, but one that I've come to appreciate more lately.

Professor Slotkin is an English professor, author, and American cultural historian. Understanding the historical context of film is one of the many reasons I love the classics, and this series offers the opportunity to focus on this aspect of the films.  The course recordings include 18 separate lectures featuring that many films, and proceed roughly chronologically.  While it seems unfortunately that some lectures featuring westerns in the silent era were not recorded, the earliest lectures available start with some classics from 1939.  Approximately every other day during my work week I'll listen to a lecture on my morning commute, and in the same week I'll view the films.

As shared by Prof. Slotkin, the Western was starting to make a resurgence in the late 30s, as standard depression-themed films or pure escapism in screwball comedy was starting to run its course.  Westerns now presented an opportunity to reclaim an optimistic past while still commenting on the pros and cons of capitalism, of which 1930s audiences were all too aware.  The course starts with two films made in 1939 that are new to me: DODGE CITY and JESSE JAMES.  These two films present a view of the west through two very different philosophical lenses, according to Prof. Slotkin.  I enjoyed both of them.

This Warner Bros. film, starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, and directed by Michael Curtiz, is not dissimilar to the swash-buckling adventure films that catapulted Flynn to stardom, often alongside de Havilland.  It has a light-hearted tone through most of it.  Flynn plays an opportunistic cattle trader who helps the railroad establish a foothold in west by making Dodge City, KS, a booming cattle town and prominent new railroad stop, safe from those Western-style gangsters that are extorting citizens for their own gain and benefiting by ensuring lawlessness and violence prevail.

Of the two, this film, argues Prof. Slotkin, has a more pro-capitalistic outlook, as the railroad is presented as a herald of technological and societal progress.  As long as society has heroes like Flynn who will step up and make it safe for women and children, order and progress will win and benefit all.  There is a bit of tension in that *too* much domesticity is ridiculed in the figures of the older women of the "Pure Prairie League", in contrast to the fun women in the neighboring saloon as represented by singer Ann Sheridan, and all the drinking, partying men who raise hell in an extended barroom brawl sequence that is as fun as it is frenzied.

Ann Sheridan and her fellow saloon ladies in bright,
crisp pastels
Alan Hale reluctantly accepts a cup of tea
from the ladies in the 'Pure Prairie League'.  His
being inducted as a member is a wonderful comic touch.
I would agree that this film did capture a sense of optimism, of expansion, using 'right' along with 'might'.  I felt that, unlike JESSE JAMES, the point of view or message of the film was not overly heavy-handed.  Of course, the film stayed away from controversial topics such as the human cost of western expansion for the Native Americans.  For pure enjoyment and joyful tone this film is close to DESTRY RIDES AGAIN, another film from 1939 that I really enjoyed, and wrote about here.  I am not particularly a fan of Errol Flynn, and while he was fine here, I found myself taken with Alan Hale's portrayal of the loyal, and somewhat comic sidekick.  Olivia de Havilland was lovely and feisty, and while eventually succumbing to Flynn's wishes for domesticity, she did have an opportunity to earn a living at the local newspaper.

A very different, but equally enjoyable 1939 big budget western, is 20th Century Fox's  JESSE JAMES, starring Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda, with Henry King directing.  This one apparently started the 'cult of the outlaw' in popular culture, and there have been upwards of a dozen films on the subject of James.  Here, the railroad figures prominently again, but instead of a sign of progress, it's a sign of capitalist oppression, a sentiment that would be understood by a great number of Americans in the late 1930s.  James himself is initially portrayed somewhat fictionally as being driven to becoming an outlaw as a result of his family and farmer neighbors being illegally threatened by corrupt (railroad) businessmen.  He's someone we root for, and then he goes wrong as he finds he can't resist the criminal life even when better forces, namely the women in his life try to bring him back to the straight and narrow.

Unlike Olivia de Havilland's prominent role in DODGE CITY, the female lead here, Nancy Kelly, has not much to do other than moon and grieve over her man.  Nearly of the shots of the couple together feature Power over Kelly.  Power, obviously, was the big matinee idol, and was playing against type as the scruffy outlaw.  His acting chops were on display, as he was convincing and rather good in the role, as was Henry Fonda as his brother Frank James.  It's a well-paced western with action, pathos, and beautiful on-location vistas in and around Pineville, Missouri. (While the cast and crew were celebrated by residents of Pineville while on location, I was horrified to learn that at least one horse was killed by the stunt it was forced to do in a key scene). While punctuated by comic touches, especially from Henry Hull's blustering newspaperman, the tone of the film is darker than DODGE CITY.  Despite the fault of the opportunistic capitalists, the message that a life of crime doesn't pay, and ultimately can't be justified, is clear.

Power as James cannot be talked out of his next criminal venture.
It was a film that left me interested enough to consider watching the sequel.  Incidentally I recently watched a lesser western called KANSAS RAIDERS (1950) about James' early experiences with renegade confederate leader William Quantrill.  This film, starring Audie Murphy, was also greatly fictionalized but the portrayal of James as a 'misunderstood kid trying to do good but going wrong' is fully intact in this one as well.
The clear message would have been appreciated by 1930s audiences.
Next up in the lecture series:  STAGECOACH and OX-BOW INCIDENT.


  1. I too enjoyed last year's Summer of Darkness immensely. I never thought about studying the western. I already consider myself an expert, but only because I love watching them. Affection and knowledge do not always go hand in hand. I shall follow your summer with great curiosity.

    I saw "Jesse James" on the big screen a few years ago and it was breathtaking. I will assume you have seen "Stagecoach" prior to this year but will still point out that Donald Meek in both those films had the chance to display his versatility. 1939!

  2. Thanks for reading and commenting. :-) I can imagine how great JJ was on the big screen. It was better than I was expecting. Yes, I've seen STAGECOACH and really liked it. I will appreciate it more when I watch it again next week, as I listened to the lecture yesterday. And Donald Meek seems to show up in most movies from the mid-30s to mid 40s that I've seen. ;-) His character in JJ seemed to be a bit of a departure from his usual.

    Will look forward to more of your thoughts.