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Union Pacific

Union Pacific(1939)

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Seventy years ago, in 1939, Hollywood celebrated its anus mirabilis, one of the most amazing years in American film history. In addition to releasing such classics as Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the studios also brought back the Western with a bang, after a decade dominated by flimsy, low-budget productions. Cecil B. DeMille had helped pave the way three years earlier with The Plainsman, but it was in 1939 that a significant number of hit oaters -- including Stagecoach, Destry Rides Again and DeMille's own Union Pacific -- brought the genre back in a big way. In keeping with the director's reputation for filmmaking on a lavish scale, his picture was the longest, most expensive and best-publicized Western of the lot.

Following the success of his historical pirate film The Buccaneer (1938), the director was torn between making his next film one about airplanes, ships or trains. He had settled on a film on the discovery of Hudson's Bay when he learned another studio was working on a similar project and dropped the idea. Then publisher Martin Quigley suggested a film about the building of the transcontinental railroad. Unable to decide whether to focus on the Union Pacific or Santa Fe line, DeMille flipped a coin, and the former won.

DeMille secured the cooperation of the Union Pacific Railroad, which gave the production access to records and plans from the railroad's construction. They also loaned them four locomotives used in the 1860s, 37 cars from the period and the crews to run them, while making miles of track in Utah available for shooting. In fact, Union Pacific required so many shots of trains running Paramount had to secure a railroad operating license from the Interstate Commerce Commission. Eventually, DeMille became the largest private owner of railroad equipment in the U.S.

The entire production was done on the lavish scale typical of DeMille (all that was lacking was color and Union Pacific would prove to be the director's last black and white film). Paramount rebuilt the town of Cheyenne, Wyoming, on the film's Utah location and engaged hundreds of Navajos for the various spectacular raids on the railroad. The driving of the golden spike joining East to West was staged in California's Canoga Park using the original spike, on loan from Sanford University.

DeMille directed for several weeks from a stretcher. Some sources attribute this to a collapse from exhaustion, though DeMille and other contemporary sources suggest that he had to have surgery shortly before production started and couldn't delay shooting. Either way, crewmembers had to carry him from set to set and a special platform was added to the camera boom so he could supervise crane shots.

The director originally wanted Jean Arthur, who had starred in The Plainsman, for the female lead. Studio publicity also named Irene Dunne as a potential star (alongside Joel McCrea and Fredric March). Instead, Barbara Stanwyck took on the role. She quickly proved herself to DeMille by insisting on doing her own stunts, always arriving on set early and fully prepared and never complaining about difficult location conditions. In his memoirs, he would answer the question most Hollywood directors dread, "Who is your favorite actress?" by writing, "...I have never worked with an actress who was more co-operative, less temperamental, and a better workman, to use my term of highest compliment, than Barbara Stanwyck....Barbara's name is the first that comes to mind, as one whom a director can always count on to do her work with all her heart".

DeMille was particularly fortunate in his supporting players. In only his fourth film, Robert Preston played the third leg of a romantic triangle with Stanwyck and McCrea. It was the role that put him over with audiences, paving the way for years as a reliable second lead at Paramount (before he achieved stardom on Broadway in The Music Man). When Charles Bickford refused the role of the villain, and J. Carroll Naish had a scheduling conflict, Brian Donlevy took it on with the suave menace that would make him one of the screen's most memorable bad guys. In addition, Lynne Overman, who took over a comic relief role originally given to Bob Burns and then Walter Brennan, played so well off Akim Tamiroff that DeMille had them put into his next film, Northwest Mounted Police (1940), for more of the same.

For one supporting player, however, Union Pacific marked a temporary parting of the ways with DeMille. Although Anthony Quinn was the director's son-in-law, there was no nepotism involved in his casting in a small role as a gambler. The actor was under contract at Paramount, and the role was one of many minor parts to which the actor, whose ethnicity made him difficult to cast at the time, found himself consigned. He didn't want to play the part, but with Union Pacific tying up so much production space on the lot, he couldn't afford to turn it down. But despite what he considered a thankless role, he still had to put up with charges of preferential treatment. When DeMille invited him to lunch one day, a gossip item reported the event as if the actor considered himself too good to eat with the rest of the cast. At that point, Quinn decided to leave Paramount as quickly as possible. He would not work with his father-in-law again until the actor took over the direction of DeMille's 1958 remake of The Buccaneer, by which point he had won two Oscars® and begun his climb to international stardom.

In recognition of the film's epic scale, Paramount gave Union Pacific what was advertised as "the biggest premiere in movie history." One of the period locomotives was attached to a modern train, which carried DeMille and the film's stars to Omaha, Nebraska, (with publicity stops along the way) for three days of parties and parades, including a mammoth costume ball. The premiere screening was launched by President Franklin Roosevelt pushing a special button in the White House. After that, DeMille and cast members continued the train ride for 15 days until they reached the East Coast.

With such a massive build-up, DeMille's epic touch and a top cast, Union Pacific was destined for box-office success. In fact, it was the top-grossing Western of its year, returning a handsome profit on its million-dollar cost and easily out-selling other contemporary Westerns that were held in higher critical esteem. Although it lost the only Oscar® for which it was nominated, Best Special Effects, it brought DeMille the Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival. In 1975, it would be honored with a special Western Heritage Award recognizing great Westerns made before the award's 1961 inception.

Producer-Director: Cecil B. DeMille
Screenplay: Walter DeLeon, C. Gardner Sullivan, Jesse Lasky, Jr.
Based on the novel Trouble Shooters by Ernest Haycox
Cinematography: Victor Milner, Dewey Wrigley
Art Direction: Hans Dreier, Roland Anderson
Music: George Antheil, Sigmund Krumgold
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck (Mollie Monahan), Joel McCrea (Jeff Butler), Akim Tamiroff (Fiesta), Robert Preston (Dick Allen), Lynne Overman (Leach Overmile), Brian Donlevy (Sid Campeau), Robert Barrat (Duke Ring), Anthony Quinn (Jack Cordray), Stanley Ridges (Gen. Casement), Henry Kolker (Asa M. Barrows), Evelyn Keyes (Mrs. Calvin), Regis Toomey (Paddy O'Rourke), J.M. Kerrigan (Monahan), Fuzzy Knight (Cookie), Lon Chaney, Jr. (Dollarhide), Joseph Crehan (Gen. U.S. Grant), Byron Foulger (Andrew Whipple), Monte Blue (Indian), Ward Bond (Tracklayer), Richard Denning (Reporter), Will Geer (Foreman), Chief Thundercloud, Iron Eyes Cody (Indian Braves), Noble Johnson (Native American Shooting Piano), Elmo Lincoln (Card Player), Nestor Paiva (C.P. Conductor).BW-136m. Closed captioning.

by Frank Miller

The Autobiography of Cecil B. DeMille by Cecil B. DeMille

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