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While 1939 is acknowledged as the old Hollywood's banner year for classic films of every stripe, the Western genre benefited in particular. In the wake of such popular successes as The Plainsman (1937) and Wells Fargo (1937), the studio moguls stopped regarding the frontier drama as second-feature fodder and began assigning A-list talent and budgets to their prairie projects. As a result, '39 was marked by a veritable gold rush of classic oaters, including Stagecoach, Union Pacific, Frontier Marshall, Destry Rides Again, Jesse James and The Oklahoma Kid. Warner Brothers made its own deserving entry into this crowded field with Dodge City (1939).
Confident that their swashbuckling superstar Errol Flynn could comfortably and convincingly swap his sword for six-shooters, Warners cast him as Wade Hatton, an Irish soldier of fortune whose travels took him to the Old West, trailblazing in the service of railroad mogul Colonel Dodge (Henry O'Neill). Within a matter of years, the eponymous Kansas community that sprang up at the juncture with Dodge's Texas line becomes rife with corruption and vice, with most of the graft funneling to cattle baron Jeff Surrett (Bruce Cabot).
Hatton, for his part, is content to shepherd wagon trains into Dodge, and on one such trip pursues a flirtation with Abbie Irving (Olivia de Havilland), en route to joining the household of her town doctor uncle (Henry Travers). Unfortunately, her immature yahoo brother (William Lundigan) drunkenly triggers a cattle stampede, and is trampled during a confrontation with Hatton. An embittered Abbie is unable to forgive the trail boss for his role in the tragedy.
After a young boy is dragged to death in the wake of a shootout spurred by Surrett's cronies, Hatton determinedly assumes Dodge's long-empty sheriff's office with a pledge to clean up the lawless town. Surrett's efforts to buy him off only bring redoubled efforts on Hatton's part to find charges that will stick, and their duel of wills propels Dodge City all the way to its rousing finale.
The film-going public's response to Flynn as Western hero was so positive that he would go on to make a career niche within the genre - his resume as thereafter marked by Virginia City (1940), Santa Fe Trail (1940), They Died With Their Boots On (1941) and San Antonio (1945). At no time in Dodge City, or in any of his subsequent sagebrushers, did the Tasmanian actor make an effort to mask his clipped diction; Dodge City might have been the first and last time that screenwriters even bothered to explain it away. "I felt I was miscast in Westerns, but this was impossible to point out to producers when the pictures were so highly successful," Flynn recounted in his memoir, My Wicked, Wicked Ways. "While I couldn't understand the public buying me particularly, I could understand the Western, the frontier story, as a classic form of national entertainment. It is part of America's heritage, our history."
Although Dodge City is accorded its place among the revered films where she displayed her palpable onscreen chemistry with Flynn, de Havilland regarded the project as a career letdown. She was tired of the string of ingenue parts Warners steadily provided, and her preference for the saloon singer role that went to Ann Sheridan went unheeded. "It was a period in which she was given to constant fits of crying and long days spent at home in bed," declared Tony Thomas in The Films of Olivia de Havilland (Citadel Press). "She was bored with her work and while making Dodge City she claims that she even had trouble remembering her lines." In context, it's very fortunate that the studio thereafter okayed her loan-out for a project she craved, portraying Melanie in Gone With The Wind (1939).
Dodge City is most memorable for its collection of elaborate set pieces, many of which would provide Warner westerns with stock footage for years to come and provide Mel Brooks with much of what was so side-splittingly spoofed in Blazing Saddles (1974). In the hands of house style-defining director Michael Curtiz and cinematographers Sal Polito and Ray Rennahan, the film boasts what remains the definitive saloon brawl in movie history. (In a moment that presaged Curtiz's work in Casablanca (1942), the fracas is sparked by ex-Confederates determined to sing Dixie over a spirited rendition of Marching Through Georgia). Also remarkable is Flynn's climactic confrontation with Cabot, set in a blazing mail car on a runaway train.
Note must be made of Max Steiner's stirring score, as well as the film's rich roster of character players, largely drawn from the Warners lot. In addition to the aforementioned, there are distinguished efforts from Alan Hale and Guinn "Big Boy" Williams as the comic relief sidekicks, Victor Jory, Douglas Fowley and Ward Bond as Cabot's minions, and Frank McHugh as the newspaper publisher who provokes the heavies at his peril.
Producer: Robert Lord
Director: Michael Curtiz
Screenplay: Robert Buckner
Art Direction: Ted Smith
Cinematography: Sol Polito, Ray Rennahan
Editing: George J. Amy
Music: Max Steiner
Cast: Errol Flynn (Wade Hatton), Olivia de Havilland (Abbie Irving), Ann Sheridan (Ruby Gilman), Bruce Cabot (Jeff Surrett), Frank McHugh (Joe Clemens), Alan Hale (Rusty Hart), John Litel (Matt Cole).
C-104m. Closed captioning.
by Jay Steinberg