Joel McCrea was one of my grandma’s favorite actors. She told me that years ago when I was probably 12 or 13 years old. At age 12 or 13, I had no idea who Joel McCrea was, but when I began to watch classic movies in my high school days, I did find out who he was. A tall, good-looking actor, often playing in comedies or dramas in the 1930s and 1940s; I could see why he was one of my grandma’s favorites! In the late 1940s and heading into the 1950s, McCrea was aging and he turned increasingly to roles in Western films. Colorado Territory was just such a career changing role and it fit McCrea’s persona to a T.
In 1941, famed Hollywood director Raoul Walsh had a huge box office hit with a gangster movie, High Sierra, that starred Humphrey Bogart. Jumping ahead to 1949, a similarly plotted film treatment landed on his desk, Colorado Territory, written by Edmund H. North and John Twist. Their screenplay took High Sierra and pushed it back in time to the 1870s. Walsh loved the story and got the greenlight from Warner Brothers to make this “newish” version of his earlier film.
In Colorado Territory, we meet outlaw Wes McQueen(Joel McCrea) stuck in a jail in Clay County, Missouri. He’s a notorious bank robber and train robber and known for being very fast with a gun. A sweet, little old lady arrives at the jail with a cake and some handknit woolen socks for McQueen, telling the jailor and sheriff that she’s McQueen’s Aunt Georgina(Hallene Hill). She is informed that she won’t be allowed to see McQueen, but that the basket of goodies will be delivered to him. As the aunt leaves, she tells the sheriff to give McQueen a message, that his old white horse has been broken to drive buggies by his Uncle Pluthner. The basket is given to McQueen with the message about his old white horse. McQueen immediately perks up, because he realizes it’s a coded message and that Pluthner isn’t really his uncle but a former Pinkerton agent turned outlaw. With an unraveling knitted sock, McQueen is able to escape from his jail cell in a way that would have made tv’s MacGuyver proud!
The next morning it is discovered that McQueen has escaped. A bell is rung in the town, and a posse is rounded up. The chase to catch McQueen is on! Meanwhile, McQueen has met up with Pluthner(Harry Woods), who tells him that McQueen’s old robbing buddy, Dave Rickard(Basil Ruysdael) is living in Colorado territory and he wants McQueen to help him with one more train robbery, which will yield a large haul of cash, and that they can split it up with Pluthner, and then they can all scatter to do what they want with their lives.
McQueen makes a short stop at his family’s farm. He sits on his horse, looking wistfully around as he remembers his boyhood there. The new owner’s son appears, on his way to a fishing hole. McQueen recognizes the boy and asks him how is his family doing? The youth answers his questions but when McQueen asks about Martha, the boy’s face clouds up with sadness. He motions to McQueen that Martha is over yonder, buried in the cemetery. McQueen is very sad to learn of this news. He goes alone to pay his respects to Martha and from McCrea’s somber acting, we can tell that Martha was a very important person in McQueen’s life and future plans. This scene also allows the audience to feel empathy for this outlaw, who went from a mischievious youth to bad choices to now, wanting to just pull off one more robbery and then he’ll pursue a quiet, upright life. We are rooting for McQueen, hoping he can make this change.
To get to Colorado territory and avoid the posse, McQueen takes a stagecoach and meets fellow passengers, Mr. Fred Winslow(Henry Hull) and his pretty daughter, Julie Ann(Dorothy Malone). Winslow is a chatterer, and goes on and on about leaving Georgia behind for a rich ranch he has purchased, Rancho del Sol. Julie Ann is exasperated with her father and several times tells him to stop telling about their personal affairs to this traveling stranger. McQueen lies, and tells the Winslow’s that his name is Jeff Rogers and that one day he, too, would like to farm or ranch in the West. When bandits are about to attack the stagecoach, McQueen impresses all with his ability to defend and defeat the would-be robbers. At the stagecoach depot, McQueen spies a wanted poster with his picture on it and he deftly tears if off the wall and discards it while accepting the award of a good horse that will help him get to the his next point -an abandoned mission town, Todos Santos, where the rest of the train robbing gang are waiting for him.
McQueen arrives in Todos Santos and meets his robbery team. What a bunch of misfits! There’s the brute, Reno Blake(John Archer), who has brought along a dance hall gal, Colorado Carson(Virginia Mayo)-a half-breed, rough kind of woman. Rounding out the trio is Duke Harris(James Mitchell) a smart-alecky, psychopathic guy. James Mitchell is so good in his role-I had only really known him previously from his role as Curly in the dream ballet sequence of the movie version of Oklahoma! and his long-standing role on the soap opera All My Children. I really think he should have been nominated for a best supporting actor, he does that well with the role of the twisted Duke!
McQueen lets it be known that he is in charge of this robbery for Rickard and Pluthner. Reno and Duke aren’t happy about this, but keep their complaints to one another. Colorado can tell that McQueen is a better man than Reno or Duke could ever hope to be and she begins to flirt with McQueen. One night she overhears him murmur Martha’s name in his sleep, and when he awakens, Colorado asks him about Martha, then throws herself into McQueen’s arms, essentially asking him to take her with him when the robbery is done. McQueen gently refuses her, taking her arms down from his neck and explains that there is someone else he wants to plan his future with, Julie Ann. He tells Colorado that he’ll make sure she gets a cut of the money and that he will expect her to go off on her own to start her new life.
The town’s station agent(Ian Wolfe) visits the gang. He’s a nervous sort of fellow, and a weakling. He has arrived to tell them the specifics of the train’s arrival and how much money it will be hauling in the safe. What he doesn’t tell the gang is that he’s really working with the U.S. Marshall for the region. The Marshall(Morris Ankrum) has gotten information about the attempted train robbery and he’s pretty sure McQueen’s behind it. More double-dealings are revealed: Pluthner has arranged with Reno and Duke to keep the money for themselves and to kill McQueen and Rickard, and Reno and Duke have their own plan brewing, to keep the money for themselves, killing McQueen, Colorado, and Pluthner in the process.
The robbery happens but it doesn’t go according to anyone’s plans and McQueen discovers all of the double-crosses that were going to happen. Unfortunately he is shot in the shoulder and while he and Colorado hide out at the Winslow’s ranch for a bit, McQueen sadly discovers that Julie Ann is not the girl he thought she was and he decides then and there to not plan a future with her as his wife. Leaving the Winslow’s ranch to head back to Todos Santos with Colorado, he realizes that perhaps Colorado is the woman he really loves.
With McQueen and Colorado now planning their new life together at the old mission, with money in their possession and just a short ride over a mountain ridge to Mexico, they suddenly are awakened from their plans by the sight of smoke signals-an Indian that the US Marshall had sent to search for them found them at Todos Santos and sent the signal to let the Marshall and his posse know where McQueen and Colorado are hiding.
I won’t reveal the end of Colorado Territory as I want the potential viewers to seek this film out! It’s a well-acted film, a storyline that doesn’t have any plot holes, and it touches on that philosophical question, can a person really change their life around?
Colorado Territory will be shown on TCM on Saturday, April 25th, at 4:30 pm EST/3:30 pm CST. It is also available to view on Amazon’s instant rent or for purchase. I’ll end my blog with a few more movie posters for Colorado Territory and I find them a bit amusing as they all focus on Virginia Mayo over Joel McCrea!