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, December 2, 2014

WHEN THE DALTONS RODE (Universal, 1940)

DIRECTOR: George Marshall; WRITERS: screenplay by Harold Shumate based on book, When the Daltons Rode by Emmett Dalton; CINEMATOGRAPHER: Hal Mohr

STUNTS: Yakima Canutt (archival footage), Cliff Lyons (archival footage), Eddie Parker, Bob Reeves, Duke York

CAST: Randolph Scott, Kay Francis, Brian Donlevy, George Bancroft, Broderick Crawford, Stuart Erwin, Andy Devine, Frank Albertson, Mary Gordon, Harvey Stephens, Edgar Dearing, Sally Payne, Edgar Buchanan, Al Bridge, Bob Kortman, Ethan Laidlaw, Tom London, Eddie Parker

The Dalton Clan: (back row L-R: Bob (Broderick Crawford; Emmett (Frank Albertson); Ben (Stuart Erwin); Grat (Brian Donlevy).  Seated in the front is Ma Dalton (Mary Gordon)


The above is part of the prologue that appears on the screen right after the credits.  It serves as a warning: You are not going to learn the truth about the Dalton brothers by viewing this film.  You are not going to because "to a large extent" the story is based on"the tales that the old settlers still tell of them -- woven together with strands of fiction."  The implication is that the tales told by the old settlers are fact, but in reality those tales are just as likely to be as fictitious as those "strands of fiction" that were woven together with them.  And were the Daltons really "so incredible ... that no man can say where fact ends and fancy begins"?

Well, of course, movies are under no obligation to render exact history and no one should go to a movie for a history lesson, and that goes double for WHEN THE DALTONS RODE.  But it was, and is, possible to "say where fact ends and fancy begins."  Fact ended right after the credits rolled and fancy began with the prologue and did not end until about here:

But there's more.  In the climatic shootout, all three Daltons -- Bob, Grat, and Emmett -- die in a blizzard of bullets fired by the local citizenry. 

Then how to explain this?

If Emmett perished in the failed holdup, how did he write the book that the film is based on?  Well, he didn't die.  He could have, because his body was riddled with bullets, but he did survive, and he did write the book.  That doesn't mean that we can totally trust his version of the events, but they would seem to be more reliable than screenwriter Shumate's version.

There are a number of things about the casting that don't add up.  To begin with, I don't know why Randolph Scott is even in this film, but he is.  He doesn't have much to do and despite the fact that his name is at the top of the credits he is not the star.

In the previous year in JESSE JAMES, he is a lawman who befriends Jesse and his brother Frank, portrayed by Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda, respectively.  In that film, however, Scott is listed fourth in the credits, as he should be.  In the Daltons film, he is an old family friend and a lawyer who defends the brothers and falls in love with the leading lady, but pretty much stays out of the way.

Even though he is miscast, the real star of the film is Broderick Crawford.  I could never completely accept him in a Western, but in his role as Bob Dalton, the leader of the gang, he does have the most important part in the film.  So, where does his name appear in the credits?  How about fifth. 

Bob Dalton (Broderick Crawford) slugs the town marshal.  Lawyer Tod Jackson (Randolph Scott) is a bystander, as he is for much of the film. 

Listed fourth in the opening cast credits is George Bancroft.  He was a well-known name who had given a memorable performance the previous year in John Ford's classic Western, STAGECOACH, in which he portrayed Curley Wilcox, a lawman whose tough exterior hides a tender heart.

In the Daltons film, he is on the other side of the law.  He is a banker who is in cahoots with a land corporation that is stealing the land of the Daltons and other settlers in order to sell it to the railroad for its right away.  However, despite being the boss villain and being billed fourth, he is hardly onscreen at all. 

Listed third in the credits is Brian Donlevy, who portrays brother Grat.  Donlevy is another of those actors who were often cast in Westerns, but shouldn't have been.  Like Crawford, he was never quite believable as a westerner.  But he was better known than Crawford and therefore was billed ahead of him.

He was in two 1939 classic Westerns.  In JESSE JAMES, he portrays a railroad tough who is responsible for the death of the James brothers' mother (not really; she outlived Jesse by three decades and died only four years before Frank).  As a result, Jesse dispatches Donlevy early in the film.

His other Western role that year was in DESTRY RIDES AGAIN, directed by George Marshall.  In that one, he is a saloon owner and, therefore it goes without saying, is the chief villain.

Then there is Edgar Buchanan. Supposedly, Andy Devine, who portrays a fictititious character named Ozark, a friend of the Daltons who becomes a member of their gang, supplied the comedy in this film.    

It never mattered if Andy was in an important film like STAGECOACH, which he was, or if he was portraying Roy Rogers' sidekick, Cookie Bullfincher, or Wild Bill's deputy, Jingles P. Jones, he always played the same character.  Thus, it is that character that we see in WHEN THE DALTONS RODE.  I'm afraid that I find his character to be more irritating than humorous.

It has been written that Andy Devine's role as the stage driver in STAGECOACH was partly due to his ability to handle a 6-horse hitch.  Maybe that explain why he was cast in the role of Ozark.

Now back to Edgar Buchanan.  Even though he was only in his late thirties at the time, he portrays an old-timer who adds a light touch to the film.  And even though his scenes bookend the film in a pleasant fashion, he isn't even listed in the credits.  Surely, that was an oversight.  A year later, however, Buchanan was given his first major role.  The film was TEXAS (1941), also directed by George Marshall.  In fact, he would become one of Marshall's favorite actors and, as we shall later see, he was cast in several of the director's Westerns. 

Kay Francis was a native of Oklahoma, which is the setting for part of the film.  She appeared in her first film in 1929.  By the mid-30's, while under contract to Warner Brothers, she became the highest paid actress in the business.  But before the decade ended, and after being divorced from her fifth husband, the studio did not extend her contract.  And that is how she ended up in this film, her only Western.

