Sunday, April 7, 2013

Movie Review: Dodge City

Dodge City (1939)
directed by Michael Curtiz, starring Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland

Wade Hatton (Errol Flynn) is a soldier of fortune, a man who goes wherever the winds of chance and danger take him. Along with his faithful friend Rusty (Alan Hale), he accepts the job of helping the railroad come to the newly christened Dodge City. Its patron Colonel Dodge (Henry O'Neill) swears to the settlers that Dodge City will be a place of prosperity and civilization. But fast forward several years and it turns out that all those plans have gone awry. The ruthless Jeff Surrett (Bruce Cabot) has taken control of the town; he and his gang cheat, steal, and murder with total impunity. The law is helpless.

If only they had a sheriff that wasn't afraid of Surrett, a man like Wade Hatton. But Wade isn't interested in a badge or in putting down roots. He just wants to finish up guiding a wagon train of settlers to Dodge City and he'll be on his way. An easy job that turns tragic when he ends up killing a drunken settler in self defense, a settler that happens to be the brother of beautiful Abbie Irving (Olivia de Havilland). But Abbie and Wade will have to join forces anyway when Surrett's evil becomes too much for the town to handle. He and his gang need to get the hell out of Dodge...

When I think of classic Westerns, I think about John Wayne standing in the doorway and looking at a life that will never be his and Gary Cooper staring down an empty and endless road. I think about Gregory Peck in The Gunfighter, trying hopelessly to tell young toughs not to throw their lives away. James Stewart in The Naked Spur, dragging Robert Ryan's corpse behind him, crying out in anguish, "I'm going to sell him for money!" The little Mexican boys in The Magnificent Seven, putting flowers on the grave of the man who died for them. Regret is the shadow that dogs the steps of all great Western heroes and it's hard to think of a classic Western that doesn't end on a bittersweet note, mourning the slow death of the frontier even as it tries to reconcile the era's bloody hypocrisies.

1939 was the year that John Ford would redefine the Western for all time with Stagecoach.
It was also the year of the uneven but important Destry Rides Again, the movie that stitched the template for future Western parodies like Blazing Saddles. In both films, happiness came to the protagonists in the end but it came quietly, after heartbreak and pain. In Stagecoach, the heroes can only be happy after they're freed "from the blessings of civilization." In Destry's case, the story's darkness ended up choking off all the comedy, with the pacifist hero taking up arms and sloughing off all memory of the woman that took a bullet for him.

And then you have Dodge City, a box-office-smashing 1939 Western that, despite sharing the same genre trappings as Stagecoach and Destry, doesn't even feel like part of the same species. The plot is pure Western, with Flynn's character called in to clean up a lawless town, held hostage by ruthless gunmen. And yet there's none of that bittersweet quality you get from other Westerns. No melancholy commentary on the toll of violence. No longing to escape the bounds of civilization. Most importantly of all, no sense of loneliness. Instead we have a bright-eyed tale of good and evil, two factions facing off against each other in the name of returning things to the natural order. Oh and comic sidekicks do things and beautiful people fall in love. Dodge City is essentially another Errol Flynn swashbuckler, albeit one that just happens to be set in the American frontier.

The great charm and the great weakness of this film is that when it tries to be serious or heartfelt, it fails miserably. As in the scene where Random but Honorable Citizen has just been murdered by the villain Surrett and his heartbroken moppet of a son pulls the world's silliest crying face at the funeral:

On the flip side, when the movie gives up on drama and just embraces a spirit of fun, it can be quite enjoyable. I liked the comic interlude of Alan Hale (an underrated character actor who always seemed like pleasant company, no matter how dimwitted the role) falling into the clutches of the town's temperance league and vowing repentance. I liked the rowdy bar fight in the middle of the film that comes from nowhere and goes nowhere. I liked watching Flynn stride around in neatly pressed, colorful Western wear, blithely explaining away the accent by calling himself a wandering Irishman.

