Fred as tough marshal
People of my generation, when they see Fred MacMurray, can’t help thinking of flubber. But in fact he made a couple of other films. And he was surprisingly good in Westerns. He made thirteen big-screen oaters, from The Texas Rangers in 1936 to The Oregon Trail in 1959. He could be gritty and tough. Good Day for a Hanging was one of the last he did. Sadly, I don’t think it was quite up to the standard of the others. Still, you could watch it.
It’s 1878. Fred is a decent citizen of Springdale, Nebraska. He was marshal twenty years ago but he’s given all that up. He’s about to remarry (second-billed Maggie Hayes is his fiancée). Nowadays the marshal is Emile Meyer, so that’s good. He’s Marshal Cain (I thought it might be Kane at first). Unfortunately, however, Emile is shot to death while leading a posse in the first reel so we don’t get to see him much.
The punk outlaw who kills him is Robert Vaughn. Only a year later Vaughn would play the experienced gunfighter who has lost his nerve in The Magnificent Seven but at the moment (he was 26 at the time of Good Day) he was still taking punk kid roles. He’d been doing that since a Gunsmoke episode of 1956, and most of his CV was TV shows. He handles the part of ne’er-do-well with some skill, it must be said.
Pre-Mag 7 Robert Vaughn
Fred was on the posse too, and was the one who creased Outlaw Vaughn’s skull with a Winchester bullet. With Emile no more, and Vaughn in the jail, the townsfolk appoint Fred as marshal again. Fred’s family aren’t too keen on the idea. His fiancée doesn’t want him wearing that tin star and his daughter Laurie (Joan Blackman) is sweet on Vaughn, and convinced he could never have shot anyone, much less a lawman. He is far too saintly. She’s pretty dumb, you see.
This movie starts and ends a Western but most of the intervening reels are devoted to a small-town and courtroom drama that doesn’t really cut it as a proper Western. It was written by Daniel B Ulmman, who had done the Joel McCrea picture Wichita for Jacques Tourneur, and should really have known better. It was directed by Nathan Juran, a former art director (he had won an Oscar for John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley) who has something of a cult rep for directing pictures such as Attack of the 50-Foot Woman and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. He wasn’t really a Western specialist. He directed the horsey shows My Friend Flicka and Fury on TV, and later went to Europe and produced spaghetti westerns, if you count that. I don’t think he quite got it with proper Westerns.
There's no such thing, of course, but maybe they were being ironic
Another problem is that the story gets more and more implausible as it goes along, until the dénouement, which is frankly absurd.
It’s pretty well all set in town and DP Henry Freulich, responsible for some visually attractive Westerns with George Montgomery and Guy Madison, didn’t get much scope on this one, despite the fancy ColumbiaColor.
The townsfolk are a pretty unpleasant bunch
There’s a trial and we all think that the hotshot lawyer from Lincoln (Edmon Ryan) is going to get the punk off but nay, the marshal’s testimony is too damning and he is sentenced to hang. Fred is put in charge of the execution. It doesn’t make him popular. There are very vague echoes of High Noon as the marshal, once liked and respected, finds himself alone and without support. But vague echoes are all they are.
The young town doc, who loves Laurie (though she prefers Vaughn) is James Drury, who was in a lot of Westerns before he became The Virginian on TV. Towards the end he seems more of a gunslinger than a quack.
Joan Blackman is Fred's dumb daughter
One of the deputies is Denver Pyle, so that’s good too. When Vaughn’s outlaw accomplices break him out of jail one of the bad guys whacks Denver with the overhead oil lamp, which was a bit mean.
Laurie gets stupider and stupider, in the end trying to smuggle a derringer to the prisoner in a lunch basket.
The final shoot-out verges on the silly and there is a highly improbable last-minute happy ending when Fred’s fiancée and daughter suddenly see the error of their ways and are reconciled to him. With no warning at all Laurie suddenly cares about the doc.
No, sorry, but I’m afraid it won’t do.
One nice thing: Columbia used the 3:10 to Yuma music again. It was probably for budget-saving reasons but of course the score (by George Duning, uncredited on this picture) is rather good.
Well, you have to watch it. It’s a late-50s Fred MacMurray Western after all. But no one would claim it as Fred’s best.