Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Dodge City (1939)

Director: Michael Curtiz                                     Writer: Robert Buckner
Film Score: Max Steiner                                    Cinematography: Sol Polito
Starring: Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Bruce Cabot and Alan Hale

The parade of great films from the year 1939 seems endless. While lesser known, Dodge City is still one of the better Errol Flynn films during his time at Warner Brothers, not only teaming him with fellow superstar Olivia de Havilland and frequent co-star Alan Hale, but boasting a terrific film score by Max Steiner and expert direction by Michael Curtiz and his cameraman Sol Polito. It would be hard to imagine how this film couldn’t have been great. While this was Flynn’s first western, he had already proved his abilities on horseback in Charge of the Light Brigade, and the success of this film led to a half dozen more. For this film Warners decided to go all out with a Technicolor extravaganza, similar to what they’d done the year before in The Adventures of Robin Hood. Co-starring as the villain of the picture was Bruce Cabot, still best known as one of the stars of King Kong, even though he had a lengthy career that lasted into the seventies. If there’s a weakness to the film it’s the screenplay by Robert Buckner. In it he takes a very thin story and pads it with just about every western cliché there was at the time. But Warners wanted to get their money’s worth from their lavish production and they certainly did.

The film begins with Henry O’Neill and his friends riding in on the new railroad to Dodge City. Along the way they race a stagecoach and meet up with his foreman on the railroad construction, Errol Flynn. Now that the job is over, Flynn and Alan Hale call in the marshals to have Bruce Cabot and his men arrested for illegal buffalo hunting. Unfortunately, years later after the city has been named, the place is overrun by men like Cabot. When John Litel tries to collect money from Cabot for cattle he’s purchased, he’s shot down in cold blood by Cabot’s men and then they kill the marshal when he tries to arrest them. Henry Travers is the town doctor who is desperate to get someone in town who will restore law and order. His niece is the orphaned Olivia de Havilland, coming north to the town with her brother William Lundigan. Flynn and Hale are taking them along with the cattle drive, but when Lundigan gets drunk and tries to shoot Flynn, he fires back and hits him in the leg. Unfortunately, the shooting starts a stampede and Lundigan is killed, earning Flynn the enduring hatred of de Havilland.

When Flynn tries to sell his cattle Cabot tries to buy them but Flynn won’t sell to him. And when Flynn does get a buyer, Cabot has him killed. The inevitable conflict between the two is clearly going to be the climax of the film, but Robert Buckner’s screenplay sure takes a long time to get there. Not only does Hale participate in a meeting of the Pure Prairie League, but goes right from there into a barroom fight. Cabot is on hand to hang him for the damages but fortunately Flynn is close by to prevent it. And while the townspeople want Flynn to become sheriff, it takes the death of a little boy to anger him enough to do it, which also has the benefit of thawing relations between him and de Havilland. Flynn’s character is terrific here. He is utterly unflappable whether in the face of a drunken William Lundigan or a homicidal Bruce Cabot. And of course he falls for Olivia de Havilland. This was the fifth of their eight films together and de Havilland is as radiant as ever. Ann Sheridan, while receiving third billing, doesn’t have much of a role at all playing a showgirl who is dating Cabot. The ubiquitous Charles Halton plays Cabot’s lawyer, while Frank McHugh is terrific as the owner-editor of the local newspaper. Cowboy Guinn “Big Boy” Williams also does a nice bit in comedy relief as one of the cowhands working for Flynn. Victory Jory plays Cabot’s right hand man and Ward Bond plays another of Cabot’s henchmen. And almost going unnoticed in a small role as the widow of John Litel is the wonderful Gloria Holden, best remembered for her starring role in Dracula’s Daughter at Universal.

Michael Curtiz makes some great shot selections in the film, one of which in the opening looks up between the horses of the rushing stagecoach. He also makes a unique placement of the camera from inside of the covered wagon when de Havilland is talking to Flynn. For Curtiz, however, the centerpiece of the film has to be the completely over-the-top barroom brawl where the entire saloon is literally dismantled, topped off by a cardboard cutout of a showgirl falling on top of Hale when he is knocked out behind the bar. As with most films from the period, the deep color saturation of Technicolor’s colors can be a bit much, but one scene in particular is impressive. When order has been restored and the newspaper announces that new families are coming to the town, Curtiz sets up a static shot at the train station that is beautifully composed, with the early morning California light slanting in on the back lot and the vivid red of the depot so breathtaking that it could be a framed color print on a wall. Max Steiner also provides a stately and magnificent film score, which elevates the film even more. Though it’s not much of a story, and most of it is tied to the town, Dodge City is a one of a kind western with a brilliant cast and crew that make it a highly recommended film experience.

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