Not to be dismissed
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Only three months after the release of one of the finest oaters of the decade, the dark psychowestern Pursued , Raoul Walsh had another Warner Bros sagebrush saga in the theaters, Cheyenne. This was an altogether a more lightweight picture, in some ways a return to Walsh’s usual tone as far as the Western went (this was still well before his noir Colorado Territory) and perhaps because of that it has been largely forgotten, many would say underestimated. Film writer Phil Hardy called it “the least of Raoul Walsh’s Westerns” and in fact Walsh himself ignored it in his memoirs.
It is nevertheless quite a good film, and certainly a lot of fun. It was a Robert Buckner production, and I have a lot of time for writer-producer Mr Buckner. His Westerns before this had been Dodge City, Virginia City, Santa Fe Trail and San Antonio, and indeed, Cheyenne too had been intended for Errol Flynn. The hero of Cheyenne is a debonair and devil-may-care gambler with a shady past and an eye for the ladies, Jim Wylie, and the role of Wylie was tailor-made for Flynn.
But Flynn was sailing the world on the Zaca and as far as new movies went, Jack Warner said he was slowing down. He only did one picture in 1946 and two in ’47, none of them Westerns. He would return to the oater but not till Silver River.
The Cheyenne role went instead to Dennis Morgan. We’ve already seen Dennis as Cole Younger in Bad Men of Missouri and, more recently, in our look at Raton Pass, and we said that he was personable and charming but could also do tough. He does an excellent job in Cheyenne, I think, managing really well the outwardly flippant but actually serious-deep-down character of the part.
Co-starring was the beautiful and talented Jane Wyman, who was between an Oscar nomination the year before and an actual win the year after. She plays the at-first superior and condescending Ann Kincaid, traveling with Jim on the stage, which is (naturally) held up.
Also aboard is a rather racier dame, the saloon singer (she’ll get two songs in the picture) Emily Carson, played by “joyous scene-stealer” (as the IMDb bio calls her) Janis Paige. She would be the love interest (for Wayne Morris) in another Younger bros yarn, The Younger Brothers, in 1949.
The plot will become exceedingly complex because it turns out that Emily will become engaged to marry the man who is in fact Ann’s husband. Oops.
The rest of the cast is also strong. Said husband, Ed Landers, who turns out to be the stage-robber known as The Poet (see below) is Bruce Bennett, very satisfactory as the smooth frock-coated Wells, Fargo inspector who is really behind the robberies he claims to be investigating. Bennett was already an old Western hand and the following year would be Cody in Warners’ splendid The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. He would be Jim Younger in The Younger Brothers and also the bad guy in the Raoul Walsh/Errol Flynn Silver River. He had a pretty good Western CV.
Alan Hale plays the truculent yet cowardly sheriff, giving full value to the part (Andy Devine or Edgar Buchanan would have done as well) and I especially enjoyed Arthur Kennedy as the Sundance Kid, quite a ruthless and sinister one (and unshaven, so clearly a villain). Arthur thus joined the ranks of those who have played the hapless Harry Alonzo Longabaugh. It would be Robert Ryan in Return of the Bad Men, Ian MacDonald in The Texas Rangers, Alan Hale himself in The Three Outlaws, Scott Brady in The Maverick Queen and many others, most notably of course Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (which had originally been planned as The Sundance Kid and Butch Cassidy).
John Ridgely was strong as one of Sundance’s gang, Chalkeye, and our old pal Barton MacLane was Yancey, the PI who doesn’t so much hire Jim to investigate the stage robberies and find The Poet as plain blackmail him into it. Tom Tyler, Bob Steele, Monte Blue as well. It’s a good line-up.
