Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

Dodge City (Warner Bros, 1939)

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Swashbuckling the West

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All through the 1930s, with a few notable exceptions Westerns were for youthful audiences. The vast majority produced were serials or programmers that starred flashy duded-up ten-gallon-hat-wearers or, worse, singing cowboys. If you take the mid-year of the decade as an example, 1935, you find that there were 147 Westerns produced, so clearly they were immensely popular, but with the possible exception of EGR in Barbary Coast and Barbara Stanwyck as Annie Oakley (and these were only really semi-Westerns anyway) they were boy-fodder. Tom Mix in the serial The Miracle Rider, for example, or William Boyd as Hopalong Cassidy. There were three Hopalong movies that year alone, John Wayne was in eight B-Westerns and Gene Autry was in five. Not that they were bad. In fact some of them were a lot of fun. But they weren’t serious Hollywood ‘A’ pictures for grown-ups.
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All that changed in 1939. Most famously, that year John Ford directed the Walter Wanger production Stagecoach released by United Artists. Fox actually started the ball rolling in January by putting its top star Tyrone Power in a Technicolor blockbuster, Jesse James, which had adults standing in lines round the block to see it. Suddenly all the studios wanted a slice of the action. Paramount put out Union Pacific, with Joel McCrea and Barbara Stanwyck, Universal paired Marlene Dietrich with James Stewart in Destry Rides Again, and naturally Warners weren’t going to be left out. Never mind Tyrone Power; they’d use Errol Flynn.
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After all, if Errol Flynn could bring in the big bucks by buckling swashes on the Spanish Main in Captain Blood (1935), lead dashing cavalry attacks in The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936) or shoot longbows in Lincoln Forest in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), why can’t we give him a six-gun and have him clean up Dodge?
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Flynn himself was dubious; he didn’t think he was suited to the Stetson and six-gun. But he understood the allure of the genre and agreed to try. Maybe an incentive was that they would cast him with Olivia de Havilland once more – the pairing was already big box-office. And they’d give him as director Michael Curtiz again. Flynn didn’t like Curtiz, and chafed under the director’s famous authoritartian approach (actors were only there to do his bidding) but he also knew that with Curtiz he had found spectacular commercial and critical success. Curtiz had helmed Captain Blood, The Charge of the Light Brigade and Robin Hood, as well as other pictures.
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Hungarian-born Curtiz had made huge numbers of silent movies in various European countries and come to the US in 1926. He did dramas, crime and war pictures through the late 20s and directed Al Jolson in the famous talkie Mammy in 1930. He even did three Westerns: River’s End with Charles Bickford in 1930, Under a Texas Moon with Frank Fay the same year and Gold is Where You Find It with George Brent (and De Havilland) in 1938 – although none was especially good. Through the 30s he did dramas for Warners, the occasional horror, some rom coms. But in 1935 he directed Errol Flynn and Olivia De Havilland in Captain Blood and the following year repeated the formula with The Charge of the Light Brigade. Then in ’38 the pair were in Robin Hood. The movies were all huge hits. Curtiz was the obvious choice for Dodge City.
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Dodge City has Michael Curtiz stamped all over it. Big scenery, huge crowds, noise, bustle, action galore and through it all a romance between De Havilland and Flynn starting in hostility and building to lerve. And yet… Curtiz never really ‘got’ the Western in my view. His pictures were English outlaws or pirates in the West. The true spirit of the Western eluded him. Yes, his oaters were fun, brash, action-packed. But they were commercial hits of the day rather than true cowboy films. Not everyone would agree with this, I know, but while Dodge City is a whole lot of fun and may have made more $$$ for Warners than other grown-up Westerns did for the other big studios, in the last resort it probably runs last in the quality stakes.
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It was written by Robert Buckner, who earlier in the year had done the screenplay of the undistinguished James Cagney/Humphrey Bogart Western The Oklahoma Kid. Thomas McNulty, in his entertaining biography Errol Flynn: The Life and Career, suggests that Warners “echewed the need for a good script and relied on” the action. “Dodge City would not deviate from the established clichés, but it would offer, through superior production facilities and attention, a sleek and polished version of the Western.” This is probably accurate.
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The movie opens with titles over some very nice paintings. We are pleased to see in the credits that camera work is by Sol Polito (27 Westerns, including most of the Curtiz/Flynn ones) and the great Ray Rennahan. So quality there, alright. And I see special effects (in their early days) were by Byron Haskin, who directed Denver and Rio Grande.
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We open with a classic image, a train at full steam filmed head-on, and right away there is a race between the train and a stagecoach (in which the driver [Bud Osborne] whips the poor horses unmercifully). There are lovely wide open scenes of Kansas (California, actually, but it looks like Kansas).

