THE AMERICAN WEST (mostly): Fact and Fiction (mostly fiction)

"NOBODY GETS TO BE A COWBOY FOREVER." -- Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) in MONTE WALSH (NG, 1970)

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Tuesday, February 26, 2013




The poster indicates that Robert Young is the star, but the movie indicates that he isn't.

DIRECTOR: Fritz Lang;  ASSOCIATE PRODUCER: Harry Joe Brown;  EXECUTIVE PRODUCER: Darryl F. Zanuck;  WRITER: Robert Carson from novel by Zane Grey;  CAMERA: Edward Cronjager and Allen M. Davey

CAST: Robert Young, Randolph Scott, Dean Jagger, Virginia Gilmore, John Carradine, Slim Summerville, Chill Wills, Barton MacLane, Russell Hicks, Victor Killian, Minor Watson, George Chandler, Chief John Big Tree, Chief Thundercloud, Addison Richards, Irving Bacon, Iron Eyes Cody, Francis Ford, Tom London, Reed Howes, Eddy Waller

WESTERN UNION is an old-fashioned epic told in the grand style.  But who said there was anything wrong with that?  It begins with Vance Shaw (Randolph Scott) fleeing from a posse and riding through a buffalo herd and concludes with an interesting twist and an extremely well-staged gunfight, not to mention that in-between a huge fire engulfs and destroys the telegraph expedition's construction site.

It is the story of the stringing of the telegraph between Omaha and Salt Lake City and all the obstacles encoutered in doing so.  There are the Indians who disapprove and white outlaws who steal the company's livestock and sells it back to the company.  Not only that, the outlaws dress as Indians, give the Indians firewater, and prod them into attacking the construction crews.

Edward Creighton (Dean Jagger) is the chief engineer and surveyor in charge of the Western Union effort.  He hires Vance Shaw to be his troubleshooter.  He knows that Shaw has a shady past, but since Shaw has done him a good deed he thinks the outlaw possesses the qualities that deserve a fresh start.

Robert Young is Richard Blake, a brash young Eastern tenderfoot sent West to serve as one of Creighton's assistants.  He got the job because his father made a nice financial contribution to the company.  But the tenderfoot is made of sterner stuff than first appearances would dictate and after several false starts he wins his spurs.

The Old West was hard on women and Western movies could be as well.  Virginia Gilmore as Creighton's sister is along as window dressing and to add a romantic angle in which Shaw and Blake compete for her attention.  We have seen this before and it doesn't add much to the story.

(L-R) Chill Wills, Dean Jagger, Randolph Scott, Robert Young

There was a real Edward Creighton.  He was in charge of stringing the telegraph from Omaha to Salt Lake City.  His memory is much honored in that part of the country as indicated by the fact that Creighton University in Omaha is named in his honor.  The other characters in the story are fictitious.

But did Creighton and Western Union have to fight outlaws and Indians in order to complete its mission?  In a word, no. 

The movie is billed as Zane Grey's WESTERN UNION and is purportedly based on the last novel written by the prolific novelist.  Supposedly it was published just three days before his death.  The novel does exist but some claim that it was written after the screenplay.  It doesn't really matter.  As in so many other cases Grey's name exists as a brand name used in advertising to attract customers.  More times than not the only elements of his stories to make it into the films are the title and a few of the principal characters.

Zane Grey
After the director, Fritz Lang, agreed to take on the film and after he received a copy of the script he re-wrote it in order to inject some historical accuracy.  The producers rejected his efforts.  It was more accurate but it was too dull.

Here's what Lang had to say in a later interview: "In reality nothing happened during the whole building of the line except they ran out of wood for the telegraph poles."

So there was no resistance on the part of the Indians, there was no thievery and skulduggery by white outlaws and they didn't provoke the Indians into attacking the line?  Well, then it was a good thing the director didn't get his way.  The real story would have been one dull Western. 

Fritz Lang

Robert Young received top billing in the film, but he is not the star.  That would be Randolph Scott as the good-badman, Vance Shaw. And it may very well be his best performance, even surpassing his more acclaimed roles in the Boetticher films and RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY (MGM, 1962).

Scott had been starring in low-budget A-Westerns such as FRONTIER MARSHAL (Fox, 1939) and WHEN THE DALTONS RODE (Universal, 1940) or co-starring in more prestigious films such as JESSE JAMES (Fox, 1939, Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda) and VIRGINIA CITY (WB, 1940, Errol Flynn).

WESTERN UNION should have led to bigger and better things for the actor, but it didn't work out that way.  He went back to the same kinds of roles that had been given to him before.  But he built a following and became a popular performer probably because people knew what to expect in a Scott film and they were rarely disappointed.  And on occasion films such as CORONER CREEK (Columbia, 1948) and MAN IN THE SADDLE (Columbia, 1951) would rise above the norm.

Many of the films would be produced by Harry Joe Brown, one of the producers on WESTERN UNION, and during that period the producer and actor would form their own production company to produce the Scott films.

