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Saturday, September 22, 2018

The Gunfight at Dodge City (United Artists, 1959)


Bat cleans up Dodge




 
 
Every so often I like to revisit a Western. I reviewed The Gunfight at Dodge City, a Joel McCrea picture, back in April 2010 but I watched it again yesterday and I’ve revised my opinion somewhat, or anyway had a few new thoughts. So it’s The Gunfight at Dodge City Redux.

As far as McCrea (left) went – and he was a superb Western actor, excelling at the quietly-tough-but-decent part – the picture came after the high-water mark of his career in the saddle. He had started in the mid-30s and starred in major pictures for Paramount, Warners and Fox like Union Pacific, Buffalo Bill and Colorado Territory through to the late 40s – directed by the likes of Cecil B DeMille, William A Wellman and Raoul Walsh. He was a very big star in our noble genre. Then he had done a series of slightly ‘smaller’ oaters such as Ramrod and Four Faces West, released by United Artists. They may have had a lower budget and been less ballyhooed but they were absolutely superb movies, and McCrea was outstanding in them. He continued in the genre through the 50s, making four B-ish Westerns in 1950 alone. The Gunfight at Dodge City could have been his last ever big-screen Western because in September ’59 he started Wichita Town with his son Jody on NBC, and announced he would make no more features. In fact The Gunfight at Dodge City was shot contemporaneously with Comanche Station with Randolph Scott and the two stars then immediately retired. But they were brought back in 1962 by Sam Peckinpah for the wonderful Ride the High Country, in which it is difficult to say who is more impressive, McCrea or Scott, and the answer is both.


The Gunfight at Dodge City (great title, by the way) was directed by safe-pair-of-hands Joseph M Newman. Newman’s first full-length motion picture as director had been a Western (or a Canadian Mountie movie anyway), Northwest Rangers in 1942, and he returned to the theme when Tyrone Power donned the red jacket in Pony Soldier a decade later.  He directed the Dale Robertson version of The Outcasts of Poker Flat in 1952 too, and the year before Gunfight he directed McCrea in the gritty and tough Fort Massacre. He understood the Western.

Joseph M Newman

The movie was written by Martin Goldsmith and Daniel B Ullman (Wichita, Colt .45, later to do a lot of TV work including an episode of Bat Masterson) and there are some really good lines.

The production values are high. It’s in CinemaScope and Color De Luxe, photographed by Carl E Guthrie, who also shot the likes of Fort Massacre, Fort Bowie and Quantez. It was a Mirisch Corporation picture. Walter Mirisch (right) and his brothers Marvin and Harold were together one of the most successful producing teams in Hollywood history. They produced such 60s hits as Some Like it Hot, West Side Story, The Great Escape and The Pink Panther but as far as proper films go (i.e. Westerns) the Mirisch name deserves endless credit for The Magnificent Seven. Walter started as a producer for Monogram back in 1949 on very low-budget stuff. Once Monogram merged into Allied Artists (Mirisch was one of the prime movers of that deal) he would move upmarket, producing Wichita in 1955, the first of six oaters he did with McCrea, and he would also work with Gary Cooper. So he’s a major figure in our beloved genre.

In The Gunfight at Dodge City, Joel plays Bat Masterson. As I said in my little essay on Bat (click the link) many actors have played him – Albert Dekker, Randolph Scott, Monte Hale, Frank Ferguson, George Montgomery, to name but a few, and of course Gene Barry on TV – but McCrea’s Bat stands out. The whole picture is historical hooey and you should not watch it if you are hoping for a factual depiction of Masterson the man, but if you want a fictional Bat Masterson cleaning up a wide-open town with true grit and a .45, this is the movie for you.

Bat in 1879

The story opens to bucolic Hans J Salter music with Bat buffalo-hunting in ‘Kansas’ (it looks suspiciously like Newhall) and he has with him young Billy Townsend (Wright King, TV Western show regular), who is, er, intellectually challenged and fascinated with guns. Bat tells the boy how awful it is to shoot a man and how you end up vomiting behind some saloon when you do it, but that doesn’t stop young Billy longing to have and use a six-gun of his own. Bat is warned that Sergeant Ernie King (Charles Horvath, stuntman/bit-part actor who was often an Indian) is waiting for him in Hays and wants to shoot him for dallying with his girlfriend Molly (Kasey Rogers) but Bat goes to Hays anyway, to sell his hides, and sho’ nuff, the angry sergeant appears and attempts to gun Bat down, only, however, succeeding in hitting Molly fatally by mistake before being shot himself by Bat and his pal Ben Townsend, Billy’s older brother.

The 1959 Hollywood Bat

Bat Masterson probably did shoot a certain soldier named King, though he declined to talk about it, but it was Corporal Melvin King, in Sweetwater, Texas in 1876. Still, we don’t want to be picky. As for these Townsends, they are obviously Ben and Billy Thompson.

