Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

Frontier Badmen (Universal, 1943)

 

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.

 

Paige and Beery – but Noah got the better part

 

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.

 

Noah got the gal

 

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.

 

Beebe at the helm

 

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.

 

Not really a Westernista

 

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.

 

Diana was the other woman (though they seem to have misspelled her name on the lobby card)

 

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.

 

Dig the scar, Lon

 

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.

 

Crooked saloon owner – surprise, surprise

 

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.

 

Leading lady Anne

 

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.

 

The good guys: Bob, Andy, Leo and Noah

 

I recommend this unassuming programmer. It was a lot of zip, and would definitely repay a watch.

 

 

 

6 Responses

  1. What a fun little flick! Thanks for the recommendation Jeff. You hit the nail on the head about Robert Paige, he’s definitely the weakest link in the cast. Leo Carillo’s malapropisms do get a little old after a bit but I guess that was considered de riguer at the time. They managed just the right amount of Andy Devine – for me he’s best in smallish doses – this one is classic Devine. The ladies were quite good as well – could Anne Gwynne have been any cuter in her range boss outfit? Diana Barrymore looked good in her impossibly shiny dresses and struck a good balance as the bad girl gambler with a heart of gold.

    I think one of my favorite moments happens about a third of the way in when baddie Ballard “suggests” that his lackey get out of town lest the boys recognize him – he scoffs – until scarred Lon Chaney rests a big paw on his holstered six-gun, now the lackey thinks getting out of town is a swell idea! Definitely worth a chuckle.

    Noah Beery Jr most certainly had the right kind of screen presence to play the unsophisticated but stalwart straight shooter, we’ve seen him do variations of that basic character many, many times and each time it really seems to ring true. Very satisfying seeing him get the girl in this one, especially since he did it by staying true to his personal code. Sometimes nice guys do finish first!

    I have very little experience with these hour-ish long “programmers” – this one was great fun though is it typical to have plots so reliant on a basic understanding of 19th century business practices? Not a complaint but I had the impression these were generally aimed at a fairly young audience – did the youths of the era receive a better grounding in economics than the kids of today?

    1. Glad you like it too!
      Stereotype English-mangling Mexicans and Ug-type Indians were standard practice in those unenlightened times. They wouldn’t get away with it now. (Good thing too).
      I don’t think Lon Chaney ever held his breath just as the Best Actor Oscar was about to be announced but he’s not bad in this one!
      Yes, the plot dos have some quite sophisticated commercial/business practices at its core. Probably not for educational reasons though…

  2. Anne Gwynne was always talented and adorable, In this film she plays Chris Prentice, so it must be kismet that her grandson is Chris Pine. Oh, and I disagree about Robert Paige. He was excellent.

    1. I agree that la belle Gwynne added to the ‘zip’ of the movie.
      As for Paige, maybe he was good in other genres, I wouldn’t know. But he didn’t do Westerns much.

  3. Watched this yesterday after reading your review, this is indeed an unknown gem.
    I enjoyed it immensely. I thought it had a good plot, good acting coupled with decent production

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