Sunday, October 23, 2011

FRONTIER MARSHAL (1939); or, Wyatt Earp Meets the Monsters

One of the first cinematic versions of the Tombstone legend, Allan Dwan's movie takes advantage of still-widespread unfamiliarity with the Wyatt Earp story to take giant liberties with it. We're already dealing with a remake, as Stuart N. Lake's biography, based partly on self-serving interviews with Earp, had already been put on film just five years earlier. Dwan's film is an improvement in that it calls Earp by his right name instead of "Michael Wyatt." That seems to be about the end of its fidelity to history. Some Western historians claim that Lake's book is a whitewash of Earp, but Sam Hellman's script pretty much tears Earp down completely and puts up a new streamlined structure in his place. It relates to history only to the extent that a man named Wyatt Earp did some shooting of folks in the town of Tombstone, but it gets lost almost as soon as you ask who he shot. Consider: this is a Wyatt Earp film in which the name Clanton is never spoken. Since then the Clantons have become an inextricable part of the Tombstone legend, but the story still wasn't well known in 1939 despite Lake's publicity, so Twentieth Century-Fox could get away with creating an almost entirely original cast of villains for Earp to dispatch. Instead of a gang of "Cowboys" lurking outside town to rustle cattle and hoorah the place every so often, Frontier Marshall roots the Tombstone evil in the Palace of Pleasure saloon, whose proprietor Ben Carter is in cahoots with a gang of stagecoach robbers led by Curley Bill (Joe Sawyer), one of the few authentic names in the story. The robberies recede into the background, however, as the script focuses on Carter's feud with the more refined Bella Union, which can hire high-class entertainment like "greatest comedian in the world" Eddie Foy (Eddie Foy Jr.).  Attempting to keep the peace is Earp (Randolph Scott), who earns his star by volunteering to subdue the drunken Injun Charlie when the current marshal (Ward Bond) chickens out. Wyatt has come to town alone, without brothers or wife, and stays to impose order despite the machinations of Carter and a spiteful saloon girl (Binnie Barnes). Complicating matters is the arrival of temperamental and tubercular gunman Doc "Halliday" (Cesar Romero -- and I didn't misspell "Holliday," the movie did), a man with a fondness for handkerchief duels and a general death wish. An appalling amount of screen time is dedicated to the efforts of Halliday's long-suffering wife (Nancy Kelly) to recall the murderous lunger to his original vocation -- not merely dentistry but a full-scale general practice, including on-the-fly surgery. The climax of the picture is Doc's rally to perform life-saving surgery on a bartender's son accidentally shot by Earp. Following this redemptive triumph, Halliday strides out of the Bella Union and is instantly killed by Curley Bill, who informs Wyatt that he can be found at the O.K. Corral, about three doors down from the saloon. So Wyatt Earp fights the famous gunfight by himself, though help arrives at the end from an unexpected source. As the curtain falls, law and justice triumph, though one character notes that Tombstone is no longer truly safe, now that the Palace of Pleasure has been replaced by a savings bank.

The challenge for a historian or history buff when faced with something like Frontier Marshal is to distance oneself from history and judge the film on purely dramatic and cinematic terms. Cinematically, Dwan directs some crisp action and the film has some nice production values overall. But the script is a disaster that leaves Earp a bystander for much of the plot while Halliday forms a triangle with his wife and Jerrie the saloon girl. As Earp, Randolph Scott is adequately heroic but has little to work with in terms of personality, while Romero only left me wondering what Anthony Quinn could have done with the role -- the closest Quinn ever came was the Holliday a clef role in Edward Dymytryk's Warlock.  Worst of all, this Tombstone movie can't come up with a proper antagonist for Earp. Carter is set up early as the "big bad," only to be eliminated two-thirds through the picture. His assistant, Pringle, seems poised to step in, but in the very next scene Earp goads him into a fatal gunfight. That leaves the barely sketched out Curley Bill as the ultimate antagonist in an O.K. Corral fight that really feels like an anticlimax after all the storm and stress of the surgery scene. That's all a double shame, not just for the movie itself but for genre movie fans, given who plays the villains.

Frontier Marshal appears to be the first true team-up of John Carradine (Carter) and Lon Chaney Jr. (Pringle). Chaney had done bits in some earlier Fox films in which Carradine had more prominent parts (e.g. Jesse James), but Pringle is one of Junior's more prominent supporting roles before his breakthrough in Of Mice and Men. It's definitely an improvement for him on his labors for Cecil B. DeMille, who left almost all of Chaney's performance in Union Pacific on the cutting room floor, reducing the struggling young character actor to a few shots as a bystander despite being a named character in the end credits. For Carradine, a rising character actor at Fox, this film was just another day at the office; he contributes nothing special to a standard villain part. By comparison, Chaney's participation in an A picture is virtually a showcase, though he only has a couple of big scenes. In the first, Pringle has kidnapped Eddie Foy and forced him to perform at the Palace rather than the Bella Union. He stands just offstage twirling his two guns menacingly as Foy attempts to entertain the crowd. While Earp charges in through the audience to rescue Foy, Halliday appears in the wings to keep Pringle covered. In a priceless moment (perhaps) for Chaney fans, Doc decides that the audience expects entertainment and shouldn't be disappointed. He forces Pringle to dance, keeping time with bullets aimed at Chaney's feet as the big lug does a desperate soft-shoe routine. It may be the only time Lon Chaney Jr. ever dances on film. His other highlight is his shootout with Scott, his one scene as leader of the Palace gang. At first, Pringle has no intention of shooting it out with Earp, promising the marshall that Curley Bill will take care of him soon enough. But Earp's casual insult provokes a foolhardy attack, punctuated by Chaney's effective pantomime (in lieu of modern effects) of taking a bullet to the head. Thus pass Chaney and Carradine on their way to their destiny as horror men. They'll next encounter each other in The Mummy's Ghost, when Carradine plays the latest priest to revive the hapless Kharis. By that time, Carradine will already be past his peak of prestige, while Chaney will be in a thankless holding pattern as Universal's "master character creator." Frontier Marshal may be worthless otherwise, but it catches the pair as a team before either man had an inkling of his actual acting destiny. As that, it's a film of historical and maybe even sympathetic interest.


Sam Juliano said...

Well to be honest any teaming up of Carradine and Chaney is most desirable for movie fans. This one as you alude to certainly has historical value as well. I have not seen it but pretty much have seen every other film based on the Earps. You mention GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL and TOMBSTONE but of course there are several others, including a rather famous one by John Ford! Ha! Dwan realizes of course that as this was the first film on this subject he could take some liberties (I note you claim this is a re-make)

And a Wyatt Earp film without Clanton being mentioned?


Great stuff here as always!

Samuel Wilson said...

Sam, the 1934 version was a George O'Brien vehicle and who knows if anyone's seen it in the last 77 years? In any event, memories were presumed to be shorter then so no one was going to judge the 1939 version by its predecessor. Since you mention Tombstone I'm inclined to say that, however compromised, it's probably my favorite version of the legend.