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

Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Yellow Mountain (Universal, 1954)


Weak top stars but good supporting cast




 
 
The Yellow Mountain is a mid-50s color B-Western from Universal. Starring as it does Lex Barker and Howard Duff, it is a tad on the weak side.
 
A woman's unclaimed lips waited for the taking, eh?
 
Mr. Barker was very popular at the time: his last outing as Tarzan had been the year before. But he wasn’t too good in Westerns. He’d had small parts in several before this, had led in the semi-Western Battles of Chief Pontiac in ’52, and had had second billing after Randolph Scott in Thunder over the Plains in ’53, but this was his first starring part in a proper oater. Later he would be Old Shatterhand in those Karl May tales. But he wasn’t really cut out for ridin’ the range. In The Yellow Mountain he is supposed to be Andy Martin, a hard-as-nails adventurer and mining engineer who knocks ultra-heavy Leo Gordon down no fewer than three times in the course of the movie, a rather implausible likelihood. I would have preferred Glenn Ford, say. Robert Mitchum would have been great. But he was busy with Marilyn for Fox on the River of No Return at the time.
 
Lex trying to be a tough Westerner
 
Similarly, Howard Duff, though part of the Hollywood glitterati in the mid-fifties with his then wife Ida Lupino (a superb actor), was never really a top star, and the Westerns he did were routine, or worse. He starred opposite Yvonne De Carlo in the pretty dreadful Calamity Jane and Sam Bass, that kind of thing, and he was Black Jack Ketchum, Desperado in ‘56. The Yellow Mountain was his fourth outing in the saddle (though as a scheming saloon and mine owner in a fancy silk vest he didn’t actually mount up). He does play the part with some pzazz and comes across as a charming-rogue type of guy but I would have preferred, say, Lyle Bettger, who did blond besuited derringer-wielding saloon owners to perfection.
 
Howard Duff tries to put one over on villain John McIntire. A doomed effort.
 
The ensemble was directed by experienced Universal hack Jesse Hibbs, and as such it has pace, and it was shot in excellent color in Mojave Desert locations by George Robinson, who had spent most of his time behind a Universal camera (he’d started back in the early 1920s) and had worked for Paramount on The Plainsman. Visually, most of these Universal Westerns of the 1950s were very attractive. The writing (George Zuckerman and Russell S Hughes) is workmanlike rather than inspired, though, and the story a bit on the predictable side. Well, it was a Universal B-Western.

It’s a tale of gold mining in Nevada, with mucho skullduggery going on. The good news is the casting: the arch-villain Bannon, Duff’s rival as saloon and mine owner, is the splendid John McIntire and his chief henchman is the equally fine Leo Gordon. What a pair. And on the good guy’s side there is William Demarest as Jackpot, the cranky old-timer owner of a no-good mine, and the glam Mala Powers, protégée of Ida Lupino and Rose of Cimarron shortly before, is his daughter Nevada, love-interest for first Mr. Duff, then Monsieur Barker. It’s a top-drawer line-up.
 
William Demarest is Barker ally Jackpot
 
Bannon isn’t too far from Gannon, the charismatic villain McIntire played in Universal's The Far Country the same year and I wish the names had been identical. I like to think that James Stewart ’s opponent in Canada had started his crooked ways in Nevada, though as the McIntires are shot to death in the last reel of both movies that would perhaps have created the odd problem of continuity.
 
Mala Powers
 
The many brawls are unconvincingly staged and they needed Yak Canutt or someone good on the stunts (it was Carl Andre in fact).

Kermit Maynard is the (uncredited) bartender and Denver Pyle (equally uncredited) cleans Demarest out at poker in the saloon, so you can have fun spotting great character actors.

Leo wears that short blanket jacket he often sported (actors were often obliged to provide their own costumes and maybe that jacket was Leo’s own). Duff has a pocket pistol which is almost a derringer. So all in all this is quite a fun Western with much to recommend it, though The Far Country it wasn’t.

In the mine - gold!


