Monday 27 July 2020

Movie Review: Dodge City (1939)

A sprawling western, Dodge City features Errol Flynn's first foray into the genre with a character-rich plot and many well-executed highlights. 

After the Civil War, the arrival of the railroad transforms Dodge City, Kansas, into a bustling but crime-ridden cattle trading hub. Adventurer Wade Hatton (Errol Flynn) leads a cattle drive towards the city, and in subduing the dangerously drunk Lee Irving (William Lundigan), upsets his sister Abbie (Olivia de Havilland). Upon arriving at Dodge, Wade finds the town being run by corrupt businessman Jeff Surrett (Bruce Cabot) and his henchmen, including the killer Yancy (Victor Jory).

The town leaders including Abbie's uncle Dr. Irving (Henry Travers) appeal to Wade to accept the role of Sheriff and instill law and order. He reluctantly accepts, and along with his sidekicks Rusty (Alan Hale) and Tex (Guinn "Big Boy" Williams) starts cleaning up the town while working on thawing his relationship with Abbie. Wade finds support from local newspaper editor Joe Clemens (Frank McHugh), but Surrett will not quietly accept the challenge to his authority.

Most of the elements expected in a western ride into Dodge City, including the cattle drive, a reluctant lawman, the battle between good and evil for the soul of a town, tension between settlers seeking a peaceful living and cowboys intent on shooting up the place, showgirls and gambling tables, and finally a quite epic barroom brawl. Director Michael Curtiz and writer Robert Buckner throw in a streak of mean humour and a framing story featuring rail tycoons pushing the iron horse ever westward to open up more territory for trade and settlement.

Curtiz makes excellent use of bright Technicolor, and the chaos of Dodge City looks gorgeous, the mayhem, characters and sets popping off the screen. The stunt work is also stellar, including a jump onto runaway horses dragging a victim through the street, that anarchic brawl (an extension of the Civil War), and a climax featuring a train on fire. Backprojection is also cleverly deployed in a couple of dramatic action scenes, including a race between a train and a mail wagon.

The narrative is enlivened but also sometimes distracted by the wealth of characters. The opening act has trouble finding traction, as Curtiz bounces around to introduce the town founders, Wade and his colleagues, the Irving family, and Surrett, his cronies and victims, including the Cole family. The investment does eventually pay off, but as with the streets of Dodge City, an uneasy sense of too much going on threatens cohesion.

Errol Flynn combines a smooth persona with a stiff transition to the western milieu, an Australian playing an Irish character in the American west landing just a bit awkwardly. Bruce Cabot makes for a fine smarmy villain. Olivia de Havilland, in her fifth teaming with Flynn, is lively but underutilized, with Alan Hale hogging too much screen time for a sidekick role. Elsewhere the cast is deep in talent and familiar faces, including Ann Sheridan delivering a couple of kicky numbers as a saloon showgirl.

Buoyant and more than a bit disorganized, Dodge City captures the town's frontier spirit.

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