The FIR Vault

WYATT EARP: PART 1

By • Jun 10th, 2013 • Pages: 1 2 3

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LAW AND ORDER is a starkly graphic Western that is totally bereft of any romanticism of the Old West or its people. It is deliberately bleak and primitive to emphasize the lawlessness that permeates Tombstone when Frame arrives and may well return after he leaves. It is an unremitting view of the price society will have to pay for justice if it allows, either through indifference or acquiescence, savagery to rule. The performances are excellent, particularly Walter Huston as Frame. Huston powerfully conveys the weariness, the sadness, the inherent goodness of Frame as well as the violence that is forced from him. The rage in his face and the fury in his voice after Ed is killed is spellbinding in its impact. And the grief and disgust he conveys as he rides away, victorious but brokenhearted, is haunting. Harry Carey is equally forceful as Ed Brandt, who controls his killing instincts out of respect for Frame and dies as a result. John Huston (his second screen credit) and Tom Reed provide a very solid script with natural dialogue and the direction by Edward Cahn is first-rate. In fact, everything about LAW AND ORDER is of such superb quality that it is surprising that Cahn never did anything of distinction after this, his first film.

McCrea as Earp, with Kevin Larson, left, and Wallce Ford, right, in WICHITA, 1955.

In a totally different class is Fox’s 1934 production of Stuart Lake’s biography entitled FRONTIER MARSHAL. In this very loose adaptation, George O’Brien portrays “Michael Wyatt” who rides into town and becomes involved in an artificial romantic triangle while defeating an outlaw gang led by the corrupt mayor. Filled with cardboard heroes and villains, the movie is ineffective and sags, despite its short running time. It is an undistinguished oater.

In 1937, Universal used Burnett’s Saint Johnson as the basis of a 13-part serial entitled WILD WEST DAYS, starring Johnny Mack Brown, one of the most popular Western serial stars. Brown portrays “Kentucky Wade” who travels to the town of “Brimstone” with two friends to save a mine-owning couple from an outlaw leader who wants their ore. The thin plot is hardly noticeable amidst the numerous gunfights, chases, Indian raids and cliffhanger endings, all of which delighted Saturday afternoon juvenile audiences. There is little, if any, connection to the 1931 adult film or its source novel.

In 1938, Columbia Pictures released IN EARLY ARIZONA which featured Wild Bill Elliot as “Whit Gordon,” a former Dodge City lawman who wants to hang up his guns but puts on a badge once again in Tombstone to do battle with an outlaw gang. Obviously inspired by Wyatt’s exploits, the movie is typical “B” Western effort and would be purely routine if not for the presence of Elliot, who looked like he belonged in the saddle and was one of the more believable sagebrush heroes of low budget films.

In 1939, 20th Century-Fox filmed Stuart Lake’s book a second time, again titled FRONTIER MARSHAL, with Randolph Scott as – for the first time on screen – Wyatt Earp. Directed by Alan Dwan with a screenplay by Sam Hellman, this version is filled with action and excitement and is a large improvement over the 1934 film. The movie begins with Wyatt’s arrival in Tombstone and, after subduing a drunken Indian Charlie, being persuaded by helpless citizens of the lawless town to become marshal. Doc Holiday, as portrayed by Cesar Romero, is a disgraced medical doctor from Boston with a bad heart whose life Wyatt saves when a coughing spasm give an opponent in a gunfight the edge, thus beginning their friendship. Romantic escapades, including friendly rivalry between Wyatt and Doc for the same woman, are only brief intrusions between several confrontations with Curly Bill and his outlaw gang that lead to an inaccurate though exciting showdown at the O.K. Corral.

Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp, with Victor Mature in MY DARLING CLEMENTINE, 1946.

Scott’s natural acting style makes his Wyatt Earp a very likeable character, the soft-spoken and polite yet sturdy hero that would become his trademark. It is a very effective performance and is integral to the film’s success. Cesar Romero is convincing as Doc Holliday who is killed be fore the O.K. Corral fight in this rendition FRONTIER MARSHAL is a solid and unpretentious Western with well-executed and rousing action scenes. It also introduced moviegoers to the name of Wyatt Earp.

In 1940, Universal got more mileage out of the Burnett novel with yet another adaptation entitled LAW AND ORDER but once again the plot and characterizations were drastically changed. The story was sufficiently different from the serial to enable Johnny Mack Brown to again play the lead this time as “Bill Ralston,” an ex-lawman who finds that the town he has chosen for a life of peace is in dire need of his marshalling talents. With the help of an ex-gambler, played by James Craig, Ralston soon cleans up the town. The movie is poorly conceived and there is little opportunity for anything other than the usual ingredients of a formula Western, including romance and a comedy sidekick. Any relation to the first version or to the novel purely coincidental.

