The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

Print the legend

William A Wellman claimed that he spent months researching the real William F Cody with writer Gene Fowler (who worked on the 1939 Jesse James and the 1941 Billy the Kid) but they decided that the unfaithful, drunken charlatan they
uncovered could never be brought to the screen. Debunking great American heroes
was not for them – especially in wartime (1943/44).

couldn’t destroy Buffalo Bill’s reputation so they destroyed the movie instead.
Actually, Wellman didn’t want to helm the picture at all but Fox reminded him that he had only been allowed to make the fine but box-office-unfriendly The Ox-Bow Incident the previous year on the understanding that he would direct any script they gave him next. Together
with producer Harry Sherman (the Hopalong Cassidy guy) Wellman and Fowler produced a sloppy Hollywood-whitewash biopic which certainly didn’t
respect history (well, nothing unusual about that) but worse, didn’t even
respect Western myth. Buffalo Bill is of course most famous – the world over –
as the great showman. In this film his whole Wild West Show career is
telescoped into the last five minutes. The picture just covers (absurdly) his early
days and (equally falsely) his romance and marriage.

Buffalo Bill is essentially an old-fashioned Western,
despite its Technicolor and promotion as ‘new’ by Fox. It’s over-simplified (what
they these days call simplistic) and hokey. Stilted, I would say.


The rather dashing William Wellman

said all that, the film has certain merits. Chief among them stands Joel McCrea.
McCrea was always absolutely first class in Westerns. Although he’d been in
movies since 1926, he’d not been in oaters in his youth. He was uncredited in a
tiny walk-by part in Scarlet River in 1933, so
we don’t count that. He was third billed in Barbary Coast in 1935 but that was only a semi-Western. However, he had finally hit Western
paydirt with his lead part in two big nation-building epics, Wells Fargo (1937) and Union Pacific (1939). In 1942 Wellman
had directed him with Barbara Stanwyck in a rather turgid romance billed as a
Western, The Great Man’s Lady. Buffalo Bill was, however, easily his
finest role to date. He is superb in it. Dignified, noble, decent, he is the
very epitome of the Western hero. Historical bunkum, but you can’t help admiring
his performance.
there are the wide Utah locations magnificently shot by Leon Shamroy (he later
did Two Flags West, The Bravados and North to Alaska) and the sheer scale of the picture. Huge crowds,
color, noise. The cavalry/Cheyenne battle scene is truly spectacular. The movie’s
budget was over two million 1944 dollars, a huge amount. At one point McCrea
talks to his lady over a horse and I swear you can smell that horse. Of course
you have to see it in a good print. Fox did a cheapo re-release in black &
white later. Make sure you get the right DVD and have a good big screen!

As for
the lady, well, that was Maureen O’Hara. Now I will not disguise the fact that
I am no O’Hara fan, and indeed have been rather slighting of her in other
posts. I dislike her parts in the Ford/Wayne movies and find her unsympathetic
and rather overweening. Still, she is much better in Buffalo Bill, partly, I think, because she was younger and did not
try to boss the picture around so much. Charles Laughton, entranced by her beautiful
eyes, had only discovered her in 1939 (The
Hunchback of Notre Dame
) and the same year Hitchcock put her in Jamaica Inn. John Ford used her for the
first time of many in 1942 in How Green
Was My Valley
. So she was already a big star but she was still quite fresh
and restrained. And Buffalo Bill was
her first Western. I would even go so far as to say she is good in it. Mind,
she plays Louisa as a posh dame from the East (she was in fact born on a farm
in Missouri) and also rather more long-suffering, loyal and loving than appears
to have been the historical case. In historical fact, of course, she had a
great deal to put up with but as I said above, the 1944 Buffalo Bill and historical fact are not exactly bedfellows.
A smaller
part is taken by Linda Darnell as a very unconvincing and over-made-up Indian
maiden in love with Bill and jealous of Louisa. Darnell was big box-office: she had starred alongside
Tyrone Power in the 1940 Zorro and in
the Brigham Young biopic the same
year. I remember her most for her Chihuahua in My Darling Clementine, when she verged on the ridiculous. She was rarely good in Westerns
(I make an exception for Two Flags West and she wasn’t too bad in Dakota Incident) and soon descended into TV work.

But we’ve
got three excellent performances to comment on. One of my favorite Western character actors, Edgar Buchanan,
plays an elderly cavalry sergeant, superbly. Sgt. Chips McGraw looks so old in
his white walrus mustache that you don’t think it’s Buchanan at first, but
right away his voice and that waddly walk he had tell you it’s Edgar alright.
Actually, he was only 41 at the time. It’s a great performance and really quite
moving when the old soldier is retired.
there’s Thomas Mitchell as that scoundrel Ned Buntline, spouting temperance
while gulping down slugs of liquor. Of course Mitchell made rather a thing of
playing a drinker – one thinks particularly of Stagecoach.  He was a
hopeless Pat Garrett in The Outlaw
but then it was an utterly lousy film. But he’s very good indeed in Buffalo Bill.
And we
also have a young Anthony Quinn as Yellow Hand. In The Plainsman in 1936 he’d got his first part in a movie as an
Indian by convincing Cecil B DeMille that he spoke Cheyenne fluently (he didn’t
know a word).
He’d also been
Crazy Horse in ’41 in They Died With Their Boots On.
parts made him the obvious choice for Yellow Hand – in actual fact
a Cheyenne warrior named Heova’ehe, which
translates as Yellow Hair but for some reason he is always called Yellow Hand. Quinn
had had some other small parts in Westerns (he was memorable as the top-hatted
murderous gambler in Union Pacific,
for example) and of course he went on to star in some truly fine films, Viva Zapata!, Man From Del Rio, The Ride Back, Warlock, Last Train From Gun Hill and many more. In Buffalo Bill, though, his Yellow Hand is
a one-dimensional part, pretty typical of the day. Still, Quinn lifts it out of
So some
good support acting.

The film
is commendably pro-Indian and shows Bill as on their side, and the white men,
especially the politicians, as arrogant and ignorant.

movie ends as Bill (McCrea looking absolutely splendid in white goatee and long
hair) bids farewell to the Wild West crowd and because of McCrea it’s quite
moving, but then the atmosphere is ruined by the director having a small boy on
crutches saying, “And God bless you too, Buffalo Bill!” like some second-class ultra-corny
Tiny Tim.
Buffalo Bill is one of the best known Cody films, if not
the most famous of all. A pity it wasn’t better.


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