Monday, October 14, 2013

Dodge City (1939)

Director: Michael Curtiz

It is everything the casual movie patron would visualize in a western motion picture. Starring the swashbuckling hero Errol Flynn, this time as a cowboy, and his usual romantic interest Olivia de Havilland, Dodge City is a major production by Warner Bros. pumping in a big budget with the added thrill of be a Technicolor spectacle. From horses and bar fights, railroads and gun slinging, to a brave sheriff and a villain, this film has a bit everything that fashions the clichés of the genre, but it is important to remember this was produced long before they were clichés, when they were fresh and exciting.

Dodge City is a western about the town on the farthest frontier of the newly expanding rail road, its laws governed by a crooked individual and the new sheriff that takes it upon himself to clean the streets of these lawless bullies. As a railroad stop blooms the town of Dodge City, Kansas, then so far west that it could not be governed by law. Jeff Surrett (Bruce Cabot) a onetime outlaw becomes so powerful in this town, his cheating, stealing, killing, and overall injustice goes easily unpunished as he is the law in this young settlement. His rival, cattle driver Wade Hatton (Errol Flynn), returns to Dodge City years after helping to found it. As the only one willing to stand up to Surrett, Hatton is urged to take on the vacant sheriff position, cleaning up town of its wrong doers, enforcing laws he creates to crack down of Surrett. Filled with bar room fights, gun battles, and winning the heart of the young lady Abbie (Olivia de Havilland) Hatton is able to slay Surrett and bring peace to Dodge City, his reward being the chance to travel further west  to the next frontier town , furthering his adventures to clean up the next lawless town.

The picture is a feast for the eyes for any audience of 1939. Shot is beautiful Technicolor in the vast open vistas that recreate the western frontier of America, Dodge City is a wonderful kaleidoscope of color and images of a different time and place, adventure, and colorful characters that make experiences of the movies so enjoyable. With classic archetypes of the period that includes a clear cut hero, a suave, deceitful villain, the love interest, and a belief that justice will prevail makes for a model picture of the era, enjoyed by generations to come. At a time when westerns were not in vogue Dodge City, along with the immensely popular John Ford production Stagecoach, usher in a new beginning that would spin into one of the most wildly popular genres in the coming years.

The pictured is anchored by a core group of individuals that have found great success for Warner Bros. prior. Director Michael Curtiz and stars Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland had worked prior of the previous Technicolor spectacle The Adventures of Robin Hood, a great success and Hollywood classic, and in Dodge City they take us to the wild west.

Curtiz had shown is remarkable skill at creating beautiful images, especially in color. Here he adds even greater movement of the camera with his wide open spaces of the plains used as setting for this western. With the large vistas and hordes of the actors and extras, Curtiz is able to open up the film with majesty and romance of the west. He uses the camera in a way that adds to the action as well creatively times the reveals by camera movement in the picture. His staging of the major bar fight would seem ridiculous to contemporary audiences, which  is satirized decades later in the famous popular western Mel Brooks’ satire Blazing Saddles, but here in Dodge City Curtiz has many cowboys flailing fists, throwing tables and chairs, and the destruction of every piece of furniture not nailed to the ground. This scene of unbridled action overwhelms the both sight and sound manifesting just how wild the Wild West could be, adding to the excitement of the picture. On top of that he is able to slow down the action and create intimate moments between the love interests, bringing out both humor and passion at the same time in genius manners.

The popular swashbuckling star Errol Flynn was hesitant to play in a western, knowing full well the genre was not usually A-list material, but the studio would convince the leading man and with the success of Dodge City Flynn would continue to make many more westerns. Trading swords for guns would not be as big of a change as he thought as he plays the usual Errol Flynn style of hero, the brash, confident man that believes in justice and literally laughs in the face of his enemies. For those who find Flynn more accustomed to his Robin Hood style of character, it is a little off putting to see him riding his horse with a cowboy hat leaning to one side and brandishing a six shooter, but once given time you can fall right into the movie as it swallows of the audience in story and visuals.

At this time wherever there was Errol Flynn there had to be Olivia de Havilland. The 22 year old actress appears in her fifth picture alongside Flynn. Once again her character begins with a strong dislike for the hero, in this case blaming her brother’s death on Hatton when Hatton was merely protecting himself from her drunken sibling. The two provide a fun chemistry with moments of humor and friction that make the relationship light, but always ending in a great romance which female audiences absolutely loved.

Also given star billing in the film was Ann Sheridan who actually appears in a rather unimportant supporting role of Ruby, Surrett’s saloon performing girlfriend. Sheridan was sex symbol, tagged with the name “the oomph girl” and her role here would play right up to that image. She appears as a pretty saloon girl that sings, dances, and wears seductive, short dresses. She was eye candy for the picture, performing the usual sultry character in the picture. Her top billing status was probably billed so because it was known that male audiences would go just to see this pin up girl titillating people from the screen. Her role was somewhat small, but producers would know what they were doing with her in the film.

Bruce Cabot, first made famous from his role in the classic monster movie King Kong, was becoming a great performer as a villain with his devilish demeanor. He would make for a perfect western villain. As his leading hired gunmen Yancy, Victor Jones too becomes a wonderful baddie for motion pictures. His downplayed behavior and ever roaming eyes makes him easy to spot as a person you need to keep your attention on as he can surprise you at any second. Alan Hale plays the big, lovable sidekick and deputy to Flynn as Rusty. Mainly to fill in with side humor and as muscle Hale becomes an actor you easily fall in love with as the delightful guy that has the ability to do a lot of damage. He is the butt of a few jokes, but Hale is the real deal as a western sidekick.

Dodge City as a motion picture out of 1939 is a very entertaining film and an exhibition of the direction films will be going in the future with its use of Technicolor and archetypes of the western. The great budget would pay off as being one of the highest grossing pictures of the year. Errol Flynn further cements himself as perhaps the greatest action leading man of the day with the attractive Olivia de Havilland at his side in yet another romance. Its premier was held in Dodge City, Kansas, bringing all the Hollywood’s brightest out to the small town in Middle America in a manner only Hollywood can. Time and clichés my dampen what was considered once to be one of the better motion pictures of the time, but it is worth watching to see just how beautiful color films were artfully done during this period.

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