Hi, everybody! I honestly had my doubts that I would be able to write up any blogathon entries while participating in TCM Presents The Master of Suspense: 50 Years of Hitchcock from June 26th until August 7th, but despite the heavy workload I found time to watch Dodge City (1939) once again and write my review! I’d like to thank Crystal of In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood for orchestrating another fun weekend honoring one of the most iconic women in cinema history on her 101st birthday, as well as one of my personal favorite iconic men. I can’t wait to read all of the other amazing entries and participate in this wonderful blogathon next year!
The film takes place in Dodge City, a small town built at the Western end of a newly established railroad named after the railroad’s constructor and the town’s founder Colonel Dodge (Henry O’Neill). A dear friend of Colonel Dodge is Texan and cattle agent Wade Hatton (Errol Flynn), who soon makes his way to Dodge City with a herd of steer and a wagon trail in tow. Among the settlers in the trail are Abbie Irving (portrayed by our birthday girl Olivia de Havilland) and her brother Lee (William Lundigan). Wade takes an immediate liking to Abbie, but Lee causes trouble by drunkenly firing his gun and causing the steer to stampede, leaving a trail of devastation in their wake. When Lee begins to shoot at Wade he draws his own pistol in order to defend himself, which result’s in Lee’s death when he is unable to escape the stampede that he caused.
Wade’s interest in Abbie doesn’t fade despite her loss of interest in her brother’s killer, and when the trail arrives to Dodge City Abbie moves in with her uncle, the town’s resident doctor. And does the town certainly need a doctor as lawlessness and anarchy run rampant as the city grows in population. Shootings are more commonplace than anything else, and Jeff Surrett (Bruce Cabot) and his men serve as the ringleaders of chaos and crime. Wade seems to be the only man in town with enough courage to stand up to the league of bandits, and after stepping in to save his adorable friend Rusty (Alan Hale) from Surrett’s noose, the town rallies for him to become Dodge City’s resident sherriff. At first he turns down the job out of fear of commitment and settling down, but once a young boy in the town is killed by Surrett and his cronies, Wade takes the position and vows to make the streets safe. Will Wade succeed in his task, or will Surrett run him out of town just as he did to the sherriffs before him? Will Wade be able to convince Abbie of his honorable intentions?
Dodge City (1939) was the fifth of nine movies made by Olivia de Havilland and Errol Flynn, Warner Brothers’ resident romantic pair at the time. Flynn shines in his first ever Western, though he later wrote in his autobiography, My Wicked, Wicked Ways (1959), that he felt miscast in the genre due to his English accent. He would later go on to excel in Westerns anyway, and scriptwriters found unique and creative ways to write his accent into the story, just as they did with this film. Olivia de Havilland had misgivings about her part in Dodge City (1939) as well, feeling that the project as a letdown in her career. She had grown frustrated with the lack of depth in her roles as an ingenue, and her pleading to Warner Brothers to cast her as saloon girl Ruby Gilman was ignored by the studio (the role would eventually go to Ann Sheridan).
In all honesty, I must admit that I don’t understand Olivia’s point of view. While I can agree that the role of Abbie Irving is rather two-dimensional, it gave Olivia ample time onscreen (as much as her leading man Errol Flynn, if not more), and the character was quite motivational and feminist for the time as Abbie maintained a steady job as an instrumental reporter for the Dodge City Star. Even more confusing was the fact that Ann Sheridan’s time onscreen was practically a cameo, and an unmemorable one at that despite my love for her as an actress. Nevertheless, for her own reasons the filming of Dodge City (1939) remained an unhappy time for Olivia as she fell victim to the Hollywood studio system. “It was a period in which she was given to constant fits of crying and long days spent at home in bed,” wrote author Tony Thomas in his book, The Films of Olivia de Havilland (1983). “She was bored with her work and while making Dodge City (1939) she claims that she even had trouble remembering her lines.”
Flynn and de Havilland’s distaste with their roles just goes to show that sometimes great films come out of the misery of the artists who made them, because while I’m not often a fan of Westerns I find Dodge City (1939) to be among my favorites, and the picture will always go down as one of the quality films from one of the best onscreen couples. While their acting in the film was excellent as usual, the Technicolor by Natalie Kalmus and Morgan Padelford and cinematography by Sol Polito undoubtedly impressed me the most, and I don’t exaggerate when I say that it’s the most beautiful looking Western ever made (the only one that even comes close for me is Red Canyon (1949), which looks strikingly similar). All in all, if you’re looking for a unique and excellent Western to watch on Olivia de Havilland’s birthday, this is obviously the movie for you!