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Friday, June 6, 2008

UNION PACIFIC (1939)

Official Hollywood history gives John Ford’s STAGECOACH credit for reviving the Grade-A Western in 1939 after years of low-budget eclipse. But ‘39 also saw Cecil B. De Mille having a last fling at the genre with this lively epic.* C. B. all but invented the Hollywood Western with THE SQUAW MAN/'14, when California still had a Wild West patina to it, and he had recently scored a hit with THE PLAINSMAN/'36, a rare big-budget mid-‘30s ‘oater.’ De Mille has a genuine comfort level with the Western in contrast to his habitual stiffness in both ancient & contemporary subjects, though you need a high tolerance for the process work & miniatures that are always a bit of pain in his pics. Here, the romantic triangle between Joel McCrea, Barbara Stanwyck & Robert Preston is nicely set off by deceitful corporate intrigue (Brian Donlevy & Co.) & broadly effective comic relief from Lynne Overman & Akim Tamiroff. The finale is nothing less than a restaging of D. W. Griffith’s climax to THE BATTLE AT ELDERBERRY GULCH/'13, right down to the pistol behind the ingenue’s virginal head, and damned if it doesn't still work.

*NORTH WEST MOUNTED POLICE/'40 and UNCONQUERED/'47 could each be called 'near' Westerns, but stinker would be a closer fit for the former.

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