alv790

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Reviews

Angel and the Badman
(1947)

Only a man that carries a gun ever needs one
The setup is similar to the Harrison Ford movie Witness, which would be made four decades later. Here, however, the worldly man who falls in love with a Quaker girl is not a law enforcement officer, but a gunfighter more likely to break the law than to respect it.

Witness is a better movie, but this one, despite the insta-love between the two leads, turned out to be a quite charming western romance, with some witty dialogues and chemistry between John Wayne and Gail Russell, who are both convincing in their roles.

Add some beautiful black and white photography taking place in Sedona and Monument Valley, and a few action scenes to balance the romantic ones, and you get a movie that is quite pleasant, without being great.

The Yearling
(1946)

powerful coming of age theme
The movie has very good cinematography, and doesn't mind taking its time (it's an hour until the fawn first appears), which I felt was used to good effect in order to develop the characters and establish how they lived.

It's quite sentimental, which I don't mind but some people will dislike. This is not helped by Claude Jarman Jr's occasionally over-emotional performance as the boy Jody.

Also the way the conflict developed was a bit forced, I felt the movie was uplifted by its ending, with a powerful coming of age theme.

My Darling Clementine
(1946)

falls short of greatness
The familiar story of Wyatt Earp, Doc Holiday and the Clanton clan. Don't expect any historical accuracy here, but that was never the point.

The movie is a treasure of good black and white cinematography by John Ford, his second western of the sound era after The Stagecoach (the third if we count Drums Along the Mohawk). Great scenery, as usual with Ford's westerns. Henry Fonda is great as always, what a screen presence, and Victor Mature is fine as Doc Holiday, giving a suave interpretation. Great action scene with the duel at OK corral.

Despite all the positive things going for it, it is somewhat let down by the unfocused script, which doesn't do itself a favor by spending so much time on the romances of Doc Holiday. Linda Darnell is just a bit too much of a classic Hollywood diva to be convincing as a rugged saloon singer, while Cathy Downs is fine in a supporting role as the titular character.

An excellent movie that falls short of greatness.

The Harvey Girls
(1946)

uninspired, although the songs are nice
This is a MGM musical with Judy Garland, about a bunch of ladies who go west to work as Harvey House waitresses. The owner and the ladies working at the local saloon feel threatened, because supposedly the Harvey house restaurant will turn the town into a civilized place with no need for a saloon.

It's difficult for me to rate this one, because it has nice singing, and for a musical that surely is important, but on the other hand the story is completely nonsensical.

Look, I know, this is a musical, the story is allowed to be silly, but it should be silly in a light-hearted, fun way, and instead the non-musical parts are a bit of a chore to watch. The movie thinks itself funny when it's not, and the romance is unconvincing. He is kind of creepy, in fact.

The whole thing is uninspired, although the songs are nice, particularly "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe", which won the Oscar.

Canyon Passage
(1946)

good, but might have been even better
What an interesting western, and kind of frustrating too. I enjoyed it, but I respected it more than I enjoyed it. I had the feeling that there might be an even better movie to be had here.

French director Jacques Tourneur tells the story in a matter-of-fact way. He doesn't so much tell the story as let us follow the hero and witness events, accompanied by an ever-present melodramatic soundtrack I could have done without. The movie starts slow, but it speeds up and plenty of stuff happens.

Once you get used to the style, you can enjoy the gorgeous exterior shots (mixed with some studio scenes), but the best thing about the movie is the subtlety in the plotting and characterization. It defies conventions. You see the hero stand up to a lynching mob, only the lynching mob is right and the hero is wrong. You have to wonder if the hero knows that. Does he believe the suspect is innocent or is he just doing it out of some stubborn sense of friendship or fair play? You see the Indians going into a murderous rampage, only they are depicted with some dignity, and have had ample provocation.

You recognize this as a 40's western but at the same time it's done from a different perspective.