Tuesday, January 26, 2016

4 for Texas (Warner Bros, 1963)


Perfectly dreadful




 
 
“The contempt in which all concerned must have held their audience should not be encouraged by willingly viewing this drivel.” Brian Garfield, as so often, is spot-on with this judgement. The fault lies mostly with Frank Sinatra and Robert Aldrich: Sinatra because although we all know he could act really well, we also know that he usually didn’t bother, lazily dashing off scenes and refusing to do retakes, with complete and cynical disregard for the audience, and Aldrich because he allowed it. Sinatra did five Westerns, all very bad. Aldrich directed six Westerns, but only one of them was good (Ulzana’s Raid); a couple were just about OK though flawed (The Last Sunset and Apache); one was an overblown farrago (Vera Cruz); and two were absolutely dire (The Frisco Kid and 4 for Texas). Aldrich co-wrote and produced 4 for Texas as well as directing it, so should come in for a good chunk of the blame.
 
 
Of course everyone loves Dean Martin. Not only did he have the voice of an angel drinking honey (tragically he does not sing in this movie) but he also had a twinkle in his eye and he was the living embodiment of the word simpatico. But even he is clearly just going through the motions here, probably taking his cue, as per usual, from Sinatra.
 
Dino drinks tea?
 
Two and two make four, and the other couple of the title are, to complement Sinatra and Martin, the mammary marvels Anita Ekberg and Ursula Andress. Both were dreadful actors (especially Ekberg) and the idea of Sinatra’s spindly character falling for the huge, overweight Ekberg, wobbling fatly across the set, is ridiculous.
 
Sinatra probably standing on a box
 
It’s set in Galveston and tells of two rival gamblers and saloon owners. Charles Bronson is the bad guy (or even-worse guy one should say because there aren’t any goodies) and Bronson’s acting ability fits right in with that of the bigger stars – i.e. none was shown, if indeed, in certain cases, any ever existed. Any decent actors are wasted: Bronson shoots Jack Elam even before the opening titles have finished. One-Reel Jack was used to getting killed early in a Western but this is silly. Hardly worth turning up. (He did it again in Once Upon a Time in the West but at least that opening was longer and gave Jack a chance to shine). Richard Jaeckel and Bob Steele appear briefly but sadly are also squandered in bit parts.
 
Bad guy Bronson
 
The Three Stooges have a singularly unfunny cameo.

And why on earth did the movie have to have a runtime of over two hours?

The only good thing is that there are quite a few derringers.

4 for Texas is complete junk, an early 60s commercial Western of the worst kind, and should be avoided at all costs.

 

Sunday, January 24, 2016

West of the Divide (Lone Star, 1934)


Duke learns his craft





In 1933, after the six B but not-at-all-bad Westerns the young John Wayne did for Warners, he embarked on the long series of sixteen formulaic oaters released by Monogram under producer Paul Malvern’s Lone Star logo. They were low-budget black & white second features, at under an hour, and they are all very similar indeed. Most were directed by RN Bradbury, Bob Steele’s dad, who had a good eye for locations and a fondness for snappy camera action. They had Duke’s pal Yakima Canutt doing the stunts and often playing the villain or henchman, and they were shot by DP Archie Stout. West of the Divide was the fourth of these.
 
A lot of fun
 
Monogram was usually where actors ended up, not where they started, but work was work and if you watch the Lone Star Westerns you can see Wayne learning and developing. He is quite physical (in West of the Divide he does a back somersault) and he often did his own fights and horse leaps, though Yak did the hairier stunts.
 
Duke does his own fights
 
He is sometimes gauche but always winning and sincere, and he is usually the best actor on the set (though fellow cast members were usually has-beens or never-would-bes). Wayne worked on these pictures, building his skills, mastering dialogue, taking and giving cues better. He wasn’t yet the fine actor he would become (those who say John Wayne couldn’t act have obviously never watched Red River or The Searchers) but he was gradually, and modestly, working towards that. In his biography John Wayne: The Life and Legend, Scott Eyman puts it well: Wayne was not a natural actor by any means but he was a natural star.
 
Gabby has no prolific beard yet
 
West of the Divide is a classic example. Duke’s pal is Gabby Hayes, beardless as yet and billed as George Hayes. Gabby and Duke spend the first reel sitting down telling each other the plot but before too long they move and some action can begin.

It’s the old one about the young man whose farmer dad was killed and who sets out to get his place back and find out who did the dirty deed. We viewers know instantly who the villain was because we immediately see a fellow in a suit with a pencil mustache under his nose (Lloyd Whitlock) so he is obviously the baddy. He wants the whole valley, you know how they do. He has henchmen, naturally, and one of these is Hank (Canutt), so that’s good.

