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

Thursday, October 11, 2018

The Woman of the Town (UA, 1943)


Bat cleans up Dodge - and gets into a love triangle




 
 
Not long ago I reviewed the 2012 movie Wyatt Earp’s Revenge, which told the tale of a posse out of Dodge City to capture Spike Kenedy, who had shot and killed the singer/actress Dora Hand in October 1878. It was complete tosh historically, as Westerns so often are. Not that historicity is what they are for. But it was not the first time the story had been told. Back in 1943 we had The Woman of the Town, with Claire Trevor as Dora.
 
Bat's second screen outing

Ms. Trevor had already made it big in Westerns, most notably with John Wayne in John Ford’s Stagecoach in 1939, released by United Artists, and she returned with Duke in November the same year in RKO’s Allegheny Uprising, and once more in Republic’s Dark Command, directed by Raoul Walsh, in 1940. Then she would be paired with William Holden in Texas, Clark Gable in Honky Tonk (yet to be reviewed), and Randolph Scott in The Desperadoes. She usually played a ‘woman of the town’ or similar, rarely being a virginal schoolma’am type (and when I say rarely, I mean never), though she was a posh banker's daughter in Dark Command. She was a great actress and she got top billing in The Woman of the Town, beating out Albert Dekker as Bat Masterson.

Now, we have often talked about Bat Masterson, in the flesh and on the screen (click the link above for that). There have been very many Bats, and we think especially of Gene Barry on TV but also, on the big screen, of Joel McCrea in The Gunfight at Dodge City, Randolph Scott in Trail Street and George Montgomery in Masterson of Kansas. The first time was in William S Hart’s silent Wild Bill Hickok of 1923 (YTBR) when he was played by Jack Gardner, but if I am not wrong (and that shocking occurrence has been known to happen) Dekker was only the second celluloid Bat. He is pretty solid in the part.

Bat as Bat

Albert as Bat

Because Masterson became a sports journalist in New York in later life, many movies like to make him a writer, or an aspiring one, in Westerns set earlier. Actually, he was a buffalo hunter, lawman and then professional gambler in his ‘Western’ days. In this picture we start in NYC in 1919 with a gray-haired Bat at the office of The Morning Telegraph where Louella Parsons (Beryl Wallace) wants Bat to put fifty bucks on Jack Dempsey for her. A gun-collector comes in, wanting Bat’s pistol, the one he cleaned up Dodge with, but Bat tells him he has no gun. He buried it on Boot Hill back in ’78. Then of course the screen goes all blurry to indicate a flashback and we next see a sprightlier Bat in Dodge back in ’78. He has come to Kansas to seek out the editor of The Dodge City Globe to get a job on the paper (actually, it was called The Ford County Globe then). The editor of this rag is, obviously, Henry Hull. I say obviously because Hull made a specialty of the part of newspaper editor and had come to fame with his cheerfully overacted role as newspaperman in Jesse James in 1939 and its sequel The Return of Frank James in 1940. He would do the act yet again in Rimfire in 1947.

That's Henry Hull on the left

However, while in the saloon Bat witnesses the city marshal being shot dead by a loutish cowboy over a picture of Abe hanging behind the bar, which the cowpoke took exception to. Would-be scribbler Bat duly shoots the cowboy and is promptly elected marshal by Mayor ‘Dog’ Kelley (Porter Hall, accompanied by a rather fine Collie). We all know of course that Bat Masterson was never marshal of Dodge, being elected instead to the post of Ford County Sheriff. Bat’s brother Ed was marshal and when Ed was killed, Charlie Bassett took over, with Wyatt Earp as an assistant marshal. Still, we don’t want to be picky. In so many tough-marshal-cleans-up-Dodge Westerns it’s Wyatt Earp who does the town-tamin’ and Bat is usually a flunky-type deputy. At least Bat gets to bring law ‘n’ order to Dodge this time.

In fact in one good bit he sees lowdown gambler Derringer Davis (sadly uncredited actor) brandishing his popgun and immediately shoots him down. As you know, all Westerns that feature derringers go up in my estimation (it can even get them an extra revolver in the ratings).

Bat with entertaining old-timer Buffalo Burns (Clem Bevans)

Dekker was not really a Western specialist, being a stage actor who also did films. He had started in our noble genre with a part in the Fred MacMurray oater Rangers of Fortune in 1940 (YTBR) and appeared with Trevor in Honky Tonk in '41. He did the two Wayne oaters In Old California and In Old Oklahoma in '42 and '43 before The Woman of the Town, his only Western as male lead. After his Bat Masterson he would do a couple of pictures with Richard Dix and a few B-Westerns, before parts in Fury at Furnace Creek, Anthony Mann's The Furies and The Wonderful Country. He also appeared in a couple of Rawhide episodes and a Bonanza one. But nothing became him in the genre more than the leaving of it: he was really memorable as the railroad man Harrigan in Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, which was in fact released after Dekker's (rather sordid) death.

