With a cast of headed by Marlene Dietrich, Randolph Scott and John Wayne, a bevy of great character actors and sterling production design, Universal Pictures’ production of “The Spoilers” (1942) can’t help but fail to entertain. This story of gold miners in Nome, Alaska circa 1900 is hugely entertaining, cramming comedy, romance and action, including one of the movies’ longest fist fights, in a brisk 87-minute running time.
“The Spoilers” has long been a favorite of the movies. Based on a novel by adventure writer Rex Beach, it’s been filmed many times, several times in the silent era, in 1930 with Gary Cooper, and again by Universal in 1955 with Anne Baxter, Rory Calhoun and Jeff Chandler.
There’s no great psychological shadings to the characters here, or elaborate back stories (thank God), just a lusty, brawling tale of early Alaska, where a glamorous saloon hostess (Marlene Dietrich) loves one of the miners (John Wayne) while fending off the advances of the new Gold Commissioner (Randolph Scott) who wants the gold for himself and other unscrupulous men who use the cover of the law to steal the earnings of the miners.
I’ve always loved the production design of this movie. Nome is recreated in all its grimy, muddy streeted glory, where a man gets killed in a gunfight and lands in the mad with a resounding plop. No running in the streets here, just trudging through the mud to cross the street is an ordeal in itself.
The saloon is a marvelous design too, with large spaces and plenty of room to stage the famous fistfight at the climax. Lasting almost five minutes, Wayne and Scott really go at it here, as the fight starts in Dietrich’s upstairs bedroom, moves onto the second floor balcony, makes its way down to the main floor and then outside the saloon finishing in the muddy streets. The fight is only ruined by an instance or two of camera undercranking, causing the fighters to move in fast motion.
Plus, there’s a honey of a steam engine that becomes part of the action-filled climax. Anytime trains are used as part of the action in a western earns extra points in my book.
What a supporting cast too, with each fame filled with familiar faces. There’s former Warner Bros. star Margaret Lindsay as a romantic rival for Wayne’s affections (she seems so nice and sweet, but looks can be deceiving); the sublime Harry Carey as Wayne’s partner; Richard Barthelmess as Dietrich’s employee, desperately in love with his boss; George Cleveland (the grandfather in the old “Lassie” TV show) and Russell Simpson as a couple of prospectors; Samuel S. Hinds (the father in “It’s a Wonderful Life”), as a seemingly honest judge but who is as crooked as they come; weasely Charles Halton; silent film star William Farnum (I believe he starred in one of the silent versions of “The Spoilers”), and perennial drunk Jack Norton. Norton has a drunk scene here too, but he’s only pretending to be drunk to help effect Wayne’s escape from jail. After seeing Norton play nothing but drunks in countless movies, it’s a pleasure to watch him in a heroic mode, even if it’s only a short scene.
The rousing score is by Universal staff composer Hans J. Salter, and anyone familiar with the Universal horror movies of the 1940s will recognize Salter’s style. It’s one of his best scores.
Director Ray Enright earned his stripes directing movies at Warner Bros. in the 1930s, a studio known for the pace of their movies. He learned his lessons well, as he moves the story at a speedy pace. However, there is some forced racial humor that contemporary audiences might find uncomfortable.
For action fans, “The Spoilers” is rousing entertainment.
Rating for “The Spoilers”: Three stars.
Useless Trivia Department: Kudos to Sony Pictures for finally treating The Three Stooges correctly. After years of thoughtlessly bunching up Stooge titles on VHS and DVD, they finally decided to do it right, re-mastering the Stooges shorts and releasing them in chronological order. The first volume came out several months ago, covering the years 1934-1936, and the shorts never looked better.
The other night I watched “Hoi Polloi” (1935), the first of their shorts where some well-meaning types attempt to turn the boys into gentlemen as part of an experiment.
What I found really interesting is their introductory scene, where the boys are on a street picking up garbage. It’s not the Columbia backlot, as would be expected on a short subject, but an expansive downtown somewhere in Los Angeles. A theater marquee is shown advertising Bing Crosby in “Mississippi” (1935). Now that is a Paramount movie and the Stooges made their shorts at Columbia. There was no way that Columbia studio head Harry Cohn would promote a rival’s product.
If you look at lots of old movies that have scenes with theater marquees, they always are showing the home studio product. So if “Hoi Polloi” was shot on the Columbia back lot, you can bet a theater marquee would be advertising a Columbia title. Apparently Columbia went to the expense of shooting on location for this short. Nothing earth shattering here, but I found that very interesting.