Equally obviously there’s a girl, this time Virginia Faire Brown (aka Virginia Brown Faire, take your pick). She was Tinker Bell in the 1924 silent Peter Pan but she also did a lot of silent and talkie Westerns with the likes of Rex Lease, Hoot Gibson, et al.
 
It was never actually difficult to guess who the villain was
 
The best thing though is that the sheriff is my hero Earl Dwire. Already 50 when this series started, Dwire was a regular, usually as walrus-mustached sheriff but sometimes as bad man. See for example Blue Steel, The Dawn Rider or Randy Rides Alone. In West of the Divide he’s sheriff again and duly restores law ‘n’ order when Duke has defeated the villain.

There’s a young boy (Billie O’Brien) called Spuds whose cruel father beats him and Duke saves him (in a very good stunt) when his buggy horses bolt. It turns out that this lad is really Duke’s kid brother, who also survived the massacre, so we know that the bros will bond and the little one will become a kind of stepson when big John gets the gal. In fact the kid does the proposing and the accepting in the last reel on behalf of his elders.
 
Duke finds his kid brother
 
The boy equally resourcefully removes the lead bullets from the cartridges of his dad’s gun, so when the baddy in a suit grabs it and shoots at Duke in the climactic scene, Duke is unscathed and able to whop the daylights out of the blighter.

Wayne rides his white horse Duke.

West of the Divide (I’ve no idea why it’s called that) is silly, fun and you could do a lot worse.

 

Friday, January 22, 2016

Allegheny Uprising aka The First Rebel (RKO, 1939)


Duke takes on the British Empire - and wins




 
Republic boss Herbert Yates had no sooner signed his only A-picture star, John Wayne of Stagecoach fame, than he loaned him out to RKO to make a musket-and-tricorn drama about Jim Smith and the Black Boys in 1760s Pennsylvania. Really, Allegheny Uprising shouldn’t be appearing on this blog at all because only by a big stretch can it be called a Western. Still, it’s an American frontier story with Wayne, who has Claire Trevor as co-star (as in Stagecoach and Republic’s big Dark Command a year later), Chill Wills and Brian Donlevy are in it, and it’s a fun actioner with quite a lot to recommend it. So it just scrapes in.
 
Not a Western in the true sense but fun
 
You probably learned about James Smith (1737 – 1812 or 1814) at school. He is sometimes considered the first rebel against British rule – indeed the source novel by Neil H Swanson and alternative title to the film are The First Rebel. Naturally, the movie plays fast and loose with history, as they all do, and so I wouldn’t exactly advise watching it to get a true picture of the early stages of the American Revolution. If you want the facts behind the story, try The Black Boys Uprising of 1765 by Dan Guzy. Still, if you want 81 minutes of frontier fun, you could do worse than watch Allegheny Uprising.
 
 
The real James Smith and his screen persona
 
 
But back to Duke. He’s rather good in this, probably pleased to get away from those damn juvenile Westerns and be a star again, and showing confidence and vim. There was an undoubted screen chemistry between him and Claire Trevor, who plays his tomboy lover, and the fringed buckskin shirt and coonskin cap seem to suit Wayne as well as the Stetson and leather vest. And it’s a rollicking yarn, beautifully shot, in fact, in a black & white that admirably recreates the period setting. The titles over the soundtrack variations on a theme of Yankee Doodle Dandy by Anthony Collins are very charming. The DP was RKO’s Nicholas Musuraca, who was said to “paint with light” and was later nominated for an Academy award. He’d done very many silent Westerns and had worked with Edward Cronjager (a genius) on Cimarron.
 
The facts
 
The British villain is the perfectly splendid George Sanders, wheeled on whenever an imperialist swine was required (his voicing of Shere Khan the tiger in Disney’s The Jungle Book was a master-stroke). He is an arrogant upper-class clod of a redcoat who despises the common colonial settlers with an undisguised loathing. There’s a more sensible British army officer, though, his superior General Gage (Olaf Hytten). Gage’s predecessor as baronet introduced the greengage to our palates, so respect, dude. Anyway, where were we?
 
Caddish redcoat Captain Sanders

General Gage
 
The slightly Mesquiteerish trio who combat Sanders and Gage are happy-go-lucky yet sage - even statesmanlike - Jim Smith (Duke), a bibulous Scotsman, MacDougall (Wilfrid Lawson) and the educated one, the Professor (John F Hamilton). They all enjoy slaughtering Delaware Indians and are crack shots with their muskets.