Dekker's Bat is rather a respectable type, in a suit, and he meets another respectable person in church. It’s Miss Dora Hand (Trevor), and she sweetly sings an anthem while comic old-timer Buffalo Burns (an entertaining Clem Bevans) takes the collection at gunpoint. Dora also demurely rides sidesaddle to tend a sick child and raises money for a hospital, so she’s close to angelic. Imagine the marshal’s shock, therefore, when he next meets this apparent paragon of virtue wearing a low-cut dress in the saloon as she goes on stage to sing a rather raunchy and 1940s-bluesy number about a girl named Polly. You can tell he doesn’t approve.

Still, he stands up for her when the ‘respectable’ ladies of Dodge don’t want her at church on Sundays. He writes an article for the Globe, headlined A Woman of the Town, which shames the hypocritical Pharisees. He is (you know this) referring to Luke 7:37.

And, behold, a woman in the city, which was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at meat in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster box of ointment.

The Pharisees, as you doubtless remember, disapproved of this woman all ways round, the more so when she started anointing Jesus’ feet with the contents of the box. But Jesus says (v 47)

Wherefore I say unto thee, Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much.

So there. Bat’s article is a big hit and he gets the preacher, the Reverend Samuel Small (Percy Kilbride), on his side. Bat still doesn’t approve of Dora’s job, though.

But then she doesn’t approve of his job either, going around casually killing people in saloons and such (which of course Bat never did), and she does her utmost to persuade him to take up journalism instead. In fact she even goes to Kansas City where her rich uncle (Russell Hicks) owns The Clarion, and nags him into offering Bat a job. But we all know a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do (this is a Western) and the evil King Kennedy and his wild bunch are soon coming to town. They will make mayhem. Bat has to stick to his gun and badge. He says he knows how to shoot. “I learned from Wyatt Earp.” Stuart N Lake’s sensational Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal had come out in the early 30s and then Randolph Scott had brought the lawman to the screen in 1939 in Fox's Frontier Marshal. Audiences would have been very familiar with the Earp myth.

In the movie Eddie Foy is also playing Dodge and does a couple of those (I think) totally unfunny vaudeville turns, with a comic song and dance and a stupid costume. They probably thought it was hilarious in 1878. And even in 1943. Eddie Foy (who was indeed performing in Dodge then) is played by his son Charley.

There are fleeting appearances by Hank Worden as the barber and Russell Simpson standing at the bar but blink and you'll miss them. I think they were the bittiest bit parts they ever did. A tragic waste.

‘King Kennedy’ is the Spike Kenedy figure, and is played by a young Barry Sullivan, all duded up in an almost Tom Mixish costume. Dog Kelley says he’s “a rich young rip”, which was more or less the case in fact.

Barry is the bad guy

Sullivan was one of those movie actors who never quite made it to the very top. Second-lead roles and then TV were his destiny. This was his first Western and he would follow it with a rare lead in Bad Men of Tombstone (YTBR), a B, in 1949, and I remember him as the bad guy in the Joel McCrea oater The Outriders, then with Barbara Stanwyck in The Maverick Queen and Forty Guns in 1956 and ’57. He was good as the charming rogue in Dragoon Wells Massacre and then from 1960 he became well-known (though not, I thought, very convincing) as Pat Garrett in The Tall Man on TV. He’s OK (he always was OK) as the lead heavy in The Woman of the Town. He’s rich, tall, handsome and educated, and waltzes Dora round the ball with aplomb. She is captivated. Bat proposes to her and she declines. Kennedy does, and she accepts.

There’s a furiously jealous saloon gal, Daisy (Marion Martin) who loves Kennedy and detests Dora. She pours poison in Kennedy’s ear, Iago-like, and persuades him that Dora is actually two-timing him with Marshal Masterson. She has witnessed a rather daring scene in which Masterson helps Dora undo the hooks of her dress so that she might change, and she uses that as proof, though it was innocent. But we now know that a Kennedy/Masterson showdown is coming.

There’s a good bit when Dog Kelley slaps Kennedy when he badmouths Dora and Kennedy responds by shooting the mayor in the arm and, much worse, shooting the Collie. Bat arrests and imprisons him. Shooting a mayor is OK but dogicide, that's quite another matter.

