Hollywood Westerns liked the Younger brothers, especially Cole. Harry Hoffman played Cole as bold Confederate fighter in the first ever Jesse James movie, the silent of 1921, and in 1941 Dennis Morgan was Cole in Bad Men of Missouri (with Wayne Morris as younger Younger Bob). In 1949 Morris was promoted to Cole in Warners’ farrago The Younger Brothers. James Best was Cole in Kansas Raiders in 1950 (with Audie Murphy as Jesse James) and Alan Hale Jr. took the role in Fox’s The True Story of Jesse James in 1957 (the Youngers had been entirely written out of Fox’s first big Jesse picture, Jesse James, in 1939). The following year Frank Lovejoy, in his last ever feature film, was Cole in Allied Artists’ big color picture directed by RG Springsteen, Cole Younger, Gunfighter. In more modern times, Gene Evans was Cole in The Intruders in 1970 (soon to be reviewed), and Cole became the heroic and charismatic lead character played by Cliff Robertson in The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, in 1972, with Robert Duvall as a rather bad-guy Jesse. Walter Hill’s The Long Riders in 1980 used the gimmick of having the James brothers and the Younger brothers (as well as the Millers) played by actual brothers, the Carradines in the case of the Youngers, with David of that ilk topping the billing as Cole. And so it went on. We’ll be looking more at Cole Younger in fact and fiction later, when I review his 1903 autobiography.
Some celluloid Cole Youngers for you
While most of these movies concentrated on Cole as Quantrill guerrilla with the James boys and his part in the James-Younger gang thereafter, a few of them freely adapted the factual Coleman Younger’s career, and he became one of those generic movie quick-on-the-draw ‘gunslingers’ that roamed the West. This was especially true of Cole Younger, Gunfighter, and the Cole in Warners’ 1940s pictures was also very far from the real one.
Wayne Morris (left) did a lot of mid- to low-budget Westerns for Warners after World War II. The IMDb bio tells us that he won “early success as a sunny juvenile”. He was spotted by Warners talent scouts and signed in 1936. But he became a Navy flier in 1942, leaving his film career behind for the duration, and returned a decorated war hero. Unfortunately, though, his film career never quite recovered from his absence. “Losing his boyish looks but not demeanor”, as IMDb puts it, he never really convinced as Western lead. With his sleek blond hair and big build, he had something of David Brian about him but he could never match Brian as tough-guy, especially baddie. Blonds made better crooked slick saloon owners with derringers, the Lyle Bettger type, and somehow seemed out of place as hero – though there were exceptions, such as Sterling Hayden. Anyway, whatever the reason, his Westerns – he was cast as lead in ten between 1949 and ’55 - were less than glorious, in my view.
In The Younger Brothers, his first Western as lead, he is very much a good-guy Cole Younger. The idea of the plot is that the brothers have been released from prison on parole after the Northfield bank raid (so it must be 1901, though you wouldn’t think so watching the movie) and are now going for a full pardon. They want to be honest farmers. So they ride without guns and try to stay out of trouble.
Interestingly, the German version puts the emphasis on Jesse
(who doesn't even appear in this movie)
The trouble with this going-straight wheeze is that an evil Pinkerton man, Ryckman (Fred Clark, “popular, baggy-eyed, bald-domed, big lug of a character actor” as his bio calls him) is dead set on revenge. He failed to capture the Youngers, limps because of a fall from his horse in pursuit of them and lost his job as detective. Now he single-mindedly works to bring about their downfall, even if it means scheming to get them back into crime.
