The Real Birth of Westerns

Boggs_Marlene-Dietrich_s-role-in-Destry-Rides-Again_blazing-saddlesNo doubt about it. Western movies were reborn in 1939, catapulting the genre into big-time Hollywood that lasted some 60 years. Stagecoach, Destry Rides Again, Jesse James, Dodge City are considered classics. But watch them again, and you will see something else these movies have in common.

They stink.

All right, maybe stink is a bit harsh. But these movies aren’t Red River, The Naked Spur or The Wild Bunch. Heck, they’re not even Station West, Silver Lode or Chisum.

Stagecoach? Sure, the film made John Wayne a star and won two Academy Awards. It even got director John Ford an Oscar nomination—despite the fact that you can spot truck tracks in some scenes and, even worse, the shadow of the camera and operator when the stagecoach crosses the river. Besides, the only performance Andy Devine ever gave that didn’t annoy me came in 1932’s Law and Order, when his character was hanged fairly quickly.

Destry Rides Again? It’s charming, but, honestly, are we supposed to buy Marlene Dietrich, with her harsh German accent,
as a saloon tart named Frenchy? I’m a huge fan of James Stewart, but I prefer him when he’s trying to break Dan Duryea’s face in Winchester ’73, not carving napkin rings.

Dodge City? Errol Flynn would grow to hate Westerns (he did make a really good one, though nobody went to see Rocky Mountain in 1950). Maybe Dodge City isn’t as insipid as The Oklahoma Kid (another idiotic Warner Bros. release from 1939, putting Hollywood’s great gangsters, Jimmy Cagney and Humphrey Bogart, in cowboy duds), but it’s hokey. And boring. And the shoot-out finale is lame.

Jesse James? Fans of the Younger boys were likely irritated that Cole, Bob, John and Jim didn’t show up in this melodramatic waste of celluloid and Randolph Scott. The Youngers got even, though, because Jesse and Frank don’t appear in 1949’s The Younger Brothers. Jesse’s granddaughter, Jo Frances James, said, “About the only connection [Jesse James] had with fact was that there once was a man named James, and he did ride a horse.”

Union Pacific? I’ll buy Barbara Stanwyck as an Irish gal about as quickly as I’ll accept Dietrich as Frenchy. Cecil B. DeMille is the
most overrated director this side of King Vidor, and here’s another
climactic gunfight that is dull. With the exception of a few Westerns, Joel
McCrea is much more interesting in non-Westerns, like 1940’s Foreign Correspondent, 1942’s Sullivan’s Travels and 1943’s The More the Merrier.

Even B-power Republic Pictures tried an A-list film in ’39. But about the only thing Man of Conquest, starring Richard Dix as Sam Houston, got the studio was a lawsuit from Marquis James, who accused the studio of plagiarizing his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography The Raven, which isn’t as monotonous as Man of Conquest.

The Westerns of 1939 were caught between silly B-programmers and Hollywood’s serious A-list films, like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Of Mice and Men and The Wizard of Oz. Seriously, where did Flynn get that hat in Dodge City? And Tom Tyler in Stagecoach looks like he just came off a shoot at Monogram Pictures.

Not until after WWII did Hollywood really discover what the Western—and the West—was all about. That’s why I’d rather watch My Darling Clementine, Westward the Women, Rawhide, No Name on the Bullet or Devil’s Doorway.

As far as 1939 Westerns are concerned, heck, give me Harlem Rides the Range or Henry Goes to Arizona. Then again,  you may not agree with me; I think Gone with the Wind stinks too.

Johnny D. Boggs does like some pre-Code Westerns like Hell’s Heroes and Cimarron (the Richard Dix version) and silents like Hell’s Hinges, Three Bad Men and The Wind.


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