Another chapter in the legend of Wyatt Earp
Next in our series of films featuring Wyatt Earp – the mythical Wyatt Earp, town-taming marshal – is Paramount’s effort of the early 40s.
Stuart Lake’s laudatory biography Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal had been a big best-seller all through the 1930s, elevating Earp into hero status, and Fox’s film version of it, Frontier Marshal of 1939, did very well at the box-office and was a considerable hit. Paramount wanted a bit of that action and so put together its own Wyatt Earp tale which it released in the summer of ’42, under the alliterative title Tombstone, The Town Too Tough To Die.
Lake being a Fox pet (he had been an advisor on the set of Frontier Marshal), Paramount went with another book, one by Walter Noble Burns, a Chicago journalist now safely deceased and thus unable to raise any objections to distortions of his work. Burns had had a hit before with a popular read, The Saga of Billy the Kid (1926), responsible for much of the enduring legend/myth surrounding that character, and in 1929 he applied the same techniques to Tombstone: an Iliad of the Southwest, a tale of the gunfight at the OK Corral and subsequent shenanigans. As with Lake’s book, Burns’s portrayal of Earp profoundly influenced subsequent generations of historians, novelists, and screen writers, and is a blatant blend of fact and sensational fiction.
Charles and Dean Reisner adapted this Iliad for the story and Albert S Le Vino and Edward E Paramore Jr cooked up the screenplay. So there was a lot of writer input. Director Charles Reisner’s son Dean would go on to write three of the Dirty Harry movies later in life but was involved in ten Westerns, especially those starring Don ‘Red’ Barry. Le Vino (great name) worked on some silent Westerns but also did a good job on the Randolph Scott/Budd Boetticher Western Westbound in 1959. Paramore was also the writer of the James Cagney oater The Oklahoma Kid – yet another 1939 Western.
The project was put together by 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 Victor Jory and Richard Dix, who both appeared in Tombstone. 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, and Tombstone too.
The director chosen was William C McGann, who had been a cinematographer for Douglas Fairbanks in the silent days and then had a long tenure all through the 1930s directing lower-budget pictures at Warner Bros. The IMDb bio rather marks him down by saying “Well-regarded as a second-unit director, his features as director were mostly routine.” But he didn’t do badly on Tombstone. Not great art, it nevertheless rattles along in a fast-paced way.
So stocky Richard Dix, then 49, had the honor of being the second silver-screen lead as Wyatt Earp (33 at the time). Dix had starred in Paramount’s silent Zane Grey story The Vanishing American in 1925, then became RKO’s biggest star in the early talkie era. A tall, broad man (he had been a football and baseball player and started in sporting stories) with a deep, gruff voice, he was well suited to Westerns. He was Oscar-nominated as Best Actor for Cimarron in 1931. He was by 1942 nearing the end of his career and Tombstone, back at Paramount, was his antepenultimate Western.
Dix certainly had ‘presence’, though I think it’s also true that the parts written for his brothers Virgil and Morgan Earp were fairly innocuous and low-key. This sometimes happened: you don’t want your Wyatt to be in any way overshadowed by his brothers, who are usually little more than sidekicks. Virgil (who in historical reality was the marshal, and it was he who gave the orders and was central in the OK Corral fight) was played by Rex Bell, Mr Clara Bow and in the 1950s and 60s Lieutenant-Governor of Nevada. Bell had been quite a big Western star, starting in silent movies, but his last lead in an oater had been in 1936. Thereafter he took smaller parts here and there right up until a bit-part in The Misfits in 1961. But big star or no, his part in Tombstone was a supporting role at best. Morgan too is very much in the shade (at least until he gets shot in the billiard parlor, when he gets a brief bit of limelight), played by Harvey Stephens, who started big, leading opposite Tallulah Bankhead in The Cheat but who thence went downhill rather. He had small-to-middling parts in a dozen oaters, between 1936 and 1964.
Although Wyatt Earp was allowed his real name, despite his feisty and litigious widow Josephine being still alive, his counterpart was still ‘Doc Halliday’, I’m not quite sure why. A weakness of this version of the myth is that Doc was played by Kent Taylor, whom Brian Garfield described in his Western Films as “inadequate” for the role. Once again, though, if I may mangle Julius Caesar, the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our movie stars, but in our screenplays, that they are underlings. Doc is just given an insignificant part. At least he was a dentist now; for some odd reason he was a Boston surgeon for Dwan and Ford.
A key role in the script went to the Johnny Ringo figure, here called Johnny Duane, played by Don Castle, not a Western specialist. This Johnny is not the usual Ringo bad-guy, but really a good fellow deep down who because of lost love has erred and strayed, consorting with lowlifes such as Curly Bill and Ike Clanton, and Wyatt will redeem him and lead him back to the straight ‘n’ narrow. Perhaps in a nod to Dix’s age, it is Johnny, not Wyatt, who is given the love interest (though this is pretty perfunctory), wooing and winning the fair Ruth – fourth-billed Frances Gifford, who had starred as Jungle Girl in 1941 and would graduate to Tarzan’s amour in Tarzan Triumphs in ’43, the Johnny Weismuller epic. She only did three Westerns, this one, a Hoppy picture in ’41 and another Sherman/McGann/Dix movie the same year as Tombstone, namely American Empire. Once again, though, her role in Tombstone is a very minor one. Castle would actually come back to Tombstone in the following decade when he took a bit-part as ‘drunken cowboy’ in Gunfight at the OK Corral, his role as Johnny Ringo being usurped by John Ireland.
