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.

The Grapes Of Wrath (1940)

California, Super Cool To The Homeless

The Grapes of Wrath was impressively released less than a year following the release of the novel and yet within this short timeframe director John Ford crafted one of the greatest motion pictures ever made. A number of John Ford’s movies have that foreign film feel – a feeling of very raw, lifelike emotion. The Grapes of Warth itself is one of the most emotionally draining films of all time with one scene after another drawing up such feelings of pity; everything is rough, dirty nor is there makeup on any of the actors. Just take the scene in which the depression-ridden Joad family on their way to California attempt to buy bread from a dinner (a scene which really puts the value of money in perspective) – The emotion is one part humility and the other part pathetic.

Yokels, rednecks, hillbillies – everyone’s favourite punching bag. The Grapes of Wrath doesn’t look down America’s uneducated, rural white folk nor presents them as a caricature but that still doesn’t change the fact that none of the Joad clan are the sharpest tools in the shed nor don’t understand how the outside world works. Just as we are introduced to the family the youngest daughter Rosasharn is pregnant and married when still a teen while the family is dirt poor and huge as it is.

Henry Fonda’s performance as Tom Joad may be the pinnacle of his acting career. His stone face alongside the laid-back manner in which he walked and talked is mesmerising yet Joad is not someone I would fancy being in the vicinity off. Fonda’s performance has a sinister edge to it and a sense of barely restrained violence. His proclamation to the truck driver near the beginning of the film when telling him the reason he was in prison, a simple uttering of “homicide” could come straight out of a horror movie. Jane Darwell on the other hand as Ma Joad is the other great scene stealer with her hauntingly sombre, tour-de-force performance as a character with one ultimate aim – keeping the fambly together.

The amazing landscape shots, use of German expressionism and high contrast lighting give way for such unforgettable images from a car light driving along the horizon to silhouettes walking across a hill, thanks to cinematographer Gregg Toland. Take the scene at the campsite in which the characters discuss their present situation; it’s so dreamlike with the odd, unnatural angles, it couldn’t be more mesmerising. I also recommend watching the South Park episode Over Logging which parodies this scene (and the movie as a whole), right down to the black & white cinematography.

Once the Joads arrive at the Farmworkers’ Wheat Patch run by the Department of Agriculture it is a temporary relief to see something good happen to the family, after all, they have been through. When The Grapes of Wrath was released in 1940, the US Secretary of Agriculture was Henry A. Wallace, whom that same year was running for Vice President with Franklin D. Roosevelt; a message of support for FDR and the New Deal no doubt? At the government camp they are greeted by a seemingly genuine, honest man who looks like FDR and tells them they have washtubs with running water; a world away from the corporate run camps the Joads took residence earlier in the film – all sounds too good to be true? The government is the solution to the Joad’s problems (temporally at least as they end up leaving at a later point), nor at any point in the film do we see any charitable organisations out to help the poor. It’s fairly obvious that The Grapes of Wrath doesn’t exactly lean to the right of politics; evil bankers running people off their land, corrupt police, capitalists treating people like dogs, total collapse of the free market, socialist camp run by the government is only decent place to be in which cops are not allowed to lines of dialogue such as “people are going to win rich, people are going to die”. – A world of oppressor and the oppressed if there ever existed one. Regardless of one’s politics, I still contend The Grapes of Wrath to be one of the most emotionally draining films in all of cinema.