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In 1939 as America kept close watch on a Europe preparing for war, Hollywood studios, whose heads were mainly European and Russian immigrants, were churning out ultra-patriotic films touting the American way of life. One of the more blatant of these was Let Freedom Ring (1939) made by MGM, starring Nelson Eddy and Virginia Bruce, and written by Ben Hecht.
Partially shot on location in the San Jacinto Mountains in the California desert near Palm Springs, Let Freedom Ring was originally titled The Dusty Road and Song of the West. The story line has Harvard-educated lawyer Steve Logan (Nelson Eddy), returning to his hometown in the West to fight against land baron Jim Knox who has bought control of the town's sheriff, judge, and newspaper, and whose henchmen burn the houses of settlers who won't sell their land to him for the new railroad. Knox, played by Edward Arnold (who specialized in playing corrupt capitalists) defends himself by saying 'Where I come from (Wall St.) people don't call me a thief, they call me a financier."
The true theme of the film is racial equality and democracy. The railroad workers are poor Swedish, Russian, German, Irish and English immigrants, who Mulligan (Victor McLaglen), himself an Irishman with a thick brogue, calls "foreigners of the worst kind...with names you can't even spell". They are called "cattle" and cowed by Mulligan and the rest of Knox's henchmen, and by the fact that they are reliant on Knox for their livelihood. It is for these men, as well as the settlers, that Logan fights by showing them that as Americans they have the right to think for themselves and vote as they like.
Let Freedom Ring gives Nelson Eddy (who was usually co-starred with Jeanette MacDonald) a chance to show that he was capable of carrying a film on his own. Unlike his earlier films in which he wore heavy make-up and fancy costumes, Eddy has a very plain Western look with no visible make-up and his performance is just as natural. He also proves himself to be a convincing fighter - as evidenced in an extended fight scene with Victor McLaglen who had been a professional prize-fighter. McLaglen, who was fifty-five when the film was shot in 1938, had fought the newly-crowned heavyweight champion Jack Johnson at an exhibition match in Vancouver in 1909. As his wife later recalled, "Victor remained perpendicular the full six rounds." There is also plenty of singing, which was to be expected in a Nelson Eddy film. Ironically, while the film is set in 1868, Eddy sings "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" (written in 1912) and "Ten Thousand Cattle Straying" (written in 1904 by Owen Wister).
Reviews for the film were generally positive, with Variety noting how the film stressed "the American type of democracy and freedom for the classes and masses. Sweeping along with powerful patriotic spine tingling, picture climaxes with Nelson Eddy leading a gang of railroad workers singing 'America'. In handing the lead assignment to Eddy, Metro apparently decided to provide him with a role that calls for a square jaw and a pair of handy fists. He takes full advantage of the opportunity, displaying a vigorous characterization of the western youth who battles all comers when necessary. Battle in the cave between Eddy and McLaglen is excitingly staged." The New York Times called it "sound dramatic stuff, as sure-fire now as it has always been. We don't dare criticize it adversely under penalty of being summoned before the Dies committee and we shouldn't, if we dare, for the piece has vigor, good characterization and fortunately Mr. Eddy's good singing." (The Dies Committee, headed by Congressman Martin Dies was a forerunner to the House Un-American Activities Committee.)
Producer: Harry Rapf
Director: Jack Conway
Screenplay: Ben Hecht
Cinematography: Sidney Wagner
Film Editing: Fredrick Y. Smith
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: Leon Rene, Otis Rene
Cast: Nelson Eddy (Steve Logan), Virginia Bruce (Maggie Adams), Victor McLaglen (Chris Mulligan), Lionel Barrymore (Thomas Logan), Edward Arnold (Jim Knox), Guy Kibbee (Judge David Bronson).
by Lorraine LoBianco
Jack Oakie, "Jack Oakie's Double Takes"
Internet Movie Database