Porter is the mayor
 
 The real James 'Dog' Kelley

Now Glenn Strange as Walker and Hal Taliaferro as Wagner (an excellent pairing) lead a mob to bust Kennedy out of jail. Wagner and Walker were well-chosen names because they were the ones responsible for the shooting down of Marshal Ed Masterson in 1878. Wagner was subsequently killed and Walker wounded, probably (but not certainly) by Bat Masterson. Of course in this movie Marshal Masterson (Bat of that Ilk) stands down the mob, as gritty marshals were wont to do in Westerns - it was a standard trope.

Dora really loves Bat, of course, not Kennedy. She tries to dissuade him from going to meet Kennedy with his gun for the inevitable showdown, in a scene very reminiscent of The Virginian. To no avail, natch, because of course a man’s gotta do, etc.

Bat sends Dora to Dog’s house (not the doghouse) for safe keeping. Grave error. Because Kennedy, furious, comes back with his gang and shoots up the town, and a shot through Kelley’s door hits Dora, fatally. Her dying words to Bat are to beg him not to kill Kennedy.

Sadly, there’s no flight by Kennedy and posse to catch him, as in history (and Wyatt Earp’s Revenge). Bat simply arrests Kennedy and then there’s the funeral and Bat puts his guns in Dora’s grave (slightly creepy, that) and goes off, sans true love, to be a journalist in New York. Now we flash forward again and see a sad, remembering Bat gazing at the framed front page of the Dodge City Globe with his article A Woman of the Town at the top. It’s a slightly flat ending, actually.

The picture was a Harry Sherman production. Sherman was best known for his Hopalong Cassidy oaters and the director he chose was also a Hopalong regular, French-born George Archinbaud, who also deserves eternal credit for helming episodes of The Range Rider, my favorite Western TV show as a boy. The screenplay was by Æneas MacKenzie, based on a story by Norman Houston. The splendidly-named Æneas also worked on They Died With Their Boots On and the Joel McCrea Buffalo Bill, so knew a thing or two about 1940s Westerns, while Houston was an experienced hand who had started on Westerns in the silent days but graduated to writing large numbers of Hopalong Cassidy and Roy Rogers programmers. Later he would write the fun Robert Mitchum oaters Nevada and West of the Pecos.

It was shot (in black & white) by the highly competent Russell Harlan, and is no cheap B-movie. In fact it was to have been a Paramount picture but the studio unloaded it because of an overfull schedule. Still, it got Paramount production values.

What really happened though?

Dora Hand, born c 1844 (and so in her mid-thirties at her death) was a dance hall singer and actress. Some said she had been educated in Europe and come West because of tuberculosis but there is no hard evidence for this. She had been divorced from a certain Ted Hand and she used the stage name Fannie Keenan (so few would have known her as Dora). An article in the Boot Hill Museum in Dodge City describes her as "of medium height and build, with a face of classic beauty. There was a grace and charm in her walk. She dressed plainly, usually in black, and this color seemed to accentuate the ivory whiteness of her soft skin." Not sure of the evidence for that. Stuart N Lake described her as "the most graciously beautiful woman to come to Dodge City in the heyday of its iniquity." But you should never trust Lake. She sang at the Lady Gay and also at Mayor Kelley’s fancy Alhambra Saloon.

Dora Hand and her alter ego Claire Trevor

Jim Kenedy, known as Spike (the photograph below is said to be of him), was the son of rich rancher Capt. Mifflin Kenedy of the Rancho de Los Laureles in Texas. The younger Kenedy, a known rake, had got into a scrape in Ellsworth back in 1872 when he shot cattleman Print Olive (click the link to read my essay on him), whom he accused of cheating at cards. Olive’s bodyguard and fixer, Jim Kelly, shot Kenedy in the leg. Friends of Kenedy got him away and back to his daddy’s ranch. He seems to have led a reasonably quiet life there for the next five years but Dr. Henry Hoyt, who knew him well, recounts in his highly enjoyable memoirs A Frontier Doctor (clink the link for a review of that) how Spike could not resist the siren lure of Dodge City.

The real James 'Spike' Kenedy

Spike seemed to think that his daddy’s wealth meant that he was above the law. In July 1878 he was arrested by Assistant Marshal Wyatt Earp for carrying a pistol and was fined. A month later he was back in court and fined again after being arrested by Marshal Bassett for disorderly conduct. Kenedy complained bitterly about these arrests to Mayor James ‘Dog’ Kelley but Kelley gave him short shrift, saying he backed his officers to the hilt and Kenedy had damn well better behave while in Dodge. Some versions have Kenedy being thrashed by Kelly in a fistfight and going off to Kansas City to recover from his bruises. At any rate Kenedy vowed that he would get revenge.


