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

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Four Faces West (UA, 1948)

A magic little movie

This is a truly delightful little Western. A small ensemble piece beautifully shot in black & white by Russell Harlan and directed with loving care by Alfred E Green, it tells the story of a man, Joel McCrea, who gets a ‘loan’ from a bank at pistol point under the nose of Pat Garrett (we are in 1880s New Mexico) and who boards a train in which two passengers, Joseph Calleia, as a wily, sympathetic New Mexican saloon owner, and Frances Dee (Mrs. McCrea), as a lovely Eastern nurse, guess he is a fugitive but protect him anyway. Of course Joel falls for Frances but it is all so sweet, so gentlemanly and so well, nice that your heart can’t failed to be warmed.
Dee looks like a vamp in the poster but is very demure in the film
The Paul Sawtell music wanders from Hollywood angels to romantic violins to Lone Ranger-style dan-der-dan-dan but that’s OK. It’s fine. Who cares?

Charles Bickford’s Garrett vies with McCrea’s McEwan to see who can be the more decent. McCrea gets ahead by sacrificing his flight in order to nurse a Mexican family with diphtheria. But Garrett overtakes him by offering to speak up for him at his trial and get him a lenient sentence. Joel is also motivated to go quietly by Dee, who will only marry him if he gives himself up.
Joel sacrifices himself to save others
McCrea had been appearing in Westerns since the mid-1930s. His Ramsay MacKay in Wells Fargo in 1937 and his Jeff Butler in Union Pacific in 1939, two pre-War nation-building epics, had established him as a major Western lead. He had the title role in William A Wellman’s Buffalo Bill in 1944 and of course he was The Virginian in the 1946 remake. And he had been superb in the André De Toth-directed noir Ramrod the year before. That had been produced by Harry Sherman, the Hopalong Cassidy guy, and this was Sherman's follow-up - and in fact his last film. So McCrea was a hot Western property and this small movie might have been considered a step down, had it not been such a gem. Oaters were becoming his thing and he always played the quiet, decent, sometimes long-suffering hero. Sherman only wanted McCrea, no one else. he was right: this could be the McCrea Western.
Bickford plays a decent Garrett
Bickford was a tough cookie. Acquitted of attempted murder at the age of nine, he had served in the US Navy and then gone into acting, becoming a friend of James Cagney. He starred in Hell’s Heroes in 1929 and the Michael Curtiz picture River's End in 1930 but he was mauled by a tiger on the set of Fox's East of Java and the scarring incurred made him drop from starring to character parts. Here, he was to join the roll of honor of those who have played Pat Garrett. Later he was to appear in high-class oaters such as The Big Country, The Unforgiven and A Big Hand for the Little Lady.

McCrea is outstanding as the honest bandit and Bickford really authoritative as Garrett but they are admirably complemented by Joseph Calleia, who manages a charming-rogue portrayal: magnetic, intelligent, wise.
Mob boss Calleia
Calleia was Maltese and his looks got him all sorts of ethnic parts, especially Hispanics. He was a classic Hollywood bad guy, often a mob boss, but could also do sensitive, good-badman roles very well, as here. He was in 13 Westerns, including a couple of Alan Ladd ones, Branded and The Iron Mistress.
Calleia shows them Inscription Rock: paso por aqui
Frances Dee, who had been the female lead in Wells Fargo, is certainly beautiful and as the rather prim Easterner does a fine job. Usually, the ‘good’ single women were schoolteachers but this time she is a nurse. Same thing. Just as long as she doesn’t go anywhere near a saloon.

William Conrad has a small part as an (already overweight) sheriff.

Actually, though, come to think of it, perhaps Inscription Rock, El Morro, photographed by Harlan, upstages them all.

The screenplay was by Graham Baker and Teddi Sherman with an ‘adaptation by’ William and Milarde Brent, so a lot of people worked on the script but it was based on a novel, Paso por aqui, by Eugene Manlove Rhodes, a New Mexico rancher who loved the land, and it shows. His books were known for their authenticity about Western life. The project was first known as They Passed This Way, and that title was retained for the British release.
There’s a surreal scene when Joel rides across a Sahara-like desert of sand on a saddled bullock, finely shot in glowing monochrome. Very memorable!

The 1880s railroad car and four-up mail hack are excellently authentic.
Noble nurse meets decent puncher
It is a rare bird, this film: a Western without gunshots. No one shoots. They are all too decent, you see. No one even throws a punch.

