Historical hooey but great spectacle – a DeMille Western, in fact
Paramount bucked the trend a bit in the mid-1930s. After the Depression hit, the movie making industry and movie theaters’ business contracted significantly, and the hugely expensive The Big Trail (1930) nearly sank Fox. Westerns were relegated to cheap, short second features, often juvenile. The major A-picture adult oater died a death. But as the economy showed some signs of recovery the Paramount execs still believed in them, still thought there was a market. In 1937 they would launch a big-budget ‘nation building’ epic, the Frank Lloyd-directed Wells Fargo, with Joel McCrea and his wife Frances Dee in the leads, and even before that, shot in the summer of 1936 and released in November ‘36 in the US, came Cecil B DeMille’s major picture The Plainsman.
It was still in black & white, as was Wells Fargo, color not yet really having come in big time (DeMille’s next big Western Union Pacific, also with McCrea, in 1939 would be monochrome too, and he wouldn’t do a Technicolor one till 1940), but at 113 minutes, with a million-dollar budget and with a huge cast, The Plainsman was certainly a big picture.
A kind of How the West Was Won ante diem, the picture, which DeMille both directed and produced, attempted to telescope the whole history of the West from Abraham Lincoln onwards (Frank McGlynn Sr. very good as Abe, in fact) into its two hours. Never one to let actual history get in the way of spectacle, DeMille threw everything in, railroads, Indian wars, Custer, Buffalo Bill and Wild Bill Hickok, and it ends with Wild Bill’s death in Deadwood in 1876. So it goes from one American hero shot from behind to another.
And it definitely has some strong points: the lead acting, for one thing. Gary Cooper led the cast, as he would twice more in DeMille Westerns (Northwest Mounted Police and Unconquered) and he was perfectly splendid as Wild Bill. Coop may have been the greatest Western actor of them all (though that’s a subjective judgment, of course) and he is magisterial as Hickok. Wild Bill authority and biographer Joseph Rosa (1932 – 2015) said that it was this portrayal that first started his fascination with James Butler Hickok – Rosa would only have been an infant at its release and must have seen it later. Men admired Coop and women sighed over him. One commentator, reader Maryke, told me “Perhaps it’s only me (or a female thing?) but I have to watch Gary Cooper movies several times before I can take in all the other stuff that’s happening in the movie.” I remember an old lady once telling me she thought Gary Cooper the most handsome man who ever lived. He was of course supremely good as the Westerner because he was always tall, tough and taciturn.
Fellow actors always said they thought he hadn’t acted at all on set; it was only when they saw the printed film that they realized how strong and subtle the performance was. He did it all with the eyes. Where Cooper scores is that he is a still, tall voice of calm in a whirlwind of action. He is far and away the best thing about the picture. He could do action when it was required (he again did his own riding stunts, including the shot where he rode ‘hanging’ between two horses). I just love the Cordoba hat and brace of pistols over a frock coat. He looks wonderful. He comes across as a fiercely independent man who lives by his own code, is melancholy and saturnine.
With him, as female lead Calamity Jane, was the great Jean Arthur. Ms Arthur will probably be remembered most for her Marian Starrett in Shane (1953) and indeed she was very fine in that late role, but she had had an excellent Western career before that, most notably, for me, in Columbia’s highly entertaining Arizona in 1940, when, as Phoebe Titus, she led the cast (playing opposite a young William Holden). She had started in the noble genre in a bit part as a reporter in The Iron Horse (1924) and became quite a star in the silent days. She led in a whole series of silent Westerns, paired with a variety of male leads, especially Jay Wilsey and Hal Taliaferro, before The Plainsman, her first talkie oater. The IMDb bio opines that these silent movies hid her greatest asset, “her squeaky, frog-like voice”. I’m not sure I’d put it like that! Anyway, she’s outstanding as Calamity, one of the best screen Calamities ever. Of course she had some lines which were cringe-making by modern standards. The script has her betray the secret of where the rifles are to the Indians because she’s “only a woman”. But at least she didn’t have to wear high heels in the forest, as Paulette Goddard had to in Northwest Mounted Police. Naturally Calamity has a romance with Wild Bill, as is usual in screen versions.
Of course, despite DeMille’s much-vaunted concern for authenticity, both the Wild Bill and the Calamity Jane are wildly fictional and bear almost no resemblance to the factual ones. But they are entertaining, and that’s what counts. Western movies are not supposed to be documentaries, and are perfectly free to take liberties with history if that heightens the drama and interest. Just as long as they don’t claim historical accuracy – as some directors (DeMille and John Ford, for example) falsely and pretentiously did.
