Friday, July 1, 2016 one of the last actresses from Hollywood’s Golden Age of Movie Making celebrated her 100th birthday! Olivia De Havilland, best known as Melanie in Gone With the Wind, reached that majestic milestone and with that in mind, two wonderful classic film fan bloggers decided to host a blogathon, looking at Olivia’s acting roles. Be sure to visit Crystal at In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and Phyllis Loves Classic Movies to read other bloggers’ posts about Olivia De Havilland’s films.
Warner Brothers Studio had made a wonderful discovery when their 1935 film, Captain Blood, yielded a big box office profit. The discovery was that the two young leads, Olivia De Havilland and Errol Flynn, were a popular duo in action/romance films and the studio kept the pair busy, co-starring them in 7 more films. I decided to review their 5th film, 1939’s Dodge City, and some say the Western that later inspired Mel Brook’s comedic spoof, Blazing Saddles!
Dodge City begins in 1866, with a proud Col. Dodge arriving for the celebration to honor him and the fact that the railway has now built its way to Dodge City. Amongst the happy crowd are 3 cowboys who helped keep the rail workers fed with their skills at hunting buffalo: Wade Hatton, Rusty Hart, and Tex Baird. Shortly before the celebration began, these 3 helped the U. S. Marshall catch baddie Jeff Surrett and his gang for illegally killing buffalo, just for their hides, and leaving the remains to rot on the prairie. This first encounter of the 3 good guys with the baddie will become a major thread throughout the film.
Time marches forward and now there’s a screenshot explaining it is 1872, and that Dodge City is rolling in the dough due to cattle drives arriving there, the cattle then being sold, and tired cowboys, with pay in their pockets, looking for relaxation and fun. Another screenshot shows a number of saloons that pepper the town, and one, The Gay Lady, is owned by the baddie we met earlier in the film, Jeff Surrett. Surrett is wealthy and dishonest. How does he do it? By bidding on cattle, paying part of what he owes for the cattle he buys, and weasling out of paying for the rest of his bill;sometimes the men he owes are shot and die, thus they don’t need to be repaid, others are run out of town and too scared to challenge Surrett for what he owes them. Surrett’s wealth is also supported by the gambling that happens at his saloon as “the house” never loses much. Yancey is the head of Surrett’s henchmen, and these henchmen are Surrett’s eyes, ears, and evil force. Sheriffs for Dodge City have been weak and ineffective at stopping Surrett which means there is no law in the town, just anarchy. I did have to smile as many scenes show the men in town suddenly pointing their guns in the air and just firing away-reminded me of a couple scenes from Blazing Saddles.
20-25 minutes pass before we meet a beautiful lady , Abbie Irving, who will figure prominently in the plot of trying to bring down Surrett and his gang. Abbie will also become the main love interest for Wade, of course, as he is the man Dodge City turns to in a last-ditch attempt to rid themselves of the lawlessness that has gripped their community for too long. Abbie and her younger brother, Lee, are moving to Dodge City from TX, as their father has died, and he had arranged for his two children(actually young adults) to move in with their aunt and uncle, Dr. and Mrs. Irving. The two siblings sign up to travel with a cattle drive which just happens to be led by Wade and his 2 pals. However, Lee is a hazard to the entire group as he is constantly drunk and then carelessly shoots his gun at targets, eventually causing a stampede which ends in his death. Abbie is heartbroken with this event, and she blames Wade for her brother’s death: Lee, angered at being told to put his gun away, aims at Wade to shoot him and Wade fires back at Lee in self-defense, then the stampede begins. It looks as if any future romance between Wade and Abbie is doomed. We can tell Wade is attracted to Abbie as he gallantly offers to carry her heavy bucket of water. Abbie is feisty, insisting she can carry her own water, but when Wade isn’t looking, she smiles to herself in a knowing way. Despite her independent air, she is also attracted to Wade.
