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

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Western Union (Fox, 1941) and Jack Slade in fact & fiction


A cracking good Western


Randolph Scott’s first real ‘A’ Western came along in 1941 when he starred (or technically speaking got second billing to Robert Young) in Fox’s 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. He had had smaller but high-profile parts in ‘A’ Westerns that others led, such as Jesse James in 1939 and 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 B-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 (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 ‘B’ 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.
The story

The story is straightforward. Edward Creighton (Dean Jagger) 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 Indians

They set to work and have to battle Indians, and badmen, and badmen dressed as Indians. The 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 – the fact

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). Now Joseph A (‘Jack’) Slade was a famous badman of the West and his story is well told in Joseph G Rosa’s The Gunfighter (University of Oklahoma Press, 1969), pp 22 -25:

The real Jack Slade
Slade was born about 1824 in Carlyle, Illinois and was a veteran of the Mexican War. He seems to have been a real Jekyll and Hyde and the transformative agent to turn him into Mr. Hyde was alcohol. A quiet and well-behaved individual when sober, he was a demon when drunk. In 1858 or ’59 he was hired as a line superintendent for the Central Overland California and Pike’s Peak Express Company on the South Platte. French Canadian Jules Bene (probably Béné) was evidently stealing horses and harboring outlaws. Slade was ordered to investigate him but Bene took offence and went after Slade with a gun, shooting him three times with a pistol then twice with a shotgun. Amazingly, Slade survived. Bene was banished from the country but returned, and Slade’s men captured him and tied him to a corral post where Slade is said to have brutally shot him to pieces, body part by body part, between gulps of liquor. Finally tiring of his sport, Slade put the muzzle of his pistol in Bene’s mouth and pulled the trigger. He then cut off the dead man’s ears, using one as a watch fob.
A book about Slade
Mark Twain, who met Slade in 1861, found him “so friendly and so gentle-spoken that I warmed to him in spite of his awful history.” Twain has quite a lot about Slade in chapters X and XI of his wonderful Roughing It (1872) and relishes telling the tale of this badman in that ironic and humorous way Twain was such a master of.

Slade was then dismissed by the Overland Company after shooting up the post canteen in Fort Halleck. A Colorado warrant for his arrest was out and he went to Virginia City, MT to run a ranch. There he resumed his peaceful-when-sober but violent-when-drunk ways and finally on 10 March 1864 vigilantes lost patience, took him and hanged him.
Twain quotes as a source for the murder of Slade by a mob in Montana a book, The Vigilantes of Montana by Prof. Thos. J Dimsdale, which even Twain acknowledges is a bit on the lurid side. So I'm not sure how reliable the Dimsdale/Twain accounts are. One interesting fact, though, if Dimsdale is accurate, is that Slade was hanged by a mob of miners for simple rowdyism (he had shot up a saloon and a store and held a derringer to the head of a 'judge'), not for robbery (which he was never accused of) or murder. The 'official' (if that is not too cruelly laughable a term) vigilance committee wished to arrest Slade but had no intention of lynching him. It was a mob of angry and drunken miners who decided to hang the man and the committee weakly stood by while they murdered Slade before his wife could arrive to bid him farewell. Of course no miner was ever arraigned for the crime, let alone punished.

His wife took Slade's body in a sealed tin casket filled, appropriately, with alcohol (but as a preservative) to bury him in his Illinois birthplace but by the time she got to Salt Lake City it stank so much that she buried him there.

Jack Slade – the fiction

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. ‘Jules Beni’ is shot (once) by Slade right at the start so that Slade can take over the Pony Express station in order to rifle the mail and know when payroll shipments he can rob are coming through. He uses Indians to rob the stages. As usual, Matt Clark foils him.

Matt gets Slade, as he gets everyone else
A much better Western treatment of Slade had appeared in 1953, in the black & white ‘B’ Western Jack Slade. Directed by Harold D Schuster (later to do Dragoon Wells Massacre), it stars Mark Stevens (a couple of B-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 B Western with real quality
But back to Randy. The Jack Slade in Western Union bears no resemblance to the real one described above, beyond the name.


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.


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


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."


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.



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

  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!

  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!

  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.