Oct 7 2011
1939 was apparently the year that the Western came into its own. “Stagecoach,” “Destry Rides Again” and “Dodge City” were all released then and elevated the genre from B grade status to vehicles for the studio stars of the day. “Dodge City” is slightly different in that the studio heads took a chance and cast star Errol Flynn, an Aussie, in a genre that usually featured only Americans in the lead role.
It’s Kansas 1866 and the Civil War is over thus opening the way for increased western expansion. The railroad is being built and one of the new towns on the line is Dodge City where cattlemen drive their herds for transport. Wade Hatton (Errol Flynn) along with his sidekicks Rusty (Alan Hale) and Tex (Guinn Williams) have been supplying the railroad gangs with buffalo meat. But they draw the line at the actions of Jeff Surrett (Bruce Cabot) and his boys who go on Indian land and slaughter their herds for hides. A confrontation seals the enmity between the two men which hasn’t died down six years later.
In the intervening years, Dodge City has grown into a sprawling cow town that specializes in wild times, gunfights and lawbreaking of all kinds. It’s the place from which decent folk are fleeing as any attempt at law and order results in sheriffs being killed or run out of town. Wade is leading a cattle drive up from Texas that includes pretty Abbie Irving (Olivia de Havilland) and her drunken brother Lee (William Lundegan). When Lee foolishly starts a stampede, Wade confronts him then is forced to shoot Lee in self defense. Abbie blames Wade and refuses to speak to him once they arrive at her uncle’s (Henry Travers) house in Dodge City.
Wade has no plans to stick around longer than it takes to sell the cattle but events show him that the town desperately needs someone to clean it up. Backed by his buddies, he’s soon filling the jail cells. And along with an intrepid newspaperman Joe Clemens (Frank McHugh) and Abbie, who’s joined the news staff, he starts to build a case against Surrett. But the corrupt Surrett hasn’t gotten to where he is by playing nice and Wade and Abbie find they might have bitten off more than they can chew. Can Wade bring this last villain to justice even as he romances Abbie?
“Dodge City” is another Warner Bros production. It was shot in Technicolor (look for the dance hall girls’ dresses), directed by Michael Curtiz and had a flashy debut in Dodge City complete with trains bringing in studio stars for the event. It was also something of a gamble for Warner Bros to see if Flynn, who up til now had been cast in European historicals or contemporaries, could carry a film other than his usual swashbucklers. Here he’s a transplanted Irishman who’s junketed around the world – which I guess is a background designed to account for his accent. He also wears the biggest (not quite white but tan – and we all know what that means) 10 gallon hat of them all. It even has a rakish brim that cries out for a gigantic plume. He plays the role as a peaceable sort who only resorts to violence when pushed to the limit but who is ready with his six shooter when that time comes. He and de Havilland have their usual onscreen chemistry and once he decides to woo Abbie, Wade is as slick as silk with stories of how his parents met.
de Havilland is beautiful as the fresh faced, feisty Abbie. Abbie and Wade, of course, strike sparks early in the film which builds the romantic tension between them. They have a few funny scenes in which they’re still sparring but then suddenly! they seem to have resolved their differences. I can’t help but think a scene was deleted that showed the relationship breakthrough. Abbie is brave and a bit foolishly fearless in a final “confrontation with the villain sequence.” But watch for how Curtiz uses Abbie on the train to include his trademark “shadow figure” in the film. Abbie also turns into a selfless martyr who urges Wade to accept the position of lawman in a new and even wilder western town. The final scene shows the newly married couple, along with Wade’s sidekicks, headed to Nevada in a covered wagon – what a delightful honeymoon.
There are a ton of great character actors in Dodge City many of whom loyal Warner Bros movie fans will recognize. Alan Hale is his usual comic sidekick self, Henry Travers might be recognized as Clarence from “It’s a Wonderful Life,” villain Victor Jory was the slimy overseer in “Gone with the Wind,” Ann Sheridan played the lead in the post war “I Was a Male War Bride” and Guinn Williams made a career of playing in westerns.
“Dodge City” contains almost all of the elements that have come to be classic “Western” fare. Cattle drives, cattle stampedes, flashy saloon ladies, gunfights in the streets, big 10 gallon hats, railroads, wide open vistas and one helluva saloon brawl. The only thing missing were Indians. The costume department made sure that the clothes showed up well in Technicolor even if perhaps those duds are a bit too clean to be believed. Also watch for the Pure Prairie League (anyone else besides me remember that group from the 70s?) out to reform Rusty. It’s even got the standard inspiring speech from Flynn’s character that could easily be transported to the deck of the “Arabella” or a tree branch in Sherwood Forest.
While a lot of the things that happen in “Dodge City” might come off as cliches now, it’s actually one of the movies that inspired the imitators. It’s another rousing lead hero performance from Flynn and a romantic pairing with de Havilland that, truncated as it is, still works for me. It also proved to Warner Bros that westerns could be A grade pictures. So check out Flynn and de Havilland in this “western swashbuckler” and see how big his hat really was.