Sunday, October 5, 2008


Nobody but George Marshall with his characteristic knack for comedy could have helmed the 1940 western horse opera "When the Daltons Rode" (** out of ****). This entertaining but uneven blend of humor and hell-raising in what constitutes a biography of the Dalton gang boasts top-flight stunt work but a lightweight approach to an inherently tragic sub-genre within westerns—the outlaw opus. When Universal Studios released this movie, the Hays Office dictated that criminals must not profit from their perfidy, and these felons had to be punished for their anti-social misdeeds. Marshall and scenarist Harold Shumate present the Daltons initially as victims of a crooked land grabbing scheme before they embark on a life of lawlessness made all the more ironic since Bob was a lawman. Indeed, by fade-out, the Daltons have traveled the entire trajectory from maligned innocents to hardened outlaws. Nevertheless, Marshall and Shumate do everything in their power to make this outlaw opus palatable rather than oppressive. Unfortunately, neither director nor writer delves too deeply into the land grabber scheme and the revelation of the individual—the Judas if you will—behind their woes is dealt with in formulaic fashion. The Daltons never learn his identity, but Bob deals him a death blow. Long before "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" treated its infamous outlaw pair with levity, Marshall did so with the Daltons in this trim 81 minute release. For the record, Marshall had made more than his share of westerns during the silent film era, so he was no stranger to westerns. Furthermore, Marshall became the first major western director to ridicule the conventions of the western. "Destry Rides Again," which he produced before "When the Daltons Rode" at Universal, stands western conventions on their heads. Sadly, "When the Daltons Rode" is neither as good as either "Destry Rides Again" or "Texas," Marshall's next western afterward with Glenn Ford and William Holden. The other major weakness of "When the Daltons Rode" is casting leading man Randolph Scott as a tin-horn attorney who never straps on a six-gun and spends too much time off screen while supporting players Broderick Crawford, Brian Donlevy, and Andy Devine get the lion's share of screen time.

The movie opens and closes cleverly enough with a garrulous old blacksmith (Edgar Buchanan of "Texas") talking to Tod Jackson (Randolph Scott). At the outset, Tod wants to know the whereabouts of the Dalton ranch. Accidentally, he runs into his old boyhood chums as they are posing for a photograph with their mother. Mary Gordon plays Ma Dalton; she starred in the Universal Studios' "Sherlock Holmes" movies as Mrs. Hudson. Tod laughs at the Daltons when the shoot turns disastrous, and they engage in rough horseplay in the street afterward before the Daltons realize Tod's identity. Tod decides to stick around for Ma Dalton's birthday party, so he has the local telegrapher, Julie King (Kay Francis) send a telegram to his pal in Guthrie, Oklahoma. From the moment that Tod meets Julie, the two are attracted to each other. At Ma Dalton's birthday party, a farmer interrupts the hilarity to warn his neighbors that the Kansas Land and Development Company has just evicted him from land that he was farmed for ten years.

Later, surveyors for the mysterious Kansas Land and Development Company show up at Ben Dalton's ranch. When the Daltons try to run the surveyors off of their property, a clash ensues and Ben knocks down a surveyor who was drawing a gun to shoot one of Ben's brothers. In the fall, the surveyor strikes his head on a rock and accidentally dies. Tod serves as Ben's counsel when the case comes to trial. Things turn ugly during the proceedings and the judge wants Grat (Brian Donlevy) arrest for contempt of court. An irate Bob resigns his U.S. Government badge, .slugs the sheriff and frees Ben. When the Daltons turn to leave, a surveyor produces a shotgun. Bob guns him down and the Daltons flee. As they are saddling up outside, Ben tells Bob, "This ain't right, Bob." Replies Bob: "Nothing's right anymore." For the remainder of the movie, the Daltons are leaping from one frying pan to another until their demise.

When Marshall and Shumate aren't depicting the rise and fall of the Daltons, they alternate their biography with a disposable love triangle between Bob Dalton, Tod Jackson, and Julie King. Julie is engaged to marry Bob, but Tod somehow manages to sweep her off her feet. She falls hopelessly in love with him and presses him to clear the air about them with Bob. Tod is reluctant because Bob is an old childhood friend and Tod refuses to ruin that friendship, much to Julie's chagrin. The latent feminism in this affair and Tod's reluctance to confide in his friend represent another way that Marshall skewers the masculinity of his western hero. This subplot pervades "When the Daltons Rode" and Julie has to take matters into her own hands to clear the air. Meanwhile, Marshall counterpoints this serious dramatic lover story with a farcical romance. Ozark Jones (obese funny man Andy Devine) is fought over by gorgeous gals whose attraction for someone has rotund as he is represents another example of Marshall's mockery of western traditions.

Marshall stages several great action scenes riddled with comedy. The Daltons make a daring, daylight escape from one town when Ozark hijacks a stagecoach and provides cover for their departure from a besieged dinner is funny. Stunt pioneer Yakima Canutt performs his landmark "Stagecoach" stunt. The next great action scene occurs on a train filled with lawmen. Our antagonists steal their horses and ride away. "When the Daltons Rode" has enough action and comedy to help compensate for its tragic ending. The last scene with Tod enduring another lecture from Edgar Buchanan's grizzled old blacksmith is a hoot.

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