In 1942, Paramount produced its own version of the story, this one based on the Walter Noble Burns book, Tombstone. In TOMBSTONE, THE TOWN TOO TOUGH TO DIE ex-lawman Wyatt Earp must once again accept the job of marshal after finding the toughest town in Arizona under the control of the Clantons and McLaureys and the local sheriff in league with them. Romance alternates with action as Wyatt, with the help of his brothers and Doc Holiday gradually asserts his authority on the town. The finale once again is the battle at the O.K. Corral which is fairly exciting though having little relation to history.

Tombstone is filled with action but ha more than its share of clichés. The direction by William McGann makes little use of the more interesting elements of the scrip by Edward Paramore and Albert LeVino which added Morgan and Virgil Earp and Johnny Ringo-character called Johnny Duane as well as the Clantons am McLaureys to differentiate itself from FRONTIER MARSHAL of three years earlier. Richard Dix’s presence adds class to the film and he is very convincing as the “Lion of Tombstone.” Kent Taylor, though accurately playing Doc as a dentist turned gun fighter, seems too healthy and suave to be the ill-tempered killer. Victor Jory and Edgar Buchanan give colorful performances as the villainous Ike Clanton and Curly Bill Brocius while Rex Bell and Harvey Stephens are properly valiant as Wyatt’s brothers. Overall, the film seems to visibly bear the stamp of producer Harry Sherman, best known for his Hopalong Cassidy series, though this was considered one of his “A” productions. There is enough action, however, to satisfy Western fans and the film was sufficiently popular to increase the name-recognition factor of Wyatt Earp as one of the West’s most fearless lawmen.

Burt Lancaster as Earp, with Rhonda Fleming in GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL, 1957.

In 1946, Stuart Lake’s book was filmed once again when John Ford directed MY DARLING CLEMENTINE. Although using the 1939 Sam Hellman screenplay as a basis. Ford’s film is totally different in style and execution, as one might expect from the Master of the Western. MY DARLING CLEMENTINE has been extensively analyzed, most notably by J. A. Place, and is a deserved classic. On the surface, the story is familiar. Wyatt Earp, after having tamed Dodge City, wants only to settle down with his brothers and live a life of peace. In Tombstone, he once again disarms an intoxicated Indian Charlie (played by the same actor from the 1939 version, Charles Stevens) but refuses the badge that the desperate town elders implore him to take. When his younger brother is murdered by the Clantons, however, he once again becomes a lawman. He meets and befriends Doc Holliday and becomes romantically involved with Clementine, the teacher from the East. Following the murder of another brother, Wyatt defeats the Clantons at the O.K. Corral and then rides away from Tombstone, hopefully to find peace.

Historically, this film also departs from accuracy and uses only the general facts as basis for the story. Though the director claimed that his reconstruction of the O.K. Corral fight was based on the recollections of Wyatt, whom he knew from his early film-making days, it is largely inaccurate, due perhaps to Wyatt’s tendency to exaggerate in his old age.

However, Ford was intent on telling a story of far more significance than a feud, a gunfight or even a legend. He expands the familiar story to depict not only the taming of Tombstone but the bringing of civilization to the American frontier. Ford’s Wyatt Earp, portrayed by Henry Fonda, is more than a single man or even a folk hero. He is a symbol of the idealism and sacrifice that tamed the savage land as well as the savagery of man. Wyatt is a genuine hero who is chosen by fate and circumstances to be Tombstone’s savior and accepts the responsibility as though it is his destiny. Due to his influence and actions, Tombstone is gradually transformed from a lawless outpost to a place where children can grow and people can worship. Yet he also has his own personal needs and enjoys being a part of the new society, embracing all of its values. And his duty to his family takes precedence over his duty to society, for in destroying the evil of the Clantons he is also avenging his family honor. But he cannot enjoy the fruits of his labors and, grieving for his brothers, he must ride away from Tombstone and society, destined to wander.

Doc Holliday, played by Victor Mature, is once again an ex-surgeon from Boston and an infamous killer who is slowly dying of consumption and seems to be more rapidly killing himself with liquor. He seems to have contempt for himself and for everyone else until he meets Wyatt and this friendship becomes his redemption. However, his past life of violence necessitates his death, though in dying while helping his only friend, he cleanses himself and washes the blood from his soul.

Burt Lancaster as Wyatt Earp, with Kirk Douglas  in GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL, 1957.

MY DARLING CLEMENTINE is a rich and beautiful movie. Ford’s cinematic artistry is evident throughout the entire film, from the restrained yet emotional visual style and the subtle character detail to the honest sentiment and genuine tenderness. The performances are uniformly fine, including Fonda’s quiet and commanding presence as Wyatt and Mature’s typically underrated tour de force as the haunted and self-destructive Doc. Walter Brennan, who had a small role in the 1932 LAW AND ORDER, is an exquisite representation of evil as Old Man Clanton and John Ireland is impressive as Billy Clanton. Ward Bond, who was in both the 1934 and 1939 versions of FRONTIER MARSHAL, is a sincere Virgil Earp.