Ben Thompson (1843 – 1884) was a fascinating character of the West, English-born but settled in Texas. A Confederate soldier, then fighter for the Emperor Maximilian, he served time in Huntsville for almost killing his brother-in-law, then became a professional gambler, frequenting Kansas cattle towns like Abilene (where he came into contact with Wild Bill Hickok and John Wesley Hardin) and Ellsworth. He seems to have met and befriended Bat Masterson in the Texas Panhandle in 1875 and helped Bat out at the shooting of Corporal King. In 1881 Ben was hired as marshal in Austin, Texas, when the crime rate reportedly dropped sharply. The marshal was murdered at the age of 40 in San Antonio, in the so-called Vaudeville Theater Ambush.

Ben Thompson

Ben’s brother Billy was unpredictable, troubled, alcoholic and homicidal. Often on the run from the law for various killings, he depended on his brother Ben for help (and money). In 1873 Billy and Ben were house gamblers in an Ellsworth saloon but got into a drunken altercation in which Billy shot the sheriff (some said accidentally) and once more Billy went on the run. He was said to be in Dodge City in May 1878 (so that would fit with the movie). In 1880 Billy shot some fingers off the hand of a saloon owner in Ogallala, Nebraska in an argument over a prostitute, and the saloon owner responded by riddling Billy with buckshot from a shotgun. Billy was arrested but allowed to remain under guard at the Ogallala House Hotel to heal. Hearing of this, Ben asked Bat (who was no longer County Sheriff) to help him and together the friends got Billy away. Twice tried for murder and twice acquitted, Billy survived his brother and died of a stomach ailment in Houston, on September 6, 1897. In the movie Billy is a simple-minded youth who is not responsible for his actions, treated with kindness by Bat and Ben, and not at all the 33-year-od drunken psychopath of history.

Ben's brother Billy

Another reason I like this picture is that it features Dave Rudabaugh. Rudabaugh appears rarely in Westerns, though he was one of Billy the Kid’s gang in Young Guns II, played by Christian Slater and for some odd reason billed as Arkansas Dave Rudabaugh. I have always liked Dirty Dave and made him a key figure in one of my novels. He was one of those who operated on both sides of the law but usually on the wrong side – in fact in February 1878 Sheriff Bat Masterson arrested him for train robbery. In Gunfight he is an out-and-out baddy, dressed all in black, and it is he who murders Bat’s brother Ed (Harry Lauter, Clay Morgan in Tales of the Texas Rangers), the city marshal, by shooting him in the back in the Lady Gay. Dave doesn’t like Bat either because he was Sgt. King’s cousin. It’s all preposterous bunkum but never mind. He is played by Richard Anderson, a regular on TV oaters but who only ever had small parts in big-screen Westerns.

Dirty Dave Rudabaugh (1854 - 1886)

Dirty Dave (Richard Anderson) presses unwanted attentions on saloon owner Lily (Nancy Gates)

Well, this murder of Ed Masterson dates the story precisely to April 1878. In this movie Marshal Ed is running for County Sheriff against the crook ‘Honest’ Jim Regan (granite-jawed Don Haggerty), and Regan pays Dirty Dave to kill Ed. Actually, Ed didn’t run for office. His brother Bat was already Ford County sheriff then. Bat had served as under-sheriff to Charlie Bassett in ’77 and in November that year he just beat Marshal Larry Deger (by three votes) to succeed Bassett. Still, we don’t want mere details like historical fact to get in the way of a good Western, do we?

Ed Masterson

Ed Masterson was indeed shot to death in Dodge when marshal, on April 9, 1878, not by Dave Rudabaugh and not shot in the back, but in the side by a drunken cowboy named Jack Wagner, whom Bat probably then killed (though there is some doubt about that).

You know how in Westerns the hero often gets to dally between two dames, one rather prim and proper and the other a racy saloon gal maybe. He usually chooses the former because it was the 1950s and family values ruled. In this picture beautiful Julie Adams is Pauline, the preacher’s daughter, while Nancy Gates is Lily, widowed owner-manager of the Lady Gay saloon. So Joel gets to choose between Julie and Nancy. There are worse fates. Pauline was Ed’s fiancée and Ed was a bit of a goody-goody. She is kinda attracted to Bat now that Ed is deceased but Bat becomes part owner of the Lady Gay and she feels it is not quite proper to consort with him. Lily, on the other hand, clearly wants Bat but senses that he is more drawn to Pauline. Ah me. Love triangles, dontja just hate them? Which belle will finally bring Bat to the altar? Or will it be neither? Dear reader, you will have to watch the movie to find out, for my lips are, as ever (well, nearly ever) sealed.