The Virginian
(1946)

goes through the highlights of the novel at a brisk pace
Like the 1929 version of the Virginian, this film goes through the highlights of the novel at a brisk pace, resulting in an eventful story but lighter on the character development when compared to the novel.

In just 17 years between the two movies, you can notice the evolution of the craft. Long gone are the mannerisms of the silent era that you could see in the 1929 version, which was a very early talkie. This 1946 version is in technicolor, a bit clean-cut as westerns from this period tended to be, but confident in the storytelling techniques of the medium.

It does not feel like a very big production, even though there are some nice exterior action shots. But there are no majestic sceneries with faraway horizons.

Joel McCrea is not bad in the titular role, but he is always kind of inexpressive, and this role might have benefited from some more dramatic range. Because of that, there wasn't too much chemistry in the romance. Barbara Britton had more of that range and I enjoyed her work as the young schoolteacher Molly Wood. Sonny Tufts as the Virginian's wayward friend and Brian Donlevy as the black-clad villain Trampas were quite good. In a smaller supporting role, Fay Bainter had some nice scenes interacting with Britton.

The Virginian is a great story, and here you can enjoy it without any time to get bored, but I wouldn't have minded twenty minutes more, allowing for some respite from the action.

Abilene Town
(1946)

Entertaining but light-weight
Not as great as some other movies about the conflict between homesteaders and cattlemen. Randolph Scott and Ann Dvorak are fine in the lead roles, but there's too much comedy (see Edgar Buchanan as the bumbling, cowardly sheriff), musical numbers and romance to really build up an epic and poignant tale. Still, this is quite entertaining and fast-paced, making it a pleasant if forgettable experience.

Dakota
(1945)

lackluster
John Wayne's last film for Republic during the war years is one of his worst westerns, not counting the B-westerns he made during the 30s before his breakthrough with Stagecoach.

The film goes through the motions, but the plot is muddled and the writing lacks inspiration. Wayne is not helped by the rest of the cast. Vera Ralston lacks acting skills. Even Walter Brennan, who other reviewers praise, seemed tiresome to me. His comic relief routine with Nick Stewart received way too much screen time here.

Lackluster and dull, only for John Wayne completists.

Tall in the Saddle
(1944)

Mystery and suspense, a fiery Ella Raines and a convincing John Wayne
Yet another fine John Wayne western. He is considered the king of the genre for a reason, after all. At this point (1944) his screen persona is well defined, and he plays it perfectly here. The tough guy, self-sufficient, with morals and occasionally a sensitive moment. That moment when, unarmed, he is driven away from the poker table by a card sharp, only to return a moment later, wearing his revolver... he is absolutely convincing as someone not to be messed with.

It has many of the elements to be expected of these movies, like the comic, trustworthy sidekick (George "Gabby" Hayes), but I found the movie quite enjoyable and different enough from other westerns, with its mystery and suspense element, and the romantic triangle with Wayne, a traditionally sweet young woman (Audrey Long) and a fiery ranch owner (Ella Raines), who occasionally steals the show in a convincing "strong woman" role.

Perhaps the mystery is a bit convoluted, but the script is fast-paced and well-written, and it goes slightly beyond other solid western of that era.

In Old Oklahoma
(1943)

Solid entertainment, if a bit formulaic
This was Republic's most successful picture of 1943, offering solid if unspectacular entertainment.

It is a somewhat unusual western, being set in the early 20th century and featuring an antagonist (played by Albert Dekker) who is a ruthless businessman rather than the conventional evil villain. Dekker represents modernity and Wayne, of course, the more traditional hard moral man.

The two male leads compete for the heart of a romance writer played by Martha Scott, and for the oil rights of the Indian territory, with Wayne representing a much less predatory way of doing business.

Add some humor and lively action scenes and you get a quite enjoyable product, if a bit formulaic.

The Desperadoes
(1943)

light-hearted and entertaining
This is Columbia's first technicolor feature, and a rather solid western. Not a groundbreaking story, but lively and entertaining. We also get the usual gorgeous scenery and a rather spectacular horse stampede scene.

