Thursday, June 7, 2012

A Ward Bond/Mike Mazurki Team Up

I was checking the discount DVD bin at Big Lots, knowing that it’s quite possible to run across an occasional treasure there.

And, bingo, I find one. It’s a two-disc set featuring John Wayne in a couple of 1940s Republic Westerns. It’s priced at only five bucks.

Now it’s possible that I might have simply made a mental note of the titles and then later checked to see if they were available through Netflix or the public library. As much as I love old B-movies, I don’t always feel the urge to own particular ones.

But then I notice something that clinched the deal for me. One of the movies—Dakota (1945)—had character actors Ward Bond and Mike Mazurki teaming up as the bad guys.

A Bond/Mazurki team-up? I now definitely felt the urge to own this particular movie.

Bond co-starred with John Wayne in several zillion films over the years—often in John Ford-directed vehicles. Mazurki made a career of playing mostly brutal thugs, something he did effectively in both serious dramas and comedies. Bond was the more versatile actor of the two, but both men always got the job done in any films in which they appeared. Bond is particularly fun to watch this time around. He didn’t often play out-and-out villains, but it’s not at all surprising that he does so quite effectively here.

By the way, if you watch this film, don’t forget that there is an honored tradition to point at the screen and shout out Mike Mazurki’s name when he first appears.

Also, the movie has a riverboat in it. Any movie filmed in black-and-white that significantly features a riverboat is required viewing.

Bond and Mazurki are running a scam on the local farmers in the Dakota Territory, using a carefully planned combination of con artistry and violence to gain control of the land in anticipation of a railroad coming through.

When John Wayne’s character loses $20,000 to them, he becomes a de facto champion of the farmers.

The film is notable not just for the cast, but also for the amount of humor in it. In fact, there ‘s a lot more humor, presented more effectively, that you usual find in Westerns from this era. The script allows the actors to have fun with the story. Most notable here is Vera Ralson as Wayne’s newlywed wife, a strong-willed woman who makes a pretense at being submissive, but then does whatever she wants anyways. It is her, in fact, who is responsible for Wayne’s character being in the Dakotas. When they were leaving Chicago (one jump ahead of her disapproving father), he told her to buy train tickets to California. She told him she would, then bought tickets to Fargo. She had decided he could make his fortune there.

But within this context, the relationship between the two remains sweet and there’s no problem believing that the two of them are truly in love. This provides a strong and believable emotional background to the plot.

Walter Brennan adds more humor in his role as a riverboat captain who yells at his ship, mumbles to himself a lot and doesn’t always seem like he’s quite all there.

It’s a nicely balanced story—the humor is used to establish the characters without ever conflicting, either thematically or in terms of pacing, with the main plot. Everything mixes together nicely until the climax, which includes an attempted lynching, a free-for-all gun fight and a raging prairie fire.

By the way, other than the two being on my short list of favorite character actors, Bond and Mazurki working together is fun in another way. A year or so before Dakota was made, both had played the character of Moose Malloy in different film versions of Raymond Chandlere’s Farewell, My Lovely.

Ward Bond, Mike Mazurki and a riverboat. How can one NOT watch this movie?


  1. Figures that I don't have Dakota in either of my John Wayne collections. I'll have to try and track it down.

  2. Tony--You'll enjoy Dakota--it's worth the effort to track it down.

    mymoonlog--thanks for getting me to triple digits. I hope you continue to enjoy the blog.


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