Julie or Nancy?

Lovely Lily?

Prim Pauline?

Luckily, Pauline’s dad, the preacher, is played by our old pal James Westerfield, always enjoyable in Westerns. He seems to be a leading townsman and it is he who invites Bat to stand as County Sheriff instead of the dead Ed.

Dr. McIntire and Rev. Westerfield

But the best news as far as character actors go is that the town doc is John McIntire. Now I am the greatest McIntire fan and think he was especially good in Westerns. Starting with a couple of rather cheesy Yvonne De Carlo/Dan Duryea oaters in the late 40s, he was unforgettably sinister as the gambler/arms dealer in Winchester ’73, brilliant as the Al Sieber-ish scout in Ambush, classic as the crusty irascible rancher in Saddle Tramp (also with McCrea), superb as the California rancher recruiting wives in Westward the Women, and the list goes on. And on. Horizons West, The Mississippi Gambler, The Lawless Breed (when he played both John Wesley Hardin’s father and his uncle). What a splendid villain he was as Judge Gannon in The Far Country! Not content with being Al Sieber-ish in Ambush, he actually was Al Sieber in Apache. I can’t think of a Western he was bad in. But for me he was best as a doc – one thinks principally of The Tin Star. All this before he started bossing the Wagon Train when Ward Bond died in 1960. In Gunfight he has some great lines and is an irreverent physician who likes to drink and gamble and tease the preacher. Splendid! It’s worth watching the movie just for him.

Doc McIntire becomes Bat's right hand man

There are some great scenes in the picture, such as when Regan threatens Bat in his new saloon and Bat threatens him right back, or Doc McIntire presiding over the roulette table, or Bat quietening a whole mob of rowdy cowboys by buffaloing two and winging a third with his Colt. This is a proper Western.

Sheriff Regan and some henchmen/deputies

At one point Sheriff Masterson tells the townsfolk who complain that their sheriff is a saloon owner that he knows of a lawman in Wichita named Wyatt Earp who owns three saloons. Of course this is a bit of an in-joke because four years before Joel himself had been Wyatt Earp in the Jacques Tourneur-directed Wichita. But in this movie there’s no sign of Earp in Dodge, though in fact Wyatt had been assistant marshal under Marshal Deger in ’76 and rejoined the police force as deputy under Ed Masterson’s successor as marshal, Charlie Bassett.

Joel is a splendid Bat

They do the 1880 bit where Bat and Ben, with Doc McIntire as accomplice, ride out to rescue Billy, who finally shot someone and of course ended up vomiting behind some saloon. During this rescue Bat commits grand theft stagecoach while still County Sheriff, so that’s a bit naughty and the townsfolk duly dispossess him of his job and call a new election, and ex-Sheriff Regan comes back to stand again. So it all builds to a climax and…

Nay, I must not reveal the outcome.

A super Western, though, with Joel on top form.

 

4 comments:

  1. Splendid stuff Jeff,and I love the way that you balance the film's hokum with
    actual events.As you so rightly point out,various times, as history the films
    absurd but as entertainment it's aces!
    Too bad either Joel or Randy did not play Masterson in WOMAN OF THE TOWN where
    we had a more "worts 'n all" Bat but Dekker just does not cut it as a Western lead.
    Glad that you mentioned DOP Carl Guthrie one of the unheralded greats.
    Interesting that Eastwood tried to coax Joel out of retirement for HONKYTONK MAN
    who would have been splendid incidentally,but his shoes were filled most
    admirably by the ever excellent McIntire.
    Some great lines in "Gunfight" Joel to Nancy-"funny how a man has to sweat out
    the whole deck before he finds the ace" and also-"the distance between here and
    the street is the distance between a man and a rabbit"

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    Replies
    1. I must get round to reviewing The Woman of the Town. Claire Trevor as Dora Hand, I recall. I actully quite like Albert Dekker in Westerns.
      I agree that there are some excellent lines in Gunfight - you quote a nice couple.
      I also agree with you that Joel McCrea was one of the finest Western leads, in the Randy class, and I think Peckinpah's Ride the High Country was a fitting and magnificent pairing.
      Best wishes,
      Jeff

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  2. This is VERY much my kind of western. I also love the excellent contrast between fact and fiction as revealed so splendidly by Jeff!

    John McIntire was superb in any role he took on ("Phenix City Story" is a particular favourite of mine) but as you say, Jeff, he was especially good in westerns.
    I won't reveal either which of those two gorgeous ladies Joel rode into the sunset with at finale. All I will say is what a darned hard choice to make!!

    Aside from Scott, McCrea is my favourite westerner so the two of them in their (virtual) swansong "RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY" was just wonderful.
    But Gunfight is, as I said earlier, my kind of western too.

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