The only way to survive director R.G. Springsteen's western "Toughest Man in Tombstone" is to mute the heavy-handed musical numbers that crooner Vaughn Monroe warbles throughout this wholly ordinary oater. Happily, he only belts out three songs, but these three songs are still too many for this hybrid sagebrusher. Not only is Monroe utterly miscast as straight-up, good guy lawman, Marshal Matt Landry, but also he is a widower with a young son and a teenage daughter. They all live together in sumptuous surroundings with an African-American butler who does a little soft-shoe himself, and Landry has a piano in his residence just for those moments when he wants to serenade the women and the children. Springsteen and "Gallant Legion" scenarist John K. Butler are saddled with the thankless task of having to graft a family-oriented soap opera onto a hell-bent-for-leather horse opera, and they do not fare well thanks to the uneven quality of the two genres. Action-adventure fans will be drawn closer to the movie's villain, notorious Frank Girard (Victor Jory of "Gone with the Wind"), than the clean-scrubbed Tombstone badge-toter. A subplot about the survivors of an Apache Indian wagon train massacre and a husband and wife that managed to elude the savages adds a modicum of tension to this mild melodrama. Nevertheless, the bad guys don't have a chance against super-square Landry. Fleshing out the cast in one of his early roles is future "Dragnet" and "Mash" star Harry Morgan as a tenderfoot telegrapher who falls in with the wrong company and a saintly Edgar Buchanan as an older lawman. Former Warner Brothers' contract actress Joan Leslie isn't as effervescent as she was in "Sergeant York," but she is still attractive enough to turn eyes as the telegrapher's wife. This RKO release looks considerably less than seamless with the action in long shots occurring on location while the close-ups and medium shots were clearly lensed faraway on an indoor sound stage. The bogus looking backdrops on those sound stages are a dead giveaway. Only western completists should squander their time on this saga, just to say that they have seen it.
"Toughest Man in Tombstone" opens with dutiful Marshal Landry riding out to round up gun-running desperado Frank Girard who has been selling guns illegally to the Native Americans. Meanwhile, a couple of freighters pick up two covered wagons with a mother/father and two children as well as a husband and wife. The wagon that Verne Kimber (Harry Morgan) is driving with his wife Mary (Joan Leslie of "Sgt. York") breaks down, and the freighters reluctantly set up camp to repair the wheel. The U.S. Cavalry rides into their camp and warns the settlers and the teamsters about the imminent threat of an Apache attack. Matt demands that the Cavalry officer-in-charge (Sheb Wooley of "Man without A Star") provide them with safe escort from the wilderness. The officer leaves them two men in blue with a Gatling Gun. Predictably, even though they could have mown down every last redskin with the Gatling Gun, our heroes perish at the hands of the Indians. Vern's wife Mary and two children from another murdered couple escape and are rescued later. Vern who was supposed to stay behind to fight off the Indians gives the cavalrymen and the freighters the slip and survives the massacre. Later, the Tombstone Epitaph editor prints that Vern died in the raid. Marshall Landry and Girard ride up to their smoking remains of the wagon train moments later and bury the dead. After he puts Girard in the hoosegow, Landry makes room in his humble abode for Mary and the two children. One taste of Mary's home cooking only serves to remind Landry about what he has been missing since his missus died.
The best scene with the worse logic of all time that still looks pretty cool concerns Frank Girard's escape from Landry. As it turns out, Vern staggers into the Girard brothers' clutches and they put his telegrapher's expert to their advantage. They want to know when Landry is going to move Girard and the details. They tap into the telegraph line and Vern provides the details. It seems that the authorities are going to sneak Girard out of town in a hearse. This information is strictly confidential. The brothers stop the hearse outside Tombstone. They free Frank, and lock the driver and Landry up inside the hearse. Girard pumps round after round from his Winchester carbine into the close confines of the hearse, and we see the driver die and Landry receive terrible wounds that put him out of action for a while. Of course, it would have been easier if Girard had gunned them down face to face, but instead he crams them back into the hearse and seems Devil-may-care into the vehicle. Since the villain cannot kill the hero, this enables Landry to look like he is dead in the villain's eyes. Naturally, neither Girard nor his brothers look back, so Landry has a legitimate chance to survive and does.
"Toughest Man in Tombstone" qualifies as a tolerable run-of-the-mill western. There is a good shoot-out in the saloon at the end, but the last exchange between Landry and his daughter about Mary is enough to make you hang your head with its implication of a happily-ever-after finale. Springsteen never overcomes the uneven nature between the musical numbers and the six-gun savagery. Victor Jory as the evil villain and Harry Morgan as the sniveling, back-shooting coward compete for best acting accolades. Sadly, Joan Leslie seems more subdued than usual. Vaughn Monroe may have been a popular singer, but he isn't convincing at all as a marshal.