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Sunday, June 26, 2016


This installment of #WesternMovieSummer finds me in the early 1940s for two contrasting films, one considered a classic and the other not so much.  The two pictures are filmed in black and white and that's about where the similarities end.  I've already had a moment or two this past week of feeling overwhelmed as the vastness of this genre has been driven home to me -- apparently 30% of movies made in the Hollywood studio era were westerns -- but, undeterred, I'm soldiering on, watching and enjoying a fascinating sampling of the genre.

This is the "classic" of the two, directed by William Wellman, and starring Henry Fonda, by then a major star of 20th Century Fox, and with Dana Andrews in a small but critical role.  It's entirely fiction, based on the 1940 novel by Walter Van Tilburg Clark, of the same name, and packs a depressing and spare story into 81 minutes.  It twists our guts as an entirely unromanticized tale of brutality, making the viewing experience more educational than entertaining.  Fonda is nothing like his noble 'YOUNG MR. LINCOLN' character or even his Frank James in JESSE JAMES.  For those who like their Westerns tackling head-on the ugly reality of much of society who pushed forward into lawless unsettled territories, this one won't disappoint. As discussed by Prof. Slotkin in his Western Movie course, the film's key subject, lynching of a small band of settlers accused of cattle rustling and murder, would have been understood by contemporary audiences as a parable for the rampant practice of lynching of African Americans, still prevalent at the time.

Anthony Quinn, Dana Andrews, and Francis Ford as the victims, Frank Conroy at right as Major Tetley
Further driving this point home, the most heroic character of the film, the one most willing to stand up in opposition to the lynching, is an African American character, Sparks.  Ironically, and sadly, the actor Leigh Whipper, went uncredited in the film.  His career was quite long and eventful, and he is cited as having been the first African-American actor to join the Actor's Equity Association.
Leigh Whipper as "Sparks." Image from
Despite the bleak tone, the story and characters are well drawn, the direction is tense, and the message is timeless.  I especially appreciated Andrews here, as a desperate man caught in the web of hate.  Secondary character Harry Davenport is excellent, as is young Harry Morgan and Anthony Quinn, who's oily but attractive. The film does not waste time setting the atmosphere --  in the very first scene, as Fonda and friend Morgan ride into town, the view of the town shows very little life:

Also early on, we understand the nature of Fonda's character as a man who, while not necessarily criminal, is not someone we'd admire. Within the first few minutes Fonda downs several whiskeys, gets into a fistfight as a result of a minor insult, gets knocked out cold, and when coming to has to rush out of the bar to throw up.  The close-ups and medium shots do not flatter him.  Because he's Henry Fonda we expect him to act the hero, but he lets us down a few times during the film.  He does emerge at the end, however, as a somewhat changed man.
Henry Fonda not looking his best.
Those familiar with the novel or the film will surely point to the many societal lessons and psychological depths embedded in it. For me, it was a potent reminder that even in the relatively early years of Hollywood, Westerns were not all romanticized visions or rousing action melodramas, and that the studio system could buck the expected societal values and critique them.

In sharp contrast is this minor but entertaining western, made in 1940 for Universal Studios.  At the helm was George Marshall, a talented director who scored brilliantly with DESTRY RIDES AGAIN (1939) and is also known for the Alan Ladd/Veronica Lake noir THE BLUE DAHLIA.  The film chronicles the heyday of the real-life 'Dalton gang' of brothers, who, in the James & Younger gang mode, terrorized stagecoaches, trains and banks in the early 1890s in and around Kansas until they met their end, not unlike many other outlaws of the era, in a grand shoot-out.  The film, of course, greatly fictionalizes the story, and in the tradition of the JESSE JAMES movie, tries hard to keep our sympathies on the side of this gang of murderers by giving them a sympathetic, loving matriarch, a law-abiding hero/friend in protagonist Randolph Scott, and a justification for their turning outlaw in the greedy, unscrupulous land-grubbing capitalists who make life tough for them.

I found a sharp contrast between the subject matter and the tone of the film, set up from the beginning in the onscreen narration which does not mince words about the lawless and brutal nature of the Daltons, but is accompanied by the most upbeat and jaunty music imaginable. Introduced early on the brothers, portrayed by Broderick Crawford, Brian Donlevy, Frank Albertson & Stuart Erwin, are shown to be a rowdy bunch of good-hearted pranksters who are out to have a good time and celebrate their Ma's birthday.  Crawford as 'Bob' Dalton, is even the local sheriff and is engaged to the lovely telegraph operator Kay Francis.  Even when it's made clear that the gang has succumbed to the life of crime, and the body count rises, the film seems to want to make it clear that they are just a short redemptive act away from returning to the right side of the law.  The men of the town are shown to be largely a group of buffoons, in which the Daltons are clearly part.  Andy Devine plays his usual dupe for comic effect on many occasions.  The only smart characters are Scott's Tod Jackson, Francis, and George Bancroft as the businessman/villain.  And very unlike THE OX-BOW INCIDENT, this town is filled with folk:

The last fifteen minutes of the film, though, are somewhat grim, as the brothers find themselves ambushed, and there is a prolonged shoot-out in which there is little music, only shots fired repeatedly in an intense sequence, until every last gang member is dead (this would not be a spoiler considering the real-life end for this gang, captured in some morbid photos that can be found online).  Ironically the youngest of the brothers, Emmett Dalton, is shown as being killed, but in real life he lived to write an autobiography on which the film is supposedly based.
The brothers being photographed with their Ma (played by Mary Gordon) . 
While there are no social critiques of note here, and the film exists primarily to entertain those looking for a pseudo-historical romp, it is a fun watch, with daring stunts and colorful characters.  The cast seems to be having a grand time.  Kay Francis, on the way down from her career high as elegant pre-code 'woman of the world' roles, is still stunning and compelling as the love interest.  As a film capitalizing on the success of JESSE JAMES and the depression-era audiences who would expect to root for the common man against evil capitalists, it's an example of studio-era Hollywood fare very much of its time.
Kay Francis and Randolph Scott "meet cute" at the cow pen


  1. "The Ox-Bow Incident" is almost too grim a reminder of mob rule to watch often, but deserves our admiration. William Wellman, publicizing his autobiography, toured with two films of which he was justifiably proud - "The Ox-Bow Incident" and "Wild Boys of the Road". My father and I attended the screening here in Toronto. As powerful as the film is, you can imagine the big screen experience with those harrowing close-ups of the doomed men.

    Funny the things that stick with you. I was a teen when I first saw "When the Daltons Rode" (Gee, I've been watching westerns a long time!) and the line that impressed me was when Kay was hedging about telling Brod about her and Randy, and Randy says something along the lines of "We're not kids." It seemed to me an uncommonly honest assessment of a movie romance.

    Have you seen the TCM schedule for July? Thousands of westerns!

    1. Omigosh, thanks! I just spent some time on the TCM website and YES! An extensive Western series on Tuesdays and Wednesdays in July.
      Perhaps they took my idea of "Western Movie Summer" ;-)

      What a great experience to see William Wellman live at a screening of two of his famous works. I also agree that there was more romantic realism (to a degree) in the relationship of Kay and Randy than in many movies of the time; I applaud that.

      Thanks again for stopping by. Looking forward to comparing notes on some of the upcoming ones.