I was reminded of Errol Flynn when I saw the unfairly-maligned John Carter last year. Watching Taylor Kitsch struggle to hit all the required character notes of dashing rogue, battle-scarred veteran, romantic lead, and compassionate hero made me think of just how effortless Flynn could make it all seem. I feel like I could stop a Flynn performance frame by frame and point out all the mechanics of it ("here comes the hearty laugh, now the noble frown") and yet somehow the magic remains. Watching him onscreen is an invitation to adventure. The greatest tribute to Flynn I can give is that over fifty years after his death, we're still looking for him. Kitsch by comparison just looks and sounds like any other earnest young actor, buffed up for his big break.

While Flynn took (and continues to take) plenty of knocks for being cinema's most courtly cowboy, Olivia de Havilland is hardly any more natural as a frontierswoman. In Dodge City, she's got the cutest little rolled-up sleeves you can imagine and the manners of a princess who's just had her luggage stolen. When Flynn tells her that out here men sometimes have to take the law into their own hands, de Havilland wrinkles her nose and responds with, "Oh yes, pioneering, I believe you call it." By all accounts, Dodge City was a rotten experience for de Havilland, who was completely fed up with being the decorative frosting in every Flynn movie. According to TCM, she would have preferred to play the sexy saloon girl, a part that went to Ann Sheridan. Looking at the film though, it's hard to see why since Sheridan gets absolutely nothing to do.

That is, except to model the latest in Black Trash Bag and Fake Flower Couture:

And to lead the chorus of the Dancing Cupcake Liners:

I suspect something was left on the cutting room floor. That or de Havilland was just grasping for anything even slightly different from what Warners usually gave her. Actually, as Goatdog points out in his excellent run-down of Olivia de Havilland's action career, Dodge City gave the actress more to do than some of her other Flynn roles. Instead of being relegated to the parlor, she gets to work in a newspaper office, scowling at Flynn when he jokingly tells her to go find a man's buttons to sew back on. 

What really saps her character of interest is the lack of a true emotional arc. There was potential for it, though. Wade Hatton is the man that killed Abbie's brother, which makes for a darker and more unsettling obstacle to the Flynn-de Havilland romance than most of their films. However, the impact is dulled because a) her brother is a complete tool, a man so obviously gunning for the pre-modern equivalent of a Darwin Award that his death is more comic than tragic and b) the death is treated as something Abbie's just got to get over, silly female emotions be damned. Come to think of it, isn't that how most Flynn films treat the romance, with Flynn alternately mocking de Havilland and waiting for her to realize that he was right all along? However, Dodge City's romance lacks the kinky energy of Captain Blood ("I look at you as the woman who owns me") or the sweetness of The Adventures of Robin Hood so it falls flat. 

Still, we're left with the ever-powerful chemistry between the two performers and their incredible physical beauty, made even more mesmerizing by Technicolor. Watching them banter under sunny skies is just one of those classic cinematic pleasures that can't be taken away by bad writing and the knowledge that de Havilland was counting the hours until she could get off this set.

Michael Curtiz's direction keeps the film moving along briskly even if it's essentially a game of stalling until Wade Hatton finally decides to take down Surrett for good. Curtiz was an old hand at the swashbuckling genre by now and even in scenes where it's just people talking, the camerawork is alert but unobtrusive. His characters are in constant motion, but he knows how to keep an audience focused even as he dollies back through enormous crowds of extras. I'm sort of in love with the way Curtiz films always make the dialogue sound interesting. In the case of Dodge City, I never realized how pedestrian the wisecracks were until I tried to rummage through them for a favorite quote. And of course, when the action does pick up, Curtiz ratchets up the excitement for a hair-raising and fiery climax on a moving train. 

