Wyatt cleans up the town – but not Tombstone
In the mid-1950s the Wyatt Earp of legend was far more dominant than the figure of historical fact. The hugely popular The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp premièred on ABC in ’55 (it would run for six seasons, remaining consistently high in the Nielsen ratings and garnering two Emmy nominations) and that year too Will Henry’s best-selling Who Rides with Wyatt was published. Journalist Stuart N Lake’s sensational 1931 biography was now taken as gospel, and Lake was an ‘historical adviser’ on the set of several Earp pictures, including Wichita. Earlier screen Wyatts like Randolph Scott in Frontier Marshal (Lake’s title) in 1939 and, especially, Henry Fonda in John Ford’s My Darling Clementine in 1946 had made the mythic Wyatt Earp into the factual one – or at least the one that most Americans accepted. This would be reinforced by Burt Lancaster in John Sturges’s telling of the tale in Gunfight at the OK Corral in 1957, one of the most famous Westerns ever made.
Wichita is an unusual Wyatt Earp picture, though, in that it does not tell of Tombstone or even of Dodge but recounts his first job marshaling, in Wichita. It’s all nonsense, of course, and Earp was never marshal of Wichita, but as I have often said, we don’t watch Westerns for historical truths. Or we’d be pretty crazy if we did.
Joel McCrea is Wyatt this time. A great Western actor, he had a quiet authority very well suited to town-taming marshals. He would be Bat Masterson later, cleaning up the town in The Gunfight at Dodge City. Earp was in fact reluctant to shoot people, at least before Tombstone, and McCrea was perfect as the tough lawman who will only pull a gun as a last resort.
This was the first Western of a series of McCrea pictures made by producer Walter Mirisch. Walter and his brothers Marvin and Harold were together one of the most successful producing teams in Hollywood history. They would later produce such 60s hits as Some Like it Hot, West Side Story, The Great Escape and The Pink Panther but as far as proper films go (i.e. Westerns) the Mirisch name deserves endless credit for The Magnificent Seven. Walter started as a producer for Monogram back in 1949 on very low-budget stuff. Once Monogram merged into Allied Artists (Mirisch was one of the prime movers of that deal) he would move upmarket with top stars like McCrea and directors like Jacques Tourneur. Wichita was budgeted at half a million dollars – big money. He would also work with Gary Cooper. So he’s a major figure in our beloved genre.
Talented Tourneur had worked with McCrea twice before, on Stars in My Crown and Stranger on Horseback, and star and director got on very well indeed.
In Wichita McCrea is supported by some great Western character actors: reliable heavy Robert J Wilke (one of my favorites) plays Ben Thompson with Jack Elam and Lloyd Bridges as his sidekicks; Edgar Buchanan is the rascally saloon owner Doc Black. Good old Wallace Ford is there, editing the local paper. It’s an excellent cast.
Masterson (Keith Larsen) is in Wichita too, working for Wallace as a cub newspaper reporter for some odd reason. Wyatt recruits him as deputy (I told you it was nonsense). James and Morgan Earp turn up towards the end (John Smith from Laramie on TV and Peter Graves) but don’t have much to do. Joel’s son Jody is a gunman. It’s a large cast and you can often glimpse well-known faces in the street or in the saloon.
It was in Technicolor and CinemaScope (Tourneur’s first widescreen picture), with DP Harold Lipstein doing a fine job. ‘Kansas’ looks like California and in fact is, but never mind. It is all photographed in a pleasant blue tone. Visually, the picture is a treat. And the lyricism of Hans Salter’s music complements it admirably.
The script is sharp and tight. It was by the enormously experienced Daniel B Ullman who started back in 1948 on Tim Holt and Whip Wilson oaters and would later do some quality Bs such as Fort Osage, Kansas Pacific and At Gunpoint, and who would work with McCrea again on The First Texan and The Oklahoman. Ullman’s screenplay of Wichita actually had something interesting to say about business interests conflicting with law and justice, and how to reconcile security with liberty. It is finally pessimistic about the possibility of fighting disorder with guns.
There are some lively scenes of cowboys hurrahing the town. A little boy gets shot, a certain way to get that star onto the shirt of reluctant Wyatt. The new marshal duly passes a gun law, stands his ground grittily and cleans up the town. The gang of cowboys backs down. This was not the first time all this had happened, and it would not be the last, but that doesn’t mean it’s a corny cliché. It’s a comfortable convention that we appreciate.
Wyatt also gets the girl. She is Laurie, the daughter of Mayor Walter Coy, and is played by Vera Miles, later to be Laurie again for John Ford in The Searchers and Mrs Senator Stoddard in Liberty Valance, and they go off at the end to start anew in Dodge. More baloney but dramatically necessary.
There’s a pretty dire song at the start (which kinda gives the plot away) and end sung by Tex Ritter. 1950s Westerns felt obliged to have one, more’s the pity.
Wichita got very good reviews. Quite right, it is a fine Western, a classic Wyatt Earp mythic tale. Tourneur and McCrea tipped the balance, putting it right up there with the best of ’em.