Dodge City (1939)

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  • directed by Michael Curtiz
  • starring Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Ann Sheridan, Bruce Cabot, Alan Hale
  • A Texas cattle agent witnesses the brutal lawlessness of Dodge City and takes the job to clean the town up.

“You know what the New York newspapers are saying? There’s no law west of Chicago… and west of Dodge City, no God!”

This was a curious kind of Western for me, because it ran through a checklist of every stereotype the genre has to offer, aside from an Indian threat or even a mention of such if I’m not mistaken, but never captured the bravado, gruff spirit, or idealistic desperation that I’ve found at the heart of top-tier Westerns from the era. Curtiz seemed to be after a different type of Western altogether but it’s not one that lives up to the potential that the genre claimed in 1939.

The saloon brawl, which reminded me of the ocean in its rolling, expansive current of fists, tables, and chairs, at points overflowing through windows and spilling over balconies, is the most touted portion of the film but it had none of the unhinged madness of the Marlene Dietrich-led fight in Destry Rides Again. Despite it being the principal inspiration for Mel Brooks when he made Blazing Saddles, Dodge City on the whole was a nonserious film that never strayed into comedic territory as Destry did. On the other side of the spectrum it was also not as mature and resolute as other truly great Westerns of the era. There is one moment about halfway through which has Curtiz changing the tone of the film completely, when the young Harry Cole becomes an unintentional casualty in the war between Surrett’s clan and Dodge City. It was the turning point for Wade who had up until then resisted taking the position of town sheriff and it came as a shock to me as Curtiz abruptly raised the stakes from run of the mill corruption and “drunk townspeople being drunk townspeople”-level street violence.

If I was getting a wavering and shallow vibe from the majority of Dodge City I have to blame Errol Flynn, who Curtiz worked with 12 times and referred to as his “beautiful puppet.” Flynn has his strengths—in my opinion swashbuckling and sarcasm—but I don’t want to see a handsome and well-groomed sheriff with a chiseled smile in charge of taking down the bad guys. The Western to me is best when it roots itself in a daunting environment full of strong characters with something of a dark streak. Some of Curtiz’s Technicolor work was beautiful; he created a familiar and fully conceived main drag of town; and there were a few exciting stunt sequences. His disregard for characters and actors, though, and instead favoring a “bang-bang” approach to filmmaking so it goes by so fast and smooth that you don’t even realize what the actors are doing is what had the film striking some off-notes. This has obviously worked for Curtiz many times across many different film styles, and I thought de Havilland was lovely and appropriate as Abbie Irving, but the balance of a Western is too delicate and the tone not as steady as it needs to be when supported by someone as upbeat and feathery as Errol Flynn.

I find that I’m getting a crash course in early Western history from 1939 alone. This was the year that the genre turned the corner and began influencing films across the entire industry to a large degree. Watch Stagecoach if you want to see what a Western could achieve in pure iconography, heart, and style. Watch Union Pacific if it’s epic scope and nuanced personal relationships you’d like to see injected into the typical Western storyline. But first maybe it would be helpful, instead of what it could be, to see what it actually is, and the strength of Dodge City lies in it being that basic, standard Western—a paint-by-number page before the coloring begins.

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About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

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