The real villain, though, isn’t British at all. It’s the evil trader Callendar, played by Brian Donlevy. Though come to think of it, Donlevy was born in Northern Ireland, so I suppose he was British after all. Still, his Noo Yoik accent doesn’t sound too George Sanders-ish. He wants to sell made-in-Britain tomahawks to the Indians, a slightly implausible plot device which makes a change from selling guns to them (in Westerns usually a crime somewhere on the scale between cannibalism and matricide). Donlevy was a fascinating man who led a picaresque life of adventure but he was completely unconvincing in Westerns (unless he could be a saloon heavy with a derringer).
 
Even in a tricorn he manages to look like a hood
 
The movie was directed by William A Seiter, a Hollywood vet who had started with Selig and been a Keystone cop. He is best known for directing the likes of Laurel & Hardy, Abbott & Costello, the Marx brothers and Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers, but occasionally turned his hand to frontier frolics – he directed two Westerns with Randolph Scott, though both, regrettably, were dire.

Well, the heroes foil the plot, save the day and defeat the Brits, so all’s well that ends well. At the end Jim and his pards head off for Tennessee and more adventures, hotly pursued by Claire, determined to nail Jim down to matrimonial servitude.
 
So now you know
 
The film got panned. The New York Times said it was “a sprawling, confused costume picture which just seems like a lot of actors dressed up in coon-skin caps, leather jerkins and soldier suits, wandering around on location”. The reviewer added, “John Wayne, in the role of Jim Smith, plays in one grim, monotonous key” and Claire Trevor “is cast in this one as a female nuisance, which she succeeds almost too well in being”.
 
Actually very good together, malgré The New York Times
 
The movie didn’t fare too well at the box office either: it came out just as brave little Britain was standing up against Nazi might, and films showing Brits as repressive occupiers weren’t flavor of the month. John Ford did better with his picture on similar themes, Drums along the Mohawk with Henry Fonda, released at the same time and not so anti-British. For me, though, Allegheny Uprising is more fun. Historical tosh, but fun.

 

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Hangman’s Knot (Columbia, 1952)


This post has been revised and updated.
Please click here for the new one.
Thanks.
Jeff




Monday, January 18, 2016

Red River Range (Republic, 1939)


John Wayne's Three Mesquiteers pictures, 4:




 
 
Red River Range was the fourth of the eight Three Mesquiteers movies that John Wayne starred in for Republic in the year 1938 – 39. Little changed, probably to the satisfaction of the juvenile audiences: in under an hour the three pals of the saddle foil an evil plot headed up by a pencil-mustached villain in a suit. Cherubic George Sherman did the directing, Wayne’s pard Yak Canutt did the stunts, and of course Crash Corrigan as Tucson Smith and Max Terhune as Lullaby Joslin play the Mesquiteers who back up Wayne’s Stony Brooke (Terhune aided by his ventriloquist’s dummy Elmer). The same music is used.

As with all these movies, the setting is contemporary, with late-1930s costumes and transport, though the Mesquiteers seem to live in a time-warp, ridin’ the range and firing their six-shooters with abandon. The time they live in, though, is neither the 1930s nor the 1870s but instead it is the Tom Mix era of flashy cowboys and prancing white horses.

This one has a rustling plot. The twist is that the rustlers are using big trucks (which, thanks to speeded-up film, manage to hold the road at over 100 mph). There are two villains, though, this time: there’s a fellow named Payne (William Royle) who runs a dude ranch (this series liked dude ranches); he is immediately and obviously a bad guy because he wears a suit and has a pencil mustache. But it turns out that he is only the henchman of the true villain, Hartley (Perry Ivins), a rancher who wears a suit and has a pencil mustache. This evil rancher feigns outrage at the rustlin’ but he’s the one responsible, the two-timin' chiseler. Still, he gets his just desserts, being hurled from the cab of the speeding truck with an "Aaahh!" Serves him right, the skunk.

Once again Stony pretends to be someone else, this time the escaped killer, Killer Madigan. And this time it’s the other two pals’ turn to pretend to be dead (in Pals of the Saddle it was Stony). I must say, though, Killer Madigan has a great automobile.

