Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Another Look: THE SPOILERS (1942, starring John Wayne)

Prior to a few days ago, anyone would have been hard pressed to name a John Wayne film of any significance (which is to say almost anything post 1939's Stagecoach) that I haven't seen, many of them several times. Yeah, I'm an unabashed Duke fan, inherited from my folks, particularly my mother.
Nevertheless, for some reason I had never before watched The Spoilers until I got the chance to DVR it off cable about a week ago. I knew about it, had read quite a bit about it, had even seen its kindred flick --- Pittsburgh, released the same year starring the same lead trio of Wayne, Randolph Scott, and Marlene Dietrich --- more than once. But never got around to The Spoilers.
Well, now that gap in my movie viewing history has been filled and the experience was quite satisfactory.

The movie is based on a 1906 novel by the same name, written by Rex Beach. A peer of --- and heavily influenced by --- Jack London, Beach was a very popular writer throughout the early 1900s. (He wrote plays as well as novels and played on the silver medal-winning U.S. Water polo team in the 1904 Olympics.) For the most part, critics did not favor his literary output nearly as much as the reading public. Though lauded by one as “the Victor Hugo of the North”, many others found his work formulaic and unoriginal. “Strong hairy men doing strong hairy deeds” summed up one; while an Alaskan historian has since claimed his work is “mercifully forgotten today” … Almost makes you want to rush out and read some of his stuff just for spite, don't it?

At any rate, THE SPOILERS novel proved to be popular enough to be made into a movie no less than five times --- in 1914, 1923, 1930, 1942, and 1955. And each time with pretty well-established stars of the period. (For example: Gary Cooper starred in the 1930 version; Jeff Chandler/Rory Calhoun in 1955.)
But the star package was never bigger than the Dietrich/Scott/Wayne ensemble that Universal put together for this '42 version. Dietrich got top billing; Scott second; Wayne third, largely because he was on “loan” to Universal even though his part was bigger than Scott's and he was playing the hero. (As opposed to the aforementioned Pittsburgh, where Scott was the hero and Duke played the heel.) But, inasmuch as it has since been well documented that Dietrich and Wayne were having a torrid affair during this time period, one can assume that Duke was in a pretty agreeable mood as long as he was getting the lead role with Marlene off camera.

The movie itself is a rousing, two-fisted adventure that takes place in and around Nome, Alaska at the height of the 1900 Alaska gold rush --- a sort of a “Northern” as opposed to a more traditional Western (similar to Duke's North to Alaska that would come out 18 years later). Dietrich plays Cherry Malotte, owner of the town's most popular saloon; Scott plays Alexander McNamara, the newly appointed gold commissioner; Wayne plays Roy Glennister, Cherry's boyfriend and also half owner of the Midas mine (with Harry Carey Sr. as his partner Al Dextry).
In cahoots with a crooked judge, McNamara is allowing bogus cross claims to be filed on many of the best mines in the area, including the Midas, and then tying up the legal proceedings while thousands of dollars worth of gold is being siphoned from the mines during the time they are allegedly shut down. He's also trying to worm his way into the arms of Cherry.
Backed by his pal Dextry and armed with inside information from the judge's niece, who has fallen in love with him, Glennister stages a bank hold-up to get back the stolen money along with some key documents that prove the corruption of the judge and McNamara. This causes the judge to cut his losses and flee and brings Glennister face to face with McNamara in Cherry's saloon. With the townsfolk and other miners looking on, the two men slug it out in a fierce, smashing brawl that wrecks the saloon, spills out into the street, then back into the saloon again. Glennister is finally victorious, not only winning the fight but also winning back his girl and clearing the rights to his gold mine.

The whole thing is a lot of fun. Top production values, a strong cast, and a treatment that takes itself seriously, but not overly so, by injecting bits of drama and suspense but also plenty of rugged humor. The big fight climax is spectacularly staged with Wayne and Scott – not doubles - clearly mixing it up in several of the shots.
For me, finally getting to see this minor classic was worth the wait.
For anybody else who has never seen it before or maybe not for a long time, I'd certainly recommend spending the 87 minutes it takes to watch it if/when you get the chance. I don't think you'll be disappointed.