Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

Silver River (Warner Bros, 1948)

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Not Flynn’s or Walsh’s best but still fun
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Errol Flynn first ventured hesitantly into Westerns (he wasn’t at all sure they were right for him) in 1939 with Warners’ blockbuster Dodge City, directed by Michael Curtiz. It was a huge hit and was closely followed by Virginia City and Santa Fe Trail in 1940. But big, brash and fun as these pictures were, Michael Curtiz didn’t really ‘get’ Westerns and furthermore Flynn baulked at Curtiz’s domineering style (the director was famously dismissive of actors, whom he called bums), refusing to work with him. So it was with Raoul Walsh in 1941 that Errol Flynn made his next, and best Western, They Died with Their Boots On, a rip-roaring Custer picture.

 

Walsh ‘got’ Westerns big time. He understood their spirit and essence. And he also worked very well with Flynn. They were like spirits in many ways. Flynn’s 1945 Western, San Antonio, was nominally helmed by David Butler though Walsh directed some of it, uncredited. But by 1948 Flynn’s star was on the wane. He emerged from the notorious rape trial acquitted but chastened, and damaged. His alcoholism intensified and he was also experimenting with various drugs. Several post-war pictures were not the big hits of the late 1930s and early 40s. Walsh was tired of Flynn’s drinking and increasingly distanced himself from the star. Silver River was their last collaboration.
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The film was a return to black & white, surprising perhaps for a big-budget Warners effort (Dodge City had been in color nearly ten years before, and San Antonio had also been a Technicolor picture in ’45) but Sidney Hickox did the photography of some very nice Inyo National Forest locations and the picture looks very attractive. This was Sid’s fourth Western and he had done Cheyenne (the movie) for Walsh the year before – with a lead role first destined for Flynn but not eventually to be. Later Hickox photographed some beautiful looking Westerns, including two more for Walsh, Colorado Territory and Along the Great Divide. He had a great eye. There are some especially fine shots of a wagon train in Silver River, accompanied by dialogue:
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 – Certainly nice country, Charlie.
 – Yep, and plenty of it.:

 

There’s another good score by Max Steiner too.
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Flynn’s famous co-star Olivia de Havilland now being out of the picture (she had refused to work with him anymore, tiring of his egoism and bad behavior, and was also in contractual dispute with Warners) Ann Sheridan was the female lead. She had been ‘the other woman’ in Dodge City and she had co-starred with Flynn in the war drama Edge of Darkness in 1943. She is terrifically good in Silver River, playing Mrs Moore, the tough wife of a weaker man, Stanley Moore (Bruce Bennett) but she then falls for the dashing Flynn character. Sheridan makes no attempt to be de Havilland and if anything reminds us more of Lauren Bacall. It’s an excellent performance.
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We start at Gettysburg with typical Walsh action when an unshaven therefore tough Union pay corps Captain McComb (Flynn) decides on his own initiative to burn a million paper dollars rather than let them fall into the hands of a pursuing JEB Stuart (we remember that Flynn himself had been Stuart in Santa Fe Trail eight years before). For this act McComb is cashiered and becomes hard ‘n’ cynical in civilian life, determined to make his fortune no matter how. There were similarities with the character Flynn played, again for Walsh, in Uncertain Glory four years before. It then becomes a story of the rise and fall of a silver baron. At the height of his hubris he lives in a marble castle like some Western Citizen Kane but his career and wealth all come crashing down.
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Flynn was actually pretty good in the part. He took it seriously and said at the time, half jokingly, “I play a cross between a rogue and a heel. Sort of a self-portrait you might say.” He wanted the critics to take his role seriously. He said, “For a change, I don’t merely walk through it. This time I’m actually giving it my all” – though he couldn’t resist adding, “more or less.”
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Third-billed Thomas Mitchell, rapidly becoming typecast as a drunk in Westerns (Doc Boone in Stagecoach, boozer Buntline in Buffalo Bill, the sozzled sheriff in Destry) is nevertheless very entertaining as the down-and-out lawyer John Plato Beck. McComb takes him under his wing and he becomes a key character in the rise of McComb’s silver empire, but then gets religion and turns against his ruthless patron.
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A theme of David and Bathsheba runs through the movie, even if the silver ‘king’ in the shape of Flynn doesn’t see Bathsheba/Sheridan bathing, nor does he get her pregnant, nor does he really send her husband Uriah/Bennett to his death – indeed , he rides out in a failed attempt to rescue him from the Indians. So the whole David & Bathsheba image seems distinctly threadbare but still Mitchell’s character Plato Beck drones on about it endlessly and the dialogue makes great and slightly tiresome play of it.

 

Some of the writing is rather pedestrian in Silver River. The New York Times commented, “Only a resourceful and soundly constructed script could have restored interest, but the story … gets increasingly incredible and stilted as it goes along.” The screenplay was by Stephen Longstreet and Harriet Frank Jr. Longstreet had met Picasso, Matisse, James Joyce and Gertrude Stein in Paris, had been to Harvard and graduated from New York School of Fine and Applied Art, and wrote books on jazz, so he was no mug. He’d worked on Barbary Coast before this. This was Harriet Frank’s first Western but she later worked on quality oaters such as Ten Wanted Men, Hombre, The Cowboys and The Spikes Gang. The screenplay of Silver River contains references to Julius Caesar and some interesting lines such as “A man is only lonely when he depends on other people.” But some of it is stodgy and predictable. It’s also a dialogue-heavy picture, death for a Western, unless the script is top-notch.

 

The excellently-named heavy Banjo Sweeney is played by good old Barton MacLane, a longtime carousing buddy of Flynn’s. The snarling henchman specialist, MacLane was enjoyable in a wealth of Westerns. He was in 97, from To the Last Man in 1933 to Arizona Bushwhackers in 1968. I always like to see Barton.
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Tom D’Andrea is entertaining as Flynn’s salt-of-the-earth sidekick Pistol Porter, and either his stuntman double looked exactly like him or Tom was very athletic. The shot where he leaps from his horse to the seat of a careering wagon is damned impressive. It was D’Andrea’s only Western and I wish he’d been in more.

 

Bruce Bennett is maybe a bit bland as Sheridan’s husband but he’s supposed to be. Monte Blue is there as Buck and Joseph Crehan is President Grant again – he played Grant nine times!

 

There are many big Walshian crowd scenes with swirling action and hosts of extras. In this way at least he was like Curtiz. The shots certainly give the movie energy and pzazz. The saloon scenes are also great.
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So the movie had a fair bit in its favor. But it was not a big hit, maybe because of the lack of de Havilland, more probably because Flynn’s character is basically pretty nasty, and his popularity was definitely in decline. Variety estimated that by the end of 1948 the film had earned $2.2 million, not bad, but that was on a $3.2m budget. Later it earned $1.3m overseas, so wasn’t a total loss for Warners.
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The New York Times said “You can tell Silver River is grade A western by the magnificence of its sets, the generous amount of extras used to swell the cast and the presence of Mr. Flynn and Miss Sheridan. But is it good entertainment? We say no.” Thomas McNulty in his biography Errol Flynn: The Life and Career says, “It was not a bad movie by any means; it simply lacked that creative spark that might have lifted it above the mundane.”.
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But I like it. It still has some of that Flynn/Walsh energy and drive, it’s full of action, at least in the first reel, and it sticks in the memory. It wasn’t Walsh’s best Western, nor Flynn’s, and at just under two hours it’s probably too long – it definitely slows down – but it is certainly worth at least one watch.

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