Molly, an Eastern school marm, travels west to Montana to teach a semester and immediately becomes the romantic focus of two handsome cowpokes, Steve and the Virginian. Long on talk and spooning and short on action, unless a cattle stampede qualifies, "The Virginian" was based on a 1902 novel by Owen Wister. The popular book was adapted for the stage, filmed four times as a theatrical movie, made once as a TV movie, and became the basis for a television series. The romantic triangle at the story's core takes place against a backdrop of cattle rustling and the harsh realities of maintaining order on the frontier.
Not the most expressive actor, Joel McCrea is amiable as the titular Virginian opposite the ever- smiling Sonny Tufts as Steve, his competition for Barbara Britton's affections. McCrea seems too mild and gentlemanly for the deeds he ostensibly does, and Tufts appears a bit simple minded and assured that his grin and charm will always get him off the hook. Garbed head to foot in inky black, complete with black hat and black gloves, Brian Donlevy as Trampas, the head rustler, shouts "villain" before his first sneer or mustache twirl. Britton has little more expression than McCrea, and the romance lacks credibility. Despite good looks, little in either Steve's or the Virginian's character or personalities justifies any interest an educated school teacher might have in the two unpolished cowboys. Evidently, Britton was misinformed about the wild west, because she packed her finest to teach on the frontier; her Edith-Head-designed wardrobe dazzles, even when she goes riding in the wilderness. Despite the incongruity, her costumes, coiffures, and complexion are stunningly captured by Harry Hallenberger's Technicolor cinematography.
This 1946 version of "The Virginian" is more an adult romance on the range than a matinee oater. McCrea has appeared to better effect in other westerns, and director Stuart Gilmore was likely more suited to film editing, for which he received three Oscar nominations, than he was for directing. Despite the flaws, the film is pleasant enough with sumptuous color and attractive stars. However, western fans seeking action-filled entertainment need look elsewhere.
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