The screenplay was by Alan Le May and Thames Williamson. Le May we know, of course, for The Searchers but let’s not forget other fine pictures he did (he was equally good as screenwriter as he was novelist) such as The Unforgiven or The Walking Hills, and he too worked with Errol, on San Antonio and Rocky Mountain. Williamson contributed to a couple of Bill Elliott oaters at Republic, as well as two pictures we reviewed quite recently, Brimstone, and A Bullet is Waiting. Together they did a good job on Cheyenne and there are some nifty one-liners, such as Ann’s put down of Jim “You haven’t any more feelings than a ten-minute egg”, Yancey’s “If he gets out of this alive – we’ll hang him”, and Jim’s riposte to Emily’s asking him if he’s a gambler, “All men are gamblers, Emily, otherwise we’d never get married.” There’s also some dialogue with quite saucy double-entendre, for the time. Le May and Williamson used as a starting point a story by Paul Wellman, whose first Western this was (later he’d do The Iron Mistress, Apache, Jubal and The Comancheros).
Wellman took as his starting point the career of Black Bart, whom we looked at in our post on stagecoaches. Charles Boles or Bowles is thought to have robbed Wells, Fargo stagecoaches at least 28 times between 1875 and 1883. He left poems at some of the robbery sites, taunting his pursuers and calling himself Black Bart. He worked on foot and never fired a gun during his whole career (he brandished a shotgun, but never used it). He was polite and well-spoken.
Actually though, in Cheyenne The Poet doesn’t rob stagecoaches on foot and alone. He usually gets heavies to do his dirty work for him, and these heavies do utilize firearms, quite liberally, and are far from polite and well-spoken, my dears.
There are lots of other things going for the movie too. There’s some excellent black & white photography by the great Sidney Hickox (the Colorado Territory DP) and Buckner didn’t stint on nice Sedona, AZ locations.
Walsh and Hickox contrived some great shots, such as filming riders coming up on the camera from behind and flowing past it either side.
I did have an issue with the music. It was by the highly talented Max Steiner, so a priori excellent, and it was indeed nice in parts, but the key theme, used whenever a stagecoach appears, was pretty well done to death, because stagecoaches appear every ten seconds, it seems like, and I don’t know if it was my DVD, or my DVD player, or my ears but I found that if I had the sound up loud enough to hear the dialogue, the music was absolutely deafening. I was constantly reaching for the remote. It’s true that I did find myself whistling the tune when walking my dog after watching but it was definitely too much during the showing. Oh well.
The story is set in Wyoming, 1867 but of course they all have 1870s guns and accoutrements. It doesn’t matter. As for those stagecoach robberies, they always wait till the coach has passed then ride after it (doh) and they always manage to hit the shotgun messenger with a .45 from 300 yards at full gallop. They do this three times in a row in Cheyenne. I know it’s traditional but…
Cavils aside, there’s a classic bath scene but, as sometimes happened, it’s the man who takes the bath. I must add it to my fascinating (hem hem) essay on baths in Westerns. It’s a rather groovy bathtub, in fact, a canvas job and portable.
Another good thing (and another to add to an earlier post): Emily has a derringer in her purse. She forgets to use it during the stage robbery but later smoothie Bruce grabs it, at the dénouement. Of course it does him no good but it’s a classic use of the weapon: a saloon gal’s derringer used by a smoothie crook.
I notice the picture’s editor was Christian Nyby. Mr Nyby was a considerable editor, working on such pictures as Red River and The Big Sky, and would become a significant director of TV Westerns later on.
According to Warner Bros records, Cheyenne earned $2,506,000 domestically and $797,000 foreign, so that wasn’t bad at all. You’d think Raoul wouldn’t have overlooked it in his autobio. Inferior Westerns such as California and The Sea of Grass earned more and of course Duel in the Sun, still going strong from the previous year, earning $10m, left it in the shade but still, it was a decent return for Warners as 47th biggest earner of the year, according to Variety, though Pursued, $2.9m, was in at No. 38.
The movie was supposed to have spawned the TV show of the same name but unlike Warners’ Colt .45, for example, Clint Walker’s character on the small screen Cheyenne bore no resemblance to Dennis Morgan’s on the big one.
Anyway, don’t discount the movie Cheyenne. It wasn’t the greatest Western of the decade, far from it indeed, but it is a rattling good oater in its light-hearted way.