Then came SEVEN MEN FROM NOW (Batjac/WB, 1956), the first of the Boetticher films, and Scott finally received the long overdue praise that he deserved for his acting.

Reportedly Don Ameche and Lloyd Nolan were original choices for the Young and Scott roles, respectively.  Ameche would have been acceptable, but if Nolan had been cast rather than Scott the result would have been a different film -- an inferior one -- and it would not have made my list of favorites. Nolan was a good actor in the right role, but he also is on my list of actors who should have never been cast in Westerns.  

Randolph Scott as Vance Shaw dominates WESTERN UNION

Dean Jagger's breakthrough role occurred in 1940 when he was cast in the title role in BRIGHMAN YOUNG -- FRONTIERSMAN (Fox).  He would go on to become one of Hollywood's most dependable supporting actors and would win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in TWELVE O'CLOCK HIGH (Fox, 1949).  He is very good as a sincere and dedicated straight arrow, Edward Creighton.

Robert Young is also on my list of actors who should never have been cast in a Western.  However, in this one he portrays an Eastern tenderfoot and that's exactly what he appears to be.  His top billing is misleading since his role ranks behind that of both Scott and Jagger.

Virginia Gilmore doesn't have much to do in this film and it is a role that any actress chosen by lot could have filled.  Three years later she married Yul Brynner, which was a role I suppose that not just anybody could fill.

Barton MacLane was always more believable as an Eastern gangster than a Western outlaw, but he does okay as the chief villain, Jack Slade. 

Chill Wills, as Homer Kettle (great name), is well-cast as a rough, uncouth assistant to Creighton who has fun giving the tenderfoot a hard time -- but not as hard a time as the one he eventually experiences.  Slim Summerville as a cowardly cook is on hand for comedy.  A little Slim Summerville goes a long way and we get way too much in this film.

John Carradine is Doc Murdoch and he gives one of his patented oddball performances.  Apparently, the role was orignally intended for B-Western sidekick Gabby Hayes, who had to drop out due to illness.

Native Americans were rarely treated kindly in the Westerns of this era -- and this one is no exception.  Here they are child like and easily manipulated by bad men for bad purposes and by good men for good purposes.  

Iron Eyes Cody (who really wasn't an Indian, but that's another story) is briefly seen as a drunken Indian. 

Receiving more screen time is Victor Daniels, a Cherokee whose screen name was Chief Thundercloud.  He is the chief's son who is drunk on the white man's firewater and thus is out of control and is foolishly wounded by the tenderfoot.  Daniels is best known as the screen's original Tonto in Republic's two Lone Ranger serials released in 1938 and 1939, respectively.

Tonto (Chief Thundercloud) and the Masked Man

Chief John Big Tree as Pony-That-Walks in John Ford's SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON (Argosy/RKO, 1949)

The chief is portrayed by Chief John Big Tree, a member of the Seneca tribe.  He became a member of John Ford's stock company and had roles in THE IRON HORSE (1924) and STAGECOACH (1939), and most prominently in DRUMS ALONG THE MOHAWK (1939) and SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON (1949).    

Frederich Christian Anton Lang, better known as Fritz, was born in Vienna in 1890.  That and the fact that he was one of the founding fathers of film noir  would appear to combine to make him an unusual choice to direct a Western.  He directed only three and one, WESTERN UNION, is a classic. That's not a bad average.

His others were THE RETURN OF FRANK JAMES (Fox, 1940) and RANCHO NOTORIOUS (RKO, 1952).  The first is a totally fictitious account  of Frank's actions after the assassination of his brother.  It isn't a bad film.  RANCHO NOTORIOUS has its partisans, but I don't see it.  For one thing, the three leads -- Marlene Dietrich, Arthur Kennedy, and Mel Ferrer -- are all on my list of people who should never have been cast in a Western.

WESTERN UNION is beautifully filmed in glorious Technicolor by cinematographers Cronjager and Davey, which is one of the film's strong suits.  They take full advantage of the rugged vistas provided by Horse Rock Canyon in Arizona and especially Zion National Park and the area around Kanab, Utah.


"Randolph Scott, an ex-outlaw who joins the expedition as a scout turns in a strong persuasive characterization." -- Variety

"Despite its dated drawbacks, WESTERN UNION remains a grand entertainment, probably the best of the epics of the period....Scott's exemplary -- possibly his best before RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY -- and the usually heavy-handed Lang directs with deft levity." -- Brian Garfield in Western Film: A Complete Guide

"Fritz Lang tells a straight, tense, lusty story with an almost naive enthusiasm, and the film's large budget pays off in the unsurpassed Utah scenery that's present in abundance." -- Steven H. Scheuer

"...Randolph Scott...shapes one of the truest and most appreciable characters of his career....Any way you take it WESTERN UNION is spectacular screen entertainment." -- Bosley Crowther in The New York Times


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