The actors are good. Randolph Scott looks like he is having fun, and a very young Glenn Ford does a solid job too. The actresses are also given more interesting roles than usual in these classic westerns, and both Claire Trevor and Evelyn Keyes are convincing. The supporting cast is strong too.

It's just fun, a dramatic story told in a light-hearted and entertaining way.

The Outlaw
(1943)

Weird but entertaining
Granted, this production is something of a mess, but not as bad as some reviewers would make you think. At the very least it is entertaining.

Apparently, a big selling point were the risqué sexual situations (suggested rather than shown), mainly between Jack Buetel and Jane Russell's characters. Also, the camera's emphasis on Russell's bust. It all seems much tamer from a modern perspective, but it was scandalous at the time. Also, I'm not at all a fan of looking for homoerotic subtext in every friendship between males, but in this case I won't blame you if you see some of that between Billy the Kid and Doc Holliday. Doc's unexpected friendship towards Billy, Pat Garrett acting like a jealous lover...

The music is also weird at times, too loud and aggressive, and then adding comical sound effects as if this were a comedy, which it isn't. Just weird.

Having said all that, the story is quite entertaining, with badass western heroes and nice exterior shots. It happily disregards history, but that's par for the course in these old westerns. I liked all the actors, even Jack Buetel, who is often criticized for having little range but who seemed to me well-casted as this version of Billy the Kid, with the required beauty, charisma and youth.

I wouldn't call this a good movie, but it's interesting and entertaining.

The Ox-Bow Incident
(1942)

masterpiece
Storyline: Two drifters are passing through a Western town, when news comes in that a local farmer has been murdered and his cattle stolen. The townspeople, joined by the drifters, form a posse to catch the perpetrators. They find three men in possession of the cattle, and are determined to see justice done on the spot.

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An ensemble cast tragedy, intense and character-based. It reminded me in some ways of 12 Angry Men, although that movie would be made 15 years later, because this has the same high quality and powerful story.

I felt that perhaps at the end it insisted a bit too much on its message by reading aloud the letter. There was no need, and it could have been handled more subtly, but it's just a minor nitpick. This is truly a masterpiece.

Henry Fonda of course is very good here, as he always is, but he is just one in a bunch of memorable characters.

Rating: 10 of 10

In Old California
(1942)

in the California gold rush
The main novelty here is watching John Wayne in an unusual western role for him, a pharmacist for whom violence is not the first resource, although he is still tough enough. Wayne could give his characters a sort of gentle charm that serves him well here.

Other than that, we get a decent story, entertaining but nothing special.

The Spoilers
(1942)

star-studded cast, solid but not great movie
This is the fourth time this novel was adapted to film, and there would be one more after it, which goes to show that the story is worthwhile.

The star-studded cast also seems to point in the direction of this being a great movie, but unfortunately it's not quite as good as that. There's something missing. The dialogues are perhaps not as witty as they try to be. Also, be it far from me to judge old movies by the anachronic standards of modern political correctness, but when you see many movies from this time you do get tired of the stereotypical black servants and the no less tropey comical side characters.

Great fist-fight between Randolph Scott and John Wayne, though, and Marlene Dietrich is also good to see, in a role that is rather similar to the one she played in Destry Rides Again a few years before this.

All in all, solid but doesn't take the extra step to become great.

They Died with Their Boots On
(1941)

Bad history, great spectacle
One thing you quickly see with these larger-than-life historical early westerns is that the focus is on spectacle, not on historical accuracy.

Once you realize that, this is a really enjoyable spectacle, with Errol Flynn at the top of his game. He is a romantic hero more than a rugged frontier soldier, but he is always so full of vitality and charm that his westerns work. Olivia de Havilland and he represent the glamour of Golden Age Hollywood.

I quite enjoy these ambitious productions that try to tell a big story, in this case going from Custers' days at West Point to the Civil War to the 7th Cavalry, culminating in Little Big Horn. It's not perfect in what it tries to do, perhaps too much silly humor in the first part and a too conventional villain for this kind of movie, but it's close. It's more than 2 hours but doesn't feel too long.

