Sunday, May 13, 2012


The way the story's usually told, the western genre fell into disrepute with the coming of sound, despite the honors heaped on Wesley Ruggles's Cimarron (1931) only to regain respectability in 1939, mainly on the strength of John Ford's Stagecoach and John Wayne's belated star-making performance. Stagecoach was actually one of several high-profile "A" westerns of that legendary year, along with Dodge City, Jesse James and Union Pacific, but the real story isn't that Stagecoach didn't rescue the western from B-movie disrepute by itself, but that 1939 was really Hollywood's second attempt to re-establish the A western. Three years earlier the majors released a number of ambitious films -- Cecil B. DeMille made The Plainsman before Union Pacific, for instance -- but the westerns of 1936 either didn't have the impact of the 1939 films, or else their influence was slow in being felt. There had to be some reason why Hollywood took more shots at the end of the decade, but looking at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's efforts from 1936 reveals the genre not quite arrived at the classical form it achieved three years later. The M-G-M westerns differ drastically in tone from the 1939 breakthrough films, and the studio may have suffered for it. Metro did not have a film in the 1939 western sweepstakes, and there had to be a reason for that.

While we're looking specifically at William A. Wellman's bandit epic, it's worth mentioning the other M-G-M western of 1936, Richard Boleslawski's Three Godfathers. This was the second of three sound-film adaptations of Peter B. Kyne's story, the most famous being the last, a 1948 Ford film with Wayne starring. Kyne has a tangential connection to The Robin Hood of El Dorado; Metro hired him to write a newspaper serial adaptation of the movie, itself derived from a novel by Walter Burns, as well as uncredited dialogue for the actual picture. It probably goes too far to suggest that Kyne gives a common tone to both films, but there is a common tone to them, a tragic bleakness that would be conspicuous by its absence from the classical westerns that prevailed for a decade after 1939. What Kyne contributes is uncertain, but for those familiar with the Ford 3 Godfathers it will come as a shock to see all the title protagonists die in the Boleslawski version. That film is worthy of its own post, so let's segue to Wellman with an understanding that both westerns have an element of martyrdom to them, a quality that makes the Boleslawski a strange sort of Christmas movie and the Wellman a film slightly out of its time -- virtually a Pre-Code picture released two years into the era of Code Enforcement.

The Robin Hood of El Dorado was written by an odd team of Wellman, Kyne, the chraracter actor Joseph Calleia -- who doesn't appear in the movie -- and six other writers. It's their take on the legend of the California bandit Joaquin Murrieta and an opportunity for Wellman to rework some of his Pre-Code motifs -- violent crime and social injustice -- in western form. His Joaquin (erstwhile Oscar-winning Cisco Kid Warner Baxter) is a good-natured peon getting married around the time that the U.S. occupied California after the Mexican War. The nuptials take place on the property of the local haciendado, but Joaquin is abruptly disgraced when he selflessly takes the blame for his friend throwing a knife at a visiting American officer, rather than see the friend suffer any reprisal. Joaquin himself gets off lightly but is cast off the haciendado's lands. Still an optimist, he starts a new life with his young bride, but their idyll is disrupted by the great gold rush. In an interesting twist on a formula yet to be established, and a touch worth of Pre-Code, the one good white man to move in isn't a prospector but a saloon keeper (Bruce Cabot). In classical "winning of the west" or town-tamer films, the saloon keeper is usually the serpent in the garden, but Bill Warren and his brother are nice guys, apparently because they propose to make their fortune through exchange rather than by taking from the land or from its current occupants. The prospectors are predators by comparison, as proven when four of them try to force Joaquin from his land by breaking in, beating him up and (from all appearances) raping his wife, who dies in his arms. Previously mild-mannered, Joaquin vows mortal vengeance and carries it out with surprising ease, picking off his enemies one by one, usually in broad daylight. He quickly becomes a wanted man, despite Bill Warren's pleas for understanding. Joaquin himself is offended to find himself seen on a level with the vicious bandit Three-Fingered Jack (J. Carroll Naish at his most brutish) and unselfconsciously walks into the sheriff's office to protest against the indignity. The sheriff (a mustachioed and nearly unrecognizable Edgar Kennedy of "slow burn" comedy fame) tries to take him in but gets a knife thrown into his hand for his trouble as Murrieta escapes.

