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Movie Analysis: High Noon (1952)

United Artists’ High Noon (1952) is a lightning rod of controversy. This compelling movie was made with the best talents and its taut, purpose-driven plot gains and keeps attention. Any honest appraisal must account for its flaws, too. I recently saw it again at the Autry Museum of the American West, where the movie will be discussed in a program next year comparing the classic Western to what’s become known as the Hollywood blacklist.

The picture’s timely connection to a congressional campaign purporting to be against Communist influence in Hollywood pertains to its downside. High Noon has a stagy, stiff quality that feels pedantic, forced and overproduced. In that sense, like Gary Cooper’s film for Warner Bros., The Fountainhead (1949), it’s too obviously delivering a message. Part of the problem is the age difference between Cooper as Hadleyville’s marshal Will Kane and Grace Kelly (Rear Window) as his deeply religious bride. And this problem feeds off the plot’s need to make the marshal more like a prop than a fully developed character.

On its own terms, however, High Noon engages to a degree. Marshal and Mrs. Kane flee from an evildoer on their wedding day—as the married couple does in Oklahoma!, also directed by Fred Zinnemann (From Here to Eternity, A Man for All Seasons, The Nun’s Story)—though they are not forced to do so and this, in particular, is a crucial distinction. To his credit, the marshal has retired his badge and job by the time he turns tail and gallops with his blonde young bride and, though he changes his mind, he later changes it again after putting the badge back on and decides to flee from harm. This is important because it shows that the lawman is conflicted.

So, infamously, is the town of Hadleyville. But the audience is supposed to morally judge them, and not him, for being conflicted. This while the marshal eventually, strictly and stubbornly out of a sense of duty carries out his mission to confront the evildoer coming in on the noontime train. Add a constant tick-tock clock and a song sung by Tex Ritter, with Dimitri Tiomkin’s Oscar-winning score, complex and interesting supporting roles and High Noon holds interest. As allegory for what the writer apparently considers an unjust anti-Communist hunt, High Noon does not hold up.

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See the movie and judge for yourself. What works as moral dilemma is what drains and undercuts the allegorical warning. This explains why High Noon, first offered to John Wayne (who rejected the leading role) and held up by leftists and those who condemn anyone (such as director Elia Kazan, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Viva Zapata!, On the Waterfront) who named Communists (such as High Noon‘s credited screenwriter, Carl Foreman) in the HUAC hearings, gets praised and claimed across the political spectrum. The movie is mixed.

No one scene explicitly captures this more than the speech in church by the morally gray, rotten character played by Thomas Mitchell, who basically endorses pragmatism (speaking of timely political references) as the reason for denying a defense of the town, on the grounds that protecting Hadleyville from thugs jeopardizes government handouts. This from a character who says he admires Will Kane and rightly demands that Will Kane be heard in his plea for help, that the hearing be civil and that the townspeople do, in fact, contrary to some claims, constitute the whole town.

“This is our town,” pleads Mitchell’s character and then he proceeds to make the case for abandoning its defense and appeasing its enemies (speaking of timely political references again). It’s not surprising that the mixed, pragmatic philosophy of this movie, chosen by the Autry’s members as the audience favorite in 2016’s Western film series, dominates today’s culture, politics and foreign policy; anyone on the left, right or in the middle can justifiably project himself onto the Will Kane character. High Noon was apparently one of Ronald Reagan’s favorite movies yet Bill Clinton showed it in the White House numerous times.

What decent person wouldn’t want to see himself as the crusading hero seeking to render justice in a “dirty little village in the middle of nowhere” (starting with a lonely train station as in 1955’s Bad Day at Black Rock) as Katy Jurado’s Mexican character puts it? With producer and director Stanley Kramer (Judgment at Nuremberg, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Inherit the Wind) producing and said to be heavily involved with the filmmaking, how could High Noon not end up being serious, topical and absorbing? The cast of characters, though there are too many and they say too much, are a fascinating assortment of profiles in cowardice.

