Another clean-up-the-town Earpish marshal
JAW reader JG Entract left a comment on our recent post on the 40s Wyatt Earp picture Tombstone, The Town Too Tough To Die – click the link to read that – saying he liked Richard Dix Westerns and mentioning The Kansan. Given that we are looking at Wyatt on the screen at the moment, including movies featuring characters that may not actually be named Wyatt Earp but are clearly clean-up-the-town marshals on the (legendary) Earp pattern, we might remark on The Kansan, because it is distinctly Earpish.
It was actually Dix’s last Western. He had been RKO’s leading man since the days of the early talkies and was very well known. In 1931 he had been nominated for Best Actor Oscar for his part in the soap-epic Cimarron. His Westerns had begun back in 1923 when he starred in Paramount’s Victor Fleming-directed Zane Grey tale To the Last Man, and he followed this up with two more Zane Grey stories, The Call of the Canyon, also directed by Fleming, and The Vanishing American. He was the eponymous Redskin in 1929 and then came Cimarron. Several Westerns followed (he was in 19 altogether, good, bad or indifferent). He was Wyatt Earp in Paramount’s Tombstone, The Town Too Tough To Die in 1942. His stocky and imposing build and craggy jaw were immediately recognizable.
In The Kansan he plays John Bonniwell, an Earpish marshal who has to clean up the wide-open Kansas cow-town of Broken Lance, a sort of amalgam of Abilene, Wichita and Dodge, which has been treed by crooked banker Barat, played by Albert Dekker. I always liked Mr Dekker. One thinks of him in particular as the double-crossing gang boss in The Killers, as Mr Reynolds in Anthony Mann’s The Furies and, as a much older man, as railroad detective Harrigan in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, his last role. The Kansan was his sixth of 17 big-screen Westerns.
Banker Barat has a brother, and as the bro is played by Victor Jory, you immediately think that the two of them together will be corrupt town bosses. Jory does indeed wear a frock coat, gamble and have a derringer, and he steals $25,000, but interestingly, this time he is a good badman, or anyway his character is nuanced and quite subtle. So, well done screenplay writer Harold Shumate (Blood on the Moon, Abilene Town, Little Big Horn, all good) who worked up the script from Frank Gruber’s novel Peace Marshal, and well done director George Archainbaud (director of huge numbers of fast-paced Westerns, including wagonloads of Gene Autry and Hopalong Cassidy ones). And well done Victor, of course, always a joy to watch in any Western.
You will know Frank Gruber, I am sure. He wrote countless pulp stories, dozens of novels and many screenplays too. He was also the creator of the series Tales of Wells Fargo, The Texan and Shotgun Slade. The Kansan was actually the first Hollywood Western made from one of his books but he was still going strong, either as scriptwriter of having his novels used, or both, right through to the late 1960s. I think my favorite is Denver & Rio Grande, of 1952.
The producer was Harry Sherman, who had been a distributor in the silent days and graduated to producing. He made 50 of the 66 Hopalong Cassidy pictures, and tended to use a ‘stock company’ of actors which included Jory and Dix. When William Boyd took over Hoppy-producing duties himself, Sherman moved to other projects, sometimes with rather bigger budgets, such as Paramount’s The Light of Western Stars in 1940,Tombstone in 1942, and The Kansan.
The Kansan is an RKO black & white oater of the 1940s, with all that that implies, but it definitely has its points. It’s pacey, actionful and not at all badly acted. The music is 1940s Hollywood-slushy (and the cowpokes croon a cringeworthy close-harmony ditty out on the range) through rather amazingly, Gerard Carbonara was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Music (Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture) for the picture.
Much of the action is studio-bound, as was usually the case in ‘town’ Westerns, but there are also some good scenes shot out on location (Russell Harlan was DP) and the blowing up of a bridge.
Jesse James appears too, though only for the first 60 seconds of the movie. He tries to rob the bank but Dix is a crack shot and shoots down the gang one by one. Jesse (George Reeves, uncredited) doesn’t get to say anything and immediately disappears so we can’t really count this as a Jesse James movie.
Eugene Pallette is the husky-voiced cattle boss Tom Waggoner. He was no sylph, Eugene. Always entertaining though. Francis McDonald is the evil bandit Hatton, and I spotted Douglas Fowley, Rod Cameron and Glenn Strange the Great in bit parts. Jane Wyatt is the owner of the hotel who is wooed by Jory but predictably falls for Dix. It was her second Western and she was to go on to be Randolph Scott’s amour in Canadian Pacific.
There are some interesting actors in bit parts, such as Gertrude Astor as ‘Blonde townswoman, ucredited’. She was a trombone player on a riverboat who became Universal’s first contract player. The former big star Jason Robards Sr is a bank teller. And Milburn Morante, often a comic sidekick, is another townsman.
The saloon gals were apparently Ziegfeld Follies performers. Thought you ought to know.
There’s a regrettable cowardly ‘comic Negro’, Bones (Willie Best) who rolls his eyes a lot but I suppose that was considered highly amusing in those days (by white audiences).
For some odd reason it was called Wagon Wheels in some markets. Its working title had been Meet John Bonniwell.
There’s a giant saloon brawl in the classic tradition and a big final shoot-out in Main Street between the bandit gang and the forces of law ‘n’ order under Marshal Dix. It ends rather suddenly, as such pictures were wont to do, and the print these days is a bit muddy, but all in all it’s quite a bit of fun. Don’t expect greatness, but don’t expect to be bored either!
The New York Times did not think it was great art: “Another popgun chorus has arrived at the Rialto, with Richard Dix conducting, and it is called The Kansan. Not that the name matters much, for it is a strictly assembly-line Western, with all the cues in place. Mr. Dix, with a face that still looks as if it might have been carved out of Mount Rushmore, stalks the cow-town of Broken Lance, every inch a marshal. There is the usual crop of corrupt local bigwigs, the fracas over fences, mad pursuits with horsemen thundering across the skyline, and the final free-for-all in a barricaded Main Street—in short, the kind of Western in which the cast decreases almost as rapidly as a pay check on Saturday night. What with all the whooping and hollering and shooting, The Kansan does manage to stir up a fair-sized cloud of dust. But in one barroom brawl at least, this corner found more than a little evidence of cheating by the extras. There were so many fake body blows, so many haymakers that wouldn’t have stunned a fly, that we momentarily expected some fight-fan in the audience to cry, We was robbed!What’s coming over Westerns anyway?”