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Western star extraordinaire Randolph Scott tames the wilderness, vanquishes corruption and wins the heart of a desert maiden in the unapologetically meat-and-potatoes western Carson City (1952), directed by Andre De Toth (Ramrod , Man in the Saddle ).
The president of the Golden State Bank (Larry Keating) must stop of a rash of stagecoach robberies perpetrated by the "Champagne Bandits," so named because they serve the waylaid passengers a formal dinner while the lockbox is being opened. He hires the resourceful but unpredictable engineer "Silent" Jeff Kincaid (Randolph Scott) to build a railroad line through the mountainous region between Virginia City and Carson City. Kincaid's efforts are not welcomed by the locals, who resent the intrusion of an iron horse in their tranquil mountain community. Particularly troublesome is mining magnate "Big Jack" Davis (Raymond Massey), who is secretly the leader of the Champagne Bandits. When a newspaper editor (Don Beddoe) discovers the identity of the criminals, he is murdered by Davis, and blame falls upon Kincaid and his crew. When their worksite is sabotaged, Kincaid and some of his men are buried within a mountain tunnel. The townspeople, in spite of their animosity toward the railroad men, join together to help save them. Through his bravery and ingenuity, Kincaid earns the respect of the townfolk, and gains an opportunity to find the true murderer and clear his name.
Carson City was the first film released in Warnercolor, a process that was cheaper and less complicated than Technicolor, the dominant color process between 1934 and 1952. While Technicolor required that the image be exposed on three strips of film at once (through the use of a cumbersome camera), Warnercolor combined these elements as multiple layers on a single strip of film. Warner Bros. did not invent this process. The technology had been developed during World War II by the Eastman Kodak company. As a result of postwar trust-busting, the company was forced to share the innovation, and processes similar to Eastman Color soon began to appear under a variety of studio brand names, including Metrocolor, Columbia Color and Deluxe (20th Century-Fox's version). This process is essentially the same as is used today, but in 1952 it had yet to be refined. Early Warnercolor films were less vibrant than Technicolor, and yielded noticeable film grain.
Initially Michael Curtiz (Casablanca, 1942) was slated to direct the film, which was being produced under the title The Champagne Bandits. Then, Curtiz shied away from the film because of concerns about the new technology. As De Toth playfully recalls that Curtiz said (mimicking his fellow countryman's Hungarian accent), "I don'tt vanttobee guinea pigg for Varner Color." Curtiz had helmed experimental color films twice already (Doctor X  and Mystery of the Wax Museum , both shot in two-strip Technicolor), and was not eager to repeat the experience.
De Toth viewed the project not as a likely failure, but as an opportunity to explore the new process. "I was aware that 'guinea pigs' expire sooner than sane dullsvillians, but I was also conscious of the added possibility of learning, experimenting and having an awful lot of fun while expiring. I wanted to take advantage of all that." (quoted in the book-length interview De Toth on De Toth, edited by Anthony Slide).
"It is always more exciting to be an unsuccessful pioneer, than a successful teller of old tales. This promised to be intriguing."
In his autobiography, however, De Toth cites a more prosaic reason to take over the film, "I didn't like the script, I needed the money, the pastures started to look much greener on the other side of the fence I was straddling."
When De Toth inherited the production, Charlie Ruggles was scheduled to play the leader of the Champagne Bandits, but the new director felt he lacked the sophistication necessary to the role. "For Charlie Ruggles not to spit out the champagne after tasting it would have been against his grain," De Toth recalled, "To make him drink it for the sake of the title and the script? Ridiculous." Feelers were extended and Raymond Massey was brought in as a more cosmopolitan Jack Davis.
De Toth was right in thinking that the champagne plot device might not feel authentic. Whether being tasted by Ruggles or Massey, it never rises above gimmickry, and most likely for this reason, the title of the film was changed to something more immediately recognizable as a rugged Western.
There was no question about possession of the leading role. It belonged to Scott, an icon of the Western screen. De Toth very frankly noted Scott's shortcomings as an actor, "He had a tremendous inferiority complex about his acting ability and that made him so stiff... he creaked." But the director makes it clear that acting skills are not all that makes a great performer, "Good actor, he wasn't. He was Randy Scott."
"[His] complexion matched the rocks, with Sarsaparilla frizzing through his aging veins. I called him 'Granite Jaw.' Even the horseshit was sterile around him, a perfect gentleman on or off the set who never read a script, which showed he was wise too. But he was a reader all right, an avid reader of his bible, the Wall Street Journal and wherever he was, on horseback or in bed, he was engulfed in the antiseptic cloud of a dry-cleaning establishment. A blue-book millionaire via his wife and in his own right, with a hobby which he thought was acting." (De Toth, Fragments: Portraits from the Inside)In the end, any fears about the quality of Warnercolor proved to be minor. In spite of the image's graininess, De Toth and director of photography John W. Boyle captured several memorable sequences, including the tunneling scenes and a magic hour showdown at Davis's gold mine.
Clearly, more attention was paid to the photography than to the screenplay. The New York Times called it "another familiar scramble on the Warner Brothers' cow path...nothing more than a thoroughly routine little horse opera."
It is true, Carson City does not shy away from clich. If anything, it luxuriates in convention yet manages to sculpt an engaging drama out of the nuts and bolts in every western filmmaker's toolbox. There is a saloon brawl, a stagecoach heist, a struggle to lay rail through the rugged west, a two-fisted protagonist trying to clear his reputation, a former sweetheart, a folksy newspaperman. It's all here.
De Toth acknowledged that Carson City was mired in convention, down to the location of the shoot: the west end of the San Fernando Valley. "There were so many westerns shot there through the years that the rocks called the horses by their first names. The people riding them were so insignificant they had no names."
Yet somehow, Carson City manages to emerge as a perfectly engaging drama. De Toth was one of those directors who tended to make well-crafted dramas within the established boundaries of the genre (be it the western or film noir). This made him a reliable resource to the studios at the time. However, his tendency to "paint within the lines" has left him without much of a legacy today, and he is appreciated only by those who are better versed in the language of genre. His films are good, but only the most discriminating eyes can detect the details of quality craftsmanship that lie beneath the ordinary surface of an Andre De Toth picture.
Even The New York Times, in the end, had to acknowledge that there was something satisfying in Carson City's conventional form, "the scenarists; Andre De Toth, who directed, and practically the entire cast have performed their assignments with a competent jauntiness that suggests they weren't out to fool anybody."
One can easily imagine the straight-talking De Toth agreeing, with a shrug.
Director: Andre De Toth
Producer: Bryan Foy and David Weisbart
Screenplay: Eric Jonsson, Winston Miller and Sloan Nibley, Story by Sloan Nibley
Cinematography: John W. Boyle
Production Design: Stanley Fleischer
Music: David Buttolph
Cast: Randolph Scott (Silent Jeff Kincaid), Raymond Massey (Jack Davis), Lucille Norman (Susan Mitchell), Richard Webb (Alan Kincaid), Don Beddoe (Zeke Mitchell), Larry Keating (William Sharon).
by Bret Wood