Republic’s biggest picture to date
In the blurb on the DVD of Dark Command, some text tells us: “The 1939 John Ford classic Stagecoach made John Wayne a star. There would be no more quickie B-western films for him.”
This is wrong on a number of counts. Wayne had already starred in a major picture, Fox’s The Big Trail, ten years before, under Raoul Walsh. When that film was released just as the Great Depression hit and people stopped going to the movies in droves, Duke was indeed consigned to the B-Western for most of the decade, but Stagecoach did not put a stop to that. He was under contract at Republic, and did four of those one-hour Three Mesquiteers Westerns before Stagecoach and four of them after it. He would go on making low- and mid-budget movies at Republic for years.
Still, Dark Command was a big film – at least by Republic standards. The Big Trail and MGM’s Billy the Kid (1930) lost money, making the majors shy like unbroken broncs at making another A-picture Western, and for most of the rest of the 1930s the genre became, with few exceptions, limited to one-hour second features and programmers for the juvenile market. But the big-budget Western for adults finally made a come-back in 1939. Fox’s Technicolor Jesse James, with its big star Tyrone Power, had a budget of $1.6m, and it was a smash hit. Other studios cashed in. Warners spent over a million on its Dodge City, also in color, with Errol Flynn and Olivia De Havilland. Ford and Walter Wanger made Stagecoach, which United Artists released, and it was a major critical success. Cecil B DeMille made an epic railroad picture, Union Pacific, at Paramount, with Joel McCrea and Barbara Stanwyck. Universal cast Marlene Dietrich and James Stewart in Destry Rides Again. Metro was making Northwest Passage with Spencer Tracy, though this suffered delays and didn’t come out till February 1940. Studio boss Herb Yates at Republic wanted a piece of that action alright, and he had the star of Stagecoach under contract to do it.
Yates didn’t allot that big a budget to the project: the picture wasn’t in color, for example. But $750,000 was unusually big bucks for him. He bought a best-seller 1938 WR Burnett novel, The Dark Command: A Kansas Iliad, and put a team of Republic writers onto the screenplay from it. Sol Siegel did the producing heavy lifting. The picture would have RCA High-Fidelity sound and music by Victor Young – the film was nominated for Best Original Score Oscar.
Walsh, fresh from his late 1939 triumph on Warners’ The Roaring Twenties, was hired to direct.
Big name Walter Pidgeon came on loan from MGM to play a leading character, William Cantrell (a sort of free interpretation of the real William Clarke Quantrill). And Yates paired Wayne with his Stagecoach co-star Claire Trevor. In 1938 she’d been nominated for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Dead End with William Wyler, and straight after Stagecoach, she did Allegheny Uprising with Wayne again, over at RKO. People were going to flock to Dark Command to see the pair in action once more.
Yates also decided to give his then leading B-Western star Roy Rogers a decent part in a picture for grown-ups, and you couldn’t have Roy without Gabby, so ‘George Hayes’, as he was rather grandly billed, was drafted in for the comic relief.
Really, the cast was tailor-made to pull in the crowds.
Shooting began, around Agoura, California, in November 1939 but had to be halted just before Christmas, not restarting till February 8, 1940, because Trevor had a severe sore throat. The picture was finally premièred, in Lawrence, Kansas, on April 4, 1940.
One wonders what the residents of Lawrence at that première thought about it. Western movies often monkey about with historical truth, we all know that, but this one really went to town on its ‘free interpretation’ of history. Put another way, it was complete bunkum. Still, we don’t go to the movies for a history lesson, or we’d be pretty dumb if we did, and we must judge the picture as a Western, not a documentary. To be fair, there is an intro scroll reading “Some portions of this photoplay are based upon actual incidents in the lives of its principal characters. All other events and characters are fictitious, and any similarity to actual events or persons is coincidental.” Très coincidental.
We open with a mountebank, traveling dentist Dr Grunch (Gabby), arriving in Lawrence. He has a young and beefy sidekick, Bob Seton (Duke) who punches citizens on the jaw, loosening their teeth, so that the doc may then pull said molars. It’s a thriving business. Bob falls for the fair Mary McLoud (top-billed Trevor). However, Mary is desired by the local schoolteacher, Will Cantrell (Pidgeon), so we can see awkwardness looming – especially when both Cantrell and Seton run for the office of marshal, and, against all the odds (for he can’t read and write) Bob wins.
The real William Clarke Quantrill, or Quantrell, while he was nothing like Pidgeon’s Cantrell (for one thing, Pidgeon was a stocky 43 while the real one was slight of build and was killed aged 27) did in fact work for a time as a schoolteacher, in Ohio, when he was sixteen, though most of his working time was spent as a farm laborer, teamster and gambler, before he turned to brigandage. In Dark Command he is no Confederate; he takes advantage of the war to loot and pillage regardless of the political affiliations of his victims. Later, he captures some Confederate uniforms and casually decides that his men should wear them.
