Frontier Marshal (Fox, 1939)
The real beginning of the cinematic mythic Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday
Our last post was on Doc Holliday (click the link for that), and how the varied and various screen portrayals of him differed from the reality and occasionally matched it a little bit. Today I thought we’d have a look at one of those Wyatt-and-Doc films, one I’m quite fond of, historical hooey but a lot of fun.
Frontier Marshal was actually quite an important addition to Earp-Holliday myth. It was the first time that the Tombstone story had been told with a named Wyatt Earp in the lead (there had been a cameo by Bert Lindley in the now lost 1923 William S Hart silent Western Wild Bill Hickok). Considering the huge popularity of the story and the success of Stuart N Lake’s book Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal back in 1931, you would have thought that such a film would have come earlier. But the heirs and survivors of the Earp family, especially Wyatt’s widow Josephine, guarded their rights jealously. Universal's 1932 picture Law and Order told of Earp and Holliday really but the Earp figure was named Frame 'Saint' Johnson (Walter Huston) and the Doc Holliday one was gambler Ed Brandt (Harry Carey). Fox produced the first version of Frontier Marshal in 1934 but this featured “Michael Wyatt” (George O’Brien) and “Doc Warren” (Alan Edwards). So Randolph Scott had, therefore, the honor of playing the first true Wyatt Earp on screen, ten years after the death of the 81-year-old Earp in Los Angeles. And an excellent casting choice he was too.
Westerns had languished for most of the 1930s as low-budget juvenile programmers, and big-studio ‘A’ pictures in the genre were rare. But at the end of the decade they made a come-back. In January Fox itself came out with a big-budget oater in Technicolor with in the title role its top star Tyrone Power, Jesse James, and there followed the month after John Ford’s Stagecoach with John Wayne released by United Artists, then in the spring Warners’ Dodge City with Errol Flynn and Olivia De Havilland, Joel McCrea and Barbara Stanwyck over at Paramount in the Cecil B DeMille-directed Union Pacific, and later in the year Marlene Dietrich and James Stewart in Universal’s Destry Rides Again. The Western was decidedly back.
Frontier Marshal, in black & white, released in July to much less razzmatazz, might have suffered and been relegated to mid-West theaters and the like but in fact it did really well, doing good business for Fox. Of course we’re not talking Gone with the Wind or Wizard of Oz money here but for a Western, a very decent return. The public lapped it up.
It sometimes seemed that Scott would be cast as be lead in minor pictures and support actor in major ones (such as Jesse James, where he was fourth-billed as a friend of the James family). He had started in Westerns in the early 1930s with Paramount’s talkie versions of Zane Grey stories. He had become something of a star with his Hawkeye in the 1936 The Last of the Mohicans, but he wasn’t yet the top Western actor he would become. Frontier Marshal was probably his biggest Western lead part to date.
Fox got Allan Dwan to direct the picture. You probably know Allan Dwan if you are a Western fan. He was amazingly prolific. According to Kevin Brownlow in The Parade's Gone By, Dwan thought he'd directed over 1400 films, between his arrival in the industry in 1909 and his final movie in 1961. He was a technical innovator: he pioneered the dolly shot back in 1915 and on tracking shots he said, “There's always a certain amount of camera improvisation. If a man is being pursued and the pursuers are more interesting than the pursued, I'll track to include them. Things would occur on the set and sometimes ahead of time.”
Dwan understood the Western. He should – he directed 171! But 157 of these were silent movies produced between 1911 and 1917. Then there was a long pause until the very average Tide of Empire in 1929, one of those movies on the cusp between silents and talkies. Frontier Marshal was therefore his first proper talkie Western and his first oater for a decade. Later he seemed to specialize in Westerns with powerful leading women such as Belle le Grand, Montana Belle, Woman They Almost Lynched and Cattle Queen of Montana. His last Western was the rather good The Restless Breed in 1957.
Frontier Marshal had a screenplay by Sam Hellman, supposedly based on Stuart Lake’s book. It was Hellman’s first Western, though he wrote the excellent The Return of Frank James for Fritz Lang at Fox the year after and, more importantly, he returned to the Earp myth as a contributing writer to Ford’s My Darling Clementine in 1946, which was in many ways a remake of Frontier Marshal. Lake himself was on the set of several of these Wyatt Earp pictures as advisor. I don’t know what he achieved, though, because history was cast completely aside and radical changes to the story were made. Mind, Lake himself wasn’t exactly a fiend for historical accuracy. His book went for a sensational style and he later admitted having invented many of the ‘quotes’ he attributed to Wyatt because the elderly Earp was so taciturn. Wyatt's widow Sadie was also hired as consultant by Fox, a decision the studio certainly came to regret for she spent the whole time saying, “Oh, Mr Earp would never have done anything like that” and insisting on rewrites. It was she who had refused to allow her husband’s name to be used in the first Frontier Marshal in ’34 and even on this one she sued Fox to make sure that its original proposed title, Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal (the same as Lake’s) would not be used, which is why it became just Frontier Marshal.
