Friday, June 05, 2020

Union Pacific (1939)

USA, 135 minutes
Director: Cecil B. DeMille
Writers: Walter DeLeon, C. Gardner Sullivan, Jesse Lasky Jr., Jack Cunningham, Ernest Haycox, Frederick Hazlitt Brennan, Jeanie Macpherson, Stanley Rauh
Photography: Victor Milner
Music: Sigmund Krumgold, John Leipold, Gerard Carbonara, Leo Shuken, Victor Young
Editor: Anne Bauchens
Cast: Joel McCrea, Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Preston, Brian Donlevy, Henry Kolker, Akim Tamiroff, Lynne Overman, Robert Barrat, Anthony Quinn, Stanley Ridges, Evelyn Keyes, Regis Toomey, Lon Chaney Jr.

I've never entirely understood the term "movie movie" (and the internet is little help on it at the moment) but my sense is that it might apply to this cracking epical Cecil B. DeMille yarn about the building of the railroad from Omaha, Nebraska to Ogden, Utah. It's pulpy, old-fashioned, a little bit long, and thoroughly enjoyable. There's enough fizzy calculated confrontation and tension from scene to scene to keep it constantly interesting. It takes place shortly after the Civil War and plays much like an extended Dudley Do-Right cartoon, complete with a Snidely Whiplash villain (Brian Donlevy, in the screenshot above, who is often seen dunking the sucking end of his cigars into his drink, eww). 

Also on view: buffalo, Indians, Mexicans, gold fever, fancy shooting, gamblers, horses—practically everything Western except Mormons, and they're probably waiting in Ogden. And trains, of course, the ol' Iron Horse, with not one but two spectacular train wrecks. The story is some extended nonsense that is at once about opening the Western frontier and also about the amiable political corruption that drove it. The bad guys don't get everything they want, but as usual in American history they get about 80%, enough to pay for the cigars and fancy suits. 

Mainly we're here for the action anyway, such as it is, which may look somewhat antiquated now but comes with recognizably improved models of various D.W. Griffith blockbuster set pieces. It's full of known quantities and thus comfortable like the barcalounger you might want to use when you look at it. The Dudley Do-Right character, name of Jeff Butler, is played by Joel McCrea, whose absurd extra-boy-scout qualities would later be recognized and put to better comical use by Preston Sturges in Sullivan's Travels and The Palm Beach Story. McCrea, threatening to float away like a wisp of cotton candy even in his big boots, never could quite manage the gravitas of the middle-aged John Wayne, or even Gary Cooper, his most obvious model, but that's all right. Butler is quick and sure with the gun, and honest to a fault with the girl, and that covers the main points. 

The girl, the Nell, is an Irish lass, Mollie Monahan by name I'll be tellin' ye. Barbara Stanwyck's elaborate brogue doesn't exactly fit with the Stanwyck we're more used to seeing, though she pulls it off with the consistency that's always her trait as a consummate pro. Butler's rival for Mollie, Dick Allen, is played by Robert Preston, a boy scout of a darker root beer flavor, a good guy mixed up with bad guys, the more's the pity. So it goes in this love triangle about spanning the New World continent and damn the torpedos.

The rest is rounded off by a phalanx of character actors such as Henry Kolker, Akim Tamiroff, Lynne Overman, and Robert Barrat, a bunch of hey-that-guys if you've ever seen one. Anthony Quinn at about 24 has a small role as a hired killer and dandy in a top hat who disappears from the picture due to death almost as soon as we meet him. I've noticed Quinn is one of those young actors who are easy to notice even in these small roles in the '30s. It has surprised me some as I've always thought of him as standard-issue macho. His appearance here emphasizes not only the longevity of his career, which extended into the '90s, but also his charisma and that semi-mythical way some players have of making the camera fall in love with them. I was briefly distracted thinking of all the interesting roles Quinn has played, in La Strada, in Zorba the Greek, in The Happening, in Across 110th Street, and many more.

Union Pacific, unlike Gone With the Wind, its epic historical companion piece of 1939, is more focused on entertaining than on making patently ridiculous points of historical interpretation. Massacres and other grotesque tragedies, from cheating at cards to shooting Indians from the train for sport, are dropped in like scenery. They're not even bothering to shrug their shoulders. No one is particularly concerned about outrage or great wrongs here. These are people trying to build an empire, no time for straining at gnats. The moral equivalent of the cavalry arrives to save the day, and if Dudley does not end up with Nell, well, he never did in the cartoon either. In the end the railroad is finished and that's what matters, all the rest is no harm no foul. If history is not exactly told right here, you should have known better than to expect it?

DeMille's name is often used now as a kind of synonym for the overdone (Bob Dylan, 1965: "Then send out for some pillars and Cecil B. DeMille") but I have to say I've seen enough of his pictures now to recognize his skill making them. Even deadly long workups like his second bite at The Ten Commandments are typically far more engaging and entertaining than I expect (though in that particular case the 1923 silent version is actually much better—for one thing it's only about as long as Union Pacific). Sure, it could be a matter of lowered expectations going in, but it also might be that he's pretty good at making movies. In any event, you're going to want to have a supply of popcorn on hand for Union Pacific.

Top 10 of 1939
2. Union Pacific
3. Stagecoach
4. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
6. Wuthering Heights
7. Young Mr. Lincoln
8. Le Jour Se Leve
9. Stanley and Livingstone
10. The Roaring Twenties

Other write-ups: Gone With the Wind

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