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Three amigos appear. They are Wade Hatton (Flynn) and his comic sidekicks Algernon ‘Rusty’ Hart (Alan Hale) and Tex Baird (Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams), come in from buffalo huntin’ and now aimin’ to run down to the new town founded by Colonel Dodge. Flynn had used his influence to get Hale and Williams, his carousing fellows, cast in the roles.
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Flynn’s rather Australian/English accent is explained away as we are told that he has knocked around the world, serving with the British army in India, been in Cuba and then with JEB Stuart in the recent unpleasantness. Reasonable enough: the real West was full of international adventurers. To be fair, Flynn, gun high on hip and rather dashing Stetson, does look the part and carry it off as a Westerner, despite his accent and pencil mustache.
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There is a stampede caused by a drunken fool, Olivia’s brother (William Lundigan), and Wade is forced to shoot the fellow and then the man is trampled to death by the steers. Wade is very polite and apologetic about it but Olivia is extremely cross. Their relationship hasn’t got off to a good start. Well, I suppose it wouldn’t.
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Actually, de Havilland’s part in Dodge City is pretty minor, and she would have preferred something more consequential as she was seeking to establish herself as a ‘serious’ actress. McNulty says, “Olivia de Havilland has little to do, but she is beautiful and sweet and the perfect screen match for Flynn.” The Flynn/de Havilland couple was now a screen sensation and the picture had been pretty well set up for the pairing.
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In Dodge, Wade looks a bit skeptical as Col. Dodge (Henry O’Neill) outlines the moral and decent future of his new town, filled as it will doubtless soon be by churches, schools and temperance halls. Wade’s right to be doubtful. A rather old-fashioned intertitle card tells us that Dodge rapidly became the “longhorn cattle center of the world and wide-open Babylon of the American frontier, packed with settlers, thieves and gunmen—the town that knew no ethics but cash and killing”. Curtiz liked this bit – gunfights in the street, a huge saloon brawl, drunkenness and wildness.
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The town is run by crooked saloon owner Jeff Surrett (Flynn’s drinking companion and pal Bruce Cabot)…
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…and his henchmen, including the excellent Victor Jory – he always looked so sinister – and even, in a small part, Ward Bond.
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They have run off every lawman and the sheriff’s office is gathering dust with a board marked CLOSED nailed across the door. The S of CLOSED is reversed but sadly I can’t find a key on my computer to render that amusing symbol of the educational level of then Dodge residents for you. CLO3ED is the nearest I can get. Surrett is used to buying cattle and then murdering the vendor so that he doesn’t have to pay, the skunk. He even has cattleman Russell Simpson gunned down – Russell Simpson, my hero! It really is too much. The townspeople ask Hatton to pin on a star. At first he refuses – being a policeman is not his line at all – but then, after a small, chirpy boy is killed in the wild gunplay, he looks stern and pins the badge on (to his gunbelt, rather than his shirt, which is quite cool).

 

This exact plot was repeated in a virtual remake by Warners, Wichita in 1955, directed by Jacques Tourneur, in which Joel McCrea as Wyatt Earp is unwilling to pin on the star until a child is killed, then brings law ‘n’ order to the wild streets. McCrea was excellent and in fact it is a much more serious film which attempts to say something about violence and gun laws. McCrea did it again as Bat Masterson in The Gunfight at Dodge City for Universal in ’59 and indeed it is a well-known cliché. Even when Curtiz did it the hills were relatively youthful by comparison. Errol Flynn is Wyatt Earp (the Earp of legend, not fact) in all but name.

 

There’s a scene of competitive singing which Curtiz was to repeat in his greatest film, Casablanca, three years later. In the saloon, Tex sets up a chorus of Dixie to drown out the Marching Through Georgia sung by the crowd.  It leads to the famous brawl. Mind, it’s only the embryo of the Casablanca scene, which still unfailingly brings a tear to my sentimental old eye every time I watch it. Dixie isn’t really the Marseillaise. The saloon fight is perhaps the most famous ever staged. McNulty says Warners didn’t want Flynn to participate for fear of his being hurt, though that seems rather odd for a man who was very experienced in barroom brawls in his private life…
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There has to be a slightly shady lady as well as the lead, and that was Ann Sheridan as the chief saloon girl. Of course Flynn thinks about dallying with her for just a moment but we all know he’s destined for Olivia.
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Douglas Fowley is in town with Russell Simpson, and Monte Blue too, so all’s well with the world. How I like to see them!

 

There’s a rousing score by Max Steiner.

 

Well, you know what happens. Hatton duly cleans up Dodge and Olivia falls for him. There’s a good all-shootin’ action climax on a train as it catches fire. Surrett is eliminated by Errol with a Winchester. Flynn and De Havilland set up the Warners sequel by riding off into the sunset to Virginia City (1940) and they all live HEA.
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There was a huge movie première in Dodge and the DVD has an excellent feature about that. Flynn rode down Wyatt Earp Blvd on a stallion with a fancy Spanish silver saddle, accompanied by the Governor, la Sheridan, Alan Hale and Guinn Williams. But there was no sign of Olivia at all. I don’t know if she snubbed it or what. Still, huge crowds cheered the stars and the movie. The director of the local Kansas Heritage Center said that the throng lined the streets “so thick the drunks couldn’t fall down.” It was the most extravagant première ever staged (until MGM launched Gone with the Wind in Atlanta in December of that year) and the press corps got through one hundred fourteen cases of scotch at Warners’ expense.
The picture was a massive hit, grossing nearly $3m on its $1m budget.
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If Flynn had had any doubts about doing a Western he could forget them now. He was right up there on the cowboy Mount Parnassus (somewhere up in the Rockies, doubtless).
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Frank S Nugent was a bit snooty about it in The New York Times. “One street fight looks much like another,” he wrote, and “three men being tossed through windows are no more diverting than one would have been”. He added, “There can be no suspense when the hero is as invulnerable as Mr. Flynn’s Wade Hatton”. The critic sums the movie up thus: “Michael Curtiz’s direction has been flawless part by part, but, as a whole, it has failed to fuse his film into anything approaching dramatic unity. It has become merely an exciting thriller for the kiddies, or for grown folk with an appetite for the wild and woolly.” He had a point, I guess.
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2 Responses

  1. For all it's problems — and you enumerated them fairly well — I still like this picture quite a bit. Flynn's best Western, surely. And the brawl is quite wonderful — it became stock footage for Western bar-room fights for many other films.

  2. You don't think Virginia City Superior?
    In any case, for me, They Died With Their Boots On, with all its Walsh/Flynn rip-roaringness tops them all!
    Jeff

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