WHEN THE DALTONS RODE did nothing to advance her career and by the mid-40's, she found herself working on Poverty Row at Monogram.  She made three films there, in which she was both star and producer.  The last was released in 1946 and it was her last film. 

Now we get to the good stuff. It is probably hard to tell up to this point, but I like this film. To enjoy it, one just needs to forget about history and think of the Daltons as being fictitious characters and set back and enjoy the action. The real stars are the stuntmen who make this little production one of those films that put motion in motion pictures.

The list of stuntmen is a who's who of stunting: Yakima Canutt, Cliff Lyons, Eddie Parker, Bob Reeves, and Duke York.  According to the IMDb website, Canutt and Lyons are in the film by way of archival footage, but they are in it, and that's good enough.

Most of the stunts are performed by Broderick Crawford's doubles, which reinforces the fact that he was the real star of the film -- along with the stuntmen.

We see the famous Yakima Canutt stagecoach stunt (could be stock footage from another feature), which is supposed to be Bob Dalton (Crawford). 


Bob leaps from rocks onto a stage: 

All five gang members attempt to use a stagecoach to outrun a posse.  Since the coach is too slow, four jump onto the coach horses, cutting them loose and using them as mounts.  Bob then rides back and picks up Ozark (Devine) who is driving the coach.

Even after they are cut loose from the stage, the horses are incapable of outrunning the well-mounted posse.  Luckily, the outlaws hear an approaching train.  All five jump from overhanging rocks onto the top of the train.

The most famous stunt in the film is this one:

After the gang leaps from the rocks onto the top of the train, they move inside and rob the passengers and the express car, even though there is a boxcar full of lawmen guarding the train.  The outlaws make their getaway by jumping the lawmen's horses off the moving train.
Due to the danger to the horses, this is apparently the only time this stunt was ever staged.

Naturally, Bob is the last to jump from the train.  And because of that, he is forced to jump over a cliff into a lake.  (This very much appears to be archival footage. The year before, Cliff Lyons jumped a horse off a cliff into a lake during the filming of JESSE JAMES. Lyons survived but the horse was killed. This scene is not from that film and it doesn't appear to be the portly Mr. Lyons either. But I'm not sure who it was or from what movie it first appeared in. Nevertheless, it is spectacular.)

The Daltons met their Waterloo when they attempted to rob two banks -- simultaneously -- in broad daylight -- in their hometown.  In the film, it is Grat's idea, but in reality Bob was the mastermind.  It has been written that he wanted to outdo the James boys.

The name of the town is never mentioned in the movie, but it was Coffeyville, located in southeastern Kansas a few miles from the Oklahoma border.

The three brothers, along with two other gang members, rode into the town on a day when there were many people on the street.  In an effort to disguise themselves they wore fake beards -- that fooled nobody.  In a town in which they were well-known, they were easily identified by people on the streets.

This is a depiction by local artist Paul Sprague of the Daltons raid on Coffeyville in 1892
Bob and Emmett entered the First National Bank while Grat and the other two gang members entered the C. W. Condon and Co. Bank across the plaza.

Everything went awry for the gang.  As they left the two banks, they were fired at from all directions by the town marshal and other townsmen who had been able to acquire weapons, many of them from a local hardware store located next door to the First National Bank.  

As the outlaws attempted to reach their horses in an alley where they had left them, four of them, including Bob and Grat, were killed.  Twenty-one year old Emmett, despite what occurs on the screen, and despite being wounded many, many times, was the only survivor.

Four townsmen, including the marshal, were also killed.

Emmett was later tried, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison.  He was pardoned in 1907.  He wrote two books: Beyond the Law (1918) and When the Daltons Rode (1931).  He died in 1937, three years before the film based on the book was released.

Well, at least all is well that ends well for some folks in Coffeyville:

Edgar Buchanan, Kay Francis, and Randolph Scott in the closing scenes of WHEN THE DALTONS RODE


Director George Marshall, star Marlene Dietrich, and producer Joe Pasternak on the set of DESTRY RIDES AGAIN (1939)
George Marshall entered films in 1912 as an actor.  In 1917, he made his directing debut.  In the silent era, he often directed Westerns including films starring the likes of Tom Mix, Harry Carey, and Jack Hoxie.

In the sound era, he specialized in Westerns that often poked gentle fun at the genre.  He is best known for DESTRY RIDES AGAIN (1939) starring Marlene Dietrich and James Stewart, with Brian Donlevy in a supporting role. 

After WHEN THE DALTONS RODE (1940), he directed TEXAS (1941), starring William Holden, Glen Ford, and Claire Trevor, with George Bancroft and Edgar Buchanan in support.  In 1954, he made DESTRY, starring Audie Murphy, a remake of the Dietrich-Stewart film.  Edgar Buchanan appears as the mayor. One of his most enjoyable Westerns is THE SHEEPMAN, starring Glen Ford and Shirley MacLaine.  Good old Edgar Buchanan is in that one, too.

Bosley Crowther in a review of WHEN THE DALTONS RODE in the New York Times wrote that "of one thing you may be sure: Universal will never make a sequel to 'When the Daltons Rode.' No, sir, friends, you'll never see a 'Return of Bob Dalton,' for instance, or 'The Daltons Ride Again' .... For the climax of this titanic Western ...  results in such wholesale tribal slaughter, such a complete patrilineal blackout of the clan, that 'When the Daltons Rode' is decisively the last of the Daltons. The Dalton gang is no more."

Five years later, Universal released THE DALTONS RIDE AGAIN.  You can look it up. It seems that old outlaws never die, they are just recycled.

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