' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Dodge City

Friday, June 01, 2012

Friday's Old Fashioned: Dodge City

When I was still rather young my family took a vacation that went through Kansas and then up to Colorado and one of our stops was Dodge City, KS where two notable events of my life took place. One, we partook in a staged Melodrama at some touristy "saloon" which had all the fixins - you know, Bad Guy In Black Cape With The Curly Mustache tying the Damsel to the train track and so forth. I.Loved.It. And no doubt it had a profound effect on the melodramatic moron you, my dear and loyal readers, are reading today. Two, my mother made absolute certain she visited the hotel where one Errol Flynn stayed when he came in 1939 for the premiere of his film released in the same year, "Dodge City." As in, we wonder where Nick got his obsession for visiting filming locations of his favorite movies.

"Dodge City" was the fifth of nine pairings of cinematic stalwarts Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland and while - as I've said many times before - I was raised as much on Flynn & de Havilland as on Burt & Ernie, I have always been more familiar with their "Captain Blood" & "Adventures in Robin Hood" efforts. I had seen "Dodge City" - the film where Flynn traded in the scabbard for the holster - way back when but had no real recollection of it.

Directed by the great Michael Curtiz, who made 12 films in total with Flynn, filmed in early blessed Technicolor, "Dodge City" opens with a steam train and a stagecoach locking horns in a race. Naturally, the train wins going away. There would seem to be some heavy symbolism at play here but, in truth, it isn't foreshadowing anything particularly grand. It's just a nifty, action-oriented opening designed to grab the audience's intention. They are both headed to the Kansas town of the film's title where the railroad has just been laid, staking its position as the "wide open Babylon of the frontier." Alas, the town, as it must, has fallen under the obligatory iron fist rule of Jeff Surrett (Bruce Cabot, less menacing than oily) who offs kindly Matt Cole (John Litel) when Cole has the audacity to ask to be paid proper for his herd of cattle. And the Sheriff who tries to arrest Surrett's right-hand man Yancey (Victor Jory) for the shooting is so inept he allows himself to be hurled into the back of a stagecoach - like a grade school teacher locked out of his own classroom - and sent away.

Enter: Wade Hatton (Flynn), a young Irishman who's "been everywhere, done everything, sort of a rover", who provided beef to the men who built the Dodge City railroad and has gone south to Texas to lead a cattle drive. Conveniently the cattle drive includes the presence of alluring Abbie Irving (de Havilland) whose brother (William Lundigan) is an idiotic, loquacious alcoholic who causes a stampede and then pulls a gun on Wade's best bud Rusty (Alan Hale) before turning the gun on Wade himself which causes Wade to have to pull his own gun and put him down. (Dear Screenwriters Of America: This is how you establish conflict between your inevitable romantic couple.)

And when Wade arrives in Dodge City to sell his cattle he finds that Surrett is willing to pay but a measly $30 for the whole lot of 'em and strong-arm anyone who dares offer more. And when Surrett tries to hang Rusty for no good reason, Wade decides it's time to make like Wyatt Earp and clean up this dirty stinkin' town by establishing himself as Marshal. That said, Wyatt Earp was more like Ray Lewis and Wade was more like Tom Brady (though de Havilland is more beautiful than Gisele, and you can quote me on that five times in a row). Wade imposes taxes and puts a 2 AM cutoff time on gambling and promptly locks up anyone who breaks it. Within the space of a montage or two and a couple newspaper headlines he has restored Dodge City's reputation, not that Surrett is going to tuck tail and run.

The film, like any film of this sort, is headed for a pistol wielding showdown, but to Curtiz's credit he doesn't over-invest in gunplay and instead establishes a subplot wherein Abbie becomes the Veronica Guerin of the Old West, working for the town paper, the Washington Post of the old west, and teaming up with crusading editor Joe Clemons to investigate the death of kindly Matt Cole at the behest of her kindly window and find out just who killed him and just why she was never paid money owed for the cattle. But when they threaten to blow the lid off the cover, Joe Clemons winds up dead too. Everyone knows Yancey pulled the trigger but Wade decrees he will receive a fair trial. This doesn't sit well with the townsfolk who demand lynch mob justice and, thus, Wade and Rusty decide to sneak Yancey off to Wichita on a train for his own protection.

Naturally, Surrett boards that same train - the same train Abbie boards to go to Wichita also her own protection - and determines to settle his score with interfering Wade once and for all. Quite obviously this was meant to be the climactic set piece - except whereas Curtiz filmed far and away my favorite sword fight of all time, his shootout leaves a lot to be desired. It begins as just a bunch of guys hiding behind crates and firing guns before Abbie does something she NEVER would have done and blunders into the room to become the requisite hostage for Surrett which leads to some supposed derring-do but is oddly spiritless.

It rebounds, though, in the end by pairing up Errol & Olivia - no cinematic couple other than Bogey & Bacall so effortlessly and wondrously brings an idiotically romantic smile to my face - and sending them back east with the intention of cleaning up another town gone wrong. Thus, in spite of the bland climax, my only real complaint with "Dodge City" is this......

Why in the world wasn't there a sequel called "Virginia City"? Wait, what? There was a sequel (sort of) called "Virginia City"? Except, what? It didn't have Olivia de Havilland? So then isn't that a little bit like not having Slash, Izzy Stradlin, Duff McKagan, and Steven Adler and still calling yourself Guns N' Roses?

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