For a time Joaquin lays low on his brother's property, grows a beard and approximates a normal life. But when ugly Americans find some pretext to flog him and kill his brother, he joins forces with Three-Fingered Jack to terrorize California, building not only a formidable gang but a little colony of dispossessed Mexicans whose contribution to the Robin Hood metaphor is to cavort like merry men and women in a couple of ill-advised, virtually operettic sequences that suggest an overall merrier film than what we're going to get. Joaquin's world is brightened a little by the reappearance of Juanita (Ann Loring), the daughter of his old haciendado who'd had a crush on him before, then sees him as a disgrace to Mexicans, but ultimately fights at his side. Everything falls apart, however, after a raid on a stagecoach unintentionally victimizes the much talked-of bride-to-be of Bill Warren's brother and finally turns Warren against Murrieta. Joaquin himself decides things have gone too far and plans to surrender himself in the hope of saving the community that formed around him. Just as at the start of his misfortunes, that is, he wants to take someone else's sins upon himself. But it's not to be this time, as Warren leads a massive posse against Murrieta's camp. What follows, by Code Enforcement standards, is a bloodbath, a fearsome mutual slaughter punctuated by literal rapid-fire editing by Robert Kern, who cuts on every gunshot from one gunman (or woman) to another. Though they give as good as they get, Murrieta's people are inexorably annihilated, the battle closing with a gruesome (for the era) shot of all the dead in their encircled camp, looking for all the world like pioneers slaughtered by Indians -- a symbolic reversal that anticipates a similar battle in Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate. The film itself ends with Warren sadly tracking a mortally wounded Murrieta to an expected destination and a reminder of the original injustice that started the tragedy.

In short, The Robin Hood of El Dorado is just about the opposite of the sort of patriotic epic mode post-1939 westerns usually aspired to. It's a western without a happy ending or even the satisfaction of justice served. It falls short of being a great western partly because of those musical scenes, the reasons for which I understand intellectually while still finding them distractingly wrong in tone, and partly because of the exploitative casting of Baxter as Murrieta. To his credit, the actor isn't simply redoing the Cisco Kid and grows into the  role even as he transforms into something looking more like the Kid, but the overaged Baxter is profoundly wrong for the younger Murrieta -- the real man apparently died in his mid-20s -- and his labored attempt at youthful earnestness, complete with unpersuasive accent, condemns the film to a slow start. Bruce Cabot is underutilized in his admittedly purely functional voice-of-reason role, and the actor, all too typically, is pretty stiff in the part.  Naish gives one of his better performances -- he's less obviously J. Carroll Naish -- as Three-Fingered Jack, while Ann Loring, who made only one more film, cuts a dashing figure as a latecoming heroine. The film eventually builds momentum with action, much of it shot on location, that transcends the limitations of the actors, climaxing in a memorably violent finale. If it seems at times like a Pre-Code western released too late, in other respects it seems like a film ahead of its time in its depiction of race conflict and its refusal of a happy ending. In that particular respect it's probably Wellman's toughest if not his best western, lacking the moralizing coda of The Ox-Bow Incident or outlaws' unlikely redemption and repentance in Yellow Sky. Those films are better than this one, but The Robin Hood of El Dorado is definitely worth a look for western fans, at least, in a direction the genre didn't follow for another thirty years.

M-G-M was very conscious of the place they planned for this film in the lineage of western movies, as the trailer from Turner Classic Movies illustrates.


Judy said...

It's great to read such a detailed review of this unusual Western, and I especially like the way you put it into context, Samuel, bringing together all the information on other Westerns and the people involved. The posters are great and the trailer, which I hadn't seen before, is fascinating and quite misleading - it puts a lot of stress on the singing and dancing scenes, which, as you say, are somewhat out of kilter with the rest. This trailer makes it look as if the film as a whole will be more upbeat and less bleak than it is - as you say, there is no happy ending here, nor any possibility of one.

I do agree that it is a stretch to have Baxter playing the young Murrieta, especially with his accent, even though actors could get away with a greater age range in black and white. I also think it can give an added poignancy at times to have an obviously older actor playing a younger role, as with John Wayne and James Stewart in 'The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance', where it gives an added awareness that all this is in the characters' past. But, having said this, I'd have to agree that Baxter is much better in the later part of the film where he is no longer trying to play a fresh-faced boy, and his weary looks come into their own.

Samuel Wilson said...

Judy, we shouldn't overlook an obvious factor in the late-30s attempts to revive the A western that may explain much about the trailer and the film itself -- the singing cowboy genre. Gene Autry had already hit big by 1936, I believe, and was already spawning imitators. Metro may have been convinced that westerns needed to have a more musical element, short of having Baxter sing, to tap into the singing-cowboy audience.

As for Baxter, the odd thing about his performance is that the actor almost seems to grow younger as his character ages. He looks too haggard clean-shaven to play young Joaquin, but once he gets his moustache back he's practically a new man, or at least his more iconic self.

Judy said...

Yeah, he definitely looks better with a moustache. I'd forgotten about the singing cowboys, but I'm sure you are right that MGM wanted to tap into that market, even though anyone expecting that style of film would have got a surprise once they got into the cinema!