As evil men gather over the movie’s signature song at the start, church bells ring and religion comes off as the antidote selected by the townspeople to deal with whatever’s wrong with the world. They dread facing the truth, and, while the voice of reason is also a voice for pragmatism, he gathers and rallies the town in a church, where the parson, all but ceding that sermonizing offers no real, practical value here on earth, fully abdicates religion as a philosophy. Hadleyville’s lone intellectual, the judge who marries Will and Amy Kane, cites 5th century BC history and the fact that he’d previously fled a similarly challenged town called Indian Falls as he packs up and folds an American flag to get out of town. Lloyd Bridges’ deputy marshal sees himself as a victim who knows on some level that he lives through others. An innkeeper (who today would be a vocal proponent of Donald Trump) is more explicit in stating that the ends justify the means.

In this sense, Hadleyville’s a stand-in for America and its religion is pragmatism and High Noon certainly rings true in this regard, down to the fact that the whole place’s days are numbered. To this point, the Battle Hymn of the Republic plays in the climax as the clock ticks, emphasizing that the town’s doom comes closer while the town prays away precious seconds. While Gary Cooper’s Will Kane runs around town pleading for help against the four monsters about to strike, a character played by Harry Morgan hides, making the town’s cowardice more explicit, in case the audience misses the point. Someone asks: “How do we know that [the villain] is on the train?” Someone asserts that “it’s not our jobs” to protect the town. Even Will Kane’s mentor, an arthritic, old man, opposes confronting the thugs, telling him: “It’s all for nothing.”

But why would a hero go to enlist an old man in the first place? This is the problem with High Noon, which contradicts Kane’s heroism at every turn.

Whether he’s riding out of town after retiring his badge—and he was uncertain and unsteady in both decisions from the start—Will Kane can’t seem to stand on his own and decide what’s right. On one hand, with a town so undeserving—and you learn how thugs came to rule as the town’s lousy characters come along—it’s easy to see why the former marshal doesn’t want to go it alone. It’s hardly worth the effort as the town’s already half-dead. As the Tex Ritter song, “Do Not Forsake Me, My Darling” plays as a taunt in the saloon, it’s as though Will Kane goes door to door taunting himself, doubting whether he does have a moral duty to save a town that won’t defend itself (he doesn’t), casting himself adrift wherever he goes. When his ex-deputy (Bridges) asks Kane “Why?” Kane answers: “I don’t know.”

Yet when Katy Jurado’s morally ambiguous character—depicted as decent but remember she’s been the hero’s and the villain’s leading lady—proclaims that “when [Kane] dies, this town dies, too,” what’s the evidence that the town’s worth saving, or that the man who’d risk dying for a town that isn’t worth saving is any kind of hero? Will Kane takes his final steps past the offices of Julius Weber, the watchmaker, reasserting the theme that civilization is running out of time, closeups come in a cluster when the clock strikes noon and, as the camera pulls back making Cooper’s Kane smaller and smaller, it’s clear that he’s puny. And he’s alone.

Or is he? This is High Noon‘s final deceit, and, in its resolution, High Noon sort of justifies every pragmatic argument anyone in town’s ever made. You can have your cake and eat it, too, this classic movie aims to say, with Howard Hawks and John Wayne teaming for 1959’s underrated and emotionally superior counter-argument, Rio Bravo, several years later. The evidence that this picture won the audience is strong. Look around, down to who rules the day, and mark High Noon as an artful example of anti-heroism that dominates and influences in fiction and in fact.

Movie Review: The Big Country (1958)

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With an all-star cast, magnificent score and a powerful exposition underlying its theme, The Big Country, directed by William Wyler (The Best Years of Our Lives, Roman Holiday, The Letter, Funny Girl, Ben-Hur, The Collector), packs a punch.

This sprawling, violent and thought-provoking Western, which I watched with my Writing Boot Camp students at a screening at the Autry Museum of the American West’s Wells Fargo Theater, lingers and stays with an audience.

“I’ll be back,” says a character played by Chuck Connors, long before he played the rapist/slavemaster Tom Moore in Roots and a year before he played a man of honor in The Rifleman. That he says this to an innocent but strong schoolteacher (Jean Simmons) early in the picture signals the final conflict to come.

