Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Movie Review: The Spoilers (1942)


A western with an excellent cast and rich plot mixing business with romance, The Spoilers is an enjoyable story set in the madness of the Alaska gold rush.

It's 1900, and gold mining has transformed Nome, Alaska, into a bustling but lawless town. Cherry Malotte (Marlene Dietrich) runs the local saloon and presides over the town's social pulse. Her loyal assistant Bronco (Richard Barthelmess) harbours a hopeless crush on Cherry, but she is awaiting the return of her true love, mine owner Roy Glennister (John Wayne). The business of mining in Nome is in turmoil: claims and counterclaims to seize control of mines are causing rifts between miners and newcomers looking to make a quick profit. Recently arrived gold commissioner Alexander McNamara (Randolph Scott) appears to be at the centre of many of the dubious claims, while also casting an eye towards Cherry.

Roy arrives back in town but to Cherry's horror he is in the company of the attractive Helen Chester (Margaret Lindsay), the niece of newcomer Judge Horace Stillman (Samuel S, Hinds). Roy appears to want to enjoy the company of both Helen and Cherry, while Judge Stillman's arrival to bring some law and order is viewed with a mix of relief and suspicion. Roy clashes with his partner Al Dextry (Harry Carey) on whether to trust the legal process to determine the ownership of their mine, but there is a lot more going on that initially meets the eye.

Directed by Ray Enright, this was already the fourth film version of the Rex Beach novel, and one of two 1942 films to unite Dietrich, Scott and Wayne (the other was Philadelphia). With Scott sinking his teeth into a rare antagonist role as a corrupt businessman amidst a love, lust and gold story with Dietrich the centre of attention of three men, The Spoilers offers amplified versions of many traditional western elements: saloon brawls, corrupted attempts at frontier justice, and a mad rush in search of quick riches, spiced with multiple often hidden personal agendas.

The film thrives in an environment of frontier lawlessness where no one can fully claim the moral high ground. The characters start at grey and moves towards sinister. Even Cherry, conceivably the purest person in town, meddles with the paperwork at the gold claims office. Roy thinks nothing of two-timing the women in his life, while McNamara is superficially on the side of officialdom but actually seeking his own fortune. And these are just the main characters. Sidekick Bronco, ambitious Helen and Judge Stillman have their own motivations, and the film benefits by gradually establishing a reality that no one arrives in Nome seeking the greater good.

The trio of Wayne, Scott and Dietrich share the screen time equitably, and ensure a high calibre of dedicated talent in every scene. Dietrich doesn't get to sing but easily places Cherry at the heart of the film and elegantly wears several fetching dresses, while Wayne and Scott enjoy their time playing much less than perfect characters. Margaret Lindsay, Harry Carey and Richard Barthelmess offer capable and animated support.

The Spoilers suffers from a few of weaknesses. The comic elements are often overplayed, and tend to undermine what is a good drama. Many men are shot and killed in the film, the deaths are instantaneously dismissed as funny and the violence stepped over like inconveniently placed trash. An unfortunate blackface episode is also played for laughs but nevertheless confines the film to a very different era.

Enright does better in lovingly creating an engrossing aesthetic: Nome is presented as a ramshackle town heaving with activity in every corner, with a main street overrun by ankle-deep mud. Cherry's saloon is the gathering place where every seat is occupied, deals are struck, alliances are made, and disputes are settled with brawls. Fittingly, the film ends with a legendary and prolonged two-man fistfight, extending from the upper balcony of the saloon through the lower level and out to the street. Every piece of furniture and pane of glass is shattered in pursuit of barefisted justice, frontier style.






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