Dodge City (1939)

A Rootin-Tootin Good Time!

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

A Texas cattle agent witnesses the brutal lawlessness of Dodge City, Kansas and agrees to take up the job of sheriff to clean the town up. If that doesn’t sound like the most stereotypical summary of a western then I don’t know what does. 1939 was the year in which the western went from a B-movie genre to getting the big studio treatment almost overnight and as a result, the inclusion of just about every western trope in Dodge City almost feels slightly comical. We get a train, a stagecoach, cattle drives, a saloon brawl, dancehall girls, an evil gang terrorising the locals, the “new sheriff” in town, a schoolmarm, lynch mobs, a crusading newspaperman, poker games, herds of bison, a climactic shootout, rock and roller, cola wars, I can’t take it anymore! Perhaps the only elements which are missing are a fight with Indians and big ol’ saguaro cactus (geographically inaccurate I know)

Errol Flynn transitions well to the role of a cowboy as Irishman Wade Hatton (“Thirty years ago, my father met my mother at the Londonderry fair” – excuse me, no true Irishman calls it Londonderry). Dodge City was the 5th of eight pairings of Flynn and Olivia deHavilland in which she plays feisty frontierswoman Abbie Irving. The magic is still there with any scene in which they are alone – you can tell these two really are in love, and like in The Adventures of Robin Hood, deHavilland is given many a memorable, brightly colored costume change throughout the film. Abbie’s brother Lee (William Lundigan) on the other hand is one of the biggest twats in screen history. A spoiled, trouble-making, tantrum-throwing drunkard who carelessly fires his gun into the air which causes a cattle stampede that leads to his untimely death. However, I don’t quite get why Abbie resents Wade for his involvement in Lee’s death as he ultimately got what was coming to him. None the less, Henry Travers perfectly sums up the situation – “Women’s logic and emotions are often very confusing”.

Dodge City is a story of morality and civilization – another chapter in how the west was won. The bad guys of Dodge City lead by Jeff Surrett (Bruce Cabot) are essentially gangsters, murdering for business interests, running gambling clubs and threatening the press. However, once Wade becomes the sheriff and begins cleaning up the town of its crime and degeneracy, my libertarian alarm bells start going off as he restricts gambling, gun rights (is he violating the 2nd Amendment by decreeing “No firearms permitted north of Front Street”?) and introduces taxes (at least his barber recognizes they are a necessary evil). 

Dodge City may have the best bar fight ever committed to screen. One spurred on by post-civil war tensions as the Confederate half of the saloon sings (I Wish I Was in) Dixie’s Land and the Yankee half retaliates with Marching Through Georgia before dozens of men cause utter fist-fighting destruction, destroying ever corner of the saloon and even falling through walls and multiple floors as they pummel each other. The beginning of the scene in similar to that from Casablanca (which Curtiz would also direct) in which the Germans at Rick’s Place start singing Die Wacht am Rheinin in front of the French of whom retaliate by singing the La Marseillaise.

The film’s score by Max Steiner sounds awfully similar in parts to that which Steiner would compose for Gone With The Wind, released 8 months after Dodge City. Even some of the shots present in the film are reminiscent of the scenes in Atlanta from GWTW. From the beautiful artwork in the title screens to the grand 3-strip Technicolor encompassing many scenic horizons, Dodge City is a visual delight (it’s just a shame the DVD copy of the film suffers from some colour bleeding). The film’s climactic shootout on the train, however, lets the film done slightly as the cuts back forth between the location and a studio set fail to convincing match each other.

Errol Flynn and Alan Hale once again make a great duo and Hale even receives his own comedic spotlight moment when he wanders into a temperance union known as the Pure Prairie League, only to find he’s the only man among a group of older women. Likewise in an interesting twist to convention, it’s Alan Hale and not Errol Flynn who takes out the film’s main villain played by Bruce Cabot. I’m just disappointed Ann Sheridan’s part in the film is barely beyond a cameo despite being third billed. She performs several songs as a saloon singer but has no impact on the plot – did she have any deleted scenes? I could also do without that cutesy little kid (Bobs Watson), although to be fair at least he has a major role in the progression of the plot. Regardless of any minor shortcomings, any film is worth it when it has earned its right to culminate in the most endearing of cinematic images, the hero riding off into the sunset.

Ball of Fire (1941)

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The Kind of Woman Who Makes Entire Civilisations Topple

Ball of Fire is the more grown up, risqué version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs; even during the opening scene the film’s cast of professors are seen walking in tandem through Central Park like the seven dwarfs as they adhere to a strict daily seclude in an attempt to compile an encyclopaedia of all human knowledge. The film plays off the public perception of bureaucrats, bankers, librarians and people in other such mundane professions. Are they such sheltered, socially awkward individuals who are in bed at 9 every night and have likely never been in a relationship? The recurring Howard Hawks’ theme of male bonding is ever present in Ball of Fire, although here it is all the more goofy with a cast of characters playing nerds. Regardless there still remains one very poignant scene in which Professor Oddly (the only bachelor of the group) recounts about his past wife and the men start singing.