The 1939 Frontier Marshal, though, is particularly phony as far as fact is concerned. They don’t even get the year right – it’s set in 1880 (and Ford’s remake was set in 1882, also wrong). Wyatt is alone in Tombstone. He has no wife or girlfriend and there are no Earp brothers. There are no Clantons either, or Cowboys, or Johnny Behan. Doc is killed by Curly (called Curley) Bill (Joe Sawyer) and Wyatt goes down alone at night to the OK Corral where he faces Curley Bill and some nameless henchmen, whom he shoots. The End. Not too convincing, I fear. Dwan's excuse for the falseness of the history was, "We never meant it to be Wyatt Earp - we were just making Frontier Marshal, and that could have been any frontier marshal." A bit weak as a get-out, Mr Dwan.
Still, since when did we watch Western movies for a lesson in American history? And Frontier Marshal is a whole lot of fun. The poster reads “I’m the law in Tombstone and from now on it’s up to you whether the city or the cemetery grows the fastest…!” It’s refreshing to see a Western movie poster with a correct use of whether, even if it spoiled its grammatical correctness with a superlative at the end. But that’s just me being snooty.
After the titles there’s a lively montage of the growth of the boomtown of Tombstone (including Ed Schieffelin enthusiastically showing a silver nugget to his burro). There’s mucho shooting in the streets. Ward Bond (who was in the ’34 Frontier Marshal too and would be in Ford's 1946 remake) is the cowardly marshal who won’t go into a saloon to dislodge a drunk, the armed Indian Charlie (Charles Stevens, said to be a grandson of Geronimo, whom Ford used for the same part in Clementine) and so Wyatt Earp, whose sleep has been disturbed, goes in, shoots Charlie and drags him out by the heels. It's unpleasantly racist to us now but I guess it was other times. The mayor (Harry Hayden) wants Wyatt as marshal now. “General Miles said you’re the best scout the Army ever had.” (I don’t know where that came from). But he turns down the marshal’s job. Then Curley Bill and his friends beat Wyatt up so he goes back to the mayor and takes the star after all. From then on, watch out. I must say, Randolph Scott is very good. In some ways he was made to be Wyatt Earp, the Earp of myth anyway, cleaning up the town single-handed. Quiet, authoritative, strong, he is a proper film Wyatt. He makes an excellent entry. Dwan gives him a vertical camera shot as he shins down a post from a balcony, just as the director had done oft before with Douglas Fairbanks back in the silent days.
Doc is played by Cesar Romero. He is perfectly splendid. He’s called Doc Halliday for some reason (maybe Fox hadn’t bought the rights from Doc’s family…) and he comes from Illinois but it’s Doc alright. Dark, powerful, charismatic, he is menacing and tragic in equal measure, a true cinematic Doc. It was a great performance, to rival Victor Mature’s in Clementine. Wyatt and Doc become friends (no mention of Dodge or previous acquaintance) and Doc saves Wyatt’s life by shooting a heavy aiming at Wyatt’s back in Tombstone, not in the Comique in Dodge in ’79 as actually happened.
The Bella Union, owned by the mayor, is big, brash and fun, a proper saloon. And the barman is, obviously, Chris-Pin Martin. I say obviously because when was he anything else? And he would be back in Tombstone to keep bar in Paramount's Tombstone, The Town Too Tough To Die in 1942. There’s a badman named Dan Blackmore (Edward Norris) who tried to draw a derringer on Wyatt, the fool. Lee Van Cleef would try the same lowdown trick in 1957. Another thug is Pringle (Lon Chaney Jr) who is shot down by Wyatt in a street gunfight.
The chief villain though is rival saloon owner Ben Carter, a top-class John Carradine. So a quality supporting cast, though minor characters are not developed and Carradine, Bond and Chaney are wasted, really. What a pity, by the way, that John Carradine never got to play Doc Holliday himself. He would have been superb in the part. He was pretty Doc-ish in Stagecoach, as a Southern sort-of gentleman gambler.
