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Whispering Smith (1948)

Clearly at the top of his game, Paramount star Alan Ladd, takes on the title role in this technicolor western that employs plenty of action and one character actor after another you’ll be pointing at as you try to recall the name that goes with the face.

Ladd makes a stellar entrance as he looks up into the camera following an attack on his life. He’s been bushwhacked and thought to be dead by a trio of brothers he’s on the hunt for. Ladd is a railway detective aiming to take down the Barton Brothers who are wanted men for a series of train robberies. In the dead of night he’ll catch a train and reunite with an old saddle pal played by Robert Preston. Moments later in an explosion of gunfire he’ll kill two of the Barton boys and take a bullet.

All of which leads to Ladd being taken in by Preston and his wife, the made for technicolor, Brenda Marshall. While he’s on the mend, the plot gets a bit broader. We’re to learn that Ladd and Miss Marshall were one time lovers but Ladd wouldn’t settle down what with killers and thieves to be tracked down. So Marshall settled for second best and married Preston. A boisterous friendly fellah with a quick temper. Preston is working for the railroad as a ramrod. But he’ll run afoul of the company bosses when he’s found to be pilfering cargo from wrecks. A firing is soon to follow.

Top flight character actor, Donald Crisp, is also brought into the story as a rancher and neighbor of Preston’s. But Crisp is far from legitimate and has been behind a number of train robberies. He’s also harboring the final member of the Barton gang and has a gunslinger named Whitey played effectively by Frank Faylen always at the ready when needed.

Speaking of character actors, there’s a bevy of them so how about some name dropping. William Demarest, Fay Holden, Ray Teal, Will Wright, John Eldredge and even Old Mose himself, Hank Worden. Just don’t blink or you’ll miss him. Then there are others I knew by the face but had to look up. People like Eddy Waller who I’ve seen more often them I’m probably even aware of. A quick check over at the IMDB lists him having 267 acting credits to his name! So yeah there are plenty of character players to take in while watching this action packed Leslie Fenton western.

The one character player that is surprisingly missing is Anthony Caruso. Due to an act of kindness towards Ladd in his pre stardom days, Caruso, was a regular in Ladd films appearing in a total of ten productions if my count is correct.

Battle lines are to be clearly drawn when Ladd is back in the saddle. He let’s Crisp know that he’ll be gunning for him if he can prove that it’s his outfit behind the robberies. End result after this first meeting? Crisp goads Barton into a gunfight with Ladd but when the gunsmoke clears it’s our hero standing tall with a wary eye on Faylen who may have taken a shot at him during the melee.

Ladd is soon to be torn between his job and his loyalty to Preston. Preston who at one time had hero worshipped Ladd has now taken up with Crisp and knows that Ladd and his wife are still carrying a torch for one another. Ladd just can’t seem to pull his old pal out of the fire.

For those who enjoy a good Ladd dust up, you’ll love the scene where he delivers a perfectly timed three punch knockout combination to Faylen’s slippery Whitey. Then there’s the gunplay. Ladd is going to have to take on the Crisp gang and somehow come to terms with Preston.

But what of lovely Brenda? Who’s arms are going to be holding her at the fadeout? Do yourself a favor and get a copy of this first rate Ladd adventure and find out for yourself.

Alan Ladd may be the good guy but he sure looks great in that black hat which at one time we’re reserved for the outlaws. Truthfully his Whispering Smith character and this film in general play much like a Randolph Scott feature. I could easily have seen Scott in the lead role. Trivia wise I also got a kick out of Brenda Marshall’s character being named Marion. So was Jean Arthur in Shane and there’s little doubt that Ladd was in love with both women and while Brenda is still in love with him, I’m pretty sure Miss Arthur’s Marion was fighting the temptation.

Not only is Whispering Smith chock full of faces you’ll recognize but it’s a good looking film in technicolor and what money was spent on the budget is clearly on the screen. Between location footage in and around California combined with a well designed train wreck set, the film looks bigger in scope than it probably is. But again, that’s a plus.

Director Fenton had previously worked with Ladd and his frequent co-star, Veronica Lake, on 1947’s Saigon. Following Whispering Smith he’d direct Miss Marshall’s then husband William Holden in the 1949 western release Streets of Laredo. On the topic of Brenda Marshall, I always felt she was a dark haired stunner. Her career mainly spanned the 1940’s. She scored some leading roles opposite the biggest names of the era including Errol Flynn in The Sea Hawk and played Cagney for a fool in Captains of the Clouds. The latter film capturing her beauty magnificently in technicolor against the backdrop of the Canadian wilderness.

Preston was no stranger to Ladd films. Not only was he in 1947’s Wild Harvest with the box-office star but Preston was there when it really all began for the eventual Shane. Preston scored higher billing than Ladd in 1942’s This Gun For Hire but when the dust settled it’s Ladd and Lake that ran off with the picture and stardom. Still, Preston was to have a long career in film with The Music Man and other big films on his resume into the 1980’s including an Oscar Nomination for 82’s Victor/Victoria.

The title character was revived during the heyday of the western craze on TV. Sadly the end result was rather disappointing and only ran for one season (1961) starring Audie Murphy in the title role.

Whispering Smith shouldn’t be too hard to track down on DVD and just recently it was put out on blu ray thanks to Kino Lorber in a western three pack alongside 1946’s The Virginian and 1940’s When The Dalton’s Rode.

2 Comments »

  1. I quite like this movie. It’s very attractively shot and it’s a pleasure to see Ladd starting to make his way in westerns.

    Merry Christmas, Mike.

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