In the filmography of Wyatt Earp, however, MY DARLING CLEMENTINE is notable on another level, for it is with this film that Wyatt becomes more than a legend, more even than a folk hero, and assumes the stature of a classical hero, chosen and cursed by the Gods to reap the rewards of his status but to suffer the pains as well. In the public consciousness, Wyatt Earp became the essence of frontier heroism and law enforcement.

Four years later, Wyatt had a “cameo” in Anthony Mann’s 1950 film, WINCHESTER ’73. In a brief scene, Will Geer plays Wyatt as the Dodge City Marshal whose presence at the July 4th rifle competition ensures that there will be no trouble. By this time, the name was so familiar to moviegoers that audiences fully understood why James Stewart and other competitors respond with caution and respect when Wyatt introduces himself.

In 1953, two more disguised interpretations of Wyatt, both based on previously filmed books and both departing radically from their sources, were released. POWDER RIVER is yet another variation of the Stuart Lake biography and, to a larger degree, the 1939 Sam Hellman screenplay. In this version, Rory Calhoun portrays “Chino Bullock,” a mine owner who becomes sheriff to find the killer of his friend and partner. Cameron Mitchell is Mitch Hardin, an ex-doctor who is no longer able to practice because of a brain tumor. The two men become friends until Chino learns that Hardin is the killer he is seeking and in the climactic duel Hardin is faster on the draw but dies of his tumor before firing. The movie has a good amount of character development and tension as the two men edge toward the inevitable showdown. POWDER RIVER is a modest but pleasing minor effort.

The same year, LAW AND ORDER was remade once again, this time with Ronald Reagan as Frame Johnson. In this version, after taming Tombstone, the famous marshal retires to ranching with his fiancée and brothers only to find his new community in the grip of an old outlaw enemy. When the citizens appeal to him for help, he politely declines but after his brother is killed he pins on a badge and quickly cleans up the town. Once again, it is difficult to connect the original Burnett novel or the first film version with this dull and unimaginative feature.

Also in 1953, Wyatt was a supporting character in the George Montgomery movie, GUN BELT. James Millican is Wyatt in this low budget feature about a reformed outlaw, played by Montgomery, trying to go straight. Montgomery gives a sincere performance but the film is thoroughly routine. The following year, Wyatt once again supported Montgomery who had the title role in Masterson Of Kansas. Bruce Cowling, who was Virgil Earp in Gun Belt, is Wyatt and James Griffith is Doc Holliday in this juvenile movie about how Bat cleaned up Dodge City with some help from his friends. It is barely adequate and totally forgettable.

The saga appears to have been the inspiration for 1954’s DAWN AT SOCORRO with Rory Calhoun this time playing a Doc Holliday variation. This supporting feature begins with “the shooting at Keene’s Stockyards,” in which Marshal Harry McNair (James Millican once again), his brother and their friend, gambler and gunfighter Brett Wade (Calhoun), defeat the notorious Old Man Ferris and his three sons. Wade, who coughs incessantly due to an old wound, then travels to Colorado for his health and becomes involved in a romantic triangle and one last fight. It’s mediocre but well acted.

Thus far, Wyatt’s earlier days as a lawman had been generally neglected with most films concentrating on his Tombstone adventures. But 1955’s WICHITA rectified that oversight. In this Allied Artists film, Joel McCrea as Wyatt is hired by the town elders to put an end to the lawlessness of the wide open cow town. He meets some resistance at first, particularly when he insists on banning all guns from the city limits but the accidental killing of a woman justifies his methods. Gradually, the townspeople – including a romantic interest – are won over by his ways and the outlaw element is eventually rousted. Stuart Lake served as technical advisor on the film and various characters from the Wichita era, such as Ben Thompson, make appearances. Wyatt’s brothers, Morgan and James, as well as a young Bat Masterson, are also on hand to assist Wyatt.

Jacques Tourneur’s stylish direction keeps Wichita moving at a fast pace. The many well-staged action scenes are exciting and the romantic sub-plot is believable. Daniel Ullman’s script is efficient and well constructed. Joel McCrea is excellent in the main role, bringing his usual sincerity and quiet strength to the character. He is aided by a fine supporting cast, including Edgar Buchanan, who was Curly Bill Brocius in Tombstone, in another villainous role and Lloyd Bridges as a trigger happy gunman. WICHITA is highly enjoyable.

Check back for Part 2 on September 3…

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2 Responses »

  1. I have this FIR in hardcopy-WONDERFUL READING!!!!

  2. I have the original magazines and this is wonderful reading!!!

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