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Frontier Marshal (1939)

This 20th Century Fox production can make for a great example when film buffs are looking for a movie where we can play spot the star and drive regular folk crazy while watching it. By regular folk, I mean those that are not overly familiar with the many name actors you’re likely to spot when watching this Allan Dwan directed feature. If you know a little bit about everyone, you could record yourself and provide a running commentary for the eventual special edition on blu ray or whatever replaces the latest form of home video in the future.

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So right from the get go you can point out that our director, Mr. Dwan was working on shorts in the silent era and continued directing into the 1960’s working with stars like Robert Ryan and Barbara Stanwyck along the way.

On to the black and white feature clocking in at a fast paced 71 minutes. Using a montage of shots, the viewer is to see the birth of the silver rush in Arizona and the rising of cities and an influx of population. It’s the “wild” west come to life with saloon owner and all around rascal John Carradine teaming with outlaw, Joe Sawyer to rob and kill for their own gain. Into this western tale comes Randolph Scott as Wyatt Earp who quickly finds an enemy in Sawyer and some of his gang members including Lon Chaney Jr. When Ward Bond backs off of carrying out his duties as town sheriff, Scott pins on the badge to set things right with a fast shooting hombre that Bond refused to tangle with.

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Saloon girls including Binnie Barnes, entertainment with Eddie Foy Jr. portraying Eddie Foy Sr. and crooked poker games are just some of the things Scott will have to contend with as he sets about to bring law to the chaotic town. If Wyatt Earp is to be portrayed then anyone who knows a thing about western lore should expect Doc Holiday to turn up as well. And so he does in the form of a solid Cesar Romero and that nagging tuberculosis cough. The duo hit it off which isn’t to the liking of Binnie who is Doc’s lady love. She’s got it in for Scott thanks to their first meeting around a poker table and the end result finding her dunked in a horse’s trough.

One would think that the second billed Nancy Kelly would be lined up as Scott’s love interest in between gunplay and fist fights. Not so. She represents the past that Romero’s Doc is running from. Romero left her waiting at the altar years previously due to his health and penchant for violence. She’s come back into his life to bring back his self esteem and make something good of himself. Miss Barnes isn’t exactly overjoyed at the development and seizes an opportunity to connect with rattlesnake Carradine to ensure at least Scott is removed from Romero’s inner circle.

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Shootouts are sure to follow and the outlaw quotient who live by the gun will die by the gun as the fade out approaches. I would imagine that pretty much all of what we are seeing on the screen could be called stretching the truth. From what I know of the Earp-Holiday story, both real life and other film versions, this one omits most characters and gives us a western adventure where the names of Holiday and Earp were probably used for the benefit of marketing the film. It’s really immaterial as the film is enjoyable whether they used real life names or not.

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Randolph Scott is really a natural to have played Earp at some point during his western career and Romero surprises as an effective Holiday though the film is far too short to fully flesh out the whole story of Doc and try telling me that Romero’s look and performance here don’t remind you of a 1950’s Anthony Quinn. Scott and Miss Kelly would also appear in the big budget western on Fox’s  calendar for 1939, Jesse James.

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Always one to point out character players, what’s not to like when you can spot Ward Bond, Joe Sawyer, John Carradine and Lon Chaney Jr. in one film. Carradine and Chaney would both achieve some stardom as the years progressed thanks to their association with the horror genre. They’d appear in a number of films together including the Universal Monster series classics, The House of Frankenstein and The House of Dracula. On the flip side they starred together in low budget fodder like The House of the Black Death.

If you haven’t seen this earlier Scott western, don’t pass it up if given a chance to see a 1930’s western that might not be as fondly recalled as Stagecoach but plays much better than so many of that decades oaters when the western was mainly a lower tier production.

Frontier Marshall is out on DVD thanks to the made on demand market and 20th Century Fox.

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9 Comments »

  1. You’re right, a veritable All-Star team of character actors! And whenever I see Joe Sawyer in a film, or read his name in print, the character of his that always comes to mind is the one he played in ‘It Came from Outer Space’.

  2. Very enjoyable flick made by the terminally underrated Dwan. OK, it’s not a great Earp story, even though it is based on the same source as My Darling Clementine, but the cast is just unbeatable and it entertains.
    I’ve had it on DVD for ages but was pleased to pick it up on UK Blu-ray, paired up with Ford’s movie, at the end of last year.

  3. A very nice choice Mike and a great review.
    You might also be interested in Louis King’s POWDER RIVER which
    uses the same source material as FRONTIER MARSHALL and MY DARLING CLEMENTINE
    but the characters names are changed from Earp and Holliday.
    POWDER RIVER teams Rory Calhoun and Cameron Mitchell (excellent)
    The more I watch Mitchell the more I feel he would,in his prime, have made a superb Mike Hammer.

    • I wasn’t aware of that connection to Powder River and I do have a copy of that as well from 20th DVD release. Just haven’t got to it yet. I always liked Mitchell’s work in the fifties. Always thought he could have been a bigger player in Hollywood but the transition to leading roles in A flicks didn’t work out.

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