A lot of fun
We were talking about Noah Beery Jr the other day (click the link for our look at his Western career). In 1943 Noah landed an excellent part in a modest but really rather good Universal oater, Frontier Badmen.
It was a good role because although he was billed third, after Anne Gwynne (who was vivacious in quite a lot of Westerns in the 40s and 50s) as the love interest, and topping the cast was Robert Paige, Noah’s part was just as long as Paige’s and he played a character a good deal more sympathetic. In fact in many ways he was the hero of the tale.
Beery did sympathetic. His best roles were as decent cowpokes, loyal pardners or regular fellas. He had plenty of scope for that in this movie, as Jim Cardwell, partner of scapegrace Steve Logan (Paige) as the two drive a herd of cattle from Texas to sell in Abilene, Kansas. He falls for Ms Gwynne as Chris Prentice, a rancheress on the drive with them, and though at first she is much taken with the handsome Steve, and rather ignores poor Jim, she finally comes to understand that Steve is a scoundrel, and so it’s Noah who gets the gal in the last reel.
It is thus a great film to see if you are a Noah Beery fan. But it’s also a lot of fun for a number of other reasons.
For one thing it’s full of the stereotypes we know and love. There’s a stampede, a crooked saloon owner with henchmen, the other woman, a blazing gunfight, all the tropes we hope for in a good oater. And the sheer amount of action it packs in would put a lot of the serials to shame. It’s relentless.
According to the AFI Catalog, William McGann was to have directed but was replaced by producer Ford Beebe shortly after principal photography started – it doesn’t say why. Of McGann, the IMDb bio says, “Well-regarded as a second-unit director, his features as director were mostly routine.” Beebe entered the film business as a writer around 1916 and over the next 60 years wrote, produced and/or directed almost 200 films. He specialized in B-movies – mostly Westerns – and action serials, working on the Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon chapter plays for Universal. He really got pace into his pictures. They may not have been great art but they certainly gallop right along. He worked seven times with Noah.
Paige was, IMDb tells us, “A ‘B’ Hollywood leading man who had the requisite tall, dark and handsome features (plus an excellent singing voice) that Hollywood often relied upon.” It adds that he “was an extremely capable player worthy of stronger dramatics but was too often trapped in staid and standard leading man roles that prevented him from showcasing properly and moving squarely into the ‘A’ romantic ranks.” Paige didn’t really do Westerns: he only led in this one and the family drama semi-Western Red Stallion in 1947, and I don’t think he was really cut out for the genre. He’s OK once he has discarded his range duds and donned a sharp suit, playing cards and romancing the dames.
Paige doesn’t get to use that singing voice IMDb praised, and indeed there wasn’t even a song by the saloon gal. Maybe Diana Barrymore didn’t sing, I don’t know. She played Claire, la Gwynne’s rival. You know, we always have a rather racy saloon gal and a more proper dame for the hero to dither between, finally opting (in this case) for the saucier model, for decent Noah wins the hand of the fair Chris. Ms Barrymore bore a distinguished thespian name, daughter of stage and screen legend John Barrymore, and Drew, Lionel and Ethel were all close relatives. This was her only Western, poor soul, but I fear it was the least of the tragedies in her life.
Of course Noah too was a scion of silent-movie royalty, as was the chief henchman of the villain, played by Lon Chaney Jr. Lon is Chango, who whistles piercingly, accompanying himself on the guitar but is ever-anxious to use his snazzy two-gun rig to shoot people whenever his boss lets him. Naturally he will perish in the excellent last-reel gunfight as the heroes enter the saloon on horseback and proceed to blast the villains to bits.
The villain Ballard (he’s the saloon owner so must be crooked) was a habitual bad guy, the heavyset Thomas Gomez, who for once isn’t playing a Mexican or ‘ethnic’ part. In fact Gomez had started with the Lunts and led in prestigious Broadway productions such as A Man for All Seasons so he was a ‘proper’ actor alright. The best thing, and I could see it coming but was delighted when I was proved right, is that when things go awry for him at the end, he palms a derringer. He would. Not only that, he shoots Claire with it, the swine. Of course it does him no good.
The scam is that he has sewn up the cattle trade in Abilene, using his thugs (mainly Lon) to cow the cattle buyers, if you’ll forgive the pun, and scoop the pool himself. He’s a real wrong ‘un. Hero Steve, aided by loyal Jim, will thwart his dastardly plot.
There’s an interesting semiotic moment when the partners set up their independent cattle exchange and they change from their range duds into city slicker suits. They are moving from being honest Westerners to becoming corrupt Eastern capitalists. When Noah decides he’s had enough and wants the old life back (and the gal) he changes back into his old clothes, and puts back on his beat-up Stetson. Symbolic, huh.
It’s also a joy to see, as Slim, a leading cowhand, Andy Devine, at his corpulent best (the name Slim is ironic, natch), giving us his Andy Devine shtick in full measure.
Leo Carillo is (again) the comic Mexican, Frank Lackteen is Cherokee, and there’s a lot of badinage between the two. Shot dead early on by Lon is Dad Courtright, who adopted Chris when she was but a young ‘un, and he is played by old stager William Farnum. You’ve got a brace of Buckos as henchman and barfly, Kermit Maynard as another henchperson, as well as Eddy Waller as the auctioneer. And Tex Ritter has a small but noticeable part as one of the cattle buyers who finally stands up to the crooked town boss. So the cast was there alright.
I recommend this unassuming programmer. It was a lot of zip, and would definitely repay a watch.