The glamorous female this time is Lorna Gray as Jane. Ms. Gray, who changed her name in 1945 to Adrian Booth, was a Columbia contract player loaned out to lesser studios now and then. She later joined Republic permanently and did quite a lot of Westerns, all B; the biggest was probably Dakota in 1945, also with John Wayne.

Elmer has a conversation with a parrot.
 
They put a bad guy in a refrigerated truck to make him talk
 
Though Stony has a rep for romancing the dames, he never actually gets one. In Red River Range, however, we are 'amusingly' led to believe he has fallen into matrimonial clutches in the last reel. But luckily someone else marries Jane and the three pals can ride off into the sunset to find their next adventure, which is pretty well de rigueur.
 
Actually, though, e-pards, I think you'll be better off dropping the Range from the title and watching Wayne in Red River, nine years later.
 
Next in the series was The Night Riders.
 
 

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Overland Stage Raiders (Republic, 1938)


John Wayne's Three Mesquiteers pictures, 2:






Overland Stage Raiders was the second of the eight Three Mesquiteers pictures that John Wayne starred in for Republic, 1938 – 39, following hard on the hooves of Pals of the Saddle. Shot in ten days in August ’38 and released in September, it was the mixture much as before, a 55-minute second feature directed by George Sherman and starring as the other Mesquiteers Ray ‘Crash’ Corrigan and Max Terhune (with Elmer) as alleged comic relief. It has a very similar plot: skullduggery is thwarted by the heroic pals.
 
In the poster there's an actual stagecoach. The artist clearly hadn't seen the movie.
 
There is a lot of action, to keep the infantile audience quiet, but also a lot of talking on clunky sound stages as the actors tell each other the plot.

It has the same contemporary-yet-Wild West setting, with the Stetsoned and spurred pals riding the range with sixguns on their hips, yet cars and planes figuring and the rest of the cast in modern (1930s) dress (the chief villain always in a suit). It’s odd, but you get used to it. In fact the internal combustion engine is central to the plot of this one: while we are used in Westerns to plots about stage lines being put out of business by the railroads, in this one the robbed stage in question is a bus and it is replaced by an air service.
 
Duke refuels the stage
 
The new aerial stage is also raided, and the bad guys force the passengers to parachute out, which is a new twist, I suppose.

Yakima Canutt drove the bus and managed the horse stunts. Republic specialized in horse chases (they offered a bottle of bourbon to the fastest rider) and there are several exciting episodes in Overland Stage Raiders, such as the recapture of a hijacked train. Sadly, though, the movie is notable for a chillingly profligate use of the Running W, the trip wire that brought horse and rider down in a tumbling heap with results always painful and sometimes fatal to the horse.
 
The Three Mesquiteers with Brooks
 
The only other feature of note, really, is the presence as leading lady of Louise Brooks, the erotic icon who drank her career away. It was her last picture. She only received $300 for the B-movie but was always attracted by a handsome co-star. She clearly adored Wayne, though the utter mediocrity of Republic scripts did not allow this to come across on screen. Taken to the set in a company car, she recorded her first impressions of Wayne:

Two men looked around, saw me and came to greet me. One was a cherub, five feet tall, carrying a bound script; the other was a cowboy, six feet four inches tall, wearing a lovely smile. The cherub, who was the director, George Sherman, introduced me to the cowboy, who was John Wayne. … Looking up at him, I thought, this is no actor but the hero of all mythology miraculously brought to life. … John was, in fact, that which Henry James defined as the greatest of all works of art – a purely beautiful being.

Santa Fe Stampede was next.
 
 

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Pals of the Saddle (Republic, 1938)


John Wayne’s Three Mesquiteers pictures, 1:
 



 
 
In 1938 John Wayne signed a new contract with Republic. The salary wasn’t bad, eight Westerns at $3000 a picture, quite healthy for the time (though a far cry from what big studios were offering). Republic boss Herbert Yates enticed Wayne with a promise that he would star in a movie about Sam Houston. It was a lie, though, as was often the case: Yates gave the role to Richard Dix. Still, at least Wayne was working, and a decent weekly check was coming in.

He made eight pictures in the Three Mesquiteers series (four each side of Stagecoach) based on the Western novels of William Colt MacDonald. They were very popular movies, and Republic made 51 altogether, between 1936 and ’43.  From 1937 to the end of the series, The Motion Picture Herald consistently ranked the series in its top ten of cinematic Westerns, and they reached a peak of popularity with Wayne in the lead. Bob Livingston starred as the hero Stony Brooke for fifteen movies, 1936 – ’38, but then Yates promoted him, grooming him for stardom (which never really happened) and Wayne took over.
 