The main character is Jim McKay, played by Gregory Peck in one of his better roles and performances. Peck’s McKay is a civilized man; a newcomer to the American West. He represents a new wave of frontiersmen and women who populate the West. McKay drinks hard liquor in daylight, knows how to fire a gun and he eats steak and eggs. But he dresses well, thinks and knows how to sail a ship, too. McKay doesn’t swagger when he walks. He doesn’t drawl, either. His confidence is held down deep and he’s refined, not hard-charging like the Connors character or dogmatic like the duty-bound cowhand played by Charlton Heston. Indeed, Peck’s McKay is the quintessentially modern Westerner: he is the individualist who thinks.

But he is engaged to the daughter (Carroll Baker) of a landowner (Charles Bickford) who lacks the far-sighted brand of individualism that settling and inhabiting the West will demand. Herein lies a seed for moral conflict that spreads out far and wide. As everyone keeps telling the newcomer, this is big country.

In compelling scenes that run long and hard and entice the audience to pay attention, not drift off into sight gags, gimmicks and thrills, the locals’ small-mindedness in this big land comes out, is tested and gets roped. McKay’s fiancee’s daddy sets the smallness down at the dining table, as McKay reels back and sees the puny as it is for the first time.

At issue is an ongoing battle between two families over water rights owned by the schoolteacher.

“You can’t be friends with both,” someone tells a doubter. Jim McKay sees possibilities, however, looking out at the vast, open valley. Slowly, very slowly, at his own pace, this town’s people come to know the newcomer as a man of balance—even his future father-in-law sees that fact in McKay’s legacy guns, used in a duel McKay’s father lost—and the more they know him, the less they like him and his newfangled ideals. Among the radical notions he brings are treating a man with benevolence, not scorn, whether he’s drunk like Connors’ roughneck cowboy or foreign like Ramon, who runs the horses at the daughter’s ranch.

Treating a woman as an equal is another ideal, which not even his own would-be wife comes to want when she’s faced with what it really means. Baker and Simmons are a pair in contrast as much as the other two duos in this trilogy of contrasting couples. Their two Western women characters pit the self-reliant against the self-centered in a thoroughly engaging subplot. Simmons’ woman works with her hands and her mind while Baker’s acts more like a pre-Industrial typical female, working her ways and means, throwing hissy fits and pushing her man to fight for the sake of exhibition, not for the sake of a goal or a principle. When someone refers to him as a sailor, she points out that he’s a captain. Titles, not deeds, matter to her.

But deed matters most in The Big Country and it’s a deed to property owned by Simmons’ estate—the Big Muddy, as it’s known—which the rational man knows how to get and what to do with it. The plot twists and turns with great screenwriting from several credited and uncredited writers. Pivotal lines include: “Do what you’re told and don’t ask any questions”. The Big Country‘s best line, when climax nears and someone finally smears McKay, who dares to name the smear: “Coward? Are you afraid of the word? I’m not.”

This character contrast on an epic scale has everything it needs in abundance, from a technological tool used to outsmart the warring tribes, playfulness of a romance between equals and the sight of a man facing the big country alone, braced only with the use of his reasoning mind. With great writing, characters and performances, especially by Peck, Simmons and Heston dramatizing the virtue of loyalty, and fistfights, dancing, horseback riding, cattle, a stagecoach and stunning vistas in Technicolor—set to a musical score by Jerome Moross capturing what was once the insatiably American sense of life—The Big Country delivers its best feature late but not too late.

Burl Ives (So Dear to My Heart) gives a career best performance as the gruff patriarch who might have been a man of principle.

Ives dominates every scene with his body, voice and intensity. His nuanced turn as the leader of the ambush at Blanco Canyon (the name of Donald Hamilton’s story on which this movie’s based) adds depth to an already exceptional movie. The Big Country improbably has all of that and manages to depict with complexity the type of man—and woman—who idealized, conquered and won the West.

Travel: McCrea Ranch

Last night’s Cowboy Cookout and Ranch Tour at movie star Joel McCrea’s ranch in Southern California was perfect. The air was a bit chilly. But, with everyone helping to make the annual Joel and Frances McCrea Ranch Foundation fundraiser a success, from bus driver Pete and ranch staff to the poet, the band and McCrea’s grandson Wyatt, who lives there, the place was warm, relaxed and rooted in Western culture. Guests added Hollywood glamour.

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McCrea Ranch. Photo by Scott Holleran. © Copyright 2016 Scott Holleran. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced without the permission of Scott Holleran.