Mary’s father is a wealthy banker, with a posh house and black servants, Angus McCloud (Porter Hall with a distinctly dodgy Scots accent). Funnily enough, Porter would soon be a banker again, in Columbia’s The Desperadoes, but in that one, as is right and proper, it being a Western, he was a crook, in cahoots with rascally Edgar Buchanan, while unfortunately in Dark Command he is honest, a slip-up by the writers.
The banker’s son, and Mary’s brother, is young Fletch (Rogers). He has no trace of Scots lingo but speaks with a Southern drawl, and indeed, he is an ardent Reb. He wants to tote a gun (the handguns, by the way, are all obvious 1873 model Colt .45s, which is quite clever for before the war) and does. There’s a stern moral message, that guns lead to mischief, and Fletch’s sure does, when he guns down a farmer (Trevor Bardette) in the barber’s shop for bad-mouthing the South, and stands trial for murder.
In an effort to woo back la belle Mary, Cantrell stands as Fletch’s advocate, and through a combination of slimy lawyering and juror intimidation, gets the boy off. This is much more properly Western, a smarmy lawyer. Also, the judge is a scoundrel, and as you know, 99% of Western judges were rogues (usually Edgar Buchanan). Here he is played by Raymond Walburn, whom the IMDb bio quite accurately describes as “the archetypal bombastic bumbler or supercilious stuffed shirt.”
I liked Cantrell’s creepy mother, played by Marjorie Main, a sort of sinister Victorian housekeeper from some melodrama. She comes to a sticky end. As indeed does poor Porter, shot when there’s a run on his bank. Them guns.
Before expiring, the banker remonstrates with the angry farmers who all want to withdraw their money at once. He tells them, in a message that resonates with us today when considering Russia’s war on Ukraine, “You’re wheat farmers, ain’t yer? Well, there never was a war and never will be that didn’t send the price of wheat sky high.”
As Marshal Seton was the prime mover in bringing young Fletch to trial, even though he got off, Mary doesn’t cotton anymore to him, and she says yes to Cantrell, even though she doesn’t love him. We know it’ll end badly. I like the way Ma Cantrell wears all black at the wedding.
Bob will try again, with Claire on a buckboard (Stagecoach ref) but the kiss was cut out by the censors, as she was married to Cantrell.
Well, there’s a great deal of (unhistorical) action as bold Bob raises a militia against the wicked guerrillas. Young Fletch has joined Cantrell, now that he’s in gray, but soon learns the fellow’s a bounder, and he gets shot. Doc Grunch (who used to be a doctor but -, a standard trope in Westerns, especially John Ford ones) operates and saves the boy’s life.
You can spot the odd familiar face among the townsfolk and the riders, such as Joe Sawyer, J Farrell MacDonald, Hal Taliaferro, Glenn Strange the Great, Cactus Mack, Hank Bell, even Lloyd Ingraham.
It all climaxes with the raid on Lawrence, Cantrell burning the town but Bob bravely defending it. The baddies are killed, the goodies survive, and seem remarkably relaxed about the sacked town. Mary realizes that bold Bob is the one for her after all. “All’s well that ends well,” one of the boys quotes from Shakespeare at the close. “Shakespeare, eh?” says Duke. “Well, he must’ve come from Texas. We’ve been saying that down there for years.” Smiles. Fin.
There were some dreadfully cruel stunts, including more Running Ws than you can count and a wagon team whipped off a cliff into a lake. Shame on the director and producers. Yakima Canutt was stunt director.
Republic regular Jack Marta shot it, and there are some very pretty shots here and there, in a wagon-in-the-moonlight kind of way. The Lawrence scenes are well done too. The pic quality on the Artisan DVD is good.
All in all, it wasn’t high art but it was a big action picture, and it did well at the box-office. It couldn’t compete that year with Samuel Goldwyn’s Oscar-winning The Westerner directed by William Wyler or with Tyrone in The Mark of Zorro, or Fox’s Jesse James sequel The Return of Frank James helmed by Fritz Lang, but it made enough money for Yates to think he was onto something.
Bosley Crowther in The New York Times enthused: “Grover Jones, Lionel Houser and F. Hugh Herbert, three old hands in the action-fiction field, prepared the crackling screen play; Raoul Walsh, a grizzled veteran of the outdoor wars, directed it with an artist’s eye for flavor and dramatic movement, and John Wayne, Claire Trevor, Walter Pidgeon and a company of character experts have filled it with brimming life and gusto. If it’s excitement you’re looking for, you can go farther and do a lot worse.”
He had a point.
You might be interested in our essay on Quantrill, or the one on John Wayne or Raoul Walsh. If so, pray consult the index.
I think on further investigation you will find John Wayne after completing his four-film obligation to the Mesquiteer series went into bigger and better pictures, more sophisticated productions, and larger budgets, but this most glaring misrepresentation is that Roy Rogers was the biggest star at the studio. Completely incorrect. Gene Autry filled those shoes until he entered the service, by which time John Wayne was the biggest star, never Roy.