Only two bounty hunters and the banker, who pays extra to get Joel dead, are real villains. And even the bounty hunters don’t get to be more than rude to Frances before Garrett decently comes in and saves her. Everyone is a straight-up Westerner, you understand, and it’s only a competition to see who can be more decent than the next guy. Joel wins. He even empties all his cartridges so that two little sick boys can inhale the sulphur fumes. Even Pat Garrett can’t get more decent than that.

Producer Sherman said, "Joel is the greatest natural western actor since Mix and Hart, and he's the first natural horseman I've ever seen. No trick rider, just a guy who knows how to sit on a horse with grace and authority."

This is what a late 40s low-budget Western could be. Naïve, simple, heart-warming. Call it cheesy if you will, I won’t mind. Wait, I do mind. This is a magic little movie and a must-see.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Gunfighters (Columbia, 1947)


Predictable but don't underestimate it

Gunfighters is a good, solid 1940s oater with several merits but in the last resort it’s predictable and clichéd.
Cinecolor, rather nice
Randolph Scott was by this time turning out two Westerns a year and this was his 26th. It was something of a production line. Still, as I say, it has its points.

The production values are high. It was done in Cinecolor, a process which gives a pleasant almost pastel wash to the print and highlights the reds, and the nice Fred Jackman Jr. photography of Sedona AZ locations, with all that red earth and those pink rocks, suits it very well.

The acting is good too. Scott does his seasoned Westerner act as Brazos Kane in the lead and there are two pretty girls, sisters, for him to choose between, Bess and Jane Banner (Barbara Britton and Dorothy Hart). The heavies are also strong, especially the sneering killer Ben Orcutt (Forrest Tucker) who fancies himself quicker on the draw than Kane. Poor fool.
Sure you got the right sister, Randy?
It’s a very corny start, with Kane killing his best friend in a Main Street quick-draw shoot-out because the friend “just had to see who was the fastest”. Kane hangs up his guns, never to fire them again. As if.

As is 100% predictable, he is obliged later in the movie to strap six-shooters on again and shoot it out with the bad guys. He throws the pistols away again at the end when he rides off into the sunset with the chosen sis (sorry to spoil it for you but I don’t think I’m giving away much) but you just know it’s only until the next crisis, when he’ll be shooting people again.

The message is therefore rather rancid: however hard you try, the only way for a real man is to use firearms.
That's his kind of gal
It was a Zane Grey story (Two Sombreros) which I haven’t read so I don’t know how much Alan Le May altered it for the screen but the writing is the weakest part of the film. If you don’t guess within ten minutes who the murderers are, you must be pretty green.

There’s also the routine and despicable resort to lynching that disfigured so many Westerns. Not that lynching didn’t happen, it did, far too often, but just that it’s brushed off as insignificant. When Kane is saved from the hanging, the sheriff laughs it off as all cleared up now and no one arrests the attempted murderer. Harmless horseplay, I suppose.
The picture was directed by George Waggner (1894 – 1984) who started as an actor in silents (he was Buffalo Bill in The Iron Horse) and also wrote a good many B-Westerns in the 1930s. In the 40s he produced some too. So he was pretty experienced one way and another. He later directed a lot of TV Westerns. Occasionally the direction of Gunfighters is good, even inspired. I love the way, for example, that the plot starts right away, under the titles so that five minutes in, the story is well under way. And the horse chase sequence is terrific, with stuntmen but no fakery. At other times, though, the pace flags and you think they’ll never get to the inevitable final reel showdown.

It was the first production work of Randolph Scott and Harry Joe Brown that was to blossom into such a productive and high-quality cooperation in the coming decade.

Writer Burt Kennedy said that it was the only Scott/Brown film not to make money, which wouldn't have pleased Harry Cohn, but fortunately the next one, Coroner Creek, was a humdinger.

I love a Randolph Scott Western every now and then. They were so ‘straight’ and uncomplicated yet actionful and well done. This wasn’t one of his best but don’t underestimate it. You could do a lot worse.


