Thursday, January 24, 2013

Maybe not the best fist fight ever--but it sure comes close

The 1942 version of Rex Beach's novel The Spoilers (written in 1906) is actually one of at least four versions of the story made between 1914 and 1955. I haven't seen the other versions--though the 1914 silent movie version is posted on YouTube, so I'll get to it eventually. Even so, I'd be willing to bet up to $23.80 that the '42 version would still be my favorite.

The tale is set in Nome, Alaska in 1900, during the height of the Gold Rush. John Wayne is Glennister, the co-owner of a big mine. Randolph Scott is McNamara, the dishonest gold commissioner--he's in charge of filing claims on mines, but manipulates the records to gain ownership of rich strikes for himself.

It's fun to see Scott--who played heroes through most of his career--doing an effective job of playing a suave but still physically imposing villain.

Marlene Dietrich rounds out the main cast--she's a saloon owner named Cherry Malotte who has a thing for Glennister. It's the sort of role of tough-gal role she was so adept at playing. She gorgeous and smart and gets to play an important role in eventually bringing down the bad guy.

I love the look of the film as well. It might have been tempting to simply use an Old West set and tell us "This is Alaska." But though there is an Old West vibe (perfectly appropriate, as 1900 Alaska was still very much a frontier), the town gives us a real sense of being way up north. Little touches, such as the thick mud streets with an occasional path of two-by-fours laid across from one building to another, all add up to give the film a real sense of atmosphere.

And--as is so delightfully typical of films of this era--the supporting characters are played by skilled character actors who bring real personality to even the minor characters. Harry Carey is perfect as Glennister's partner. Richard Barthelmess plays the Bronco Kid, a gambler who works for Cherry and is hopelessly in love with her. Bronco's story arc is background to the main plot, but it's a particularly interesting one that hits some strong emotional notes.

Anyway, when the law seems to work against justice and Glennister's mine is seized by lawmen working for McNamara, Glennister takes action to put things right. This includes smashing a train through a barricade, which leads to a massive gun battle between miners and corrupt lawmen. But McNamara isn't around for that. Glennister sees to him separately--in a scene that culminates in one of the best fist fights ever filmed. (By the way, there are spoilers inherent in both the YouTube clips I've embedded here.)

The same year they made The Spoilers, Wayne, Randolph and Miss Dietrich also starred in a movie called Pittsburgh, which also had a great Wayne/Scott fist fight. The two men went on to both have truly iconic careers, but I think they could have made good livings just beating the snot out of each other one film. They were awfully good at it.

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