For most of the history of the Western movie, the range war has been a central theme. Big ranchers using thousands of acres of open range fall into conflict with humble homesteaders, who want to fence off parcels of land and farm. There is no doubt where the sympathies of the writers of these Westerns lie: the ranchers are portrayed as ruthless and prepotent cattle barons while the nesters are sturdy folk who assert their God-given (and Congress-granted) right to work and raise families on American soil.
It went right back. Jack Ford’s silent Straight Shooting of 1917 (Ford’s first feature, click the link for our review) had Harry Carey standing up for intrepid settlers against over-mighty cattlemen, and the plot was already a staple by then. You will doubtless be able to think of countless subsequent arrogant ranchers who wanted the whole valley and determined, decent homesteaders or smaller ranchers ready to resist, often with the help of gunmen – Shane is the classic example.
Every now and then, though, the other side of the case was presented. In Republic’s late 40s oater, Wyoming, no relation to MGM’s Wallace Beery Western of 1940, written by Lawrence Hazard and Gerald Geraghty, the hero is our old pal Bill Elliott, indisputable goody, as Charles Alderson, ruler of a cattle empire, while the lowlife homesteaders are led by scheming Duke Lassiter (Albert Dekker), ready to stoop to any villainy to win out.
Hazard was a playwright and screenwriter who worked on big movies starring the likes of Spencer Tracy, Loretta Young, Clark Gable and Joan Crawford, while Westerns he did included the 1942 version of The Spoilers and, the same year, Jackass Mail with Wallace Beery. Geraghty contributed to no fewer than 67 feature Westerns and a handful of TV shows, over more than two decades. Both writers obviously knew the conventions yet were ready to try a different slant.
Like four other Wild Bill Westerns (see, for example, our recent reviews of The Gallant Legion and The Last Bandit), this one was directed and produced by Joseph Kane, a solid and highly experienced pro who knew his business inside out. It had a strong cast, an 84-minute runtime and some nice California locations (even if as usual much was done in the studio with back-projection). It was shot in black & white by the great John Alton, noirmeister who worked so much with Anthony Mann, including on Mann’s Western Devil’s Doorway. So it was no cheapo programmer.
With Wild Bill it co-starred Vera Ralston, the lover then spouse of Republic studio boss Herb Yates, who was not exactly an Oscar contender, shall we say, but she did her best. She plays Karen, the wife of rancher Alderson, come out to Wyoming in a wagon, who perishes giving birth to a baby daughter, also named Karen, who, once grown up, is also played by Ralston. Her rather thick accent is explained in the plot by her having been sent away as a girl to be educated in Austria.
So a good many years pass in the story. In fact Bill looks rather distinguished as an older rancher, almost Joel McCrealike, I thought. His partner doesn’t bother to age over the years though because he was always old, at whatever age: it’s Gabby Hayes, playing, for once, not a cranky old sidekick but the equal partner of rancher Bill. His name is Windy, naturally. He helps the Aldersons out in the first reel when they are attacked by Indians and gives them a home. The intro text tells us that in 1868 Wyoming was “uninhabited”, so I’m not sure where these Indians lived. Perhaps they came in from Idaho or Montana. Anyway, two-gun Bill (pistols worn butts forward, as usual) and coonskin-capped Gabby drive ‘em off.
Backing up the rancher hero (at least to start with) is ranch foreman Glenn, played by colorful actor John Carroll, a race car driver who studied opera and was a pal of Errol Flynn’s, whom we Westernistas will remember best as Randy’s antagonist in Decision at Sundown. Though tough and ready for gunplay, foreman Glenn studied law – until he came up against a crooked judge – and prefers legal ways of doing things to the law of the gun, so that brings him into conflict with his boss.
Windy studied law too, in fact. When told this, Alderson is surprised. “Yet you look honest,” he says. These references to dodgy legal practitioners, and the later trial scene, which, as so often in Westerns, is a travesty of justice (see our post on this subject here) suggest that the writers of this oater didn’t have the highest opinion of the legal profession.
A sympathetic character is Lila Regan, who comes into town on the Medicine Bow Stage Line (we’re in The Virginian territory) to take over the running of the local saloon. Lila is played by the rather good Virginia Grey, who would also do The Forty-Niners with Bill Elliott in 1954. She is drawn to rancher Alderson but is no pushover; she’s perfectly ready to stand up to him, and tell him when he’s wrong. However, she backs him up when he tells her that a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. She’s no wet Molly.
Maria Ouspenskaya is rather good too. She plays the elderly Maria, the companion or aunt or something of the deceased Karen who helps bring up the little Karen and who also toughly puts Charles on the straight and narrow. Mme Ouspenskaya, born in the then Russian Empire, defected to the US and became a successful Broadway actress and also founded the School of Dramatic Art in New York in 1929.
And lastly on the distaff side we have the equally enjoyable Minna Gombell as cigarette-smoking Queenie Lassiter, very ready to countenance and even encourage skullduggery to back Dekker up. Minna worked a lot with Bill Elliott and was a leading figure in The Last Bandit, though I disgracefully omitted to laud her in my review of that worthy film.
So the ladies are strong and interesting characters (apart from Vera, I’m afraid).
I always liked Albert Dekker in Westerns. He was especially adept at smoothy bad guy roles, though he could play goodies (he was Bat Masterson in The Woman of the Town). Of course he was unforgettable as double-crossing gang leader in The Killers but in Westerns I liked him in that brace of John Wayne pictures In Old Oklahoma and In Old California, with Richard Dix in The Kansan and Buckskin Frontier, and of course he was marvelous in old age as Harrigan in The Wild Bunch. But he did sixteen feature Westerns and a couple of TV shows and was always worth watching.
In smaller parts I spotted some familiar faces. Bearded Grant Withers is a particularly heavy heavy, excellent, I thought, while Harry Woods is a leading rustler, Roy Barcroft is the sheriff, then we’ve got Trevor Bardette, Hank Bell, Rex Lease, Charles Middleton, Glenn Strange (Wild Bill shoots his hat off), and, in a good bit of business with a hat, young Ben Johnson – these were regulars on the Republic Wild Bill oaters. Always a pleasure to see them.
Gabby is shot in the back by the bad guys and dies movingly but we don’t get a Shane-style funeral, only an après-funeral scene.
There’s certainly plenty of action. Uncle Joe Kane didn’t stint on that. Yakima Canutt was in charge of the stunts.
The ending’s a bit pat, when rancher Alderson suddenly sees reason, finds that there is “common ground”, and agrees to compromise with the settlers, who, he concedes, also have a right to live there. Never mind, it’s a nippy little Western and it’s good to have a pro-rancher one for a change.