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Constance Bennett - Star of the Month
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,Wild Bill Hickok Rides

Wild Bill Hickok Rides

Born into an acting dynasty whose number included grandfather Lewis Morrison, mother Adrienne Morrison, father Richard Bennett, and sisters Barbara and Joan Bennett, Constance Bennett gained entrée into motion pictures through the intercession of Samuel Goldwyn, for whom she made her feature film debut in the Technicolor silent Cytherea in 1924. After an early, failed marriage, Bennett excelled in sound films, holding her own opposite Cary Grant in the slapstick ghost comedy Topper (1937) and dominating the Hal Roach-produced family farce Merrily We Live (1938) and George Cukor's Two-Faced Woman (1941) with Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas. A shrewd businesswoman, she added producing to her curriculum vitae and branched out into radio and stage work as she approached middle age, eventually leaving show business to launch a cosmetics and clothing firm. The actress made Wild Bill Hickok Rides (1942) for Warner Brothers near the end of her Hollywood tenure. Though Bruce Cabot had been cast in the title role of the legendary Old West gunfighter, Bennett received preferential billing and was clearly intended to be the star of the show.

Wild Bill Hickok Rides was the second of only two westerns produced by Warner Brothers in 1942 and trailed Raoul Walsh's They Died with Their Boots On (which went into general release on New Year's Day, 1942) by less than a month. The screenplay by Charles Grayson, Paul Girard Smith, and Raymond L. Schrock tendered a once-over-lightly recap of the Johnson County War of 1892, albeit with Hickok (gunned down in Deadwood, Missouri, in 1872) grafted into the narrative somewhat arbitrarily as its crusading folk hero. While his leading lady still had star luster to spare, Bruce Cabot represented less of an inspired loaner from producer Walter Wanger (Constance Bennett's brother-in-law) than a cost-effective one. After playing the dashing Jack Driscoll of Merian C. Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack's King Kong (1933) a decade earlier, Cabot lost his shot at another leading role - that of the Ringo Kid in John Ford's Stagecoach (1939) - and found himself cast most often as villains, in The Last of the Mohicans (1936) with Randolph Scott, in Fritz Lang's Fury (1936) with Spencer Tracy, and in Michael Curtiz' Dodge City (1939), alongside Errol Flynn.

Shot on the Warners back lot between September and October 1941, Wild Bill Hickok Rides was intended as nothing more than an entertaining programmer, pitting Hickok against Chicago sharper Warren William (taking a break from his duties as the star of Columbia's "Lone Wolf" mysteries) and his chanteuse accomplice Bennett. Thanks to the crisp direction of Ray Enright, the cinematography of Ted McCord, and the special effects of Byron Haskin and Willard Van Enger, Wild Bill Hickok Rides enjoyed a lushly-funded look that prompted Warners to sell it as a "super-western." Critics of the day were mixed in their reactions. While the Los Angeles Times slapped the film with an unqualified pan, The New York Times praised it as an "honest can of corn" and The Hollywood Reporter recommended it as a "big, raucous western of the rootin', tootin', shootin school." After the film was trade-shown on December 22, 1941, Variety crowed "So crammed with action and violence is this fragment of the Wild Bill Hickok legend that it will hustle any melodrama far along without a chance to drop out of the stampede."

Constance Bennett made only eight more films before her effective retirement in 1948. (The actress did appear in three additional features prior to her death in 1965, the last of which - David Lowell Rich's Madame X [1966] with Lana Turner - was released posthumously.) Bruce Cabot went on to further onscreen villainy, playing the black hat to John Wayne's white in Angel and the Badman (1947) and becoming a member of the Duke's stock company in the years before his own demise in 1972.

Prior to Wild Bill Hickok Rides, director Ray Enright was known primarily for his frothy musicals. An unhappy fit at Warners, Enright moved on to the greener pastures of Universal, where he directed The Spoilers (1942) starring Wayne, Randolph Scott, and Marlene Dietrich, and entered into a successful collaboration with Scott, comprising the oaters Trail Street (1947), Albuquerque (1948), Coroner Creek (1948) and Return of the Bad Men (1948), which featured Robert Ryan as the Sundance Kid. Director of photography Ted McCord went on to shoot the Academy Award-winning The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) for John Huston, as well as East of Eden (1955) for Elia Kazan and The Sound of Music (1965) for Robert Wise.

Producer: Bryan Foy
Director: Ray Enright
Writers: Charles Grayson, Paul Girard Smith, Raymond L. Schrock
Cinematographer: Ted McCord
Music: Howard Jackson, Heinz Roemheld (uncredited), Max Steiner (uncredited)
Editor: Clarence Kolster
Special Effects: Byron Haskins, Willard Van Enger
Cast: Constance Bennett (Belle Andrews), Bruce Cabot (Wild Bill Hickok), Warren William (Harry Farrel), Betty Brewer (Janey Nolan), Ward Bond (Sheriff Edmunds), Howard da Silva (Ringo), Russell Simpson (Ned Nolan), Walter Catlett (Sylvester W. Twigg), Frank Wilcox (Jim Martin), Hobart Bosworth (Fanatic), Fred Kelsey (Jailer), Charles Middleton (Claim Jumping Leader), Julie Bishop, aka Jacqueline Wells (Violet).
BW-83m.

by Richard Harland Smith
Sources:
"A" Western Filmmakers: A Biographical Directory by Henryk Hoffman (McFarland & Company, Inc., 2000)
The Book of Westerns edited by Ian Alexander Cameron and Douglas Pye (Continuum Publishing Company, 1996)
Shoot-em-Ups: The Complete Reference Guide to Westerns of the Sound Era by Les Adams and Buck Rainey (Arlington House Publishers, 1978)

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