Sunday, April 28, 2013

Barbary Coast (UA, 1935)

A fun Hollywood melodrama

Only a semi-Western, being more a gangster film set in gold-rush California than a proper oater, Barbary Coast is nevertheless a fun Hollywood melodrama with some excellent performances, and is important as only the second Western (if Western it be) of the great Joel McCrea.
Gold digger with piratical crime boss
Howard Hawks and his writers Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur start us off in the fog on a large sailboat out of New York approaching San Francisco. (At least we are assuming Hawks/Hecht/MacArthur start us here; Hawks replaced William Wyler, and Edward Chodorov and Stephen Longstreet also wrote some of the screenplay, uncredited.) An amusingly roguish eye-patched Old Atrocity (Walter Brennan) rows the heroine, Mary (Miriam Hopkins) to shore. Brennan was doing the cranky old-timer act he made his own, playing an apparent septuagenarian (he was 41).
Old-timer, 41 (only 3rd in the appalling shirt contest)
Miriam soon meets and enters into an overacting contest (which she wins on points) with Edward G Robinson. EGR, as Luis Chamalis, looked (relatively) svelte still in the mid-1930s and here is dashing in his ruffled shirt, silk vest and dangling single silver earring, giving him a piratical air. He is boss of the Bella Donna saloon and, it soon transpires, crime boss of San Francisco too.
Fog in Frisco
There are assorted other characters. Colonel Cobb (Frank Craven) is a pioneering free-press journalist, a favorite idea of Hawks’s. (I wonder if he was related to Henry Hull’s Major Cobb in Jesse James; his brother, perhaps). EGR soon smashes his type and any thoughts he might have of telling the truth about gangsterism in Frisco. Then there’s Brian Donlevy as Louis Chamalis’s chief thug and henchman Knuckles: he is a real tough egg and very well played by Brian Donlevy. Donlevy was usually pretty poor in Westerns but he was always good in a saloon, for some reason (see Destry, for example). Donald Meek (with an awful cod Scottish accent) is cheated in Chamalis’s saloon and determined to get his revenge. Donald was, though vertically challenged, usually less than Meek in films.

Curiously, the third-billed Joel McCrea, very handsome at 29, doesn’t appear at all until 40 minutes in. He is the romantic lead - romantic in all the senses, a Byronic Shelley-reading Easterner, Jim Carmichael, who falls for Mary. Joel is a forty-niner digging for gold. Miriam, of course, plays another kind of gold-digger.
Byronic runner-up in the appalling shirt contest
McCrea, Brennan and Robinson have clearly entered a competition to see who can feature the worst shirt ever worn in a Western. Joel’s is a high-waisted Robinson Crusoe raglike effort, Brennan’s a disgusting undershirt of quite repellent characteristics and Edgar, who wins this round (also on points) sports a selection of ruffled monstrosities that no one could ever have thought attractive, even in 1935 (or 1849). Sam Goldwyn's comment was probably "Fire the costume lady". We wouldn't say that nowadays.

We'd say costume person.
Winner of the appalling shirt contest
The one who acts the socks off the lot of them, though, is Harry Carey. From his stunning entrance onwards, in frock coat and pants stuffed into his boots, looking as Sam Elliott must always have dreamed of looking, in handlebars and wide-brimmed Stetson, ten feet tall, Carey, as Sheriff Jed Slocum, is simply magnificent. He has more sinister intentions for establishing law ‘n’ order than mere arrests and he ain't no Sunday-School teacher.

The vigilante theme and the Californian lynch mentality that is installed in the gold-town is grim and well-handled.
The exteriors are very well shot by Ray June. Of course he was well-known for making those MGM pictures look so glossy and big-budget, even if they were programmers. There’s loads of atmospheric Frisco fog and waterfront murk. There’s something almost Dickensian about the picture. It’s more than a little noir. And there are not many movies which climax in a frantic fogbound rowboat chase. It was the Bullitt of its day.
Spoiler alert (as if you care): rather surprisingly, everyone, even the gold-digger, EGR and Brennan, does the decent thing at the end. Only Knuckles dies hard.

Good stuff!

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Ten Wanted Men (Columbia, 1955)


A Randolph Scott/Harry Joe Brown Western but rather routine

H Bruce Humberstone directed quite a lot of low-grade movies such as Charlie Chan tales in the 1930s or Tarzan pics in the 50s. He only did three Westerns, all B ones, and Ten Wanted Men was his first. It is probably his best.

