If you want to call me that, smile!
‘The Virginian’ by Owen Wister is such a mighty novel, so seminal to the whole Western myth, and, by the way, so much fun, that it was inevitable that the studios would turn their hand to it, as they did to versions of other fine Western novels, such as Riders of the Purple Sage, True Grit, Shane, and so on. The very first film version, in 1914, was the making of Jesse Lasky and Cecil B DeMille - i.e. Paramount. There was another, bigger and longer silent version in 1923 too.
But once such a fine film as The Virginian had come out as an early talkie in 1929 starring Gary Cooper, almost any remake Paramount decided on after the war was pretty well bound to be a pale imitation. The 1929 picture was funny and Moving, and young Coop was ideal as the Virginian, and the result was superb. All the 1946 version added, really, was color. And a pretty garish color at that.
The ’46 one lacked all the pzazz of the book and the Cooper version. It became just any old cowboy film. It's disappointing.
I very much like Joel McCrea as a Western lead. He was quietly authoritative and was able to transmit courage and decency with minimal actions and words. He was even outstanding in certain roles. Watch him for example in Buffalo Bill, Ramrod, Colorado Territory, Wichita, The Gunfight at Dodge City or - especially - Four Faces West. Very fine. But he wasn’t Coop. And he wasn’t the Virginian, the man able to hang his pard Steve, say with wry humor and menace, “If you want to call me that, smile!” and woo and win Molly as well. There’s steel in the Virginian but a twinkle in his eye. Coop caught it. McCrea didn’t.
Part of the problem, of course, was the rather wooden script of the post-war version. Howard Estabrook and a team of thousands worked up the Wister novel and play in 1929 but this one wasn’t half as good. Then again Victor Fleming directed Cooper, while in ’46 Stuart Gilmore wore the jodhpurs. Gilmore had the huge advantage of having been born in Tombstone (forget silver spoons, that’s like being born with a silver Colt in your holster) but he didn’t direct much - he was an editor really - apart from a couple of TV episodes of Sheena: Queen of the Jungle. What a waste.
Bosley Crowther in The New York Times wrote, "the film is as formal and perfunctory as the performance of a rite" and added that "the pace is pedestrian and the actors are limited largely to talking, which is far from Western style. Except for the use of Technicolor, which adds very little, after all, since most of the film was plainly photographed on artificial sets, this might be an unboasted effort of a low-budget studio troupe." Ouch. True, though.
Brian Donlevy was hopeless as Trampas. He looked ridiculous in his black gunfighter rig. He was slightly overweight. He made large numbers of Westerns, many no good, and was better in cops & robbers stuff. He was fine as Kent in Destry Rides Again, I must admit, in fact alright whenever he was a saloon heavy, but he was an unconvincing Grat Dalton and a lousy Trampas. He had, though, supported McCrea in Barbary Coast, Union Pacific and The Great Man's Lady, so they were certainly used to working together.
The worst ever Trampas
The other actors (with the possible exception of Tom Tully as Nebraska) just say the lines.
Barbara Britton is Molly
There’s lots of back-projection and studio work. It’s quite squeamish about the lynching. Of course, you have to be, and the one major weakness of the book is that try as you might, you can’t have your hero lynch someone and remain sympathetic (although Jones and Duvall came close in Lonesome Dove).