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With a rugged athleticism and a face the New York Times once described as looking "like it might have been carved out of Mount Rushmore," Richard Dix was a popular actor of the silent era and through the early 1940s; he was much appreciated by audiences as a forthright and stalwart hero, most frequently in Westerns of the early sound era. The Kansan (1943), the last of his Western roles before winding down his career in a series of B thrillers at Columbia Pictures, made good use of his image and appeal, casting him as a cowboy who was wounded while foiling an attempted bank robbery by the James Gang. Waking in the hospital to find he's a local hero and the newly elected marshal, he soon discovers he is meant to be a tool of the corrupt and powerful banker who controls everyone and everything in town.
Following his screen debut in 1917, Dix quickly earned a contract at Paramount and made a number of successful pictures there, including Cecil B. DeMille's biblical epic The Ten Commandments (1923). He moved to RKO late in the decade, where he became a major Western star, a status solidified by his Oscar®-nominated performance in the big-budget Western Cimarron (1931). By the beginning of the 1940s, he was appearing almost exclusively on horseback until he took on various roles in Columbia's "Whistler" series, seven pictures in all between 1944 and 1947. He retired after the last of these, The Thirteenth Hour (1947). In 1949 at the age of 56, he suffered a serious heart attack on board a train from New York to Los Angeles and died eight days later.
The Kansan, filmed under the working title Meet John Bonniwell, had the advantage of a strong supporting cast, including Jane Wyatt (she was famous in the 1950s as the mom on Father's Knows Best) and several top character actors of the era: Albert Dekker, Eugene Pallette, Victor Jory, and Robert Armstrong, one of the stars of King Kong (1933). It was also lauded for its numerous and exciting action sequences and shoot-outs, making it, in the words of a New York Times review, "the kind of Western in which the cast decreases almost as rapidly as a pay check on Saturday night." But its real mark of distinction comes from its score, which earned an Academy Award nomination for composer Gerard Carbonara, whose credits include a great many Westerns, a few Bulldog Drummond mysteries, and the 1949 version of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.
Carbonara was not responsible for the one song heard in the film, "Lullaby of the Herd," by Foster Carling and Phil Ohman. The number is performed by the King's Men, a quartet that first gained national prominence on the radio as a feature of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. The group's arranger and bass vocalist, Ken Darby, was hired as vocal arranger on the production of The Wizard of Oz (1939) after leaving Whiteman. Members of the King's Men can be heard in the Munchkin sequence as the mayor, coroner, and Lollipop Guild. Darby went on to win three Academy Awards for scoring The King and I (1956, an honor he shared with Alfred Newman), Porgy and Bess (1959, a shared win with Andre Previn), and Camelot (1967, also shared with Newman).
The Kansan also features the voluptuous Beryl Wallace, a popular nightclub and stage performer who made several movies between 1934 and 1944. She was the lover and protg of producer Earl Carroll, whose "Vanities" came close to rivaling Florenz Ziegfeld's "Follies," if not in lavishness then certainly in its promotion of beautiful showgirls. In fact, according to a Hollywood Reporter news item, several of the women portraying dance hall girls in The Kansan were Follies performers. Wallace put in many hours and many miles entertaining troops during World War II. She was only 35 when she and Carroll, along with more than 40 others, were killed when their New York-to-Los Angeles plane crashed in Pennsylvania.
Cinematographer Russell Harlan had been laboring primarily in Western programmers up to this point in his career. He later went on to receive six Academy Award nominations for his work, including Blackboard Jungle (1955) and To Kill a Mockingbird (1962).
Although glimpsed only briefly, one of the gang members robbing the bank, presumably Jesse James himself, is played by future Superman George Reeves.
The script, by frequent Western writer Harold Shumate, was based on the 1939 story "Peace Marshal" by Frank Gruber, one of the most prolific and successful of all pulp fiction writers. Gruber wrote many Western stories and novels, as well as mysteries and adventure stories. He also wrote a number of screenplays as well as scripts for episodes of various television series. The film is also known as Wagon Wheels in the United Kingdom.
Director: George Archainbaud
Producer: Harry Sherman
Screenplay: Harold Shumate, based on the story "Peace Marshal" by Frank Gruber
Cinematography: Russell Harlan
Editing: Carrol Lewis, Sherman A. Rose (uncredited)
Art Direction: Ralph Berger
Original Music: Gerard Carbonara
Cast: Richard Dix (John Bonniwell), Jane Wyatt (Eleanor Sager), Albert Dekker (Steve Barat), Eugene Pallette (Tom Waggoner), Beryl Wallace (Soubrette).
by Rob Nixon