Kenedy came back to Dodge with a fine racehorse. Kelley had gone off to Fort Dodge for medical treatment and during his absence allowed actresses Fannie Garretson and Fannie Keenan (i.e. Dora Hand), to use his house. At about four in the morning of October 4, four shots were fired through the thin walls into Kelley’s bedroom, killing Dora Hand as she slept. Assistant Marshals Wyatt Earp and Jim Masterson (another of Bat’s brothers) investigated. In the Long Branch saloon the bar-tender told Earp that Kenedy had left shortly before the shots were fired and returned soon after. Earp and Masterson then found a friend of Kenedy’s who confirmed that Kenedy had fired the shots.

Masterson, Bassett, Earp and Tilghman (I couldn't find a photo of Bill Duffy)
 
The next morning Bat Masterson put together a posse consisting of himself, his deputies Bill Tilghman and Bill Duffy with City Marshal Bassett and Assistant Marshal Earp (presumably the last two were deputized as sheriff’s men because they would be out of their jurisdiction otherwise). The Dodge City Times rather sensationally called it “as intrepid a posse as ever pulled a trigger”. The problem the posse had was locating Kenedy, who had disappeared into the vastness of Kansas on his fast horse.

The posse members searched for some time, in vain. As the five rested their tired horses at a ranch, almost by a miracle they saw a distant rider approaching and it was Kenedy. Their horses were scattered so they awaited Kenedy on foot. Masterson ordered that if the man tried to escape, he, Masterson, would shoot at Kenedy while Earp should shoot the horse. About 75 yards in, Kenedy spotted them, wheeling his horse to make a run for it. As planned, Earp downed the horse and Masterson shot Kenedy in the shoulder. The posse hired a team and took Kenedy, who was badly hurt, back to Dodge.

For two weeks Kenedy languished in pain in a jail cell, until his father arrived. Then he was released by Judge RG Cook. Earp always maintained it was because of Captain Mifflin and his expensive lawyers, though the Times simply reported, “The evidence being insufficient, the prisoner was acquitted.” Mifflin and his son went back to Texas. Hoyt wrote that Kenedy’s arm and shoulder were shot to pieces and he only lived a year or two more. In fact he died in 1884.

Such were the facts of the case. Casey Tefertiller, in the most authoritative biography of Earp, Wyatt Earp: The Life Behind the Legend, will give you a little more detail if you are interested.


The best book on Wyatt

It’s all rather a far cry from what happens in The Woman of the Town. But never mind. It’s good to have Dora figure large in a Western, and to have another Bat Masterson picture, however fake historically.

Watch it. Enjoy.

 

 

6 comments:

  1. As mentioned on a previous post I do have a problem with Dekker as a Western leading
    man-as a heavy he's fine but would much rather Scott or McCrea played Masterson,as
    indeed they did later. WOMAN OF THE TOWN is still a good Western and thanks,as
    always for the history lesson.I understand MacKenzie's first draft for BUFFALO BILL
    had Cody as a total SOB and charlatan and Wellman,at the time thought it was the
    best script that he had ever read.Later Wellman considering the time when BUFFALO
    BILL was made thought this is not the time to deconstruct an American hero-they
    went for the legend instead.

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    1. I rather like him in the genre. I agree, he was probably better as a heavy (e.g. his crooked banker in THE KANSAN).
      Yes, I had heard that too about the first draft for the BB script and how they thought it wasn't the time. Actually, from reading Don Russell and Joseph Rosa on Cody, I don't think he was a SOB. Robert Altman didn't hold back in 1976 and his BB (Paul Newman) was an out-and-out charlatan. But I didn't get on with that picture and prefer to think of Cody as a true Westerner and decent man.
      Jeff

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  2. WOTT was shown by the BBC here in the UK several times in the latter 1950s and, of course, I watched it each time. Sadly, that was the last time I saw the film (nearly 60 years ago). I certainly remember enjoying it but not as much as two others that were TV broadcast around the same time, namely "THE KANSAN" & "AMERICAN EMPIRE". Didn't know it then of course but those 2 Richard Dix films were also Harry Sherman productions.

    Jeff, an excellent and very entertaining review. I love the historical perspective and info you bring to these!

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    1. I saw it on DVD. Don't remember it from the olden days.
      AMERICAN EMPIRE (another Paramount film sold on to UA) is a rollicking actioner but a bit overblown. I'd always understood it was called FAR WEST in Europe, to avoid any undiplomatic early-40s wartime allusions that AMERICAN EMPIRE might convey.
      I quite like THE KANSAN, Dix's last Western. Dix is Earpish in that one and it had Dekker too, of course, and the great Victor Jory.
      Jeff

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    2. I believe "AMERICAN EMPIRE" was re-titled "MY SON ALONE", certainly in the UK. It was also under that title when shown by the BBC.

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    3. MY SON ALONE doesn't sound very Western. I prefer FAR WEST...
      Jeff

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