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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Friday, January 23, 2015

RANDOLPH SCOTT: Western Star, 1938-1945



 Randolph Scott: The Paramount Years, 1932-1938 can be read here.

Randolph Scott in one of his finest roles: WESTERN UNION (1941)

In the 1930's, Randolph Scott's movie career was given a huge boost when he was chosen by Paramount to star in a series of Westerns based on the stories of Zane Grey.  When his contract with that studio ended in 1938, he made a wise decision when he decided to sign a non-exclusive contract with Darryl Zanuck and 20th Century-Fox.
His first film for Zanuck was a co-starring role with Shirley Temple in REBECCA OF SUNNYBROOK FARM (Fox, 1938), directed by Allan Dwan. Little Miss Temple, nearing the advanced age of ten, received top billing, as she did the following year when the two were paired in SUSANNAH OF THE MOUNTIES (Fox). 

Five years earlier, she had made her film debut in an uncredited extra role in TO THE LAST MAN (Paramount, 1933), which had featured Scott in the lead role.
Overall, 1939 was an excellent year for the actor. He supported Tyrone Power, Henry Fonda, and Nancy Kelly in Henry King's classic outlaw biography whitewash, JESSE JAMES (Fox). The hugely entertaining film enjoyed only a glancing resemblance to historical truth, and that included Scott's role as a fictional lawman who befriends the James brothers. However, his future prospects were greatly improved due to the big business that the film enjoyed at the boxoffice.

In many respects, Scott's most important role of the year was as Wyatt Earp in FRONTIER MARSHAL (Fox), which also featured Nancy Kelly, Binnie Barnes, and John Carradine. Allan Dwan was again the director.  He had begun directing Western films as early as 1911. FRONTIER MARSHAL, however, was his first sound Western.

Sam Hellman wrote the screenplay, which was adapted from Stuart N. Lake's book, Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal, purportedly a biography, but one that contains as much fiction as fact. Lake and Fox got a lot of mileage out of that book. In addition to the 1939 film, Fox had earlier used it as the source material for FRONTIER MARSHAL (Fox, 1934, starring George O'Brien). 

In 1946, the studio filmed the most famous version, that being John Ford's MY DARLING CLEMENTINE, starring Henry Fonda. The film's script not only utilized Lake's book as source material, it also adapted Hellman's screenplay from the 1939 film. Oddly enough, Ward Bond had a role in all three films, though he portrayed a different character in each one.

In 1953, Fox filmed the fourth version of the story based on Lake's book and and the third utilizing Hellman's screenplay. It was POWDER RIVER, starring Rory Calhoun and Cameron Mitchell.

But it didn't end there. Lake served as a consultant for the long-running TV series, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, starring Hugh O'Brian. At least the producers of the series demonstrated a degree of integrity by including the word legend in the title of the series.

FRONTIER MARSHAL was the type of entertaining, fast-paced, and unpretentious medium-budget Western that eventually became synonomous with the actor.  Although the film suffered from competition provided by a host of blockbuster Westerns released in the same year, it held its own and was as entertaining and  as satisfying as any of them.

In 1940-41, Scott appeared in two big-budget, deluxe epic Westerns when he supported Errol Flynn in VIRGINIA CITY (WB, 1940) and Robert Young and Dean Jagger in WESTERN UNION (Fox, 1941).

Unfortunately, VIRGINIA CITY was a flawed production.  It was made by Warner Brothers, and that studio, though proficient in the filming of crime dramas, never learned the art of filming Westerns; and director Michael Curtiz was in a similar predicament -- he too never understood the mythology of the West.  In later years, some of Scott's weakest films were produced by the studio.  The later good Westerns released by the studio -- some starring Scott -- were filmed by independent production units and distributed by Warner Brothers.  Oddly, the studio dominated the production of TV Westerns and produced some rather good ones.

Bogie as Mexican bandito??!!
The cast in support of Flynn was superb.  In addition to Scott, it featured Miram Hopkins, Humphrey Bogart (but unfortunately miscast), Alan Hale, Guinn "Big Boy" Williams, Douglas Dumbrille, Paul Fix, Ward Bond, and Lane Chandler.  However, it was defeated by Curtiz's direction and Robert Buckner's weak script.  This was particularly true of Bogart who was miscast (and knew it) as a sneering Mexican bandit.  Through no fault of his own, for he should not have been in the film, he was pathetic.

