Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

Virginia City (Warner Bros, 1940)

 

Big, noisy, a lot of fun

 

In 1939 Warners joined the rest of the big studios in turning out a big-budget Western for grown-ups, pairing its stars Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland in the big color Dodge City, directed by Michael Curtiz. It is said that Flynn strapped on that gun belt rather unwillingly. But the ’39 movies, including Dodge City, were big grossers and the theater-goers’ dollars came rolling in. In the last scene of Dodge City Warners set up the inevitable sequel by having Flynn and de Havilland leave Dodge in a wagon heading for Virginia City.
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In the last reel of Dodge City, Errol & Olivia set off for Virginia City
 
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And it was a sequel, too. Curtiz would direct again and Robert Buckner would write it. Sol Polito would be at the camera and Max Steiner would write the score. Many of the Dodge City cast would reappear, Flynn drinking buddies Alan Hale and Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams, for example. Warners gave it a similar $1m + budget.
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But somewhere along the trail between Dodge City and Virginia City de Havilland seems to have got lost. Maybe she fell off the wagon. By the time the sequel came out in March 1940 Miriam Hopkins had replaced her as Errol’s true love. Olivia would be back in the Curtiz/Flynn Western Santa Fe Trail (with Ronald Reagan as Custer) in December 1940, and the following year, of course, she would be Custer’s wife Libby to Flynn’s own dashing general in Raoul Walsh’s rollicking They Died With Their Boots On. But audiences would be disappointed if they were looking for the Flynn/de Havilland magic in Virginia City.
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Hopkins replaced de Havilland. She hovers between two captains, Randy, in this shot, and Errol. But they are on opposite sides…
 
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Not that la Hopkins was bad. She was a posh Southerner and well cast as the glam Confederate spy (although less convincing as singer in a rowdy Nevada saloon). Thomas McNulty, in his enjoyable biography Errol Flynn: The Life and Career, didn’t rate Hopkins highly: “Hopkins is lacking the grace and beauty that Olivia de Havilland would have brought to the role.” But I think she was OK. After a successful career on Broadway she had signed for Paramount in 1930 and she had some hits. But she failed to get the role of Scarlett O’Hara and by the end of the decade the decent parts that had been flowing in had slowed to a trickle. She only made two movies in 1940 and would soon return to Broadway. She had no track (or trail) record in oaters, having only done the semi-Western Barbary Coast in 1935. (She would return as The Duchess in The Outcasts of Poker Flat remake in ’52).
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Though he preferred buckling swashes, he was also good with a six-gun
 
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Flynn himself, though he may at first have been doubtful about the Stetson and six-gun, was excellent in Westerns of the period. He had all the dash you could want and his Australian/English accent didn’t seem to matter at all. He started to like the genre. He cleaned up Dodge with aplomb in ’39 and we have few doubts that he will win the war for the Union in Virginia City. That’s right, it’s a Civil War-out-West story, set in 1864. Captain Bradford, with his trusty lieutenants Swenson and Marblehead (Hale and Williams, pretty well stealing every scene they are in) make repeated efforts to break out of Libby military prison, ‘The Devil’s Warehouse’, but are foiled by the clever commandant, Captain Vance Irby, played by an also well-cast Randolph Scott.
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His two sidekicks are Big Boy Williams and Alan Hale
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Scott seemed destined to star only in mid-budget Westerns and to play second fiddle in big-budget ones. The year before he had backed up Tyrone Power in Fox’s Jesse James and soon after Virginia City he would do the same to John Wayne in The Spoilers.  The Western he had led in the year before Virginia City, Frontier Marshal, was very much Fox’s minor Western of the year, with none of the bally-hoo Jesse James received – though in fact it was a big hit at the box-office, the Fox moguls notwithstanding. But Scott was a modest and generous man and never hogged the limelight; he had no problem standing back to let ‘bigger’ stars take center stage. He is very good in Virginia City, at least the equal of Flynn, and gets about the same screen time.
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Noble Confederate captain. Nice lighting.
 