The Shepherd of the Hills
(1941)

character-focused literary drama
More than a western, this is a character-focused literary drama. I say literary because, despite the characters being hillbillies, they speak with a lot of depth.

It's an excellent movie, with glorious scenery filmed in technicolor and a moving story. It has some impressive scenes like the one with the old blind lady having her eyes unveiled after her operation.

John Wayne's first color movie is not a typical role for him, but he does fine. In fact, the whole cast is excellent, filled as it is with character actors and actresses.

Western Union
(1941)

the second Fritz Lang western
The second of Fritz Lang's three westerns (after "The Return of Frank James" and before "Rancho Notorious").

This is one of those "company" westerns, showing history being made, or at least some version of history, as some big company struggled to connect the East and the West, this time by telegraph.

Within this style, I did enjoy DeMille's Union Pacific (1939) a bit more, although this one is very entertaining and has several things going on for it.

The scenery photography is stunning, taking advantage of the early Technicolor. Also, the central conflict, with a convincing Randolph Scott trying to escape his criminal past and the shadow of his brother, was pleasantly poignant, with a good final shoot-out. The movie has a good pace too, at least in its second half, with plenty of action.

On the minus side, although very competently-made, it is a bit by the numbers, with the usual comical relief characters, ridiculous Indians, and in general few surprises (other reviewers were surprised by the ending, but in this case I was expecting it).

This is certainly quite common in classic westerns, but the romance seems to be included out of duty more than because it's an integral part of the plot.

Santa Fe Trail
(1940)

much to enjoy here
The third Curtiz/Flynn western is bad history but a grand Golden Age of Hollywood story. Errol Flynn is full of charm and energy, escorted by his two usual comic sidekicks and by Ronald Reagan as his friend and romantic rival. Olivia de Havilland does well with the material she is given, which is not much, as Flynn's tomboyish love interest. Raymond Massey is impressive as John Brown, very convincing as the righteous visionary who is willing to commit any violent act in defense of his worthy cause.

The movie, while taking many liberties with historical details, presents the message that John Brown fought for a just cause (true), that he was also a violent fanatic (true) whose actions escalated the tensions that led to the Civil War (true), and that the Southern States would have ended slavery on its own if given space (very dubious, at least in the short term). It bemoans the Civil War by presenting a bunch of great young military men who graduated together from West Point (artistic license more than history) and who would soon be fighting as enemies in the conflict that would split the nation. It gives a sympathetic, romanticized vision of the South, which causes the movie to be maligned by politically correct modern viewers, for the same reasons as Gone With the Wind.

However, there is much to enjoy here. The cinematography looks great, as long as you watch a decent restored version, it has an excellent cast, a good pace and plenty of action and intrigue.

The Westerner
(1940)

A classy film
A classy film directed by William Wyler. It has good cinematography and I particularly enjoyed how good the fire scene looked. Also, the story has a lot of pathos, with the war between cattlemen and farmers and the individual one between Cole Harden and Judge Roy Bean, who are friends but find themselves in different sides of the conflict.

It was successful with the audience and the critics. Walter Brennan is really good as the Judge, in an interpretation that gave him the Oscar for best supporting actor.

While recognizing its good qualities, I have to say that I did not find the friendship between Cooper's and Brennan's characters convincing. The Judge's quirks are exaggerated for comic relief and his actions are rather ugly. Why exactly did Harden become such a good friend of his? That friendship is the heart of the movie so, for all that the dialogues are well-written, I hope the writers had developed that important part of the story better.

The Return of Frank James
(1940)

Good, but could have been better
This movie continues just where Jesse James (1939) ended. Jesse is dead, murdered by Robert Ford, but his brother Frank (Henry Fonda) is alive and wants revenge, accompanied by a teenage sidekick.