One would think the studio would have learned its lesson from the previous year when it miscast Bogart and James Cagney as unconvincing westerners in THE OKLAHOMA KID (but it was a profitable film, which explains Bogart's presence in VIRGINIA CITY.)

One wonders how the project was ever completed since the relationship between Flynn and Curtiz was always uneasy at best, and neither Hopkins, notoriously difficult to direct, nor Bogart had any faith in the film or the director. 

Despite superb second-unit stuntwork by the immortal Yakima Canutt, VIRGINIA CITY is turgid, ponderous, and confused.  WESTERN UNION, however, represents what is one of Scott's finest screenperformances, and perhaps his best before RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY (MGM,1962).  The plot, based on a Zane Grey story, deals with the establishment of thefirst telegraph line across the West, despite the efforts of villains and hostile Indians to prevent its completion.  There is a romantic triangle that finds the heroine (Virginia Gilmore) torn between the heroic eastern tenderfoot (Robert Young) and the equally heroic Western good-badman (Scott).

WESTERN UNION might be the best of the epic Westerns of its time -- and one of the best of all time.  Scott, supposedly in a supporting role to star Young, steals the picture in the William S. Hart type role.  In addition to Scott, Young, and Gilmore, the cast includes Dean Jagger, Barton MacLane, Slim Summerville, Chill Wills, and John Carradine.  The film was enhanced by Edward Cronjager's glorious Technicolor photography. 

In fact, I like the film so well that I ranked it as number six on my "Top 21 Favorite Westerns" list (and RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY is number five). 

Fritz Lang was not known for directing Westerns, but this one is the best of the three that he did direct.

 In the same years as the previous two pictures, Scott starred in two outlaw biopics: WHEN THE DALTONS RODE (Universal, 1940), directed by George Marshall and featuring Kay Francis, Brian Donlevy, George Bancroft, Broderick Crawford, Andy Devine, Stuart Erwin, Frank Albertson, and Edgar Buchanan; and BELLE STARR (Fox, 1941), with Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Chill Wills, and Louise Beavers, directed by Irving Cummings, and co-written by Lamar Trotti, Niven Busch, and Cameron Rogers.

Despite the overall quality of the two films each suffered a drawback.  It was difficult to accept the beautiful Miss Tierney in the role of the outlaw queen who in reality was fleshy, big-boned, and homely.

Gene Tierney as Belle Starr

Belle Starr as Belle Starr
The film is also a complete whitewash of the life and times of the so-called "Bandit Queen."  Scott is Sam Starr, an ex-Confederate guerilla who becomes an outlaw in postwar Missouri.  He and Belle fall in love and marry.   Belle attempts to get Sam to go straight, which he does, but only after Belle is killed by Jasper Tench (Olin Howland), a horse thief who harbors a grievance against her.

In the real world, Sam Starr was Belle's Cherokee husband.  The two served time for horse theft and engaged in a series of petty crimes -- not in Missouri, but in the Indian Territory (Oklahoma).  Sam was killed in a shoot-out at a dance and Belle was shot and killed by a neighbor who harbored a grievance against her. Oh, well.

Although all the Daltons were killed in the Scott film in their attempt to simultaneously rob two Coffeyville, Kansas (their hometown) banks in broad daylight, all one had to do was read the credits to conclude that one of the Daltons must have survived.  The screenplay was based on the autobiography of Emmett Dalton, who, though badly wounded, did not perish in the robbery attempt.

Of course, most viewers did not detect the incongruity and wouldn't have much cared if they had.  Western fans have never allowed distorted history to interfere with their enjoyment of a good Western.

The fictionalized plot features Crawford, Donlevy, Erwin, and Albertson as the Dalton brothers who are forced into a life of crime when a land coporation in cahoots with the railroad attempts to steal their farm.  Scott is the sympathetic lawyer and family friend who attempts to assist them in their efforts to go straight and maintain possession of their land.