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The picture was in black & white and after the big, bright Technicolor Dodge City it might have been a disappointment to viewers. But DP Polito was a real talent and I think Virginia City is, visually, just as good as its predecessor. Polito had started out as a professional still-photographer and as cinematographer had done some good Western work on Harry Carey oaters in the 1920s before becoming a Warners stalwart in the 30s. His color shooting on the Curtiz/Flynn The Adventures of Robin Hood in 1938 is still hailed as one of the best ever uses of Technicolor. The picture quality on my DVD of Virginia City was really excellent (though it had annoying subtitles you can’t turn off).
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Sol Polito
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Michael Curtiz
 
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There are typical Curtiz touches, such as the big crowd scenes or the patriotic singing (a feature of Curtiz’s most famous picture, Casablanca, as well as Dodge City). And there’s certainly plenty of action as Captain Scott in Nevada organizes a shipment to Richmond of five million in gold ingots hidden in a wagon train of ‘settlers’, and Captain Flynn does everything possible to thwart him. Thrown into the mix is the guerrilla leader Murrell and his band of killers. They want the gold too.
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Curtiz on the set of Virginia City with Polito (center) and Scott
 
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Unfortunately, though, Murrell is played by Humphrey Bogart, in a laughably bad performance. It is difficult to judge which is sillier, his mustache or his ‘Spanish’ accent. Bogie would be supremely good in Casablanca two years later but in Westerns, of which he did mercifully few, he was completely hopeless. I make an exception for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, of course, which was absolutely superb, but I mean traditional Westerns, set in 19th century Western states or territories. The only other one he did was The Oklahoma Kid, in 1939, with an equally unsuited James Cagney.
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Bogie ridiculous. But he does have a derringer.
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Apart from the headline names, we get Ward Bond in a brief part (as in Dodge City), checking on the stagecoach but never seen again, which is a pity; Russell Simpson the Great as a Reb-sympathizing blacksmith; Charles Middleton (aka Ming the Merciless) as Jefferson Davis; Paul Fix as a Murrell henchman; Lane Chandler an orderly in Libby; and Hank Bell’s mustache with Hank Bell attached as an uncredited barfly, among others. It is in fact a huge cast, as was often the case with Curtiz.

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The opening scenes center on a classic POW camp escape-tunnel (John Sturges must have seen this picture) and much of the later part is equally classic wagon-train movie material. In between we get a big noisy saloon (the Warners crew reconstructed the famous Sazarac, complete with painting of nude lady over the bar, which, however, the Hays Office insisted be draped with gauze), a fight on top of a stagecoach, great stunts (Yakima Canutt was second unit director) outlaws, and much shootin’ to go with the rootin’ and tootin’. Conventional it may have been but it’s done with great gusto. Not only that, Bogart holds up the other stage passengers with a derringer! What more could you want? Little does Bogie know, though, that Errol has just surreptitiously unloaded it.
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But for the war, they could have been friends. As it is, they are respectful enemies.
 
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It’s supposed to be a true story, though the intro tells us that “Only the characters are fictional. The story is true.” In other words, it’s hogwash. For one thing, they have 1870s Colts. Never mind, we aren’t watching a documentary.

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At one point the Flynn character says he learned his soldiering skills in Afghanistan, and that was true: Errol spent the 30s cavorting with Olivia on the British Empire’s far frontier in the likes of The Charge of the Light Brigade. In fact the whole A-Western genre migrated there in that decade. It only really came back West of the Mississippi in the 40s.
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Worth a look
 
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At another point it falls to a girl to call someone “You dirty rat”, which must have made the Bogart Cagney clan annoyed at their line being stolen.
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Of course a decade or so later Randy would be back in Virginia City, laying down a railroad from Carson City. But that’s another story.

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At the end of the picture Errol gets court-martialed and sentenced to death for being frightfully decent towards the brave Rebs but at the last mo’ he is pardoned by a saintly and silhouetted President Abe Lincoln (Victor Kilian), a sort of counterpart to Ming the Merciless’s President Jeff Davis at the start of the movie. And Flynn gets the gal, natch. History does not relate if Olivia was jealous.
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I bet Bogart regretted taking the part
 
