Frontier Marshal, 20th Century Fox, 71 minutes, 2012, $19.98
Randolph Scott glides into the role of Wyatt Earp in director Allan Dwan’s 1939 version of Frontier Marshal, an entertaining and fast-paced Western in which Wyatt’s pal Doc steals the limelight (sound familiar?), though it is Earp who dispatches the baddies in the end. Doc’s last name is changed here from “Holliday” to “Halliday,” and you’ll be hard-pressed to find events and people in the film that don’t deviate from fact. But never fear—that won’t spoil the show, unless you are married to Wyatt Earp or something.
The second of three films adapted from Stuart Lake’s equally romantic biography Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal (the first, in 1934, was also titled Frontier Marshal, and the third was the 1946 John Ford classic My Darling Clementine), screenwriter Sam Hellman’s adaptation is sharp, humorous and short. With the exception of pretty much everything in the film having to do with comic Eddie Foy (a real-life character played here by his son Eddie Foy Jr.), there’s not a scene wasted in Frontier Marshal.
The film opens with a sequence depicting the development of Tombstone, Arizona Territory, one of the exemplary towns of the Wild West in fact and fiction. In other movies such a scene-setting opening might have stretched 20 or 30 minutes, but here Dwan condenses it to a well-executed five-minute montage that successfully plants the audience in the midst of the rambunctious and dangerous town. This Tombstone, while it may look like another generic Hollywood back lot, is not subordinate, instead serving as the driving force for many of its main characters.
In the opening montage a local newspaperman reads, “We are growing rapidly, but it is getting to be a question whether the city or the cemetery will be the larger.” More than any single villainous character, it is the town of Tombstone and the way of life that comes with living there that serves as the primary antagonistic force in the film, while life in the East is synonymous with a life of purity. It is Curley Bill (Joe Sawyer) and gang that embrace life in Tombstone, Wyatt Earp who has come to tame it, and Doc Halliday (Cesar Romero, in fine form) who is torn between the two.
This self-conflict makes Romero’s Doc the most intriguing character in the film. Once an upstanding doctor (not a dentist as in real life) and budding family man in Illinois (not Georgia), he was diagnosed with an incurable disease, moved west with a death wish and developed a reputation as one of the deadliest gunslingers in the territory. When Doc’s fiancé, Sarah Allen (Nancy Kelly), catches up to him in Tombstone and tries to convince him to return to his respectable lifestyle in the mild Midwest, it is evident that part of him has embraced his lifestyle and reputation in the Wild West. The filmmakers then lay out, if perhaps too explicitly, his choices: Doctor or gunfighter? Sweet Sarah or his Tombstone squeeze, dance hall girl Jerry (Binnie Barnes)? Milk or whiskey? Life in the East or life in the West?
Unfortunately, the filmmakers don’t really allow the more poignant scenes to resonate through the finale or for any real tension to mount before presenting their version of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. It’s all over before we know it. Scott is at his emotionally guarded best, and it is his Wyatt Earp who stands the tallest at the O.K. Corral. But Earp’s story doesn’t have the dramatic depth Halliday’s does.
For you film trivia fans: What actor appears in Frontier Marshal (1934), Frontier Marshal (1939) and My Darling Clementine? Hint: He also appears in John Ford’s The Searchers and TV’s Wagon Train. Answer below. Another familiar face that shows up briefly in this version of Frontier Marshal is John Carradine, as a saloonkeeper who explains his presence in Tombstone by saying, “They ran me out of Lordsburg.” (You’ll get that in-joke if you’ve seen Stagecoach, also released in 1939). One word of warning about the Frontier Marshal DVD: Do not read the plot description on the back of the case—believe it or not, it gives away the film’s most surprising moment. Oh, yes, and Ward Bond is the answer to the trivia question.