Judge Maurice Cobbs knows the most important thing about walking around a cattle town is to watch your step.
"What Dodge City needs is a man with a sense of public pride—and the courage to back it up by shooting it out with men of equal skill."—Abbie Irving
Although Errol Flynn and Michael Curtiz didn't really like each other—to say the least—they still managed to produce twelve pretty damn good movies together before calling it quits. Take Dodge City, for instance, an epic western that's mighty low on originality but mighty full of star power and top-drawer direction to make up for it.
Facts of the Case
It's anarchy in the streets!
Dodge City is a wild town—gambling, drinking, wanton shootings, assorted thuggery…human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria! Dodge has no sheriff, the timid marshal's been run out of town in a hearse, human life is cheap, honest folk can't walk the streets unmolested, and a powerful thug named Jeff Surrett has the corrupt, violent town in his pocket.
They needed a hundred men to clean up Dodge City.
They got one. Wade Hatton.
Errol Flynn (The Sea Hawk) trades his sword and tights for a six-shooter and a buckskin jacket in Dodge City, not only the first of Errol's eight westerns but also the first western filmed in Technicolor. Clearly uncomfortable in cowboy garb (what's a dazzling urbanite like you doing in a rustic setting like this?), Flynn nevertheless manages to carry off the role with the charm and personality that he brought to all of his movies, and though he eventually saves Dodge City the city (of course), it's not quite enough to save Dodge City the movie.
Don't get me wrong. When there's derring to do, Flynn certainly rises to the occasion, out-shooting gunmen, facing down lynch mobs, escaping burning trains and whatnot. He's got his hat…on. He's got his boots…dusty. But no one is more aware of how strange it is to have Errol Flynn in a western than Errol Flynn, and it shows. His character, a Wyatt Earp wannabe, is up to the task, but never quite believable—maybe because Flynn can't quite believe it himself. The rest of the cast is more comfortable in the cowboy formula, even though the only one to create a memorable character within it is Flynn sidekick Alan Hale (The Adventures of Robin Hood) as Rusty Hart—the scene that has Rusty forgoing a night of carousing at a local saloon in favor of a scintillating rendezvous with the wizened ladies of the Pure Prairie League of Dodge City temperance movement, only to get swept up in a barroom brawl that literally crashes through the wall, is just one of several wonderfully funny bits in the movie.
Flynn's drinking buddy and fellow hellraiser Bruce Cabot (King Kong ) settles into his black hat role as Surrett quite nicely, which unfortunately means that he also adopts the strange lapses in judgment that afflict most movie bad guys…for instance, why doesn't he just shoot Hatton as soon as the wandering cowboy rides into town? The two had had bad blood between them since Hatton turned Surrett and his men over to the law for illegally hunting buffalo, way back when Dodge City was being founded seven years earlier—although, granted, the penalty must not have been very harsh, because Surrett did have enough time to become a big shot in the interim. Even though Surrett had sworn to get even, he doesn't seem to try very hard until the end, spending most of his time picking on everybody else, like the publisher of the local newspaper, played by Frank McHugh (Manpower), a courageous soul with more guts than brains who needles Surrett with stinging articles and backs Hatton 100% when he pins on a tin star and starts taming the town.
Olivia de Havilland (The Heiress), as Abbie Irving, finds herself being romanced by Flynn once more. The two of them never seem to start off on the right foot, and this time, they start off on a wronger foot than usual: When Abbie's a-hole brother Lee (William Lundigan) gets drunk and starts a stampede by shooting off his guns around the wagon train, Wade is forced to shoot the jerk, who promptly falls right in front of the raging cattle and is crushed under their thundering hooves (I've always wanted to use that phrase!). Sick with grief and in shock from seeing her brother killed, Abbie blames Wade for the whole thing—but she gets over it. Eventually. Olivia isn't really given very much to work with in the character of Abbie, but she still manages to make the role sparkle a bit, because hey—it's Olivia. Which is more than I can say for poor Ann Sheridan, who comes very close to being completely wasted as Surrett's dance-hall singer girlfriend Ruby Gilman, getting some nice song-and-dance numbers in dazzling showgirl outfits, but not much else; she fares better in subsequent movies (including two more with Flynn). Victor Jory (Gone With the Wind), Henry Travers (Shadow of a Doubt), and Guinn "Big Boy" Williams (who would go west with Flynn in two other movies, Virginia City and Santa Fe Trail) all get enough to bring their characters to two-dimensional life, and frankly, not much more than that is required within the context of the story, such as it is.
