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Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Kansan (UA, 1943)

Not bad, as far as 40s RKO Westerns go

The Kansan was Richard Dix’s last Western. Dix had been RKO’s leading man since the days of the early talkies and was very well known. In 1931 he had been nominated for Best Actor Oscar for this part in the soap-epic Cimarron. His Westerns had begun back in 1923 when he starred in Paramount’s Victor Fleming-directed Zane Grey tale To the Last Man, and he followed this up with two more Zane Grey stories, The Call of the Canyon, also directed by Fleming, and The Vanishing American. He was the eponymous Redskin in 1929 and then came Cimarron. Several Westerns followed (he was in 19 altogether, good, bad or indifferent). He was Wyatt Earp in Tombstone, The Town Too Tough To Die in 1942. His stocky and imposing build and craggy jaw were immediately recognizable.
Earpish Marshal Dix
In The Kansan he plays an Earpish marshal who has to clean up the cow-town of Broken Lance, Kansas which has been treed by crooked banker Albert Dekker. I always liked Mr. Dekker. One thinks of him in particular as the double-crossing gang boss in The Killers, as Mr. Reynolds in The Furies, and, as a much older man, as railroad detective Harrigan in The Wild Bunch, his last role. The Kansan was his sixth of 17 big-screen Westerns.
Dekker, Wyatt, Jory - nice cast
He has a brother, and as the bro is played by Victor Jory, you immediately think that the two of them together will be corrupt town bosses. Jory does indeed wear a frock coat, gamble and have a derringer, and he steals $25,000, but interestingly, this time he is a good badman, and his character is nuanced and quite subtle. So well done screenplay writer Harold Shumate (Blood on the Moon, AbileneTown, Little Big Horn, all good), who worked up the script from Frank Gruber’s novel Peace Marshal, and well done director George Archainbaud (director of huge numbers of fast-paced Westerns and loads of Gene Autry and Hopalong Cassidy ones). And well done Victor, of course, always a joy to watch in any Western.
Victor holds a derringer on a lady, the cad
OK, The Kansan is an RKO b&w oater of the 1940s, with all that that implies, but it definitely has its points. It’s pacey, actionful and not at all badly acted. The music is 1940s Hollywood-slushy (and the cowpokes croon a cringeworthy close-harmony ditty out on the range) and much of the action is studio-bound (as was usually the case in ‘town’ Westerns) but there are also some good scenes shot out on location (Russell Harlan was DP) and the blowing up of a bridge.
Quite a lot of fun
Jesse James appears too, though only for the first 60 seconds of the movie. He tries to rob the bank but Dix is a crack shot and shoots down the gang one by one. Jesse (George Reeves, uncredited) doesn’t get to say anything and immediately disappears so we can’t really count this as a Jesse James movie.

Eugene Pallette is the husky-voiced cattle boss Tom Waggoner. He was no sylph, Eugene. Always entertaining though. Francis McDonald is the evil bandit Hatton, and I spotted Douglas Fowley, Rod Cameron and Glenn Strange the Great in bit parts. It’s a good movie for Western-character-actor-spotting. Jane Wyatt is the owner of the hotel who is wooed by Jory but predictably falls for Dix. It was her second Western and she was to go on to be Randolph Scott’s squeeze in Canadian Pacific.
Action too
There’s a regrettable cowardly ‘comic Negro’, Bones (Willie Best) but I suppose that was considered highly amusing in those days (by white audiences).

There’s a giant saloon brawl in the classic tradition and a big final shoot-out in Main Street between the bandit gang and the forces of law ‘n’ order under Marshal Dix. It ends rather suddenly, as such pictures were wont to do, but all in all it’s quite a bit of fun. Don’t expect greatness, but don’t expect to be bored either!

Hotel keeper and marshal hit it off



  1. I'm with you -- I like this movie, despite the fact that it's nothing special. Dekker was an interesting actor; at home in costume pictures, westerns and the odd horror film.

    I wonder if Wyatt Earp had any idea of the layers of myth he was creating....

    1. I think from his interviews with Stuart Lake in his old age, Wyatt did actually have a sense of the mythic figure he had become, though of course he died in 1929 and the myth has grown enormously since then. At that date no movie had featured him, by name anyway.