At one point Carradine's character tells a Tombstone resident that he was run out of Lordsburg, so that was a nice in-joke for Stagecoach fans. There’s a woman, of course, not Clementine but the nurse Sarah, come looking for Doc from back East. But she doesn’t fancy Wyatt or anything. She stays loyal to Doc till death do them part. After that, well, all bets are off. Sarah is played by Nancy Kelly, pretty, sincere, if a little saccharine. Goody women of the kind tended to be nurses or schoolma’ams. Ford overdid it a bit by having Clementine be both.
There’s another dame, natch, the saloon gal Jerry (Binnie Barnes, excellently brassy) who loves Doc and is jealous of Sarah. But Wyatt gets her to see reason (he puritanically dumps her in a horset trough) and she leaves town. “There’s a stage in the morning …” but sadly, instead of completing the line properly with “be on it”, Jerry is told to “go on home.” She gets in the ‘Pioneer Stage Line’ Concord in front of Carradine’s now closed rival saloon, become a savings bank (progress, you see), smiles, and bowls off, pausing only to wave a fond goodbye to Doc’s grave in Boot Hill. Much of this plot was taken up again by John Ford in 1946 for My Darling Clementine.
Eddie Foy has quite a large part as he comes to Tombstone, as he did to Dodge, and performs an act excruciating enough to be genuine Victorian music hall. Eddie Foy was played by Eddie Foy Jr, his son.
Doc is not a tubercular dentist but a former obstetrician, and as is traditional in Westerns there’s an innocent, this time a small boy, Pablo the barman’s son, who is caught in the crossfire of the gunfight and critically wounded, so Doc has to sober up, summon up his medical skills once more, and, aided by nurse Sarah, operate on the child. It’s like Thomas Mitchell’s Doc Boone in Stagecoach but of course such a scene had been done many times before that and would be again. And Doc Holliday (I mean Halliday) isn’t redeemed as Doc Boone was. Curly Bill saw to that.
For some odd reason, when Doc and Wyatt are comparing pistols (like little boys, I suppose) Doc tells Wyatt that his is a Buntline Special with the barrel cut down. Of course, if Buntlines ever existed at all (Stuart Lake thought they did) it was Wyatt who had one, not Doc. Doc used a .38 double-action Colt. Every Western fan knows that. I mean, come on.
It’s only 70 minutes and while there is some nice outdoor photography of Lone Pine locations by Charles G Clarke (the silent 1926 Whispering Smith and the 1934 Viva Villa! among his credits) and the stage hold-up is actionful and well done, most of the movie is limited to a smallish set of a town and not very imaginatively shot. They did apparently for some scenes put a million tons of sand on the back lot to make it like the desert. Wagonloads and wagonloads came up from the beach and filled the place with sand for over half a mile wide.
The music (four uncredited contributors) is slushy and poor.
The picture was very well received. The anonymous film reviewer of The New York Times (it was the year before Bosley Crowther took over) was especially enthusiastic. It's probably worth quoting that appreciation in full:
"The story of Wyatt Earp, who brought the law to Tombstone, Ariz., belongs to frontier folklore; to have touched it at all, and not to have made a great Western out of it, would have been a cinematic crime even lower than horse-stealing. But in the case of "Frontier Marshal" at the Roxy, nobody can say that Sol M. Wurtzel has not been faithful to the great tradition. With a grand cast, and an excellent job of directing by Allan Dwan, Mr. Earp's screen biography becomes entirely worthy of its fabulous subject.From Randolph Scott, who walks through the role of Wyatt with his customary sang-froid, to Eddie Foy Jr., in the role of his own famous father, the players fit their parts with such perfection that it is hard to know whether to credit the acting or the casting director. In the case of Binnie Barnes, as a bespangled dance hall drab in love with the romantic, melancholy killer, Doc Holliday (with his taste for sable suitings and his resemblance to Cesar Romero), the praise undoubtedly belongs to both. Uncompromisingly blond, hard and harsh-voiced, Miss Barnes is a miracle of rightness.Equally felicitous, albeit in soberer guise, is Nancy Kelly as the Good Woman who has followed the dark-browed, diseased, idealistic killer to the hell-holes of Tombstone with adoring eyes. Eddie Foy Jr., in one of his Dad's old costumes, is delightful, and John Carradine, with that pulmonary picturesqueness of his, is too mean to live in his role as the major menace, whose outlaw dance hall is plowed under to make way for a savings bank before Earp gets through with the town. In short, "Frontier Marshal" is a cracking good Western, and in the movies there's nothing much better than that."
Well, well. This is a mid-budget Randolph Scott Western, no more but no less either. It’s a lot of fun and if you take it for what it is you will enjoy it greatly.