The first of Wayne's eight Three Mesquiteers pictures
 
As for the other two Mesquiteers, for all the pictures up to and including the 24th in 1939 and including all the ones Wayne was in, Ray Corrigan played the two-gunned Tucson Smith, while Max Terhune, with his ventriloquist’s dummy Elmer, was Lullaby Joslin for the first six of Wayne’s efforts, giving way to Raymond Hatton for the last two.
 
Terhune (sans Elmer), Wayne, Corrigan
 
The pictures were a juvenile serial, really, and very formulaic. Like many of the Westerns of the era, they were set in semi-modern times (the latter pictures had the pals fighting Nazis). Cars and planes appear, the villains and the dame wear contemporary (i.e. 1930s) dress, yet the pals ride the range in spurs and Stetsons with sixguns on their hips. Pals of the Saddle is (vaguely) set during some post-1938 world war, at least one assumes so, and has a plot about a crooked scheme to mine the poison gas ‘monium’ and ship it out of the USA for use by (unnamed) European powers. Naturally, the pals foil the evil machinations. Children must have enjoyed it.

The early part of the story is set on a dude ranch where pretty secret agent Ann Cameron (Doreen McKay, who would also be in Night Riders) is trying to foil the skullduggery of ‘Judge Hastings’, a villain (Josef Forte). Stony is recruited and pretends to be dead to elude pursuit. His pals are mortified to hear of his demise but the two of them (three if you count Elmer) soon find Stony has being playing possum and back him up in his efforts to thwart the villains. The US Cavalry arrives at the last minute, in time-honored fashion, and saves the day.
 
Mesquiteering away
 
Yakima Canutt is a henchman and was in charge of the stunts (quite a bit of leaping from one wagon horse to the next).

To be fair, Pals of the Saddle, directed by good old George Sherman, is one of the better Three Mesquiteers pictures and you could (just about) devote 55 minutes of your time to it but I don’t think anyone would lay claims to greatness for the film.

Overland Stage Raiders came next. Bet you can’t wait to read the review of that one, so click the link, e-pards.

 

 

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Wells Fargo (Paramount, 1937)


Hokum, but that's OK




 
 
Many Hollywood Westerns, especially in the 1920s and 30s, concentrated on themes of nation-building, cross-continental expansion. There were epic ‘manifest destiny’ films about covered wagons pioneering westward settlement, such as The Covered Wagon and The Big Trail, while other movies focused on communications like the building of the telegraph (Western Union), the Pony Express (Pony Express) and of course the construction of the railroads (The Iron Horse, Union Pacific and many more). Such pictures often showed Abraham Lincoln as a visionary of hallowed dignity, determined to build a united nation that reached from coast to coast. Very much in this tradition came Paramount’s 1937 offering with their new star, a handsome young Joel McCrea, in the lead part, Wells Fargo.
 
Big starring role for Joel
                                                                                                                
It was Mr. McCrea’s first starring role in a Western, the genre he came to love and of which he became a leading figure. He had had a tiny walk-on part in Scarlet River in 1933 (hardly a Western at all) and been third billed in the semi-Western Barbary Coast in 1935. In 1939 he would nation-build again as a railroad man in Union Pacific. Later he would go on to be a leading Western actor and would play, among other figures of the mythic West, Buffalo Bill, the Virginian and Wyatt Earp. In fact, though, like Barbary CoastWells Fargo is only nominally a Western: it is really more a big-budget historical romance.

A faux-historical veneer is given to the movie with places and dates coming up on the screen before the various episodes, as if it were some kind of documentary. Like all such pictures, however, it was more romance than history, and liberties are taken with the historical facts, but as I have often said, we don’t watch Hollywood Westerns for a history lesson. As long as they avoid spurious claims along the lines of ‘this is how it really happened’, I have no problem with historical hokum on the silver screen.
 
Faux-documentary
 
It’s a big, colorful (well, we imagine it’s colorful; it’s a black & white movie) epic treatment of the establishment of the mail routes that joined the Atlantic with the Pacific coast. Joel McCrea does it almost single-handed: he is Ramsay MacKay, right-hand man of Henry Wells (Henry O’Neill) - William G Fargo is oft mentioned but never appears. The picture covers thirty years and the make-up department is busy aging the actors in the last reel.

