John Wayne, Marlene Dietrich, and Randolph Scott Strike Gold in Crackling Action/Comedy/Drama
DIRECTED BY RAY ENRIGHT/1942
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: SEPTEMBER 10, 2019/KINO LORBER STUDIO CLASSICS
The Yukon! Hotspot of the frozen north. Wide open and wild – ruled by searing lead and silk and legs.
…a drama as bold as the screen can give!
There are plenty of instances wherein a Western is not a Western, though few are as murky about it as the 1942 version of Rex Beach’s novel, The Spoilers.
Set during the Alaskan Gold Rush at the turn of the previous century, capable action director Ray Enright and company depict the pop-up settlement of Nome as your standard issue Western town. It doesn’t take a film historian to recognize that this particular Nome is awfully reminiscent of various Old West towns in other Universal films of the time, right down to the shoe-eating mud streets that are best transversed via hastily-placed one-foot-wide planks (as also seen, for example, in director Jacques Tourneur’s 1850’s Jacksonville, Oregon in 1946’s Canyon Passage). The Universal Western backlot rides again!
In reality, Nome of 1900, by photographic accounts, appears to have been no less busting nor muddy than this Hollywood recreation, the fourth of its kind in adapting Beach’s novel. Populated by the likes of Marlene Dietrich, Randolph Scott, John Wayne (those three leads are credited collectively, and in in that order. They would reteam later that year for Pittsburgh), Harry Carey, Richard Barthelmess, and playing the part of the nice girl who can’t seem to land her man as long as Dietrich’s around, Margaret Lindsey. Dietrich- in the midst of a commercial comeback, having mostly broken free of her increasingly unpopular screen sculptor, Josef Von Sternberg- is, as charged-up matriarch Cherry Malotte, a commandingly lavish and completely in-charge presence from start to finish.
Considering that she catches and maintains the eye of every man around, it’s no surprise that Malotte finds herself actively pursued by both local gold commissioner Alex McNamara (Randolph Scott) and successful prospector Roy Glennister (John Wayne). It’s similarly no surprise, then, that she’s more keyed in on the underhanded schemings between crooked McNamara and his phony crew of co-conspiring lawmen, including the only local judge. It’s a shrewd and twisted thing to manipulate a bustling, emerging town’s need and desire for law and order in order to get rich, particularly by thieving it out from Glennister and his crotchety old partner (Harry Carey) with permits and summonses. For a moment there, Glennister even goes along with it, taken in by the lies and his own hopes of a better, more settled Nome. But, in the end, the self-assured libertarian model must win out. And win out, no less, as delivered via careening locomotive and an infamously prolonged saloon fistfight between the two male leads.
Produced by Frank Lloyd, this star-studded take on the oft-adapted source material has a lot to offer. Strange, then, that the film is relegated to the chronically overlooked tier of both its genre (but, is it really a WesternÉ?) and its stars (whose continued popularity are its final cultural lifeline). Perhaps the fans of John Wayne don’t take well to him not only playing a cad who gets slapped away by Dietrich, but appearing at one point in a feather boa? No matter, this movie is, for the most part, an Old Hollywood blast.
In and around the movie’s bristly moments of old-timey now-problematic racial discomfort (Our heroes opt to disguise themselves in blackface for an otherwise justified robbery against the bad guys? This, in a town where it’s already been established that Malotte’s servant, the lovable but boisterously gullible Idabelle [Marietta Canty] is the only back person in town??), the screenplay is full of great dialogue. Wayne to Dietrich: ÒI imagine that dress is supposed to have a chilling effect. Well if it is, it isn’t working, ‘cuz you’d look good to me, baby, in a burlap bag.Ó Dietrich, regarding her saloon: ÒWe’ll have no brawls here, gentlemen, unless they’re over me.Ó Randolph Scott’s word of instruction: ÒMaybe you’d better slip upstairs and sip a warm lemonade before you break out in a rash of righteousness.Ó The whole film crackles thusly.
Following the plot of The Spoilers might prove a little challenging to contemporary audiences, what with its quick, century-old references to the far-flung gold mining trade, and the many characters coming and going about it all. But ultimately, nothing is more complicated than greedy authoritarian baddies trying to nose in on John Wayne’s mine. The lovey-dovey stuff is shockingly cavalier for a Breen era studio picture, with all the leads perpetually hot to trot, and some very revealing fancy outfits for Dietrich. And, not to spoil The Spoilers, but the film stumbles into a moment of meta-resonance as former silent film star Richard Barthelmess, playing a character with the archaically Old West name ÒBronco KidÓ, dies in the arms of the hot, new up-and-coming John Wayne. A leading-man torch is passed as Barthelmess is wrapping up his screen career while Wayne’s is just getting started.
Kino Lorber Studio Classics brings The Spoilers to high definition with a crisp, warm transfer of this beautiful black and white literary studio potboiler. The friendly voice of Toby Roan is on hand with an audio commentary, summarizing the key points of the careers of everyone involved with the film, and very little else. Besides that, the only other extras are a broad array of trailers of vaguely related titles also available from the label. In any case, The Spoilers on Blu-ray is a worthy investment for anyone who enjoys pure movie gold of yore, a Western far more west than the Old West.