South of St. Louis (1949)
By 1949 leading man Joel McCrea had pretty much settled into the western on a permanent basis. This time out he’s surrounded by a top notch cast in technicolor for Warner Brothers under Ray Enright’s direction. It’s a film that has a sense of grandeur on a ‘B+” level production.
The Civil War rages on in Texas and for a trio of partners, McCrea, Zachary Scott and Douglas Kennedy, it finally reaches them at their ranch they own and operate. None other than screen nasty Victor Jory leads a group of Rebel soldiers who are nothing more than carpetbaggers. They burn the trio’s ranch to the ground prompting McCrea to ride out for vengeance leaving his sweetheart, Dorothy Malone pining for her man.
The Union Army dominate the territory and McCrea and company are devout southerners. Still that won’t stop them from riding in to a showdown with outlaw Jory in a saloon run by Alan Hale with technicolor beauty Alexis Smith as the featured entertainer. Guns are not drawn but when Joel confronts Victor it’s one heck of a fist fight. Sure it’s easy to spot stuntmen in long shots but both of the name actors are in plenty of the action sequences throwing punches and taking falls over tables and chairs. Joel makes it clear to Vic, “Get out of Texas.”
Like she’s been sent over from a black and white Noir feature, Alexis Smith gets her hooks into Joel and sets him up unknowingly as a gun runner which puts him at odds with the Union Army. Zachary goes right along with him and sees the benefits of cash and wealth which will send him towards becoming the Zachary Scott we all know and love while Kennedy, the third member of the trio decides to join the Southern forces and battle against the Northern stronghold in Texas.
War and greed will do strange things to some good men and Zach gets to the point where he doesn’t care who gets killed when he and Joel run guns. The Union soldiers or the Johnny Rebs. This will lead to his falling out with Kennedy and barely struggling to keep his relationship with Joel civil. When snaky Bob Steele turns up as Zach’s confidante, Joel sees where his pal is headed. Steele once rode with Jory and isn’t to be trusted with a gun or the knife he freely throws about. It won’t be long before Jory is back in the story when the gun running begins south of the border in Mexico. He’s quickly turned into a competitor with McCrea and intends to kill the screen hero.
The war delays Joel’s romance with Dorothy who will turn her attentions to another allowing Alexis to saddle up with McCrea.
I guess I’ll stop there as there’s a lot of plot shoehorned into this Enright feature and I’d rather let you see who is going to be left standing at the end of this soap opera on the trail. I’ll admit to thinking this was a bit on the boring side at first but it picked up steam as it went along giving Joel a good role and one that finds him dealing with much inner torment at the loss of his sweetheart and the guilt over falling out with his life long pals.
Best exchange in the movie? That’s easy. After parting ways with McCrea, Zachary Scott says to Alexis who is clearly in love with the stoic cowboy, “He ain’t got nothing but the clothes on his back.” Her response….. “It’s how you wear’em Charlie. It’s all in how you wear’em.”
Plenty of shootouts and double crosses with a trio of bad guys that will need to be dealt with before McCrea can call it a day. Steele, Jory and Scott. Any one of this actors can make me want to see the hero triumph but of the three it’s Scott that always seemed to have finesse in a Dan Duryea kind of way that makes him so much more enjoyable on screen then the other two.
Look in the right places and you might be able to locate this one on the old VHS format or maybe even blu ray as I see it’s out on the latest home video technology as well. A glossy Warner Brothers effort with a Max Steiner score that as I said in my opening comments, wants to play bigger than it actually is and given a larger budget and a bigger director, it might have been just that.