(director: Michael Curtiz; screenwriter: Robert Buckner; cinematographer: Sol Polito; editor: George J. Amy; music: Max Steiner; cast: Errol Flynn (Wade Hatton), Olivia de Havilland (Abbie Irving), Ann Sheridan (Ruby Gilman), Bruce Cabot (Jeff Surrett), Frank McHugh (Joe Clemens), Alan Hale (Rusty Hart), Victor Jory (Yancey), John Litel (Matt Cole), Henry Travers (Dr. Irving), Henry O’Neill (Col. Dodge), William Lundigan (Lee Irving), Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams (Tex Baird), Bobs Watson (Harry Cole), Gloria Holden (Mrs. Cole); Runtime: 104; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Robert Lord; Warner Brothers; 1939)
“A sprawling epic Western influenced by the Wyatt Earp legend.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Though Michael Curtiz and Errol Flynn didn’t like each other they, nevertheless, made 12 films together–most of them quite good. This one is a sprawling epic Western influenced by the Wyatt Earp legend, that is entertaining and well-crafted but standard stuff–filled with clichés, stock ingredients and formulaic action sequences. Its most famous scene is the mother of all barroom brawls that has been used frequently in stock footage (I really can’t stand these barroom bawls; never saw the humor in such slapstick violent comedy). The film was a box office success and came on the heels of Stagecoach and Destry Rides Again to revitalize the Western genre. It covers how the issue of law-and-order was handled on the frontier but forgets to say anything important about it. One must see Tourneur’s 1955 Wichita to get at the seriousness of that issue. Curtiz and screenwriter Robert Buckner instead highlight how the railroad changed Dodge City from a sleepy cow town overnight to a boom town because of the railroad, and with that came a rough-and-tumble town. The prosperity brought along undesirable elements, bordellos, saloons and much crime.
Wade Hutton (Errol Flynn) is an Irish immigrant, a globe-trotting adventurer who fought in Cuba and with Jeb Stuart’s Rebels. In the Kansas of 1866, just after the Civil War, Wade works for Colonel Dodge’s railroad as a buffalo hunter with his two sidekicks Rusty (Alan Hale) and Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams (Tex). They fed the railroad workers, and now that the railroad is completed they plan on going back to helping the Texas ranchers. The villainous Jeff Surrett (Bruce Cabot) also hunted buffalo, but illegally on Indian land and his hides are confiscated by the marshal after Wade rats him out. Surrett swears revenge.
In 1872, Wade and the boys return to Dodge City as they’re hired to protect a wagon train coming from Texas. Spoiled brat Lee Irving (William Lundigan), a young adult, gets drunk and out of boredom refuses to stop shooting, even taking a shot at Wade. This results in Lee taking a bullet in the leg and the stampeding cattle trample him to death. Pretty sister Abby (Olivia de Havilland) gets mad at Wade and refuses to forgive him, even though he’s blameless.
It turns out Surrett now runs things in Dodge City. He owns the biggest gambling saloon in town (the Gay Lady, where his lady Ruby (Ann Sheridan) is a dancer/singer) and as a cattle dealer cheats the cattlemen out of their steers by not paying them as promised. Surrett gets cold-blooded professional killer Yancey (Victor Jory) to gun down cattleman Matt Cole, when he demands payment on his steers. Since all the sheriffs have been either shot or run out of town, Surrett runs things in town. After Matt’s enterprising young son Harry Cole gets caught in the street in the cross-fire from an ongoing gun battle and accidentally gets dragged to his death by a horse, Wade reluctantly becomes sheriff and kicks out the undesirables, bars firearms in town and puts the pressure on Surrett to obey the law or else. Things come to a head when popular newspaper editor Joe Clemens (Frank McHugh) gets murdered by Yancey on Surrett’s orders and Wade arrests him. When the crowd wants to hang Yancey, the sheriff is talked into taking Yancey to Wichita by train for his protection. The final shootout is standard stuff between Surrett’s gang and Wade’s sidekicks, as they throw lead at each other from a speeding train on fire.
Hale and ‘Big Boy’ Williams are around for comic relief. Ann Sheridan is in fine form but has an all too small part as a dance hall gal. Olivia de Havilland’s part calls for her to put the pursuing lover boy Flynn off until the very last minute and then relent to marry him (hardly an interesting part–they teamed together for ten films, this being the eight). Flynn plays his cowboy role as if he were still a swashbuckler; the big screen is kind to him as he tames the West and conquers the demure newspaper woman de Havilland. He does all this by hardly breaking a sweat even though he’s in trouble up to his neck (the man was born to play action parts!). This film was a big influence for Mel Brooks’ 1974 Blazing Saddles.
REVIEWED ON 7/2/2005 GRADE: B-