A huge team of seven writers was employed to adapt a story by Stuart N Lake, the journalist and popular ‘historian’, and the resulting farrago (for, dear e-readers, it is rather a farrago) was directed by Frank Lloyd, who asked for McCrea. Lloyd was a Scottish vaudeville player who emigrated to Canada, then directed early silent movies for Fox, many of which were Westerns, including the 1918 Riders of the Purple Sage. For Samuel Goldwyn, then Warner Brothers, then Paramount, he directed many big-budget historical films through the 30s, such as the 1935 Mutiny on the Bounty, and was a big-ticket name by 1937.
 
Frank Lloyd (not Wright)
 
There’s noble, swirling Victor Young music and quite impressive photography by Theodor Sparkuhl, not a Western specialist though he did five, including Randolph Scott’s last film for Paramount, The Texans, the following year. There are good California and Colorado locations and very many extras. It was not done on the cheap. And the cast is huge.

Originally released at nearly two hours, the sprawling story was pruned to jolly up the pacing. Most people see it these days in the 97-minute version.

We start in upstate New York in 1840 as a rather splendid tall-stacked early locomotive tows a train into the station (much to the fright of rearing horses) and an enthusiastic Joel McCrea distributes the long-awaited mail to the crowd, whom he seems to know individually, personally, even intimately.

From there his career progresses rapidly as he maps out the route to California, establishes 120 way stations and fights off Confederate attempts on the gold he is carrying, until by the final reel he is a rich, gray-haired vice-president of the company.
 
They age
 
But essentially, all this derring-do plays second fiddle to the love story between Joel and the rather tiresome Justine (Frances Dee, Mrs. McCrea) who is a spoilt Southern belle with a harridan of a mother (Mary Nash). Ms. Dee, who only did four Westerns (the best was also with her husband, Four Faces West in 1948) is pretty but labors to make such an unattractive character sympathetic, and Ms. Nash is doomed from the outset. The couple are estranged after a note written by Justine detailing the route of the gold shipment falls into the hands of the Rebs (the wicked mother sent it), but will later be reconciled through the good offices of their daughter Alice (Peggy Stewart).

Frank McGlynn is Lincoln, again. He did look a bit like Abe and rather cornered the market in Lincoln portrayals. There’s a young ‘John Mack Brown’, who plays Joel’s rival for the hand of Justine, joins the Confederate army and is shot down trying to ambush Joel’s gold shipment in Colorado. Bob Burns plays the hokey sidekick, ‘Hank York, a Wanderer’, and he in turn has his own sidekick (who says only Ug but does all the work panning for gold in California while Hank whittles and sings). This is Pawnee (Bernard Siegel).

John Butterfield figures, played by Clarence Kolb. Butterfield appears as a fellow-pioneer and Wells, Fargo partner. He in fact drives the first St Louis/California stage, with Joel as shotgun messenger. In reality of course John Butterfield (1801 – 69) was a rival. He established his own overland stage route from St Louis to San Francisco and until 1861 had the government contract to carry the mail but in 1860 he went broke, and Wells, Fargo & Company took over the route. Still, as I said above, we don’t want actual historical truth to get in the way of a good story, do we?
 
Farrago
 
Massive amounts of American history are packed in, often dispatched in one line of dialogue or one brief scene. It’s as though the many writers each inserted a line here and there about this or that. There’s quite a good battle when Joel’s large force carrying the gold clashes with the Confederate cavalry but wins out. There are a lot of clumsy shots of actors on those fake horses with back-projected action but at least they avoided the temptation to speed up the film.

McCrea himself had a soft spot for this movie. It was his first epic, and starring with his wife helped. He also admired Frank Lloyd: "I learned more about integrity and sincerity from Frank Lloyd than from anybody else." McCrea was a pallbearer at Lloyd's funeral. As I like Joel McCrea as a Western hero and the movie is quite a big-budget affair, I don’t mind Wells Fargo, but to be honest it is hardly a Western at all but more of a top-hat-and-crinoline drama. You could watch it. If you are at all serious as a Westernista you need to see it. It could have been worse; it could have been directed by Cecil B DeMille, for example. But a great example of the genre I fear it ain’t.