Nice French poster
It was filmed at Old Tucson so at least we get some Arizona scenery, shot by Wilfred Cline in nice color (the currently available print is very good). There are also a lot of stock Western actors: Dennis Weaver is the (rather feeble) young sheriff, Lee van Cleef is (inevitably) a gunman, in an excellent gray John Wayne shirt, and Denver Pyle is another. Lee and Denver both aren’t as fast as they think they are. Leo Gordon does a good job, as always, as lead heavy. He comes to blows with Randy in the final reel (or their doubles do anyway) and the result is rather crushing.
Rich Rancher Randy and Rancid Rival Richard
The principals are Randolph Scott, as rich rancher John Stewart, and a very young looking Richard Boone as his enemy Wick Campbell (maybe they were carrying on an old Scottish clan feud). Randy is good, obviously, yet I thought just a tad unconvincing when he was describing to his (rather English sounding) brother how he had built the Arizona ranch by fighting off Indians and killing outlaws. When a Chisum-Wayne says that, you believe it, but Randy seems too, well, gentlemanly to go round hanging outlaws or shooting Apaches. Lester Matthews, playing the English-sounding brother, was born in Nottingham, England, so that may explain it. I suppose they wanted an Easterner to be Randy’s newly-arrived lawyer bro, and you don’t get more Eastern than Nottingham.
Boone was already shaping up to be an excellent bad guy. He, Bruce Dern and Robert Ryan are probably my favorite badmen of all. They are tough, and believably bad. Excellent performance (of a rather routine script).

Scott liked Boone and used him again in The Tall T the following year. There was a rumor that Randy was considered for the TV role of Paladin but turned it down, not wanting the commitment and risk of typecasting, and Boone got it.
Gunman Lee (dig the shirt) and lead heavy Leo, genuinely tough
Actually the writing (a Kenneth Gamet screenplay from a story credited to Irving Ravetch and Harrier Frank Jr.) is one of the problems. It’s pretty plodding and formulaic. The characters do not develop; they are just standard Western good or bad guys.
The direction, too, is less than sparkling. The pace is uneven. There is intercut stock footage of cattle (from the much better Man in the Saddle, I think). It’s all fairly predictable.
I only counted seven. Whatever.
Marlon Brando’s older sister Jocelyn is the girl Randy has been too busy empire-building to woo but the crisis at the end leads him to realize her qualities and to understand that he loved her all along. Doh.
The young challenger to Gregory Peck in The Gunfighter, Skip Homeier, came to corner the market in sneering punk-kid roles. Here, he has graduated to be a sneering nephew of Scott’s who basically causes all the trouble by romancing Boone’s girl. He’s a goody but still quite sneery-punky. He was to sneer-punk again in The Tall T.
I’m not quite sure why it’s called Ten Wanted Men. When the posse of bad guys go after Randy’s lawyer brother and shoot him, Tunstall-like in his buggy, they number seven (that mystical Western figure).

There's some dynamite-tossing which Howard Hawks may have seen before making Rio Bravo.
A bit of obscure Western lore for you: Franklyn Farnum has an uncredited micropart. Farnum, no relation to Dustin and William, was nevertheless in an untold number of silent Westerns and B 1930s talkies. Ten Wanted Men was honored by his (semi-)presence. I hope the rest of the cast was properly respectful. He took bit parts in any number of later Westerns.
There’s a Lincoln County War-type siege at the end with much shooting and many heroics. A rather corny double-wedding finishes it all off. It’s not bad – well, it is a Randolph Scott/Harry Joe Brown Western after all – but it’s one of the least of them and all a bit routine.


Friday, April 26, 2013

Ramrod (UA, 1947)

Just 'Short' of a Classic

André de Toth, whose first Western Ramrod was, was an interesting fellow. Hungarian (his real name was Sâsvári Farkasfalvi Tóthfalusi Tóth Endre Antal Mihály, which probably wasn’t too Hollywood-friendly) he directed five films in pre-War Europe, served as an assistant to Alexander Korda in England and went to Los Angeles in 1942.
André de Toth

Though assigned to low-budget movies and struggling to make his way, he somehow met and married big Paramount star Veronica Lake. She was to be the female lead of Ramrod, with the character’s name of Connie, actually her own birth name.
Veronica Lake: poker-faced but it wasn't Western poker. Should have stuck to noirs.

The movie was to have been directed by John Ford (an interesting might-have-been) but he was taken up with My Darling Clementine and suggested the studio hire de Toth.

De Toth was to write and/or direct twelve Westerns and he loved them. Ramrod and his writing of The Gunfighter for Henry King in 1950 might have been his finest Western achievements, although he did also direct some good oaters with Randolph Scott such as Man in the Saddle in 1951 and Carson City in ’52.

It was the first film of producer Harry Sherman's new company, Enterprise. He thought (and he was right) that post-war audiences, especially returning soldiers, would want grittier, more adult and less romantic Westerns. That was De Toth's remit.

Ramrod is a very good film but it’s just short of a classic. The movie has two huge advantages. It was written by Luke Short and starred Joel McCrea.