You’ve probably seen Joel McCrea’s movies. Whether romancing Claudette Colbert in Preston Sturges’ The Palm Beach Story or Veronica Lake in Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels or leading as handsome, freethinking young Dr. Kildare or in Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent, he was a commanding presence on screen. But the underrated, underappreciated actor—who was 6’4 in height—was most comfortable in Westerns, appearing with his wife Frances Dee in Wells Fargo, Cecil B. DeMille’s Union Pacific opposite Barbara Stanwyck, Wichita, as Bat Masterson in The Gunfight at Dodge City, opposite Randolph Scott in Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country, usually as lead and hero of the motion picture. I’d recently seen him as the title character in The Virginian, the 1946 Western. After that, McCrea appeared in mostly Westerns, including his last picture, 1976’s Mustang Country.

Apparently, the Golden Age-era movie star made the Western part of his life. Encouraged by his mentor, humorist Will Rogers, McCrea bought the first thousand acres of private ranch property in Ventura County—what’s now northern Thousand Oaks, California—in the early Hollywood years and made ranching a labor of love. Eventually, Joel McCrea would buy a sprawling ranch where he lived with his wife of 57 years and raised three sons, Jody, David and Peter. Today, a small portion of the original McCrea Ranch in the Santa Rosa valley is left, including the main house McCrea had built and remaining outbuildings, such as the bunkhouse, chicken coop and milk house.

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McCrea Ranch. Photo by Scott Holleran. © Copyright 2016 Scott Holleran. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced without the permission of Scott Holleran.

Yesterday, foundation docents and park staff showed the grounds. There’s a road leading up to the house, with a large kitchen and original appliances—including the elevated refrigerator to accommodate McCrea’s height—master bedroom, reading or sun room, Mrs. McCrea’s writing room, living room and the boys’ rooms above the garage. It’s a stone’s throw from the avocado-shaped swimming pool and the trees and vegetation Mr. and Mrs. McCrea planted. The 1,400-square foot visitor’s center has photographs and films on McCrea and his family in movies and at the ranch. Being there, it’s easy to imagine Joel McCrea riding horses and milking cows (he did both). After he died in 1990, Frances moved into the bunkhouse. Mrs. McCrea never lived in the main house again.

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McCrea Ranch Main Home. Photo by Scott Holleran. © Copyright 2016 Scott Holleran. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced without the permission of Scott Holleran.

The house he’d had designed and built is filled with fireplaces, books—Frances McCrea was an avid reader and Joel McCrea, whose forefather signed the Declaration of Independence, was a serious student of American history—and portraits of Lincoln and Washington. This is a modest, family home, which is not open to the public. So, while the property meets the foundation’s goal to conserve the region’s history and lifestyle, and South Pasadena native McCrea is the embodiment of the healthy, tanned, good-looking, hardworking outdoorsman with which one associates Southern California, the rustic ranch evokes the man and his chosen values. It is here that the movie star lived, worked and enjoyed privacy. The place exudes McCrea’s unique ability to shuttle between relaxed, easygoing charm and hard-driving loyalty to one’s personal code.

Donors attending last night’s Cowboy Cookout—including Western artists and intellectuals such as Eric Heisner, William Wellman, Jr., whose father directed McCrea in The Great Man’s Lady and Buffalo Bill, and Bruce Boxleitner (Contagion, Tron, CBS’s Scarecrow and Mrs. King, Gods and Generals, ABC’s How the West Was Won)—joined Wyatt McCrea in toasting McCrea Ranch as a place worth preserving as it once was. So do I, especially to study, experience and honor McCrea Ranch as home and land where Joel McCrea cashed in on what he’d earned—as an example of where a man once lived the honest, productive life he’d portrayed in the movies.

Movie Review: Forty Guns (1957)

The raw, lusty, raging Forty Guns, written, produced and directed by Samuel Fuller, cuts across genres and landscapes to forge its own way. Like a strong cowboy, tough pioneer or good Western, Forty Guns, screened at LA’s Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum in Griffith Park with an introduction by Western movie scholar Andrew Patrick Nelson, comes out fast and hard and never lets up except where it ought to go easy.

