Westerns ‘39 Dodge City

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Of the quintet of Western hits of 1939 that revitalized the genre, Dodge City is the most straightforward. It’s an action spectacle picture first and foremost. It’s the most accessible of the five for twenty-first-century audiences—after Stagecoach, of course, which is flat-out one of the greatest films ever made and therefore accessible.

Dodge City takes a basic view of the taming of the West, where civilization manifests as the railroad and a gun-wielding Errol Flynn flashing a killer smile. It’s a big glob of Old Hollywood glory, with the bonus of gorgeous early three-strip Technicolor images filling the screen. And I mean gorgeous. If you get nothing else out of this post, at least know that Dodge City is one of the finest-looking things ever placed onto celluloid. It’s not quite Barry Lyndon, but it’s still something to behold.

The story takes an “everything but the wood burning stove” approach, including nearly every element of what we think of as the clichés of the Western: stagecoach chases, shoot-outs, the good girl schoolmarm, the shady saloon girl, the white-hat hero lawman, the arrival of the railroad, a barroom brawl, a cattle stampede … it’s the whole damn package (with the exception of Native Americans) and it’s joyous. It stands as one of the great undiluted examples of the “pure” Golden Age Western.

When Warner Bros. and producer Hal B. Wallis committed to making the movie, the choice for Errol Flynn as the star was controversial. Flynn was one of Warner’s biggest and most bankable leading men and a bona fide action hero—but in swashbucklers. The idea of a dashing Australian actor best known for wielding flashing steel in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1937), Captain Blood (1935), and The Sea Hawk (1944) strapping on six-shooters and a Stetson to ride down the dusty main street of Dodge City must have at first seemed incomprehensible. Or maybe Jack Warner pulling a joke.

But Flynn was an action star, and in the 1930s, action meant Westerns. So Errol Flynn was handed the role. To help out, he also got his most popular co-star, Olivia de Havilland, for their seventh collaboration, and his most famous director, Hungarian emigré Michael Curtiz, who helmed Captain Blood and took over directing The Adventures of Robin Hood from William Keighley.

Dodge City can be considered a sequel to Robin Hood. Not a literal sequel, of course. But in an era when sequels were usually only done for low-budget series like Hopalong Cassidy, putting together the same cast and crew from Robin Hood two years later, in another action story about a do-gooder—that’s a sequel. Audiences showed up to Dodge City to experience the same thrills of The Adventures of Robin Hood. Warner’s gamble paid off, and the film was the studio’s biggest hit of the year.

Michael Curtiz had a flair for action and visuals, and Dodge City offered plenty of opportunities to exercise his talents. Curtiz was notoriously unpopular with actors—he didn’t think much of their profession and would have used sock puppets in their place if he could have gotten away with it—and he and Flynn apparently never got along. However, each seemed to understand the other was beneficial for his career, and once again the collaboration works in both’s favor.

The story is an example of the “Town Tamer” Western myth, taking inspiration from the real-life stories of Wild Bill Hickok’s days as a marshal and Wyatt Earp’s tenure in Tombstone. But the script by Robert Buckner fashions an original hero with a scrubbed-clean record, something Earp and Hickok certainly couldn’t claim. A prologue set in 1866 establishes Dodge City as the new vanguard of civilization. The railroad arrives, and this new depot for the cattle drive receives its name amidst celebration of Progress. But when the movie leaps forward to the main story in 1872, Dodge City has turned into Sin City, a place of corruption and violence where cattle dealer Jeff Surrett (Bruce Cabot from King Kong) rules through intimidation.

The man who’ll restore order to Dodge so it can reach its civilized potential in the lawless lands is Irishman Wade Hatton (Flynn), a former railroad employee who hunted buffalo to help clear the way for the trains. Wade and his pal, Rusty (Alan Hale, essentially reprising his role as Little John from Robin Hood), finds themselves back in Dodge at the head of a wagon train of settlers. Wade is immediately at odds with the bullying Surrett, and he has beautiful Abbie Irving (de Havilland), one of the settlers, furious at him because she blames him for her brother’s death in a cattle stampede. Hey, a cattle stampede!

