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.

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Westerns ‘39: Union Pacific

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This is Movie #2 of my resumed attempt to examine all five hit Westerns of 1939.

A re-cap for those coming in late (you’ve only missed Destry Rides Again at this point): 1939 was the most important year for the Hollywood Western. For most of the 1930s, the genre was relegated to B-picture status, with cheap films churned out by smaller studios like Republic, Mascot, and PRC as part of continuing series like the Three Mesquiteers. But in 1939, a storied year for the film biz, five A-budget Westerns turned into smash hits that changed how filmmakers would handle the genre for the next twenty years.

Union Pacific is the least-seen of the “Big Five” today. Its gift to viewers in 1939 was an enormous scope they weren’t used to seeing in the Western, or at least not since the last gasp of the epic Western in the early ‘30s with The Big Trail (a massive flop) and Cimarron (arguably the most forgotten Best Picture Oscar-winner ever). Cecil B. DeMille brought his customary sweep to the milieu; although not a great director, DeMille was a superb showman and could handle big pictures in a way that appealed to audiences. Union Pacific is no exception, even if it looks paler besides the other movies of the Great Western drive of ’39. (I’d call it a tie with Jesse James for last place.) It’s a middle-of-the-road crowd-pleaser, what we would today called a “popcorn movie,” although the way it mythologizes Western Expansion for contemporary audiences is intriguing.

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Westerns ‘39: Destry Rides Again

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Eons ago, I started a project at my old blog of writing about the five hit Western movies released in 1939 that led to the genre’s revitalizing in the 1940s and ’50s. I never finished the project, writing about only three of the movies, but I’m starting it up again—first by digging up and revising the three posts I did finish. So I’ll begin with, let’s see … Destry Rides Again.

It may sound strange to people unfamiliar with film history, but for a good stretch of the Golden Age of Hollywood—the 1930s—the Western was at a low point in popularity, almost as low as during the 1980s. For most of the decade, “A” picture Westerns were almost unknown; the genre was restricted to low-budget “B” status and thought to be mostly for kiddies.

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My Thanksgiving Horror Picks: Ravenous and The Witch

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Poor Thanksgiving! Not only is it jammed awkwardly between two larger, more ornate holidays, both of which are chewing away at it from top and bottom, but it doesn’t have much in the way of a horror movie tradition. Halloween, of course, is wall-to-wall with horror goodies—it’s the only movie genre that has its own holiday!—and the winter seasonal horror film has developed into its own subgenre, offering everything from family friendly thrills (Gremlins) to gruesome slasher flicks (all those Silent Night, Deadly Night films; please note this is not a recommendation).

Thanksgiving is the official holiday for The Twilight Zone and Mystery Science Theater 3000, so it has that going for it. In fact, I’d prefer to drop the whole “Thanksgiving” business and think of the fourth Thursday in November as MST3K Day. Discard the turkey and family and football and replace it with pizza and the Satellite of Love. I’m not excited about turkey, too much family gets stressful, and I hate football.

But I do have two horror film picks that are good matches to the season. Once the kids are in bed, the adults can release pent up tensions and guilt about the holiday with The Witch (2015) and Ravenous (1999).

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Greed and Film Grain: Vera Cruz (1954)

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Probably no single US Western had more influence on the Italian revision of the genre in the 1960s than Vera Cruz. You can imagine Sergio Leone watching this movie and saying, “Hot damn, this is how I wanna make ‘em!” (Sam Peckinpah was watching too; The Wild Bunch contains direct visual quotes from this earlier trip down south for trigger-happy gunslingers to shoot up Mexico.) It was also a technical development in film formats: not exactly a tremendous leap forward, but something that placed the wider screen in reach of studios with less cash.

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