Backing up Cooper and Arthur are James Ellison as a rather bland as Buffalo Bill, little more than a sidekick to Hickok. Ellison soon went back to being Hopalong Cassidy’s sidekick Johnny Nelson.
Much stronger is Charles Bickford, excellently evil, if hammy, as the villain Lattimer. He kicks a black porter for dropping some rifles – that’s bad – and of course selling guns to the Indians so that they kill white men with them was very naughty indeed (in Westerns, providing Indians with rifles or whiskey is a crime situated on the scale of heinousness somewhere between matricide and cannibalism). As for the Indians themselves, they are bad guys and/or stupid and entirely to blame for their own annihilation. There’s nothing wrong with government policy, no treaty breaking or military incursions, or anything like that. The only fault of white men is down to those of wicked gun runners.
There’s an amusing story told that Anthony Quinn, DeMille’s future son-in-law, who was championed by Coop, blarneyed his way onto the cast by telling DeMille that he spoke fluent Cheyenne. Quinn’s description of Little Big Horn is gibberish, but DeMille was impressed. Quinn pushed his luck by telling the director that the fire laid in the studio couldn’t possibly have been a Cheyenne one, as they never made fires like that, and it was enough to get DeMille to change it.
John Miljan is a dashing Custer, and we see his last stand. Porter Hall is the wicked assassin Jack McCall and Paul Harvey is Yellow Hand. Gabby Hayes and Fuzzy Knight are both in there too as comic relief, which might be thought of as over-egging the pudding. Other names known to Western cognoscenti will be Irving Bacon, Monte Blue, Franklyn Farnum, Chief Thundercloud and Francis Ford, all, as was often the case, in uncredited bit parts. The Plainsman was also notable for being the film debut of Hank Worden – as ‘Deadwood Townsman (uncredited)’. Fame at last…
Despite all the quite ridiculous distortions, the movie is in fact rather better written than the usual hokum DeMille efforts and quite amusing in parts. As with many DeMille pictures there was a whole team of writers, so it’s not easy to know whom to praise (or blame), Waldemar Young, Harold Lamb, Lynn Riggs, Jeanie Macpherson, Courtney Ryley Cooper, Frank J Wilstach or Grover Jones. But the story gallops along.
There are some nice locations, for example on the Lame Deer Cheyenne Reservation in Montana, as well as round Laramie, Wyoming for the cavalry sequences and the good old movie fort at Kanab, Utah, but of course it being DeMille the majority was shot on vast specially-constructed sound stages and as a result, often looks phony. The picture was photographed by Victor Milner, who had filmed the US occupation of Vera Cruz during the conflict with Mexico in 1914 and had become a favorite cinematographer of William S Hart. He often worked with DeMille and in fact won an Oscar for DeMille’s Cleopatra in 1934.
The picture grossed $2.27m on release, not perhaps the greatest box-office hit for Paramount but still a healthy return on its investment.
The critical reception was overwhelmingly positive. Variety said that “The Plainsman is a big and a good western. It’s cowboys and Indians on a broad, sweeping scale.” The reviewer added, “Scripting and editing stand out favorably. Arthur is particularly endowed with some punch lines and pungent expletives.” Writing for The Spectator in London in 1937, Graham Greene, no less, gave the film a rave review, suggesting that “perhaps it is the finest Western in the history of film”. Greene praised DeMille’s direction for his “magnificent handling of the extras in the big sets” as well “the firm handling of the individual drama” and especially admired Coop’s acting.
More recent reviews have been less glowing. Brian Garfield talked of the picture’s “lurching pace and humorless, turgid length”, but that is perhaps a tad harsh. To be fair, while being a load of unutterable tosh, The Plainsman is a lot of fun. It’s fatuous, occasionally unpleasant and ponderous (well, it would be, it’s a DeMille picture) yet it is still watchable today, provided you fix your wry smile on before the titles. And it’s worth watching for Coop.
The picture was nominated for the American Film Institute’s 2008 top ten Westerns.
Like many classic Westerns, it was remade in the 1960s but Universal’s 1966 version, with Don Murray in the Coop part of Hickok, was pale and insipid, though at least amusing in having Leslie Nielsen as Custer.