The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Dodge City

I've covered this before, but when I watch enough older movies (pre-1950s or so) it keeps coming up.  If possible, watch these movies with the mindset you're watching them in the year they were released.  New innovations come along every few years with movies starting with the jump from silent to sound and building onward with color, widescreen, 3-D, CGI, and more recently with Avatar, whole new ways of filming human acting.  It's hard sometimes though because well, it isn't 1939.  What was appealing in 1939 doesn't necessarily translate well to 2010.  That was my feeling with 1939's Dodge City.

Look at the all years in Hollywood history and 1939 is often labeled the greatest year in movie history, and for good reason.  Here's a list of the more impressive flicks.  And even though Dodge City is on that list, I'm not judging or comparing it to Gone With the Wind or The Wizard of Oz.  But like both those movies, it is about the spectacle of what's happening on-screen.  It's filmed in Technicolor with lots of bright, vivid colors that look almost fake, huge sets filled with seemingly hundreds of extras, and a story as big as the taming of the west.

After helping the railroad reach Dodge City, Wade Hatton (Errol Flynn) returns after years away from the wild, rumbling boom town with friends Rusty (Alan Hale) and Tex (Guinn Williams).  The town they've helped build has gone to hell and any attempts at civilizing the town are stopped by a cattle man, Jeff Surrett (Bruce Cabot).  Townspeople he has business deals with or owes money end up shot in the back with no witnesses.  The town calls for Hatton to become sheriff and clear Surrett out, and at first he's completely unwilling.  But something changes when an action of Surrett's pushes him too far.  He takes the badge and starts to clean the town up, but Surrett is standing in his way and shows no sign of giving up.

The story is nothing new for a western, but that's not a complaint, just an observation.  The problem is that all the other little things add up to be a problem.  In the casting, Ann Sheridan gets third billing for a part that requires her to sing two or three times as a dance hall girl.  These scenes have a line of dance hall girls dancing on-stage for a saloon full of raucous cowboys and grind the already slim story to a halt.  They're cool enough to look at visually but too distracting overall.  The same goes for the exterior shots of Dodge City (with studios in California filling in for Kansas) which are content to show crowded streets with all their extras.  And even if the spectacle of the movie was more appealing, it pales in a big way compared to Gone With the Wind's spectacle.

The least of the problems is Errol Flynn as tough gunfighter with a golden heart, Wade Hatton.  He's a good example of what western heroes were before Sergio Leone got his hands on the genre in the 1960s.  Hatton is a good man, looking out for women and children first, and when pushed too far, watch out bad guys because he's coming after you.  Frequent Flynn co-star Olivia de Haviland is the love interest who hates Flynn until it's important for her to turn a page and like him.  The duo worked many times together and for good reason.  They had some great chemistry that comes naturally and never looks like they had to force things along.

As his rival, Cabot is a solid villain.  Thanks to his pairings later in his career with John Wayne, it would be easy to think Cabot usually played a variation on the trusty sidekick.  But early in his career, he played his fair share of bad guys, especially in the 30s.  His voice sounds like a deep growl, and he was a physically intimidating actor so he is a good counter to Flynn's heroic good guy.  Victor Jory is also solid as one of Surrett's gunslingers who wouldn't bat an eye at shooting a guy in the back.  Hale and Williams are the annoying, not so funny amusing sidekicks who are there to get a laugh or two.  I like both actors but their parts just aren't funny.

The movie does pick up speed once Hatton becomes sheriff in Dodge City, and the finale starts off promising as Hatton and Co. shoot it out with Surrett on a burning train.  But the ending limps to the finish, almost like director Michael Curtiz just ran out of money.  SPOILER Surrett and his cronies escape and are making their getaway only to have Hatton and Rusty pick them off as they run.  No big showdown, no worthy end for a quality bad guy.  Just a quick shot of a dead Surrett after he's been thrown from his horse.  Surprise, surprise, but Hatton also gets the girl.  I know, it surprised me too.  END OF SPOILER

This is not a bad movie in any way, and it feels wrong giving it a negative review for a movie that's main goal is to be entertaining.  But all the spectacle moments take away from a story that could have been good, if not great.  Errol Flynn is always worth a watch, Olivia de Haviland is a great actress, and Bruce Cabot's a good villain, but that's about it.  Average western worth checking out if you're looking for a decent enough way to kill two hours.  An Errol Flynn fan has posted many of his movies at Youtube, including Dodge City, starting with Part 1 of 10.

Dodge City <----trailer (1939): **/****

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