Wade, with pal Rusty as his deputy, begins the immense task of cleaning up Dodge City. Tex, the third amigo in this group of pals, isn’t quite ready to become a deputy as he is having too good of a time at The Gay Lady saloon. He loves to watch Ruby’s song and dance numbers and he is the cause for one of the best saloon brawls ever filmed by Hollywood! After being forced to cool his heels in jail, where Wade has locked up at least 60 lawbreakers(the cells are incredibly full), Tex becomes a deputy, too. Wade imposes several laws: no guns allowed north of First Street-have to turn them in at the sheriff’s office and gunowners can have them back as they leave town, gambling has to stop by 2 am, taxes will be collected. The laws work wonderfully well, and Dodge City gains a new reputation for being dullsville! The laws also lead Surrett and his henchmen to plan how they will take out Wade and his deputies, and end the rule of law that has cramped their style.
Will Surrett and his gang succeed in ridding themselves and Dodge City of Wade, Rusty, and Tex? Will Wade successfully woo and win Abbie? Will Abbie and her boss, newspaperman Joe Clemens, be able to provide vital evidence through articles as to the corruption and crimes Surrett is behind so that a trial can happen to send Surrett and his henchmen off to prison and probably off to the death penalty? Will Dodge City fully embrace their new “dull” reputation or go back to lawlessness? Find a copy of this film to find out the answers to these questions! It is available to watch via Amazon’s instant rent, and Friday, July 8th, it will air on Turner Classic Movies at 2:15 am EST/1:15 am CST, and again on October 1st, at 2:00 pm EST/1:00 pm CST.
What else is there to like about this film, Dodge City? Well, it was made in 1939, which is often called Hollywood’s best year as so many award winning movies were made then. It’s in technicolor, theres the stirring musical score by Max Steiner, excellent direction by Michael Curtiz, who could handle action sequences as well as quiet scenes, and of course the entire cast, the leads as well as supporting players. Errol Flynn is perfect as the handsome hero, and gives an intelligent read of Wade. He doesn’t hide his accent, the plot explains that he is a transplanted Irishman who’s come to the Western US. Olivia De Havilland is beautiful Abbie, and plays her as a strong woman, not a wilting, weak of heart lady. It was refreshing to me to see an independent woman in 1872, one who works at the newspaper, and who scoffs when Wade questions her as to why she isn’t at home doing needlework? Sidekicks Alan Hale Sr. and Guinn Williams are superb as Wade’s pals. They’re big men, good humored, often with smiles on their faces. Tex is obviously having a blast during that barroom brawl, and Rusty gets a fun side plot as he’s tired of the bar scene and accidentally wanders into a “Pure Praire League” temperance meeting, and the ladies there all think him quite a catch! Bruce Cabot, who had played the hero in 1933’s King Kong gives a strong performance as the evil kingpin Surrett. He squints his eyes, calmly barks out his orders, and they’re carried out. He tries to make a deal with Wade, but of course, that won’t go anywhere. Victor Jory plays Yancey, the dark and slimey head henchman. 1939 was Jory’s year to play baddies as he was also the slimey overseer Jonas Wilkerson in Gone With the Wind. Gorgeous Ann Sheridan, despite her prominence on some of the movie posters, is a minor character in this film. Her song and dance numbers are good, and she aquits herself well in those scenes. Only one scene of her and Flynn, when he barges into the saloon and asks if she’s seen Surrett.
The supporting cast is a who’s who of some of the best character actors and actresses: Henry Travers(Dr. Irving), Frank McHugh(Joe Clemens), John Litel(Matt Cole, cattle buyer not afraid of Surrett and dies for trying to get all of his fee), Gloria Holden(Cole’s widow), Bobs Watson(Cole’s son, and can that kid cry!), Ward Bond( a minor henchman who later gets a good scene with Flynn, trying get information about Clemens murderer), William Lundigan(drunk as a skunk Lee,) Clem Bevins as the town’s barber, and Henry O’Neill as Col. Dodge, founder of the town.
For a great Western, glorious and large, with lots of action and a romance that only Flynn and De Havilland could deliver, see Dodge City! I’ll close out this post with a clip from Youtube of that infamous barroom brawl.