14 May 2010

Movie review: Dodge City

Dodge City (1939)
Directed by Michael Curtiz. Starring Errol Flynn, Olivia De Havilland, Ann Sheridan, Bruce Cabot, Frank McHugh, Alan Hale, Victor Jory.

I seem to be riding away fast from the Italian Western. First it was the U.S. Western Vera Cruz, which at least had a huge impact on the Eurowestern, but now I’m riding all the way back to the classic U.S. style of the Golden Age of Hollywood and the birth of the Technicolor Spectacular.

In my review of Union Pacific, I talked about the “Great Western Year of 1939,” when the genre exploded out of the B-picture rut in which it had spent most of the decade. To re-cap, five Western A-pictures came out that year that turned into substantial hits: Union Pacific, Destry Rides Again (based on a Frederick Faust novel; or at least suggested by one), Jesse James, Stagecoach, and today’s topic, Dodge City.

Of this quintet of the cinematic Wild West revolution, Dodge City is the most straightforward. It’s an action spectacle picture, plain and simple. It’s the most accessible of the movies for audiences today—after Stagecoach, of course, which is flat-out one of the greatest films ever made and therefore accessible.

Dodge City has a simple view of the taming of the West, where civilization appears in the form of the railroad and a gun-wielding Errol flashing a killer smile. It’s big glob of old Hollywood fun, with the bonus of gorgeous early three-strip Technicolor. And I mean gorgeous. If you get nothing else out of this review, at least know that Dodge City is one of the finest-looking things ever slapped onto celluloid. I’ll mention this again in case you weren’t paying attention.

The story takes an “everything but the wood burning stove” approach, including nearly every single element of what we now think of the clichés of the U.S. Western: stagecoach chases, the good girl schoolmarm, the shady saloon girl, the white-hat hero lawman, the arrival of the railroad, shoot-outs, a barroom brawl, a cattle stampede… it’s the whole damn package (with the exception of Indians) and it’s joyous. Admittedly, it’s not Stagecoach, but it remains one of the great undiluted examples of the “pure” Golden Age Hollywood Western.

When Warner Bros. and producer Hal B. Wallis committed to making the movie, the choice for Errol Flynn as the star was controversial. Flynn was one of the studio’s biggest and most bankable leading men and a bona fide action hero—but in swashbucklers. The idea of a dashing Australian actor best known for wielding flashing rapier steel in The Adventures of Robin Hood, Captain Blood, and The Sea Hawk strapping on six-shooters, wearing a Stetson, and riding down the dusty main street of Dodge City must have at first seemed incomprehensible, or Jack Warner pulling a joke. But Flynn was an action star, and in the 1930s, Westerns meant action. So Errol Flynn was handed the role. To help out, he also got his most popular co-star, Olivia De Havilland, for their fifth collaboration, and his most famous director, Hungarian emigré Michael Curtiz, who helmed The Adventures of Robin Hood and Captain Blood.

Curtiz was notoriously unpopular with his actors—he didn’t think much of their profession and would have used sock puppets instead if he could have gotten away with it—and he and Flynn apparently never got along. However, each man seemed to understand that the other was extremely beneficial for his career, and once again the collaboration works in both’s favor. Curtiz had a flair for action and visuals, and Dodge City offered plenty of opportunity to exercise these talents.

The story of Dodge City is an example of the “Town Tamer” Western myth, taking inspiration from the real-life stories of Wild Bill Hickock’s days as a marshal and Wyatt Earp’s tenure in Tombstone, but fashioning an original hero with a scrubbed-clean record, something Earp and Hickock certainly couldn’t claim. The prologue set in 1866 establishes Dodge City as the new vanguard of civilization; the railroad arrives, and this new depot for the cattle drive receives its name amidst celebration of Progress. But when the movie leaps forward to the main story in 1872, Dodge City has turned into Sin City, a place of corruption and violence where cattle dealer Jeff Surrett (Bruce “King Kong” Cabot) rules through intimidation.

The man who will restore order to Dodge so it can reach its potential of civility in the lawless lands is Irishman Wade Hatton (Flynn). A former railroad employee who hunted buffalo to help clear the way for the day the trains first came into town, Wade finds himself back in Dodge with his old pal, Little John Rusty (Alan Hale) after leading a wagon train of settlers to the town. He finds himself at odds with the bullying Surrett, and he has beautiful Abbie Irving, one of the settlers, furious at him because she blames him for her brother’s death in a cattle stampede. Hey, a cattle stampede!