1.    Short was one of the greatest of all Western novelists, well above the pulp line, and books like Dead Freight for Piute, Coroner Creek, Gunman’s Chance, Vengeance Valley and Ride the Man Down were all made into quality Western movies. The stories are taut, gripping and authentic, and they contain real characters who think. Ramrod, the book, is a very good read. And the film is an unusually close rendition of the book.
Luke Short
The book
2.    Joel McCrea was in 35 Westerns between 1933 and 1976 and managed to avoid Italian and TV Westerns (with the sole exception of NBC’s Wichita Town 1959 – 60). The Gunfight at Dodge City, Colorado Territory, Four Faces West, Wichita, Ride the High Country, these were top-notch oaters and there were many other good ones too. He was always quiet, decent but determined. In Ramrod he plays Dave Nash, just out of a bout of hard drinking, hired to ramrod Veronica Lake’s outfit when she goes it alone to spite her daddy.
McCrea: a great Western hero

Actually, McCrea wasn't too keen on De Toth and expressed a preference for Raoul Walsh, but he was over at Warners helming another noir Western, Pursued, with Robert Mitchum.

Other plus points come from the lovely black & white photography of the Utah locations by Russell Harlan, with noirish tints that suit the plot admirably. Noir Westerns were all the rage at the end of the 40s. And there is rather delightful Adolph Deutsch music, which plays variations on a theme of These Thousand Hills but without the cheesy 50s Hollywood angel choirs in the movie of that name.

I also liked the fact that a strong, independent woman was at the center of the story, not just an add-on as in so many Westerns, even if she comes across as a scheming siren.

So the movie had a lot going for it and indeed, many aficionados do regard it as a classic.
Scorsese likes it

However, it does also have some weaknesses. Veronica Lake, for one. This was her only Western (though she was also in a Juarez Mexico LIP 'B' picture in 1951) and it was abundantly clear that this glacial, neurotic, 1940s Hollywood lady did not suit the genre. Of course, she looks glamorous. Her husband lovingly filmed her in her best light, often in soft focus, with flowing curls framing her face. But as a Western rancher woman she doesn’t convince one bit. She should have stuck to crime noirs with Alan Ladd. Actually, McCrea had reservations about Lake too. "When you work with the director's wife, it's for the birds." Though I'm not the greatest Barbara Stanwyck fan, I do think she would have been better in the part of Connie. McCrea of course starred with her in three Westerns, The Great Man's Lady, Union Pacific and Trooper Hook.

Then, despite the carefully crafted story, De Toth and his scriptwriters play about with it so that the first reel is not easy to follow. A lot of names of people we haven’t met yet are bandied about. Actually, you need to see it twice. Fortunately, this is no hardship.
Why it was called Woman of Fire, I don't know. Woman of ice, maybe

Some of the support acting also is weak. Don DeFore, as the good-bad pal of McCrea, a little like Steve in The Virginian, wasn’t right in the part. It was in fact his only Western movie, probably sensibly. And Donald Crisp was the sheriff. Oxford-educated Englishman Crisp appeared in a number of Westerns and was used by John Ford but didn’t convince in any of them. He did nine back in the silent days as actor or director, that was OK, then was in the unfortunate Cagney/Bogart movie The Oklahoma Kid, as the judge. After Ramrod, he did Whispering Smith with Alan Ladd and The Man from Laramie with James Stewart and a couple of others. But he wasn’t right either and probably should have stuck to Easterner parts.
Crisp: an unconvincing tough sheriff

On the other side of the coin, Arleen Whelan is the anti-Lake, the other woman, who really loves Joel, and she is rather good, and there are small parts for a young Lloyd Bridges and good old Ray Teal (he comes to another sticky end), so it’s not all bad.

Certain cinéastes, Martin Scorsese for one, consider Ramrod a masterpiece. Well, it may be. I’m no Scorsese, only a Western buff. All I can say is that I love watching it; it’s very, very good. But it’s just short of great.


Thursday, April 25, 2013

Western Union (Fox, 1941)

A cracking good Western


Randolph Scott followed up his appearance in Fox's major big-budget color Jesse James in 1939 with the same studio's 1941 Western when he starred (or technically speaking got second billing to Robert Young) in the 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. After Jesse James he had a high-profile part in Universal's 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 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 (in some ways 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 low-budget 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, excellent as always) 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 love-triangle plot strikes again.

The Indians

They set to work and have to battle Indians, and badmen, and badmen dressed as Indians. The American 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

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). For more on the real Jack Slade, click here.

The real Jack Slade
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.

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