Frontier Marshall (1939)

3 10 2008

It may have helped to watch two of the more unremarkable westerns I’ve seen in a long time beforehand, but this was definitely fantastic. Another little motion picture that reminds me of everything that makes that period of time from the late 30s to the early 60s the most special one in the history of American cinema. This is one of the earliest I’ve seen, appearing in the theaters the same year as Ford’s much more recognized Stagecoach. Ford himself would, of course, use the same source material as this film to create the legendary My Darling Clementine. It’s hard not to compare this to Ford’s adaptation, but that’s hardly a problem, this is just as great.

The story hasn’t changed all that much from 1939 to 1946, at least not in a general sense. The main character here is still Wyatt Earp, a quiet man who reluctantly accepts the responsibility of Sheriff in Tombstone. He, to the dismay and surprise of many, becomes friends with Doc Holliday, the town’s most infamous figure. He meets Doc at a very awkward point in time, as Doc’s one-time love, Sarah, comes to town to reunite with him. Earp himself falls for Sarah, who Doc responds to indifferently, but Earp decides to fight off all the excess of Doc’s current lifestyle with the hope that Sarah can return to the man she once loved.

It doesn’t really matter who it is performing the sequence, Randolph Scott or Henry Fonda, but I think I’ll always get a little teary-eyed when Earp asks Sarah or Clementine to stay in Tombstone and give Doc another chance. It’s such an odd and perplexing move on the part of Earp, but it is heartbreaking in a way that is both subtle and relentless. For my money, I’ll still say Fonda’s performance is the best, as he (and Ford) have a lot more time to flesh out the actual character, but Randy Scott is, as expected, quite excellent. He really had this type of character down pat – and said character would continue to appear frequently for the remainder of Scott’s career. The only difference between his performance here and the one in Decision at Sundown are a few wrinkles.

I don’t see anything all that interesting about Allan Dwan’s technique here. I didn’t really watch the film for him, anyway, but mostly for Scott and seeing another view of the Clementine story. This does have some nice grainy black and white cinematography, though, which was truly a joy to watch coming off the Technicolor throw-up schemes in The Cimarron Kid and The Man From the Alamo. There are a few nice Tarr-esque tracking shots, but otherwise, nothing really all that note-worthy. The heavy use of fades in the film’s opening is certainly not all that flattering, but thankfully, things pick up from there. Even then, this is the sort of film where form isn’t the main appeal. The content is the substance here, and it is very substantial.

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