Deeply silly but a lot of fun
The black & white Universal Westerns of the 1940s were often pretty silly, but they usually had a certain vim and zip about them, and Badlands of Dakota, a Wild Bill/Calamity Jane picture, was no exception. It is even more preposterous than most Westerns of the period, making no attempt at all to stick to fact, but since when did we expect historical accuracy from Western movies? The important thing is that the film is energetic and fun.
It’s a nice quality print, not one of those crackly, faded efforts one often sees, and it holds up well on a big modern TV screen. It was shot by Stanley Cortez (later the cinematographer on Apache and Man from Del Rio) with some Red Rock Canyon locations – Universal didn’t stint on this aspect. The direction is by Alfred E Green, who had been making large numbers of films since 1912 with Selig Polyscope. He directed Bette Davis in Dangerous in 1935 and also later did The Jolson Story in 1946, so he was no unknown or minor figure. He only made nine Westerns, though: four silents in the early days and a few B-Westerns subsequently. His high point, without a doubt, was the charming little Joel McCrea oater Four Faces West in 1948, a little jewel. In Badlands he keeps the pace rattling along and there’s plenty of action.
Young Robert Stack was given the lead. Of course, like most people I think of Mr. Stack as Eliot Ness but he had been at Universal since the 1930s. Badlands was his first Western, and he only made six, generally eschewing the genre, even in its 1950s heyday. Here he is Jim Holliday, the blond lover of Ann Rutherford and, despite the publicity still below, not really a gunslinging tough-guy at all. (As an aside, we have said elsewhere that blond men rarely made good Western actors, except maybe as baddies, and Stack knew this; he had his hair dyed black for future roles).
Robert Stack and Ann Rutherford. Not really Western specialists...
He steals la Rutherford away from his big brother Broderick Crawford, Bob. Of course the year before Broderick as Bob (Bob Dalton) had also had his fiancée stolen away from him, that time by Randy Scott, in When the Daltons Rode. He was beginning to get a rep as a jilted lover. Crawford was ever unconvincing in Westerns. His stockiness (to be polite) didn’t help, but fat or not, though he was certainly tough, he was too Eastern, too urban to be any good in oaters. He needed mean streets or a highway patrol car. He was plain ridiculous in The Fastest Gun Alive (fanning his double-action Colts) in 1956 and he never cut it as a Westerner. Still, he liked the genre and appeared in fifteen big-screen oaters altogether, as well as many Western TV shows. In Badlands he is a saloon owner who, when thrown over by his belle in favor of his younger bro, goes bad and dresses up as an Indian with Jack McCall’s gang and holds up the Deadwood stage. (Yes, I’m afraid the plot is that silly).
Broderick Crawford. Shoulda stuck to tough cops.
Ms. Rutherford (Scarlett’s little sis in Gone With the Wind) had been in four Gene Autry oaters and three John Wayne ones before the war, so she knew her way around the West. She was a graceful woman (if I’m allowed to say that kind of thing these days), if not entirely convincing ridin’ the range. In Badlands she is rather bossy and Stack is on the verge of being henpecked (if I’m allowed to say that kind of thing these days).
Jane (she is never referred to as Calamity) is played by Frances Farmer. Farmer went to Hollywood in 1935 where she won a seven-year contract with Paramount but in 1943 she was declared mentally incompetent and committed by her parents to a series of asylums and public mental hospitals. It was a tragic affair. She didn’t really do Westerns; Badlands was the last of only three (the previous one, in 1936, had also been directed by Green) but in the first, Rhythm on the Range in 1936, she had the female lead opposite Bing Crosby. In Badlands she was, like Crawford, totally unconvincing as Jane, managing none of the Doris Day-type tomboy charm the role was usually accorded and still less any genuine pathos.
Frances Farmer. Unconvincing as Jane.
Richard Dix does Wild Bill Hickok and, despite the daft script, he does it rather well. As I said in a recent post on another Dix Western, Cherokee Strip, Dix (1893 – 1949) was RKO’s leading man from the dawn of talkies through 1943. At six foot and 180 pounds, he presented a burly figure and had been a successful athlete in earlier years (his first roles were in baseball and football movies). He was quite a box-office draw for RKO in the 30s and he did a good number of Westerns, starting with a Victor Fleming-directed silent, the first version of Zane Grey’s To the Last Man, in 1923 and finishing with The Kansan in 1943, when he was in his fifties. His most famous Western role was of course as Yancey Cravat in the 1931 hit Cimarron, for which he won an Oscar. In Badlands, he is a rather dashing Wild Bill in frock coat, long hair and mustachios. He does not have an affair with Jane at all, though does ride with her on a posse with Marshal Robert Stack to capture the bad guys. He shoots a couple of fellows on his first day in Deadwood, presumably to establish his gunslinger street cred, but he is told that it didn't matter at all, they were rogues anyway. Bill turns down the marshal’s job in favor of Robert. Hickok is duly murdered by Jack McCall (we just hear the shot and see his corpse draped over the card table, with the dead man’s hand of aces and eights).
Richard Dix rather good as Wild Bill, with Farmer as Calamity and Addison Richards as Custer
Some of the minor roles are fun. Lon Chaney Jr. does Jack McCall. His McCall is the gang leader (“I give the orders around here,” he sternly admonishes fellow badman Brod Crawford) and has a scam in which he and his hoodlums dress up as Indians and rob the stage. This means, however, that we have a hilarious scene of Chaney and Crawford in warpaint and feathers, on their horses waiting to waylay the stagecoach. Hero Marshal Stack shoots McCall in the end, so he is not hanged at Yankton for the murder of Hickok.
Lon Chaney Jr., always worth a watch, as badman Jack McCall
Custer appears, impersonated by Addison Richards. This Custer is noble and brave, and saves the town of Deadwood from a devastating Indian attack (the Sioux burn the place to the ground) by charging in with the 7th Cavalry at the last moment, before declaring that he can’t stay: he has to “finally have it out with Sitting Bull and his Sioux at Little Bighorn”, and he gallops off. Addison Richards is actually worth looking out for. He appeared in huge numbers of B and TV Westerns (140 in all) from Lone Cowboy in 1933 to an episode of Rawhide in 1964. He often did the crusty old-timer or comic sidekick.
Fuzzy Knight is the stage driver, Hurricane, and duly does his schtick. Andy Devine, as Spearfish, the MC of the variety show at the Bella Union, ditto. They are both always fun to see. The Jesters give us some enjoyable songs. Glenn Strange the Great is there too. Though uncredited, he has a few lines and he’s not just an extra. He’s a thug, obviously. How I like Glenn-spotting in Westerns.
Andy Devine with Crawford and Chaney
Well, the whole thing is deeply silly. Still, it’s amusing and entertaining and most definitely worth a watch if it comes on. I probably won’t buy the DVD though.