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Paramount scored a major hit by billing Whispering Smith (1948) as the first Western and the first film in color for one of the studio's biggest stars, Alan Ladd. In truth it was neither. Early on in his career, Ladd had small roles in a few "B" Westerns, and he appeared very briefly as a storyboard artist behind the scenes at Disney Studios in the color/sepia-tone movie The Reluctant Dragon (1941). But Whispering Smith was certainly a first for him as a star, and audiences enthusiastically welcomed Ladd's transition to the open range from such contemporary urban crime thrillers as This Gun for Hire (1942) and The Blue Dahlia (1946). As for the star, he had become something of a horseman himself on the ranch he bought after reaching great success in motion pictures, so he was happy to saddle up and add a new dimension to his image.
Ladd plays railroad detective Luke Smith, dubbed "Whispering" because of his quiet voice and demeanor and his stealthy investigation of crimes. One such investigation brings him into contact with an old friend who is now married to Smith's former flame and involved in shady doings with a gang of train robbers. The part carried echoes of Ladd's later Western classic Shane (1953) in the character's calm but deadly comportment, his gentleness with women and children, his loyalty to friends and his devotion to an unavailable woman (named Marian in both films).
The character of Luke Smith is loosely based on real-life lawman Joe Lefors. Frank Spearman's quiet but deadly lawman from the novel upon which the story is based appeared several times in previous movies, both in the silent era and in the 1930s, with George O'Brien as Smith. It later formed the basis of a TV series starring war-hero-turned-Western-star Audie Murphy. Smith's old friend, played by Robert Preston, is also said to be loosely based on a legendary Westerner, Butch Cassidy, who was depicted on screen numerous times, most famously in the person of Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969).
Whispering Smith was the last of five pictures Ladd made with Robert Preston. The two had become friendly in their years at Paramount, but Preston left the studio not long after this for a successful freelance career in film and theatre. Ladd, a secretive, sometimes withdrawn man whose personal demons eventually led to the alcoholism that would take his life in 1964 at the age of 50, formed very few close friendships.
This was the first time back on screen for Brenda Marshall after taking a few years off to raise her children with longtime husband William Holden. Marshall, who always insisted people refer to her by her real name, Ardis, rather than the studio-concocted moniker, only made one more feature after Whispering Smith before retiring for good.
The Western town setting in the picture, a first for Paramount, was constructed on studio property. The five-acre set included 2000 feet of railroad track on which authentic 1870 locomotives owned by Paramount were operated. The trains, however, were converted from their original wood-burning fuel system to oil. The set was later used for the popular TV series Bonanza and many other shows and movies.
Director: Leslie Fenton
Producer: Mel Epstein
Screenplay: Frank Butler, Karl Kamb, based on the novel by Frank H. Spearman
Cinematography: Ray Rennahan
Editing: Archie Marshek
Art Direction: Hans Dreier, Walter Tyler
Original Music: Adolph Deutsch
Cast: Alan Ladd (Luke "Whispering" Smith), Robert Preston (Murray Sinclair), Brenda Marshall (Marian Sinclair), Donald Crisp (Barney Rebstock), William Demarest (Bill Dansing).
by Rob Nixon