There are few other character entrances in film more entertaining than that of Barbara Stanwyck as Sugarpuss O’Shea (a not so innocent name by today’s standard) as she enters the picture singing and dancing with Gene Krupa and his orchestra – could the character’s fast-living personality be summed up in a more entertaining manner? Likewise, that dress! No wonder Edith Head had decades working in the industry. Notice it’s nonstop sparkling every moment it’s on screen, making Stanwyck look all the more tantalising. Almost all the outfits worn by Stanwyck in Ball of Fire are clearly designed to make her look as sexually appealing as possible. When Professor “Potsy” Potts (Gary Cooper) and Sugarpuss are alone, the sexual sparks fly and when she holds up a leg she gives a group of socially awkward, sheltered middle-aged to old men a sexual awakening. It’s all the more poignant that the man she seduces is played a Gary Cooper; a contrast to his boy scouty screen image. Here Cooper is a nerd, and while he did play tough guys on screen, he will always be that boy next door. Ball of Fire is full of lines and moments which wouldn’t feel out of place in a film made before the production code. At the beginning of the film, we even see Professor Potts arousing the funder of the encyclopaedia project by merely talking to her in an attempt to convince her to keep the project running.

Ball of Fire is worth watching multiple times for all the lines you can easily miss out on. For example, when a garbage man (Allen Jenkins) comes into the house to ask the men for assistance on radio quiz, one of the questions regards the correct way to state a mathematical problem: “2 and 2 is 5, 2 and 2 are 5, 2 or 2 makes 5”. Cooper states the correct answer is “2 and 2 are 5” however the mathematician of the group then states “2 and 2 are 4” followed by the garbage man responding, “that’s a good one, nobody’s gonna get that”. Am I detecting a sneaky Orwellian statement pre-1984?

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

It Happened One Christmas

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Why yes I do cry like a baby over it’s a Wonderful Life: every time. That ending is such a huge release after such as a dark and depressing alternative reality. I’m always left shaken up by it and need a break before I can watch another movie as well as making me want to make amends with loved ones. I’m sure everyone who watched It’s a Wonderful Life thinks to themselves what the world would be like if they were never born. The struggle of George Bailey is relatable to a wide spectrum, and I know for myself it really hits home. Being stuck in a dead-end town and feeling you will bust if you don’t get away from it; having your life not going the way you intended it to while your siblings appear to be doing so much better than you. But in at the end George Bailey realises what he’s got when it’s all gone, above it all, God’s greatest gift. It’s a Wonderful Life takes placed in a world in which God exists (and can focus his time on this one person over the rest of the world, but I digress). I’ve never felt however for It’s a Wonderful Life to have a religious agenda, it’s merely just a plot device for the film’s fantasy elements.

Lionel Barrymore’s performance as Henry F. Potter I feel is a tie between his brother John’s roles in Twentieth Century as the best performance from the Barrymore clan. Potter is one of the biggest douche bags in movie history; the archetype evil business mogul and ripe for comparisons with real-life figures. Not only has he no charitable side, he directly steals money in order to destroy his competition. Unlike other screen villains, Potter does not get any comeuppance at the end of the film, although you could say he’s destiny as a sick, frustrated and lonely man who hates anyone that has anything he can’t have is punishment enough. Potter isn’t a total caricature though, he is more three dimensional than that. He’s a man who knows how to conduct and run a business and understands that high ideals without common sense could ruin a town. But George Bailey is no fool, he is a natural born leader, even if he doesn’t realise it. He stands up to Potter without giving it a second thought, runs a building and loan which is a real estate empire itself; even his father states to him that he was born older than his brother.

Moments like the makeshift honeymoon suite in the broken down house which they later make their own or the recurring gag with the mantle at the end of the stairway represents the kind of writing which elevates It’s a Wonderful Life above the majority of other movies. Like the greatest of films, you notice something new on every viewing. Likewise, nobody can do moments of intimacy like Frank Capra, the movie is full of scenes in which it is simply two actors talking with no background music, yet creates raw human emotions like no other. Take a scene such as George and Mary walking through a neighbourhood at night while George talks about his ambitions for the future, the rest of the world ceases to exist. Many will be quick to put down Capra’s work as so-called “Capracorn” or as Potter puts it, “sentimental hogwash”. Get off your high horse and stop thinking you’re above such emotion – cinema is about the manipulation of emotions.

It’s hard not to feel sentimental for the representation of small-town America on display. Bedford Falls itself is a town full of interesting and unique characters. It actually reminds me of The Simpsons. Potter himself is essentially the town’s own Mr. Burns in The Simpsons – the people of Springfield hate Burns but are dependent on him for their energy needs. Likewise, the people of Bedford Falls hate Potter and would be dependent on him for their housing if it wasn’t for the competition of the Bailey Building & Loan.

Due to its public domain status, the film was shown on some TV networks in 24-hour marathons. I’d happily watch one of those networks as I can’t stop watching It’s a Wonderful Life no matter what point in the movie I begin. Could you get a more perfect marriage between actor and director than James Stewart and Frank Capra? Collaborating on a perfect trilogy of films, with each one better than the last. It’s a Wonderful Life? It sure is.