Oh, and a saloon fight! The biggest, brawniest, most furniture-wrecking smackdown ever seen! And a sassy dancing girl! And horse stunts! And a hanging mob! And a shoot-out on a burning train! And …

Uh, I was talking about the story, wasn’t I? Sorry, got distracted. A lot goes on, but here’s the gist: Wade eventually gets pushed too far, takes up the sheriff job, Cleans Up Dodge, and gets the girl. There’s nothing surprising about the story—it’s “Classic Western” with no deviation except that an Australian guy is playing the lead—but it’s so big and bold that it makes for enormous fun. The script even has the guts to kill a little kid just to help motivate Wade to take down Surrett. I admire that in an Assault on Precinct 13 kind of way.

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Superficially, Errol Flynn doesn’t make sense in a Western role. He’s too trimmed, too “Mid-Atlantic,” and too lightly mustached. But it makes no difference—realism doesn’t dictate here, style does. And Flynn is the personification of Hollywood style in Dodge City. He’s smooth and he can kick your ass. Sold. His chemistry with de Havilland is the stuff of legends for good reason: they play off each other not in the “steamy” way of other famous on-screen pairings but with a feeling of camaraderie that blooms out of initial dislike. I never see Flynn and de Havilland on-screen as being true lovers (and they never were off-screen either, although they came close to it) but as perfect partners, two people who may not realize it at first but were meant to work together. It’s difficult to define, but perhaps this enigma is why the pairing carried on for as long as it did and still holds the screen so well.

The rest of the performers are perfect examples of Warner Bros. casting. This studio had the finest stock company of any of the majors of the day, and every role is a bullseye. (Well, the kid is rather annoying.) Alan Hale is a hoot as the comic buffoon Western version of Little John. This is a role in movies usually designed to aggravate rather than entertain, but the subplot about Rusty trying to join the Pure Prairie League (a temperance organization, not the band) is genuinely funny—especially when it gets linked to that enormous brawl in the saloon. Victor Jory smears the screen with grease as the sleazy main henchman to Bruce Cabot’s villain; he’s the shifty sort who lurks behind the false smile of Jeff Surrett. Guinn “Big Boy” Williams is also memorable as a strong ‘n’ dumb member of Wade’s team who keeps managing to amicably get himself thrown in the pokey. Williams often worked with Hale and Flynn and had a long career starring in B-Westerns.

Even if the innocent naivety of Dodge City doesn’t appeal to you—the film is the antithesis of the cynical Western style that’s been in vogue since the mid-1960s—its beauty and scope will. Early three-color Technicolor was stunning. The richness of the color palette in films like this is sumptuous, like staring through the glass at a candy counter. The year 1939 was a huge one for the Technicolor, which was only five years old: The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind also premiered, and we all know those aren’t hard on the eyes. (Gone With the Wind made some money as well, from what I hear, and The Wizard of Oz is sorta popular even today.) Those films have the candy-store color scheme, but Dodge City shows how Technicolor could also capture the dusky browns of the frontier with similar richness. The seres, beiges, and siennas are breathtaking, and the outdoor photography captures a Remington-esque painter quality.

Large parts of Dodge City were shot on exteriors in Wildwood Regional Park, which is far different from the soundstage and rear-screen projection style of the time, such as in Destry Rides Again, and it makes a significant difference. The scene where Wade finally gets off Abbie’s blacklist is done with the two of them on horseback sauntering under a tree on the great plains … and it’s really on some great looking plains. Sol Polito’s camera makes what would normally be a standard bantering sequence—although a well-written and acted one—into a piece of Western poetry.

Warner Bros. Home Video has released Dodge City on Blu-ray with a transfer that’s pristine and lovely. It’s Technicolor classics like this and The Adventures of Robin Hood that make you appreciate what the Hi-Def medium, properly used and with careful film restoration, can do to enhance a movie.

Next: Jesse James