"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Western Union (Fox, 1941)

 
A cracking good Western


 


 
 
 
Randolph Scott followed up his appearance in Fox's major big-budget color Jesse James in 1939 with the same studio's 1941 Western when he starred (or technically speaking got second billing to Robert Young) in the Fritz Lang-directed Western Union. It is a first class Western.

Randolph Scott puts the others in the shade

Randolph Scott

Scott had been leading in Westerns since 1932 and had come to notice especially for his Hawkeye in the 1936 Last of the Mohicans. After Jesse James he had a high-profile part in Universal's When the Daltons Rode in 1940. In Western Union, despite the formal billing, it was Randolph Scott who was the hero and who dominated the picture.

Good badman
 
His performance is outstanding and this was probably the best thing he did until Ride the High Country (though others came close in excellence, notably that series of Budd Boetticher Westerns in the late fifties). Good-badman roles enable a (talented) actor to be an action man yet appear troubled, and Scott handled this in a masterly way. Whereas many actors seek to get more lines and more camera-time, Scott, in common with Gary Cooper, liked to pare down his speaking part to the minimum. Taciturn, laconic, these are good words for a cowboy hero. Say it with your eyes.

Fritz Lang

As for the great Fritz Lang, he did three Westerns (in Hollywood anyway): his first was Fox’s Jesse James sequel The Return of Frank James (in some ways a superior picture to its predecessor) in 1940 and then Western Union. A decade later he directed Rancho Notorious (RKO, 1952), a rather turgid movie, it must be said. So we could hardly call Lang a Western specialist. But he sure got Western Union right.

Monocled Fritz
 
The pace is perfect and the action scenes are exciting. There’s a leavening of levity. First class direction.
 
Young, Lang and Scott on the set
 
Westward expansion epics

Big Manifest Destiny or Westward expansion themes had of course been a Hollywood staple, from the wagon train movies such as The Covered Wagon (1923) and The Big Trail (1930), to railroad ones like The Iron Horse (1924) and Union Pacific (1939). There had also been Wells Fargo in 1937. Span the continent and build the nation, that was the idea.

The Telegraph Trail was a fun film in 1933 which had a young John Wayne crossing the continent with wires but that was essentially a low-budget picture. Western Union was the first to treat the theme seriously in a big-budget way. Lang and his writer Robert Carson entirely eschewed the commercial profit motive for the setting up of a trans-Continental telegraph in favor of the epic nation-building task promoted by Abraham Lincoln.

Zane Grey

The (lovely) title screen announces ‘Zane Grey’s Western Union’. There is in fact some controversy as to whether the screenplay followed or preceded the Zane Grey novel. Grey died shortly before the film was completed and some believe that an anonymous hack ghost-wrote the book based on Robert Carson’s screenplay. Others say it was pure Zane Grey.

This was Carson’s first Western. He would go on to do another Randolph Scott one in 1943, The Desperadoes, and in ’46 the lightweight Glenn Ford comedy Western Advance to the Rear. But as was the case with Fritz Lang, he certainly got Western Union right.
 
Troubled
 
The story

The story is straightforward. Edward Creighton (Dean Jagger, excellent as always) is a pioneer who dreams of spanning the continent with the telegraph to bring civilization, peace and prosperity (though it is not explained how this will occur). He has a glamorous sister, of course, Sue (Virginia Gilmore). In the first reel, badman Vance Shaw (Scott) saves Creighton’s life while Creighton is on a surveying trip in the wilds and Creighton repays him by overlooking his dubious past and hiring him on as a scout to Western Union. Naturally, Shaw falls for Sue. Then a cheerful Eastern dude, Richard Blake, appears in the shape of Robert Young and of course he also fancies Sue. The love-triangle plot strikes again.

The Indians

They set to work and have to battle Indians, and badmen, and badmen dressed as Indians. The American Indians, frankly, are patronizingly and slightingly portrayed, as I suppose was acceptable in the 1940s but if I were a Sioux I wouldn’t enjoy this film much. They are drunken louts whose chief, Spotted Horse (John Big Tree) is an old fool. This is one of the less attractive features of the movie.

Jack Slade

As for the bandits, it is not quite explained why they are attacking Western Union, except in a vague way that they are Confederate guerrillas and the telegraph is Abe’s idea. They are led by Jack Slade (a rather hammy Barton MacLane, who had been in four other Randolph Scott/Zane Grey Westerns before this). For more on the real Jack Slade, click here.
 

