Saturday, March 2, 2013

Another Look: THE PLAINSMAN (1936)

This is a rousing, big scale Western feature film from 1936, starring Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur, produced and directed by the legendary Cecil B. DeMille. Cooper has never been more laconic or handsome (compared to the haggard, leathery-faced Coop from his later Westerns such as HIGH NOON or VERA CRUZ), Jean Arthur has never been feistier or lovelier, and as befitting any DeMille film, the production values are splashy and spectacular.

THE PLAINSMAN takes place in the sprawling, Westward-expansion years following the Civil War and tells the tale of the tenuous romance between Wild Bill Hickok (Cooper) and Calamity Jane (Arthur). It also covers the friendship between Hickok and Buffalo Bill Cody (James Ellison), and touches on both of their acquaintances with George Armstrong Custer. As a prologue states at the beginning of the film, its story "condenses many years, lives, and events."
And, boy, is that an understatement. It not only condenses the years, it flips them and flops them forward and backward and sideways, and then tosses in a handful of colorful events (most of them wholly fictional - except for mention of Custer's Last Stand and, ultimately, the back-shooting of Wild Bill) and laces them through one wild and wooly yarn.
Historically speaking, the whole thing is horribly inaccurate. But, in retrospect, I don't think it's inaccurate in the sense that anyone was actually trying for any degree of accuracy—it's more like the makers of this movie decided to take some familiar names from the period and simply make up a series of adventures for them to gallop through. Not unlike a bunch of kids playing in the back yard, each choosing to be a colorful Wild West character and then making up their own set of adventures to act out. (Remember, this was back in the days when kids still went out and played in their back yards and the fictionalized, romantic images of heroes like Wild Bill and Buffalo Bill hadn't been lost to them.)

From that perspective, despite its corniness and butchering of history, THE PLAINSMAN is really a lot of fun. Its 113-minute length (a very long movie for those days), never lags and is never boring. Jean Arthur tries her darnedest to steal every scene she's in, and although she succeeds with everyone else in the film, she can't quite get past Cooper standing like a slab of granite in the midst of her shenanigans. James Ellison is engaging enough in the role of Buffalo Bill, and the banter between the two Bills in a couple isolated scenes is well done; but more often than not, Ellison is all but blown off the screen by Cooper and/or Arthur. Curiously, in foreign markets the movie was often titled "The Adventures of Buffalo Bill", but still with Cooper and Arthur at top billing. I guess the popularity of the old buffalo hunter/showman, via his world-famous Wild West Show, was still strong enough (after all, he was still touring up until less than three decades prior to this film) to be a bigger draw than the less-specific title.

All in all, if you spot a bargain bin DVD copy of THE PLAINSMAN (not to be confused with the 1966 remake starring Don Murray and Abby Dalton) or spot it scheduled on the Western Channel or TCM, it is definitely worth checking out. There are parts that will make your spirit soar like a kid again, parts that will bring out a smile or chuckle, and a scene or two brimming with genuine emotion. (Spoiler alert: Like the final scene when, after Wild Bill has been wiping off Calamity's kisses all through the movie and then lies dying in her arms in the Deadwood saloon after being shot in the back, she murmurs "There's a kiss you won't be wiping off" after leaning over and putting her lips to his one last time … Come on, if that don't put at least a little bit of a lump in your throat then you probably never leaked a tear at the end of Old Yeller either.)
THE PLAINSMAN is the kind of movie where you could say, "They don't make 'em like that any more" … and then you could add: And that's kind of a shame.


Ron Scheer said...

Gotta love both those actors. Jean Arthur was a pistol, and Cooper cut his teeth as a Silent actor and then went on to become an icon best known for his silences.

wayne d. dundee said...

Cleverly put, Ron. Probably the only Western star who said less than Coop was Clint Eastwood in those early Man With No Name oaters.