Fred is the boys' arch-enemy
If Morris himself was pretty bland as Cole Younger, his brothers, Bruce Bennett as Jim, Robert Hutton as Johnny and James Brown as Bob, are almost transparent. Bennett was an ex-Tarzan who did quite a few Westerns, even topping the bill in four, but doesn’t convince here at all, beyond being a smooth nice guy. Brown often played rugged types in war movies before finding fame as Lt. Rip Masters in Rin Tin Tin in the mid-50s. He did a few big-screen Westerns, starring in three in the 60s but was hardly a dazzling star. As for Bobby Hutton, as the hot-headed kid brother Johnny, a cousin of the Woolworth heiress, he spent several years as a Warner Brothers contract player and certainly did not shine in Westerns, only doing five and never leading. Nice guys all as they undoubtedly were, they are almost indistinguishable from each other in The Younger Brothers and seem to have little character. Perhaps I am being unkind. They certainly weren’t helped by the weak script (the screenplay was by Edna Anhalt, who the following year would also pen Sierra and Return of the Frontiersman, better efforts though no great shakes either.) The lines the characters have to say are ultra-clunky.
The bros. I had difficulty in telling one from the other.
Two of the real Youngers (Cole and Jim)
Of the rest of the cast we have Geraldine Brookes as the goody-goody love of Johnny, Mary (actually, their lovey-dovey is quite sweet in a saccharine way) and Janis Paige as the racier moll Kate, to whom Cole is drawn but whom he in the end rejects for being on the wrong side of the law. Kate is pretty handy with a gun and shoots Cole’s hat off with a derringer. That’s my kinda gal.
She can shoot straight
Stand-out in the cast for me was Alan Hale as the canny sheriff. I’ve always been a Hale fan, Sr. & Jr. They never failed to bring memorable color and panache into the smallest of roles. Also good were the great Tom Tyler as Kate’s chief henchman Hatch and Monte Blue as the rather dumb and lazy deputy. You might in addition catch glimpses of the likes of Jack Perrin, Syd Saylor and Kermit Maynard in non-speaking bit parts.
Hale is the wily sheriff who doesn't care to work too hard
When the Youngers arrive in Cedar Creek, MN, there’s an unwelcome committee waiting for them, led by the distinctive-faced Gene Roth, and the boys are run outa town pronto, which is a bit mean considering they are going straight and all. But you see this committee of townsmen has been whipped up by Ryckman, the slimy Pinkerton, or rather ex-Pinkerton. Later, young Johnny sneaks back (to see his gal) and the ex-Pink will engineer a fight between Roth and Johnny, in the saloon, and sneakily put a pistol at Johnny's hand, and it will lead to Roth’s demise – no great loss, but still. Now Johnny is branded a killer. Most unfair.
Well, the three other brothers rescue Johnny and gallop off (speeded-up film) but after some plot twists Cole and Johnny end up as captives of Kate and Hatch. She plans to rob the bank at nearby River Rock, and, worse, plans to take the Younger boys with her, with unloaded guns, and then leave them there to face the music. Such perfidy. Now Jim and Bob have to (a) rescue their bros and (b) thwart the robbery (else their parole will be revoked). To do this they need guns but they are so honest nowadays that they can’t exactly steal any; they sneak one from the holster of the sleeping deputy and put banknotes in its place so that it isn’t theft. That’s how reformed they are.
Cole doesn't seem to mention this episode in his 1903 autobiography. Odd, that.
Now, armed, they can foil the robbery. But Ryckman cares naught for that: he whips up a lynch-mob posse and comes after the boys, thus setting up an action climax.
You may guess how it turns out.
Considering the modest budget, weak writing and indifferent lead actors, director Edwin L Marin did a competent job. He kept the thing rattling along. Marin was a capable helmsman of oaters, of which he directed eleven, including seven with Randolph Scott and Tall in the Saddle with John Wayne. So he was no mug.
It was shot in the summer of 1948, that epic Western year, though not released till May of ’49. William E Snyder was the DP and he knew what he was doing too, having started as a cameraman on Unconquered for Cecil B DeMille and then in his own right shot the likes of The Man from Colorado for Henry Levin (also in ’48), The Treasure of Pancho Villa for George Sherman, and Red Sundown for Jack Arnold.
It’s just a pity that the cast and writing weren’t stronger. As it is, this one is, I fear, on the missable side.
Though you could watch it if you are a dyed-in-the-wool Western fan. Oh, you too?