The good news is that the chief villain is third-billed Edgar Buchanan as Curly Bill Brocious (sic). Like most people, I love Edgar in Westerns and he was always supremely good as the roguish, amusing bad guy with a twinkle in his eye. He had debuted (Westernwise) as the rascally judge in Arizona (1940), a highly entertaining performance, and was still quite new to the genre by the time of Tombstone but he would go on to great things, such as his part in Abilene Town (1946) as Bravo Trimble, the cowardly county sheriff who contrives always to miss the action and any arrestin’ that needs to be done, leaving it to brave town marshal Randolph Scott, or as the rascally mayor in Destry (1954), or as the crooked judge in Rage at Dawn (1955), and that year too on TV as the scoundrel Judge Roy Bean. If you needed a Western rascal, Edgar was your man. In Tombstone Curly Bill, not Ike Clanton, is the chief antagonist of Wyatt and his law ‘n’ order agenda, but in the last reel his famous border roll will not succeed this time.
As for Ike Clanton, he was played by Sherman regular Victor Jory as a craven white-trash rustler who runs away at every opportunity (this part was quite accurate, actually; Clanton fled the field at the OK Corral fight and it wasn’t the only time). I like Jory. Though he was usually dressed in a suit as crooked saloon owner, perhaps with a derringer up his sleeve, here he is just an unshaven hick outclassed by the wily Curly Bill.
The Ike portrayal is, however, one of the few approximations to the real story. Most of it is pure legend. Wyatt and his brothers come in from Dodge, see Curly Bill and his yahoos hurrahing the town and ask why nothing is done about it. In response Mayor Crane (Charles Halton) pins a star on Wyatt, making him “sheriff” and he duly stands down Curly and his henchmen through sheer grit, disarming and arresting Mr Brocious. He then gives the star back to the mayor, saying he has hung up his guns now. A crooked judge in a saloon (Spencer Charters) immediately frees Curly with a $30 fine and the shootin’ restarts without delay. This time a small boy catches a stray bullet from Ike Clanton and so Wyatt changes his mind (this fable was repeated by Joel McCrea as Wyatt in Wichita in 1955). It was actually quite shocking to see a child shot.
The townsfolk gasp when they hear who the new lawman is. They are told that Wyatt Earp “cleaned up Wichita” (he didn’t), was “town marshal of Abilene” (he wasn’t) and “saved Dodge City from lawlessness single-handed” (nonsense). And of course he was never either county sheriff or town marshal in Tombstone – not that you’d ever convince any readers of the sensational novels of that, or the viewers of the movies.
There’s a curious voiceover intro narrative intoned (unknown speaker) by Tombstone itself. This has to be the first time a town has introduced itself. We then meet town founder Ed Schieffelin (Wallis Clark) discovering silver and being told by his (fictional) pard the old-timer Tadpole (good old Clem Bevan) that because of the Indians he won’t be rich – the place will be his tombstone. Then we see the thriving town, proving Tadpole wrong.
We meet (real character) John Clum (Emmett Vogan), editor of The Epitaph, who says “every Tombstone needs its Epitaph”, and who is all for law ‘n’ order. Chris-Pin Martin is (inevitably) the barman. Then we are introduced to Johnny, a cheery type, who is hired by Curly Bill as henchman, and Doc Halliday, a frock-coated gambler with a sawn-off shotgun, perhaps inherited from Harry Carey’s Ed Brandt, the ‘Doc Holliday’ character in Law and Order ten years before.
There are three song & dance routines, performed in the Bird Cage Theater, including Tarara Boom-de-ay (actually written 1891 but never mind) and I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen (1875, so that could have been sung).
The DP was another Sherman regular, Russell Harlan, so that’s good.
Wyatt is given the task of riding round the local ranches collecting taxes, and somehow Johnny has got appointed tax assessor, so goes with him. Curly begrudgingly stumps up $840, and the McLowery ruffians are equally reluctant to part with their due of $360. When Wyatt and Johnny gets to Ike’s place, some ropin’ is necessary to get anything. There’s a stage robbery carried out by Curly, with the Clanton and the McLowery clans. One of the Clantons, brother of Ike and Billy, Phineas (Donald Curtis) tries to backshoot Wyatt but Virgil stops him. Phin Clanton rarely appeared in Wyatt movies. Ike snarls that “We’re lookin’ for a showdown” and the OK Corral will be the place. The three Earps and Doc duly do their walk-down, and the gunfight occurs.
But this is three-quarters of the way through the 79-minute runtime so there’s time for post-OK happenings. Morgan is shot in the back playing billiards – it’s Indian Charlie (Charles Stevens) who does it. Stevens had the honor of being Indian Charlie three times, for Allan Dwan in Frontier Marshal, in this picture, and for John Ford in My Darling Clementine.
Virgil isn’t shot, though. Wyatt is appointed a US marshal and it all leads up to a big final shoot-out in the rocks (Lone Pine) in which the villains are all killed. Wyatt, his work done, departs by stage, leaving Johnny, newly wed to Ruth, as the new sheriff. The End.
On balance, the picture didn’t match the ‘39 Frontier Marshal for quality. Still, it’s brisk, quite fun in a rather dated 1940s way, and Earpistas certainly need to see it at least once. “TS” in The New York Times called it “another lickety-split yarn of frontier laws vs. the bad hombres, [in which] the bad hombres die like dogs in the last reel. Mr. Sherman hasn’t varied the usual formula a bit; anything else would be artistic treason.” Variety called it “a compact package of adventurous entertainment” and “a top-notch entry of its type.” It added that the “finale is one of the most rousing gunfights that has come to the screen.”
So there you go. Don’t expect Fordian artistry or anything but if you like an old-school oater that moves at a gallop you could certainly give this one a go.