Thursday, December 10, 2015

B-Movie Stars in an A-Movie.

Dark Command (1940) isn't a B-movie. If its IMDB entry is accurate, it cost a cool million to make, which was a lot even for A-movies in that day. But it feels like a B-movie in all the right ways.

It stars John Wayne, who had only recently moved into the A-list column a year earlier with Stagecoach. Co-star Walter Pidgeon was starring in an incredibly fun series of B-movies at the time playing detective Nick Carter that same year. The niftiest thing about the movie, though, is that a very young Roy Rogers and his future sidekick Gabby Hayes both have important roles in the film.

The setting is Kansas, just before and during the Civil War, when political passions were often driving a mob mentality among people. This is something that Bob Seaton (Wayne), a cowboy from Texas, actually uses to get some spending cash. He gets into arguments with someone over politics and socks that person in the jaw. Now in need of a dentist, the person would seek out Doc Grunch (Hayes)--who just happens to be Seaton's travelling companion. But once Seaton settles down in the town of Lawrence, he has a chance to make something more respectable of himself.

Wayne gives a great performance in this film--Seaton is uneducated and illiterate, but he's smart and capable enough to get elected marshal of Lawrence--becoming a figure of calm that often keeps the aforementioned mob mentality at bay. Wayne hits all the right notes in order to make us believe that his lack of formal education does not affect his native intelligence or his ability to make balanced moral judgments.

Pidgeon is William Cantrill--a character obviously based on the real-life brutal guerrilla leader William Quantrill. Cantrill wanted the marshal's job, but when he loses the election, he goes into gun-running, slave-running and murder. He keeps his activities a secret for most of the movies, though it isn't long before Seaton suspects him.

Of course, there's a pretty girl involved--Mary McCloud (played by Wayne's Stagecoach co-star Claire Trevor) is loved by both Seaton and Cantrill. Roy Rogers is her fiery-tempered brother--who, as you'll see in the clip I'm including, is a little bit quicker on the trigger than the heroic Roy we're all used to.

The whole cast is great. Pidgeon's descent into villainy is fascinating; Gabby Hayes finds that tricky balance between comic relief and competence; and Roy is simply fun to watch in a role so different from his B-movie persona.

Raoul Walsh is the director and does a typically strong job--the action sequences, often involving a lot of extras trying to kill each other, are truly exciting. This is especially true of Cantrill's climatic raid on the town of Lawrence.

The ending raps things up a little too neatly--the main characters seem curiously unconcerned that their town is burning down around them and a violent crime committed by one character earlier in the film seems to have been forgotten. But those are nitpicks. Dark Command might have been an A-film, but it is entertaining and exciting in exactly the same way as were the best B-movies of the day.

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