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It wasn’t a happy set. Flynn did not slacken his usual rhythm of heavy drinking and was often late. Curtiz was famously scathing of actors, whom he called bums. Hollywood magazine reported, “Tempers flared and feuds raged. For one eventful weekend it appeared that the cast was about to choose sides – the blues and the grays – and refight the Civil War with bare hands, rocks or practical bullets.”
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There was another extravagant première in Virginia City, as there had been in Dodge. Robert Nott, in his entertaining book The Films of Randolph Scott, tells us that the townspeople were charged an exorbitant admission fee (for those days) of $1.10 per customer. This was owing to the fact that Errol Flynn, Miriam Hopkins, and others from the cast had been scheduled to make a personal appearance on stage after movie’s showing. However, when Flynn and the others failed to appear, enraged audience members stormed out of the theatre and took the Warner Brothers entourage (including 5 busloads of studio personnel) hostage, demanding they get their money back. Eventually, the theatre’s manager agreed to make up the difference by refunding the audience 70 cents apiece, thus reducing admission to its usual 40-cent fee.
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The film was another hit for Warners. Fans loved it. Flynn would have this picture, Santa Fe Trail and The Sea Hawk all in the top grossers of the year. He was now a major star and a big attraction. Critics, however, were again not enthusiastic. Frank Nugent in The New York Times conceded that “there is enough concentrated action, enough of the old-time Western sweep, to make it lively entertainment” but called the whole “depressingly pat”. He also criticized the acting: “Mr. Flynn is about as mobile as a floor walker; Miss Hopkins recites her stilted lines by rote.” The critic of Filmink magazine said, “I don’t think director Michael Curtiz was any more excited by Westerns than Flynn, but both do professional jobs, as does Scott.” Variety called it “a bustling western, which is replete with action, although short on credulity” and commented, “it is far short of the possibilities indicated by the title and cast.” More recently, in his fine guide Western Films, Brian Garfield called it “a hackneyed over-budgeted B-oater”. It has certainly been overshadowed by Dodge City. Myself, although I don’t think Curtiz ever really ‘got’ Westerns, I esteem Virginia City the best of the three he did with Flynn.

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You have to like Errol Flynn Westerns, really. They aren’t the greatest examples of the genre but they are hugely energetic and fun. And this one has Randolph Scott in it – and a derringer. Ergo, it’s a must-see.

 

 

7 Responses

  1. Nice write-up, Jeff, of a film you obviously like a lot, as do I.

    After Flynn's great success in "DODGE CITY", I am always a bit surprised Warners decided to revert to monochrome. Mind you, the same could be said of the same year's "THE SEA HAWK", I suppose, but then I am perfectly happy in a b&w world on screen.
    I might take issue with you on one point though, Jeff. Scott's starring westerns were not strictly 'B' pictures surely – at the turn of the 50s he was in the Top Ten stars at the Box Office for a while, any genre. Smaller pictures maybe than the blockbusters but 'A' star vehicles, I would have thought.
    I agree that this is possibly the best of the Flynn/Curtiz westerns and that Scott's presence has much to do with that.

    1. Yes, I take your point. It comes down to how you define a 'B' picture. Some people think of B-movies as one-hour second features before the big picture, while others think of them as movies from the lesser studios, with smaller budgets. Fox's Jesse James and Frontier Marshal, both in 1939, were, I suppose both technically A-movies, but budget and publicity were not equal. Scott seemed condemned to top the bill in the smaller ones and back up big Hollywood stars in the ballyhooed ones. But he was great in both kinds!
      Jeff

  2. I might also add that Randy always seemed to get billing unworthy
    of him in the Forties in particular.
    In JESSE JAMES he was forth billed below even Nancy Kelly.
    Even worse in HOME SWEET HOMICIDE he was billed under Peggy Ann Garner
    (who?) despite just following box office smash BADMAN's TERRITORY.
    In Randy's last non Western starring role CHRISTMAS EVE (1947) he was
    billed below the two Geroge's-Raft and Brent.
    Oddly enough after that Randy's career soared and the two George's careers
    went down the drain-British B flicks (the sure sign of a fading career)
    and the like.

    1. Yet he never seemed to mind, generous man that he was. He was always ready to stand aside and let others take the limelight.
      Jeff

  3. Regarding the issue of Randolph Scott's billing- I think Jeff Arnold has nailed it, Scott had the reputation of being the perfect southern gentleman, and I don't that being a big star was very important to him, and he was quite happy to confine himself to westerns almost exclusively after the war. just like Joel McCrea, another fine gentleman, and of course most critics never took westerns very seriously. As for Errol Flynn,I actually enjoy his westerns and wish he had made more than he did, but then being a fellow Aussie, I suppose I am rather biased.

    1. Yes, I agree. And about McCrea too.
      Errol never really wanted to do Westerns but I too think he was good in them. The ones he was in weren't always top-drawer pictures but he seemed convincing as a Westerner somehow.
      Jeff

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