One thing I notice about the old Flynn swashbucklers is that they almost always leave a sour aftertaste in regards to their theme of restoring the rights and privileges of white men. They Died with Their Boots On is the most obvious example of historical awkwardness, with General Custer burnished as a hero and the U.S. government absolved of any responsibility in the destruction of native lives and land. But there's also Santa Fe Trail, which practically ties itself into a Viennese pretzel trying to decry the fanatical actions of John Brown while hemming and hawing over just what he was so fanatical about. In that one, Flynn's character just kept repeating that slavery could not be destroyed so quickly. As opposed to Captain Blood in which he's leading a white slave rebellion. Dodge City smoothly elides the question of native rights by just ignoring them entirely, aside from a brief mention that Surrett is shooting buffalo that rightfully belong to the Native Americans. 

Ultimately, Dodge City remains a mildly enjoyable footnote in one of the greatest years for American cinema. The most interesting aspect of the film is how little relation it has to the Westerns that came after it. This is the Western reinvented for pure spectacle, a Technicolor adventure starring one of the most beloved screen teams of all time. It's an ice cream soda in a genre stocked with straight whiskey. Looking at Flynn and de Havilland, it's hard not to feel a pang that swashbucklers have died out. But it would be equally difficult not to sigh in relief that movie Westerns would follow a rockier and more complicated path in the decades to come.

Favorite Quote:

"You're not suggesting that I'm a native?"

"No. The only real native of Kansas is the buffalo. He's got a very hard head, a very uncertain temper, and a very lonely future. Apart from that there's hardly any point of comparison between you."

Favorite Scene:

In my recent review of Epstein's Lee Marvin biography, I mentioned the actor's open disdain for the smooth, harmless violence of typical movie brawls. "Tables and bottles go along with mirrors and bartenders, and you end up with that little trickle of blood down your cheek, and you're both pals and wasn't it a hell of a wonderful fight...that's phony." Marvin had a very good point, but I think the epic barroom brawl in Dodge City is so enjoyable that it deserves to be taken on its own terms. Michael Curtiz clearly decided to stage the fight in much the same way Busby Berkeley handles his musical set pieces. It's big, glorious, and defies you to make sense of it or its relation to the plot. Just about everything you could imagine in a Western saloon fight happens in this sequence. People are sent flying off of balconies. Chairs and tables are crashed over so many heads that the furniture is eventually whittled down to toothpicks. At one point, a cowboy tries to lasso his opponent into submission. What looks like hundreds of Warner Brothers extras are all there, swinging and hollering away. When the camera finally pans away, allowing the viewer to look at the full extent of the destruction, it's hard not to marvel.

Final Six Words: 

Effervescent adventure, more charm than heart


  1. Okay, the "Dancing Cupcake Liners" had me laughing so loudly my kids demanded to know what the joke was. Wonderful!

    I happen to love almost all westerns, both the complex and the complacent. And Flynn looks so yummy in the second photo you posted, I'm going to have to try to find thes.

    Thanks for yet another deep, absorbing movie review! Your posts are such a treat.

  2. Hamlette: Glad you enjoyed the review. I kind of wish I'd spent less time on snark and more time on the visuals and direction, both of which are beautiful and the best reasons to see the movie. Oh and of course, the stunning gorgeousness of Flynn and de Havilland.

    1. FWIW, I thought you balanced the snark and the serious very nicely. You made me want to watch the movie, not just reread your review and laugh :-)

  3. I have not seen Dodge City but would like too!! :)
    i agree with the "Dancing Cupcake Liners" That left me rolling on the floor laughing.....OK but quite that much but still :)
    Good review

  4. Aubyn, I saw this a while back and all I really remember now is the amazing bar-room brawl - love your suggestion that it is choreographed on the scale of a Busby Berkeley musical number. I do remember that the Technicolor is gorgeous and there is loads of chemistry between Flynn and de Havilland along with the Western swashbuckling fun. Enjoyed your review and must agree that I also prefer some of the darker Westerns which were to come, but I remember this one as being fun. Judy

  5. Ruby Thacher: Dodge City is definitely worth a viewing if you get the chance.

    Judy: I remember when the brawl started, I was thinking, "Well this is just kind of cliche, isn't it?" And then by the end, my jaw was just dropping on the floor. Amazing stuff. Yeah, I think if you take this one on its own merits without comparing it to other Westerns, it can be pretty charming.