A decent enough wagon-train Western
Last time, reviewing 1883, I said that wagon-train Westerns were among the most common type, and all through the history of American cinema there have been examples. 1951 was the year of MGM’s very fine Westward the Women, and Paramount’s counter-offering, Passage West, had little of the quality of that picture but still, it was a decent wagon-train Western that certainly repays a watch.
It was a mid-budget affair with a lot of scenes shot in the studio but there were also quite a few decent Arizona and Mojave Desert locations, shot in Technicolor by Loyal Griggs, no less, as the wagon train wends its weary way westward, suffering the usual hardships (they were obligatory in such films) of dust storms, accidents, bad guys and so on (though no Indians this time).
It was a Pine-Thomas production and William H Pine and William C Thomas, the Dollar Bills as they were called, had a knack of making budgets go a long way. They rarely made a picture that lost money. They never made a truly fine Western either, but the pictures were often decent enough. They produced several with this one’s star, John Payne.
Payne was not in the very top rank of Western stars and in the genre is probably best known for his TV show The Restless Gun, but he led in eleven feature oaters between 1940 and 1956 and he handled himself well enough, I reckon.
He was especially good in this one, I thought, as the very tough leader of a band of escaped convicts who join up with the wagon train in order to escape pursuit (they killed prison guards while escaping). Payne’s Pete Black is pretty brutal but gradually softens as he gets to know the settlers and their decent leader, Preacher Jacob Karns, played by second-billed Dennis O’Keefe.
O’Keefe, “Tall, cheerful, outdoorsy leading man of Hollywood B movies” as the IMDb bio calls him, did a lot of light-hearted pictures but also had a good line in tough guy, notably in the superb 1947 Anthony Mann-directed noir T-Men, which O’Keefe also co-wrote. Here he plays a preacher ‘with a past’ – he knows how to fight dirty when it comes to blows with Black – and does a good job as the upright and godly but far from cowardly wagonmaster.
Naturally, the two are after the same woman. That was inevitable. That is the beautiful redhead Arleen Whelan, whom Darryl Zanuck had signed to Fox in the late 30s. In 1945 she was voted ‘the most perfect all-over beauty’ by a panel of magazine illustrators. She did eight big-screen Westerns and was most memorable, for me, as Rose in Ramrod in 1947, and she’s Rose again in this one. She crosses the prairies driving her wagon in glam gowns, 1950s cosmetics and bright red lipstick. She comes across as rather tiresome for much of the movie, as she dithers between the decent reverend and the seductive bad guy.
Of the rest of the cast, I liked Frank Faylen as Payne’s fellow escapee, Griff Barnett as the elderly German settler Papa Ludwig and, especially, our old pal Arthur Hunnicutt, the wagon-trainer who holds the bad guys at gunpoint so that they won’t interfere with the fistfight (which the preacher wins). Piano player Sam in Casablanca is one of the escaped convicts, Rainbow.
The picture was directed and co-written by Lewis R Foster, best known as a writer for Frank Capra’s Mr Smith Goes to Washington but in our noble genre probably about his best was Dakota Incident in 1956 with Dale Robertson and Linda Darnell. He worked seven times with Payne, and I think this was the best of the Payne Westerns. However, some of the pacing is lethargic and the film occasionally moves at the pace of the slowest wagon.
The best bit was when Payne shoots the bible out of the hand of the preacher. It was quite a shock, and well done.
There’s a dramatic ending as Black does the decent thing.
I couldn’t help but be reminded of another 1951 Western, Fox’s The Secret of Convict Lake, in which Glenn Ford leads a band of convicts which takes over a community of innocents, and his character too gradually ‘softens’.
Worth a look, I’d say.
Next time, another wagon-train Western, a more recent one.