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Tuesday, August 31, 2010


Big-budget Westerns from A-list directors were scarce in the mid-‘30s, yet Paramount put C. B. De Mille’s THE PLAINSMAN and this Texas Centennial number from real-life Texan King Vidor out in ‘36. De Mille’s film, with its memorable re-teaming of Gary Cooper & Jean Arthur, may be 100% hooey, but it’s also irresistible, an all-of-a-piece/true to thyself piece of studio lot artifice. Vidor, working from a good story he concocted with his scripter wife Elizabeth Hill, can’t find (or hold) a proper tone between its handsome location shooting, stiff studio mock-ups and crazy-quilt casting. The bad stuff cancels out the good . . . or is it vice versa? Fred MacMurray and Jack Oakie play one-time outlaws who join the Texas Rangers to feed advance info to their old pal Lloyd Nolan. But MacMurray & Oakie start to take their Ranger roles seriously and something’s gotta give. Oakie is largely there for comic relief, but Vidor gives him some nicely sentimental scenes with an orphaned kid that could have come out of an earlier Vidor classic, THE CHAMP/’31. The action stuff is particularly well staged (watch for a wicked bit involving Comanches & some large, nasty boulders), but Nolan comes off as a city boy in chaps (he actually says ‘Oy!’) and MacMurray wears his pants too high to achieve that proper Texas swagger. You can’t help but feel that Vidor was emotionally invested in this one and bitterly disappointed in the uneven results. The film doesn’t even rate a mention in his fine auto-bio, A TREE IS A TREE.

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