Beginning with a great open range shot, finding a lone wagon in the foreground and letting loose a stampeding roar of hooves that envelops the wagon and its driver (Barry Sullivan), the audience sooner than later learns a lot about the wagonmaster, the land and the stampede.

The land is weathered and dusty and unforgiving—so is the rampage, which is also long and purposeful—and the wagon man is undaunted. In an outstanding single shot which foretells the showdown to come, the long line of galloping horsemen splits into two lines encircling the chipped, rickety wagon. As they do, the man holds on to the reins while his horses go into a wild rage as the stampede descends and he doesn’t let go. Sure and steady of hand and manner, he is the man to watch.

As the dust settles and the riders go off, fading the heart-racing opening sequence into a slow, distant thunder, and the opening credits roll with Harry Sukman’s thrilling musical score, the camera pans past forty gun-toting cowboys toward a lone figure in the lead—why, it’s a woman!—and there goes indomitable Barbara Stanwyck.

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Then comes the town setup, with every detail factoring into the intricately mythical plot, from a child jumping rope and a stagecoach arrival to a lonely, beautiful woman making eyes at a new stranger in town. Part of the appeal of this raunchy 1957 movie is its cross-generational, cross-cultural contrasts and it’s nothing if it’s not about women’s liberated sexuality, the West and the man-woman relationship. Fuller introduces and embeds themes of aging, too, and other interesting subtexts.

But he leaves exposition to a balladeer (Jidge Carroll) who sings of a “High Ridin’ Woman” with a whip, one of several cheeky moments, and how she’s full of life and full of fire. This would be Stanwyck’s pre-Big Valley rancher and property owner, a matriarch lording over the area with her 40 dragoons. The woman’s name is Jessica Drummond—the balladeer calls her “the boss of Cochise County”—and when she’s not ordering men around and inspiring songwriters to croon at the bathhouse, she’s looking after her possessions and rationalizing the bullying actions of her much-younger brother Brockie (John Ericson). That brings Jessica Drummond into conflict with the wagonmaster she nearly ran down but didn’t.

His name is Griff Bonnell (Sullivan). He’s an avenger who’s come to town to exact justice with a criminal that works for Drummond, which he does, and he has his own score to settle. In scene after scene, the tension builds as Griff and Jessica stake their claims. Griff walks slowly by the town courthouse before coming up on Brockie and putting him in his place, underscoring that he aims to restore order and assert the role of a lawman in a wild country ruled by a hard, lonely woman. Brockie and his bunch are like hippies, Beatniks and hooligans, though, shooting up the town, destroying property and snuffing out lives. Griff has his helpers, two strong sons named Wes (Gene Barry) and Chico (Robert Dix), but he has long-range plans, too, including guiding his youngest son to a more civilized, businesslike life.

That won’t be easy with a wild woman on the loose, her unruly younger brother and a roost of half-men who let themselves be run into submission by Jessica Drummond. The sex kitten daughter of the gunsmith stirs, making moves toward Griff’s son Wes, the townfolk come to terms, noticing that Griff’s getting on in years and striding “a little slower” than usual and the Old traditionalist West comes into conflict with the New modern West with California as the ultimate ideal. With drunken, irrational Brockie uprooting the town while people decide who they are and what future they want, and Dean Jagger’s exasperated, cowardly sheriff—the quintessential moderate in the middle of the road—struggling to keep up with Griff, Forty Guns cooks up a mighty grand finale.

“Hyaaahhh!!” yells Stanwyck’s Jessica Drummond, riding across her range and finding herself drawn to Griff Bonnell because he openly mocks her and doesn’t back down and if these two sound like Roark and Dominique rustling up romance near the stone quarry in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, that sounds about right. After he rejects her, she serves him whiskey, he downs it and she handles his gun like a pro. But Griff lets her know who’ll come out on top after she tells him she’s sure of herself.

“I’m sure you’re sure,” he says, and with that he’s done with her—for now. By the time the famous twister scene plays, with Jessica riding alone in the storm and being dragged by her horse and Griff riding alone in his wagon, the chords of “High Ridin’ Woman” come up and it’s not hard to see where these two ought to be.