The truth is, Scott didn't have much to do in this film.  Its primary assest was action, a stuntman's picture -- but Scott's character was involved in practically none of that action.  Although he was listed well down in the cast, the real star was Broderick Crawford, who portrayed Bob, the leader of the Dalton clan, and had much more onscreen time than Scott. 

The real star of this film is Broderick Crawford -- not Randolph Scott

In between Westerns in these years, Scott found time to appear in one major non-Western production.  He supported his personal friend Cary Grant and Irene Dunne in MY FAVORITE WIFE (1940). 

By 1942, the dominance of deluxe Westerns was beginning to wane.  THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON (WB) was the only Western in that budgetary category to be released that year, and it was released in January.  Instead studios began to concentrate on less ambitious A-Westerns, many of which could be classified as "A-minus" or "B-plus Westerns" in order to differentiate them from the big-budget A's and low-budget B's.

In the long run, this trend toward medium-budget Westerns exerted the single greatest impact on Scott's career.  But first he starred with Marlene Dietrich and John Wayne in a pair of films.  THE SPOILERS (Universal, 1942, directed by Ray Enright) could be classified as a non-Western since it is set in the gold rush in Nome, Alaska.  However, it has the look and feel of a Western and I tend to think of it as such.  PITTSBURGH (Universal, 1942), on the other hand is a non-Western.  These two, by the way, represent the only times that Scott and Wayne appeared together in a film.

 The Spoilers 1942 Poster.jpg 

THE SPOILERS, filmed five times, is known primarily for its rousing display of fisticuffs between Scott, the crooked gold commissioner, and Wayne, the wronged miner.  The supporting cast was outstanding.  It was headed by Harry Carey (as Wayne's crusty partner), Richard Barthelmess (in his final screen appearance), and William Farnum.  Farnum, by the way, had starred in the original (1914) silent version and had served as technical advisor on the 1930  version that starred Gary Cooper.

As for that brawl with Wayne, Scott would later engage in other brutal fistfights, most notably with Forrest Tucker and John Russell.  But more about that later.

Scott, who was already in his forties when the U.S. entered WWII, did not serve in the military, but did fight the war on the screen.  In 1942, in addition to the films discussed above, Scott co-starred with John Payne and Maureen O'Hara in a war movie, TO THE SHORES OF TRIPOLI (directed by H. Bruce Humberstone). The following year he starred in three more war films: CORVETTE K-225 (first-rate), GUNG-HO! (directed by Ray Enright, it went a bit overboard in its nationalistic jingoism), and BOMBARDIER (the best of the three).

1943 also found Scott back in the saddle starring in a good medium-budget Western.  THE DESPERADOES (Columbia, with Glenn Ford, Claire Trevor, and Evelyn Keyes, plus character support from good ol' Edgar Buchanan, good ol' 'Big Boy' Williams, and Porter Hall).

Based on a Max Brand story, the plot is about a bandit (Ford) going straight and joining forces with a marshal (Scott) to clean up a town and defeat the villain (Buhanan).  Charles Vidor was the director and Harry Joe Brown was the producer.  It is notable for being Columbia's first color production.
Apparently, Dietrich wasn't available

After starring in the musical (gasp!) Western BELLE OF THE YUKON (RKO, 1944, featuring Gypsy Rose Lee and Dinah Shore), CHINA SKY (1945, directed by Ray Enright, and featuring Ellen Drew and Anthony Quinn in support) and supporting Charles Laughton CAPTAIN KIDD (1945), Scott reached a major turning point in his career.

It occurred in 1946 when he starred in two more medium-budget Westerns -- Edwin L. Marin's ABILENE TOWN (UA) and Tim Whelan's BADMAN'S TERRITORY (RKO).  After these two, Scott with only three exceptions, devoted his remaining career to Westerns.  The exceptions are HOME SWEET HOME HOMICIDE (1946), CHRISTMAS EVE (1947, directed by Edwin Marin), and a cameo appearance in a Warner Brothers musical, STARLIFT (1951).

Significantly, the Westerns he starred in during the remainder of his career were in the medium-budget category.  The best was yet to come in the career of the aristocratic southern gentleman.


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