The movie looks wonderful in technicolor, with stunning scenery. There is a lot of quality in the filmmaking. Henry Fonda is excellent. What cinematic presence. Gene Tierney is very beautiful here, but her role does not offer her many opportunities to distinguish herself.

The script is a bit strange, however, as if it can't decide what to do with Frank James. It presents him at the same time and the noble man who doesn't kill and the man who goes after the murderers of his brother to murder them in turn. Also, his irresponsibility in taking care of Clem does not paint him in a good light. Then we have that mockery of a trial and the way the final showdown ends... It's certainly not how a normal western would do things.

By the way, what stunts they did in the westerns of this time with the horses. I hope they were not hurt.

Heart of Arizona
(1938)

decent Hopalong Cassidy western
Seeing that there were few A-westerns in the 30s until the explosion of 1939, I have watched a few B-westerns of that time to see what they were like. This one I chose as representative of the Hopalong Cassidy film series. There were 66 of these films. Just in 1938, seven of them were filmed. When B-westerns phased out in the late 40s, the star William Boyd bought the rights and the films were again successful on TV, spawning a TV show. Hoppy was sure a household name at that time in the US.

So what's the film like? Well, while still clearly being a B-western, it has better production values than most, with gorgeous scenery. This one is 68 minutes long, slightly longer than the typical B-western.

The story is straightforward and filled with action, as expected of these films. There's a lot of shooting. Almost every character got shot at some point. It does get a bit convoluted at the end, but not much. Hoppy is not on screen all the time, but relies on his supporting cast to drive the story forward, unlike other B-western stars of the time.

Not great drama, but a sure way to keep the kids happy at the theater with some cowboy action, while they waited for the main part of the double feature.

Allegheny Uprising
(1939)

lesser, but entertaining frontier tale in Colonial America
After the success of Stagecoach, John Wayne and Claire Trevor would appear together in other two movies, this one and Dark Command (1940). Of the three, this one is the lesser, but it's still an entertaining frontier tale in Colonial America.

Movies about the pioneers seem to have been popular at the time (this opened only 6 days after Drums Along the Mohawk, and soon afterwards we'd have Northwest Passage), probably for patriotic reasons given the possibility of the US being involved in a World War.

It's a chance of seeing John Wayne wearing a coonskin cap. He is fine as the leader of the settlers, with a lot of presence but still growing into his screen persona. Claire Trevor's character was a bit annoying as the firebrand brat, but it's the script's fault, not hers.

Apparently, the movie is more closely based on real events than other similar productions, although obviously it will take liberties for dramatic reasons. It's not a great movie, but it's a perfectly adequate historical adventure, fast paced and entertaining.

Dark Command
(1940)

I thought they bred men of flesh and blood in Texas. I was wrong. You're made of granite!
Ten years after the excellent, but failed at the box office, The Big Trail, Raoul Walsh directs John Wayne again.

This movie is high quality. Excellent cast, good cinematography, good writing, good story, emotional depth, good pacing... It has plenty of action, but also moral dilemmas and character development. It's a treat to watch.

Even though he was good in Stagecoach, this is the first movie where I completely recognize John Wayne, with all the charm and resources that made him a legend of the western genre. He is very well accompanied by a stellar cast. A sign of the good writing is that Claire Trevor is given a lot to work with. She's not just there to look with adoring expression at the men in her life.

This time, Walsh and Wayne found the box office success their work deserved.

Sagebrush Trail
(1933)

Early John Wayne B-western
John Wayne had had a great breakout opportunity with the leading role in The Big Trail. Unfortunately, that expensive production failed at the box office, and after that Wayne spent the decade working on Poverty Row movies, including a good number of B-westerns like this one.

You notice the low budget, and also the short running time, less than an hour. Technically, the movie is not sophisticated, but it does tell a solid story. There's a lot of action and the horse stunts are quite good, better than the fistfights.

It's also another opportunity to see a very young Wayne before he became famous. His physical presence is there, but he still had to learn a lot fo the technique and confidence that made him a legend.

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