The real Jack Slade
 
There was a 1955 Stories of the Century TV episode called Jack Slade but while Stories of the Century occasionally bore some resemblance to the truth, however tangential, in this case it is a complete fiction.

Matt gets Slade, as he gets everyone else
 
A much better Western treatment of Slade appeared in 1953, in the black & white noirish Western Jack Slade. Directed by Harold D Schuster (later to do Dragoon Wells Massacre), it stars Mark Stevens (a couple of low-budget Westerns, some TV oaters and a few spaghettis) as Slade and is an intelligent, dark and brutal Western with a lot of quality. And guess who is ‘Jules Reni’? Why, Barton MacLane! (In 1955 Schuster directed a sequel, The Return of Jack Slade but it was a much inferior movie about an imagined son.)

A 50s minor Western with real quality
 
But back to Randy. The Jack Slade in Western Union bears no resemblance to the real one, beyond the name.

Pseudonym

It actually turns out that Vance Shaw is not Randy's real name. He has adopted the surname Shaw, like Lawrence of Arabia, to hide his identity. His real name is -

But that would be telling.

Epic

There’s fine Edward Cronjager photography of House Rock Canyon AZ and Kanab and Zion National Park UT locations in Technicolor. Cronjager really was one of the greats. The original music by David Buttolph is absolutely excellent, with a traditional Western feel to it yet not at all clichéd.
 
There are beautiful titles
 
Support acting

The other actors are extremely good. We have John Carradine as a hardened doctor, Slim Summerville as an entertaining, vaudeville cowardly cook, and a bearded Chill Wills on the telegraph crew as the expectorant Homer Kettle (he comes to a rather uncomfortable end). Francis Ford is the eastbound stage driver and Jay Silverheels is hidden among the Indians. Yakima Canutt managed the stunts. Only Robert Young was weak, I felt. He was not cut out for Westerns.

Chill comes to a sticky end

Realism

Lang believed in realism and set off a huge forest fire on Fox's back lot. Actors had asbestos clothing on underneath their costumes. Robert Young had his eyebrows singed off and Scott got minor burns.

John Ford's daughter Barbara recalled watching Western Union with her pappy and when Scott held his hands over a campfire to burn off the rope that bound his wrists, Ford said, "Those are Randy's wrists, that is real rope, that is real fire."

Scott himself said, "Pioneering was no doubt a fine and noble calling, but compared to this job, Daniel Boone had a snap."

Action-packed

The script packed in about everything that could possibly happen. Fritz Lang told Peter Bogdanovich:

The film was made after a book by Zane Grey but nothing from it was used in the picture but the title. I forget who wrote the script but they had to invent many things because in reality, nothing happened during the entire building of the line except that they ran out of wood for the telegraph poles ... When the film was finished I found out that the laying of the line did not take half as long as the shooting of the picture!"

He might have added that the line cost Western Union $212,000 but the movie cost Fox a million...

But it was a major hit.

Terrific stuff

There’s an excellent final reel showdown in the streets of Omaha (starting in a barber shop) as Randy and the evil Jack Slade shoot it out.

There’s basically not much wrong with this Western and it's a must-see.

 

5 comments:

  1. Do you know where it's possible to get a copy?

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  2. one of my all-time favorites. Randolph Scott became my epitome of a Western star. and Fritz Lang...... his heart was big for the Western. the opening scenes with the bandit on the run and the sad, nostalgic music are the best in film history. the buffalo and Scott's care for "Spider" won me over completely. Five-Star!

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  3. Yes, Randy truly great.
    And Lang, in that funny monocled European way of his, loved the Western.
    I too like this film very much.
    Thanks for your comment!
    Jeff

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  4. What a lovely one ! Each time I watch it - today on the french-german Arte TV channel in english and no subtitles if you wish it...- I am always astonished by Randy's way of -not or low key - playing. His end is wonderfully very allusive but so heartbreaking maybe the Lang's touch where an American director would have been more demonstrative. You are a little severe with Young who is a perfect tenderfoot becoming a seasoned trailblazer. The cook is somehow belonging to this old fashioned comic vein of tbe time but really outdated today - like the indian scenes as you say - when many other moments are very intense - the whole beginning is excellent, Randy's approach of the fake Indians along the river are providing a few wonderful pictures frames, the way of showing Chill Will's far after the action is also amazingly remarkable and yes the final no frills showdown is pretty minimal and sober. Interesting detail about the weaponry, in the first minutes, Randy is disassembling Dean's revolver cylinder, clearly a cap and ball revolver when during most of the film the revolvers are Colt Single Action 1873 disguised in earlier Remingtons or Colt.

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