Later, she tells him, “I need a strong man to carry out my orders.” His reply—”…and a weak man to take them”—once again foretells the outcome in a way, though not before tragedy strikes and the whole town, including rotten Brockie and his counterpart, boyish Chico, cashes in on their choices and calls the final contest between anarchy and civilization. With the Greek chorus-style balladeer chiming in on forgiveness, death and what it cost to settle the West—with California standing in for the American Dream—the high ridin’ woman, softly in reprise on piano, gets what she’s got coming with humor, pathos and a lot to say about family, legacy, sex and love, womanhood and manhood and, yes, how the West was won.

“I never knew how to like anybody until I learned how to love,” someone says when it matters. For all its lust, raunch and fun, Forty Guns fires up and shows everybody how it’s done.

Movie Review: The Virginian (1946)

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Almost any movie starring Joel McCrea (1905-1990), who’s known for his Westerns as well as leading roles in Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent, Cecil B. DeMille’s Union Pacific, George Stevens’ The More the Merrier, Preston Sturges’ The Palm Beach Story and Sullivan’s Travels, is worth seeing just for him.

As host Robert Nott explained before a recent screening of The Virginian (1946) at The Autry Museum of the American West in LA’s Griffith Park, Southern Californian McCrea carried an easygoing way about him; he was a true gentleman and horseman—a rancher, not merely a movie star, as he informed the IRS when they came after him (and lost, by the way)—and he was a proud Western rancher. Nott says his family still runs one of the original ranches in New Mexico. McCrea, Nott asserted, captures “Americanism, realism and romanticism.”

Yes, indeed, he does, in all of those movies and especially in The Virginian, not to be confused with other fine versions and the later TV adaptation. It’s a fine story, based on the Western novel by Owen Wister, about an individualist in the West. McCrea plays the title character, which is what he goes by in a Wyoming town that’s on the cusp of civilization but still in the Wild West. In from the East comes a feisty schoolteacher (fetching Barbara Britton) to bring the growing town into the modern age and, predictably, her presence puts the whole town off on opposing sides of law and order. In this way, The Virginian is deft and raucous at once, letting the joy of courting the pretty new woman in town test each man’s character and bring his true nature to the fore.

Three men represent the good, the bad and the mixed and this is what powers the movie. Sinister Trampas (Brian Donlevy) is the standard Black Bart type, a scoundrel from the outset who’s as intent on stealing cattle as he is in first trying to steal the teacher at the saloon. He’s a rat, to be sure, and a coward when it comes to backing up what he’s done. Donlevy nails the type with the right amount of slime. The man in the middle of the road, Steve (well played by Sonny Tufts) provides the moral of the film. Steve’s the jolly fellow who goes along with the Virginian without much thought, a true ‘pardner’ to a point and a cheerful rival for the pretty teacher’s affections.

Steve’s all smiles throughout the boiling of the coming conflict between Trampas and the Virginian, who expertly rides a horse, thinks in advance and sweeps the lady off her feet, which upsets her uppity Eastern sensibilities. But Steve’s good time cattle rustling with the Virginian ends when Trampas raises the stakes and, in a line about the West that applies today as much as ever, “times are changin’ and a man’s got to figure out who he’s lined up with.” What happens next is heartbreaking, particularly for the benign but uncompromising Virginian, whom someone says “takes life too serious.”

This the Virginian does, which is why he is the movie’s hero, taking account of the townspeople, the conflict and the lady and factoring what’s likely and what’s right by reason and setting the town on the right track by his best effort. Strong and handsome Joel McCrea shines in the role and this picture displays why he is one of the screen’s greatest stars. His Virginian rides fast and endures the results of his mistakes with grit. He winces when there’s pain and strives to understand the new West but he is supremely self-confident when he acts, including when he takes Britton’s fresh-faced sophisticate, who is too much the conformist to deserve him, into a dazzling dance.

Look for I Love Lucy‘s William Frawley as a crusty cowhand. Fay Bainter steals every scene with crisp, true lines as the teacher’s hostess and would-be mentor; some of the film’s best moments come when she instructs the dainty Easterner in what being a Western woman means in practice and principle and puts Britton’s silly objections in perspective. The Virginian was adapted by Howard Estabrook from Wister’s novel and stage play by Kirk La Shelle and Wister and written by writers Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, directed by Stuart Gilmore and produced by Paul Jones for Paramount.