I think I’ve been guilty of neglecting Dennis Morgan on this blog. I only talked of him when he was Cole Younger in Bad Men of Missouri. I always thought of him as a likeable star in light musicals (he certainly had a very fine voice; he could have been Figaro). According to one obituary on his death in 1994, he was “a twinkly-eyed handsome charmer with a shy smile and a pleasant tenor voice in carefree and inconsequential Warner Bros musicals of the forties.” Another said that, “for all his undoubted star potential, Morgan was perhaps cast once too often as the likeable, clean-cut, easy-going but essentially uncharismatic young man who typically loses his girl to someone more sexually magnetic.” David Shipman said he “was comfortable, good-looking, well-mannered: the antithesis of the gritty Bogart.”
All that may be true but he led in nine oaters, including Raoul Walsh’s Cheyenne (upcoming review), and is definitely deserving of a Western blogger’s attention. And in a Western I have just watched, Raton Pass, he wasn’t really “the likeable, clean-cut, easy-going but essentially uncharismatic young man”. Rather, he was quite a tough rancher who makes the mistake of marrying an unscrupulous gold-digger and pays the price. He looks stocky and square-jawed, somewhere between Jack Hawkins and Richard Dix.
I made the point in my recent post on Warner Brothers Westerns that their early-1950s offerings could be pretty stodgy but that doesn’t apply to this one. Shot in quality black & white (and the current print is good) by the talented Wilfred Cline in some very nice Gallup, NM (and Warners Ranch) locations, tautly helmed by Edwin L Marin, one of Randolph Scott’s favorite directors, and produced by Saul Elkins, who worked several times with Marin, with a lovely score by Max Steiner and with a strong cast, Raton Pass makes an enjoyable watch.
The picture has definite noir tones. As we said in our post on the Western noir (which remains, by the way, one of the most read articles this year on this blog) the late 1940s and early 50s were the heyday of the noir Western, and it was at Warners that Walsh had remade his 1941 Bogart/Lupino High Sierra as Colorado Territory in 1949, with Joel McCrea and Virginia Mayo. One of the ingredients of the noir was a femme fatale, and Raton Pass sure had one of them, in the shapely shape of the excellent Patricia Neal, later Oscar-winner for her fine performance in Hud.
She, Ann she is named, arrives on the stage in the first reel, flirting with gunslinger Cy Van Cleave, played by Steve Cochran, all decked out in slinky black and with his pistol Bill Elliott-style, butt-forwards. But she unceremoniously dumps Van Cleave in zero seconds flat when she spots rich rancher Marc Challon (Morgan). After all, gunslingers may be slinky but they don’t own vast spreads of thousands of acres. Mr Cochran was a Warners contract player who started Westerns with Dallas in 1950 (now that one was stodgy) and led in two, Warners’ Louis King-directed The Lion and the Horse and later, after his Warners contract expired, in Allied Artists’ Quantrill’s Raiders, the one with a superb Leo Gordon as Quantrill.
Ann wastes no time at all, flatters Marc’s dad Pierre as much as she woos Marc and before you can blink she is Mrs Marc Challon and lady of the ranch. Said dad is played by the excellent Basil Ruysdael, in one of his best ever Western roles, I think. He was another singer (he was a star bass-baritone with the Metropolitan Opera Company between 1910 and 1918, so respect) who moved into acting. I remember him best as Andrew Jackson in Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier and as General OO Howard (he often did senior army officers and such) in Broken Arrow. But he’s superb in Raton Pass, a classic rich rancher who built up the spread from nothing and is determined to hold onto it at all costs.
The wedding gives Dennis a good chance to give the tonsils a workout, and jolly nice it was too.
Another actor who didn’t always get a big part but is good here is Louis Jean Heydt, as the leader of the homesteaders, for yes, we are once again in rancher v homesteader territory, though in this one the goody ranchers and (reasonably) goody homesteaders team up against the bad guys led by the fell Ann. Mr Heydt appeared (admittedly usually in small parts) in eighteen big-screen Westerns, mostly in the 1950s, and in this one he handles the transformation from rather surly type to do-the-right-thing fellow very well.
Then we get good old James Burke as the loyal foreman Hank, Roland Winters as the sheriff at first in the pocket of the rich folk then finally doing his job, and beautiful – and beautifully lit – Dorothy Hart (only this and two other Westerns) not all that convincing as the Mexican waitress Lena who pines for Marc but whose nose is mucho put out of joint when he weds Ann, though we know she will finally triumph, of course.
So it’s a good cast. Into the picture now comes unscrupulous railroad man (another oater archetype) Prentice, played by Scott Forbes, later to star on TV as Jim Bowie, and blow me down, the scheming Ann, who has only just married Marc, now starts canoodling with him, and together they hatch a plot to take the ranch away from the Challons altogether. This Ann dame really is rather naughty. At one point Prentice tells Ann that “good things never come cheap” but he might have put it that cheap things rarely come good.
The new couple hire that gunslinger Van Cleave, whom we met in the first reel, to do their dirty work as henchman, but he gets ideas above his henching station and wants the ranch too. There’s no honor among thieves. Van Cleave even shoots Marc in the back, the skunk, though luckily not fatally.
I enjoyed traveling over the Raton Pass down to Trinidad (where Bat Masterson was once marshal) and thence to the excellent town of Las Vegas, NM. I’m not quite sure why it bears that name (ratón is the Spanish for mouse) and when I was there people seemed to pronounce it ra’toon. The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe labored long and hard in the 1870s to run their railroad line over the pass and down towards Vegas. Nowadays you can just swoosh down on Interstate 25 but it was different in them days, pards. Mind, you still have to be careful come winter. As Clint Black sang, “He’s headed where the air is thin and the cold blue northers blow/Up through the Raton Pass, but he’ll have to beat the early snow.” Raton in the movie looks suspiciously like the Warners Western town lot but we’ll forgive it that.
In fact there were two Westerns which featured Raton in 1951. Only six days before Warners released Raton Pass, Columbia had put out Santa Fe, in which Randolph Scott was the track boss of the AT&SF determined at all costs to drive his line Westwards through Kansas, into Colorado and down into New Mexico, all while romancing Janis Carter, the railroad paymistress. And good old Frank Ferguson was Bat Masterson. Paul E Burns was highly entertaining as the fiddle-playing Dick Wootton up on the Raton Pass. They have a contest of three champion fiddlers and Uncle Dick wins. That one was in color, though. So anyway, fancy that, two good Westerns about Raton the same year.
The screenplay of the Warners picture was by James R Webb, the Cape Fear guy who worked on such Westerns as The Big Country and Vera Cruz, and Thomas W Blackburn, from Blackburn’s own novel Raton Pass. He was a local resident, a pulp writer who also wrote the lyrics to The Ballad of Davy Crockett.
Well, Raton Pass all gets a bit melodramatic, I suppose, as the tale pans out, the villains get their deserts (Ann dies under Van Cleave’s gun, so very fitting, and I must say, Ms Neal was brilliant in the part) and waitress Lena, in Marc’s arms at last, gets the last word, “It is good to forgive but better to forget,” which I’m not sure is true but there we are, it’ll pass for wisdom, I guess.
A rather good Western, worth 84 minutes of your time, I’d say. There’s a good WB DVD.