The Light of Western Stars (Paramount, 1940)
Paramount’s Zane Grey’s 'The Light of Western Stars' came out in 1940. It’s in the public domain, by the way, and you can watch it on your computer or tablet if you wish here. It was a 1918 silent starring Dustin Farnum, remade in 1925 with Jack Holt in the lead, and again in a 1930 talkie starring Richard Arlen. So the story had done the rounds.
It’s actually rather enjoyable and worth watching, though not for Alan Ladd’s debut; he’s eleventh billed as Danny, a ranch hand, and has very much a bit part – blink and you’ll miss him. But as a rather dated and corny black & white Western, it’s a lot of fun. It stars the great Victor Jory (50 Westerns from Smoky in 1933 to The Mountain Men in 1980, Ike Clanton in Tombstone, The Town Too Tough to Die and the bandit chief Jess Wade in The Man from the Alamo) and Jo Ann Sayers as 'Her Majesty' (whom one would cheerfully strangle, she is so snooty and posh). Best is Noah Beery Jr. as Poco, Jory’s Mexican sidekick (Noah had in fact started as a Mexican, appearing in Viva Villa! in 1934 with his uncle Wallace), faithful as a hound and overacting in a very 1930s way but huge fun. If it weren’t 1940 and unthinkable, you’d reckon there was something almost homoerotic about the relationship. Perish the thought.
Alan Ladd’s first real Western, though (and first color film), came in 1948...
Whispering Smith (Paramount, 1948)
Whispering Smith was also a much made story. Silents in 1916 (JP McGowan as Smith) and 1926 (HB Warner) were followed by Whispering Smith Rides (1927) and Whispering Smith Speaks (1935) with McGowan again and George O’Brien respectively. After the Alan Ladd one (which he reprised on the radio in 1949), Richard Carlson was Whispering Smith in 1952 (Whispering went to London) and it became a TV series with Audie Murphy in 1961. So there were a lot of Smiths about.
Laughably bad picture of Robert Preston in blue shirt
Ladd was a real athlete. He was by nature quiet and restrained, and in that sense he suited the role. The French title was Smith le Taciturne. He is very good in the relationship scenes and doubtless many of the female audience at his pictures swooned in their theater seats.
But he couldn’t cut it as a Western action hero. He was too smooth, too blond, too short - in short, too much the matinée idol.
In this movie, a “true story” (that's what they say), he plays a railroad detective who, having dispatched two train-robber brothers, suspects his best friend (Robert Preston, full of vim as ever, the archetypal charming rogue – he monopolized such roles) of harboring the third. Sure enough, Preston turns out to be leader of a gang of train wreckers who pillage the wrecks for loot. Ladd has, earlier, fallen for a soft-focus redhead (Brenda Marshall) who has since become Preston’s wife so the stage is set for conflict, alright, however much Whispering tries to avoid it.
The movie’s a straight yarn, reasonably exciting in parts, but there’s too much talking, especially between Ladd and the soft-focus redhead. It was directed by Leslie Fenton, not really a Western specialist although he did later do Streets of Laredo (Paramount, 1949) with the excellent William Holden and The Redhead and the Cowboy (Paramount, 1951), a lesser film but with the equally excellent Glenn Ford.
Some of the support acting is pretty ho-hum. Donald Crisp, for example, was never convincing in Westerns. Still, good old Ray Teal does have a bit part, so there’s that to look forward to.
The best thing about it is the Technicolor location footage shot by Ray Rennahan in California. Long lenses bring the Sierras closer and the opening shots, rather spoilt by the titles over them, are magnificent. The non-location scenes were done on the Paramount set later used for the Bonanza TV series.
But when Ladd, forsaking for a moment the soft-focus redhead, says, "I'll give you forty-eight hours to run Barton out of Williams Canyon; if you don't, I'm coming in after him," you feel like saying, “Oh yeah, you and whose army?” Poor Alan, he hadn’t got it in him. You feel he would have been more comfortable saying, “Would you mind awfully asking Barton to vacate the canyon? Thank you very much indeed. I’d be so grateful.”
Anyway, do have a look at Whispering Smith if you haven’t seen it. It’s definitely worth a watch, if maybe not a DVD purchase. And it is certainly an essential part of the Alan Ladd canon.