Oh, and a saloon fight! The biggest, brawniest, most furniture wrecking smack-down ever seen! And a sassy dancing girl! (Ann Sheridan) And horse stunts! And a hangin’ mob! And a shoot-out on a burning train! And…

Uh, I was talking about the plot, wasn’t I? Sorry, got distracted. A lot goes on, but here’s the gist of it: Wade eventually gets pushed too far, takes up the sheriff job, Cleans Up Dodge, and gets the girl. There’s nothing surprising about the story—it’s “Classic Western” with no deviation except that Australian guy as the lead—but it plays so big and bold that it makes for enormous fun. The script even has the moxie to kill a little (although annoying) kid just to help motivate Wade to take down Surrett. I admire that.

Errol Flynn doesn’t make any logical sense in the Western role. He’s too trimmed, too “Mid-Atlantic,” and too lightly mustached. But it makes no difference—logic doesn’t dictate here, it’s style, and Flynn is the personification of Hollywood cool in Dodge City. He’s smooth and he can kick your ass. Sold. His chemistry with De Havilland is the stuff of legends for good reason: they play off each other not in the “steamy” way of other famous on-screen pairings (Bogart-Bacall, Ladd-Lake, Tracy-Hepburn) but with a sense of camaraderie that blooms out of initial dislike. I never see Flynn and De Havilland on-screen as being true lovers (and they weren’t off-screen either, unlike some famous screen pairs) but as perfect partners, two people who may not realize it at first but were meant to work together. It’s hard to define, but perhaps that’s why it carried on for as long as it did and still holds the screen so well.

The rest of the performers are a perfect example of Warner Bros. casting. This studio had the fiinest stock company of any of the majors of the day, and every role—except that annoying kid—is a bullseye. Alan Hale is a hoot as the comic buffoon, which is essentially a reprise of his part in The Adventures of Robin Hood. This is a role in movies usually designed to aggravate rather than entertain, but the subplot about him trying to join the Pure Prairie League (a temperance organization, not the band) is genuinely funny—especially when it gets linked to that enormous brawl in the saloon. Victor Jory smears the screen with grease as the sleazy main henchman to Bruce Cabot’s villain; he’s the shifty sort who lurks behind the false smile of Jeff Surrett. Guinn “Big Boy” Williams is also memorable as a strong ‘n’ dumb member of Wade’s team who keeps managing to amicably get himself thrown in the pokey.

Even if the innocent naivety of Dodge City doesn’t appeal to you—the film is the antithesis of the cynical Western style that’s been the vogue since the mid-1960s—its beauty and scope will. Early three-color Technicolor was stunning… the richness of the color palette in films like this is sumptuous, like staring at a candy counter. The year 1939 was a huge one for the process, which was only five years old: The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind also premiered, and we all know those aren’t hard on the eyes. (Gone with the Wind made some money as well, from what I hear, and The Wizard of Oz is sorta popular even today.) Both those films have the candy-store window color scheme, but Dodge City shows how Technicolor could also capture the dusky browns of the frontier with equal richness. The seres, beiges, and siennas are breathtaking, and the outdoor photography captures a sort of Remington-esque painter quality.

Much of Dodge City was shot on genuine exteriors, far different from the soundstage and rear-screen projection style of the time, and it makes a helluva difference. The scene where Wade finally gets off Abbie’s black list is done with the two of them on horseback sauntering under a tree on the great plains… and it’s really on the great plains! Sol Polito’s camera makes what would normally be an ordinary bantering sequence—although a well-written and acted one—into a piece of Great West poetry. It’s just one of many example that occur throughout a film that might sound plain on paper.

The Warner Bros. DVD has a transfer that’s pristine, and it’s a Technicolor classic like Dodge City that makes you appreciate what the digital medium, properly used, and with careful film restoration, can do to enhance a movie. There’s no Blu-ray disc yet; that would look amazing, the perfect melding of high-definition with old material that would benefit from it.

Now that I’ve reviewed two of the five “Greats of ‘39,” I guess I’ll have to tackle the others. And with Frederick Faust/Max Brand on my mind, perhaps it’s time to re-visit Destry. (Face it, Stagecoach has to go last.)