Of course, after Stagecoach Wayne went on to bigger and better things. That’s stating the obvious. By the late 40s he was performing superbly in fine films for Howard Hawks and John Ford such as Red River and Fort Apache. I was merely suggesting that to say that Wayne hadn’t starred in a major picture before Stagecoach and didn’t do any low-budget ones after, is simply wrong.
As for Gene Autry, yes, indeed, he was a major star and a big earner for Republic, and had been since Mascot was absorbed into the studio. His pictures cost little to make but were good revenue earners. Autry knew this and wanted a bigger slice of the pie. Even before he left to join the US Air Force, Yates was grooming Leonard Slye as the new singing-cowboy star, and Smiley Burnette seemed just as happy to sidekick him as Gene. Already by 1938 Roy Rogers Westerns were doing becoming popular. Shine On, Harvest Moon did good business – and is actually quite a good film. By 1940 Yates was promoting Rogers vigorously, and in fact as the 40s progressed, Roy would overtake Gene in the popularity polls and earnings tables. Autry would only complete his suspended contract with Republic after the war under duress, and would depart for Columbia as soon as he could. Clearly, Dark Command was an experiment to see if Rogers could perform in an A-picture. True, still in his twenties, he was lacking in ‘weight’ and gravitas as an actor. Roy himself admitted later that he was still learning his craft that that time. But actually, he didn’t do badly. He was after all playing a young hothead, and within his limits I reckon he did it quite well.
Fine, but Autry was gone in 1942, so someone in the genre would step p. Roy was good, but Autry was irreplaceable, and this King of the /cowboys stuff was studio generated. When Gene migrated to Columbia, he was America’s favorite cowboy, all hype.
You’re right there.
Barry and Jeff, I’m a fan of both Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. As we know, the movie studios go by the box-office numbers, so I thought that I would list some box-office tallies here. In 1940, 1941, and 1942 Gene Autry was 4th, 6th, and 7th at the box-office. Not just Western stars, but everyone. Gene went into the Armed Forces in 1942. Roy Rogers didn’t crack the top 25 at the box-office until 1944 when he was listed at number 22. In 1945, 1946, 1947, 1948, 1949, and 1950 Roy placed respectively 10th, 10th, 12th, 17th, 18th, and 19th. In 1951 he dropped out of the top 25.
Gene Autry returned from the Armed Forces in 1946 and filmed 5 movies for Republic Pictures, before he set up his own production company releasing through Columbia Pictures from 1947-53. Gene didn’t crack the top 25 at the box-office after his return to movies in 1946.
For a number of years, there was a poll for the top 10 Western Movie stars in the USA. In 1936 Gene Autry placed 3rd behind Buck Jones and George O’Brien. From 1937-42 Gene was number 1. From 1943-54 Roy Rogers was number 1. Upon Gene’s return from the Armed Forces, he placed 3rd in 1946 behind Roy and William Elliott. From 1947-53 Gene placed 2nd.
The above figures come from the Quigley Publishing Company’s questionnaire sent to movie exhibitors every year and published in the MOTION PICTURE HERALD and THE MOTION PICTURE ALMANAC. I’m sure there are other polls and surveys out there and everyone has their favorites regardless of polls and surveys, as they should have.
I recall back in the late 1980’s, that THE NASHVILLE NETWORK ran the MELODY RANCH THEATER hosted by Gene Autry and his Columbia Pictures sidekick Pat Buttram. The show spotlighted the telecasting of Gene’s Republic and Columbia movies. They would reminisce and have guests along with the showing of the movies. Roy Rogers and Dale Evans hosted HAPPY TRAILS THEATRE on the same THE NASHVILLE NETWORK. They had guests and would reminisce and show their Republic Studios movies. I remember that Gene guested on Roy and Dale’s show and they in return guested on Gene’s show. Gene and Roy both said that there had never been a personal rivalry between them and that was all Republic Studios hype.
Gene Autry is the only entertainer to have Five Stars on HOLLYWOOD’S WALK OF FAME, one each for radio, records, movies, television and live theatrical performance(including rodeo). In his ability to transcend media and in the sheer scope of his output, Gene Autry was unsurpassed as a popular image-maker of the American West.
Roy Rogers was awarded Three Stars on HOLLYWOOD’S WALK OF FAME, for movies, radio, and television. He helped create world-wide images of the American West and taught several generations of youngsters THE COWBOY WAY.
In my opinion, we will never see the likes of Gene Autry and Roy Rogers ever again.
Not one thing is wrong with what you have written, Walter. However, my point above, which I did not clearly make, is and was that John Wayne was Republic’s top star, and had he been at Metro he would have been second, the same thing for Warner Brothers. War of the Wildcats and Angel and the Badman are just for starters.