But who really cares? This is spectacle filmmaking, and on that level, Dodge City succeeds brilliantly. Glorious vistas, sprawling western scenery with lots of cowboy hats and gingham dresses (although not worn by the same characters), and cows, of course, more cows than I've ever seen before in a movie—in the wagon trail scene, we're treated to a veritable river of cattle winding its way across the plain, yippie-ki-yi-yay! Beautiful. Look at that final shot, with our heroes headed off into a gorgeous Technicolor sunset, off to tame another cattle town…shots like that are why this movie was made. That, and thrilling action set pieces, like the incredible sequence that opens the movie, with a stagecoach trying in vain to outrun a steam engine, with rapid cuts between the speeding wheels of the locomotive and the thundering hooves (twice in one review!) of the horses…and that massive brawl—which must have employed every stuntman in Hollywood, at least for a couple of days. In Surrett's saloon, Ruby performs a rousing version of "Marching Through Georgia," and the Yankee vets in the crowd join in, inspiring the Johnny Rebs in the room to counter with "Dixie"—think of the scene in Casablanca (also directed by Curtiz) where the Germans and the loyal French counter each other with dueling songs, and you'll get the idea. Eventually, tensions explode into a chair-swinging, table-smashing, whiskey-bottle-throwing free-for-all of epic proportions.
Speaking of the barroom brawl: Sure it's a cliché these days, along with a lot of different elements of Dodge City—heck, they were hardly fresh even in 1939, but while watching the movie, it's helpful to remember that these things weren't always clichés, even though this movie ratcheted things up to a previously unknown level and would serve as the template for dozens more western movies (and even western movie spoofs, most notably, Mel Brooks's 1974 comedy masterpiece Blazing Saddles). Granted, audiences who've grown up with the sophistication of westerns ranging from Once Upon A Time in the West to Unforgiven might find Dodge City quaint (to say the least). Which is not to say that the movie isn't enjoyable—it certainly is, but Dodge City is a B-movie western story elevated to A-list status, seemingly through sheer force of will. Thank director Michael Curtiz for that; he keeps things moving along at breakneck speed, thrusting the easy, breezy Flynn into one hot situation after another at a pace that probably kept movie audiences of the time from realizing that they've probably seen all this before, if not on such an epic scale, and certainly not in Technicolor.
Technicolor. Glorious Technicolor. But not on this disc, alas: There are many odd out-of-focus moments, places where the colors separate—jump apart ever so slightly, just enough to be disconcerting, as if someone had accidentally jostled the big Technicolor rig while they were filming. This is especially noticeable not only because of the rainbow-tinted halo that it gives everything from time to time, but also because Warner Bros. usually does such a slam-bang job in serving up their classics. Can't argue with the mono sound mix, though—it brings Max Steiner's driving, heroic score through with punch.
Dodge City's installment of Leonard Maltin's "Warner Night at the Movies" presents the usual intriguing mix of shorts, newsreel, and cartoon. The trailer (speaking of miscast western heroes) is for the Cagney-Bogart western The Oklahoma Kid; the newsreel recounts the early terrifying days of World War II, when Hitler's troops stormed over the Polish defenses, "the bravest defense the world has ever seen." The newsreel makes a great intro for the short that follows, Sons of Liberty—an Academy Award–winning Curtiz-directed Technicolor showcase about a Jewish Revolutionary War hero named Haym Salomon. It's chest-swellingly patriotic and reverently solemn, yet it moves along at breakneck pace. There's little doubt in my mind, considering the timing of this short's production, what the point of it was, but I don't think that it's any less enjoyable for being propaganda—in fact, its unabashed patriotism is rather refreshing in our oh-so-cynical age, and it's got a top-notch cast, headed by no less than Claude Rains as Salomon and Gale Sondergaard as his wife. Finally, the cartoon: a spoof of the famous poem "Dangerous Dan McGrew"—re-imagined through the screwball sensibilities of Tex Avery's imagination as "Dangerous Dan McFoo," which features a pretty good Katharine Hepburn impression and the unmistakable voice of Arthur Q. Bryan…better known to cartoon fans as Elmer Fudd. Rounding out the Special Features section of the disc is the documentary featurette "Dodge City: Go West, Errol Flynn," which gives a surprisingly in-depth overview of the movie (considering that it clocks in at less than ten minutes) from the usual Warner classic movie suspects, like Lincoln D. Hurst and Robert Osborne, but there are no commentaries.
Dodge City was released in the spring of 1939 with one of the biggest publicity campaigns movies had ever seen. The premiere was staged in the real Dodge City, with parades, parties, and lots of Hollywood stars and starlets flown out for good measure. There was even a Dodge City contest, in which the winner got to have Errol Flynn over for the weekend.
Errol Flynn, sleeping in the guest room, sitting down to a homemade pot roast and a nice, tall glass of lemonade? The mind boggles. In fact, that in itself might make for a great movie…I wonder what Jude Law is up to these days?
Not guilty. There'll be no lynchin' today, folks.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Leonard Maltin Hosts Warner Night at the Movies 1939
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