Monday, January 5, 2009

Virginia City

There’s a lot to like in “Virginia City” (1940), but it never quite comes together. There are some fatal casting problems, and the script is all over the place, but it’s all quite watchable and has the Warner Bros. professionalism stamped all over it. Still, despite being directed by the great Michael Curtiz, this is one of the lesser Errol Flynn entries of his starring years.

I would think some 1940 moviegoers must have felt terribly cheated after watching “Virginia City” if they were expecting a sequel to one of 1939’s biggest hits “Dodge City.”

Flynn had one of his biggest successes with “Dodge City”, a Technicolor town-taming western that holds up quite well today. At the end of that film he is asked to clean up another rough and tumble western town, Virginia City in Nevada. He agrees to the assignment, and the last scene shows him and frequent leading lady Olivia deHavilland off to Virginia City, accompanied by a triumphant Max Steiner music cue.

“Virginia City” appeared a year later, not as a sequel, but as a Civil War western, and based on an actual historic incident. It also boasts the same director (Curtiz), screen writer (Robert Bruckner) and composer (Steiner), but, alas, no Technicolor.

Having escaped from Libby Prison with pals Alan Hale and Guinn “Big Boy’ Williams (also holdovers from “Dodge City” and the three would play together in “Santa Fe Trail” a year later), Flynn realizes the dying Confederacy needs one last daring plan to keep it going. The mining town of Virginia City is home to many Confederate sympathizers and its possible some of the gold and silver mined there will be used to refinance the Confederacy. It turns out he’s right, and it’s no less than Randolph Scott as the Libby warden who agrees to guide the treasure-laden ($5 million worth) wagon train from Nevada to the South. Randolph Scott is a welcome presence in any movie and he plays the Southern gentleman here to a T. Supposedly he was Margaret Mitchell’s choice to play Ashley Wilkes. I wish he had.

It’s a lot of fun to see Flynn and Scott recognize each other in a Nevada saloon, with both thinking the other was back East.

Of course there’s a woman both men love, a Confederate sympathizer played by Miriam Hopkins. I adore Hopkins in “Trouble in Paradise” (1932) and “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (1932) but she’s too brittle and harsh for the role and is arguably one of Flynn’s least effective leading ladies. They go together like pickles and milk. It’s not an enjoyable screen coupling, and her rendition of “Rally Round the Flag Boys” is also pretty rough on the ears. I prefer her singing “Jazz Up Your Lingerie” in Lubitsch’s “The Smiling Lieutenant” (1931), one of the greatest songs ever written.

The second miscasting mistake is the Mexican bandit John Murrell, played by, of all people, Humphrey Bogart. Yikes! His Mexican accent is strictly of the Frito Bandito type, and why they had to make him Mexican I’ll never know. They should have just made him a regular black-clad outlaw, like his role in the marvelously entertaining “The Oklahoma Kid” (1939). Many people feel Bogart’s worst screen performance is in “The Return of Dr. X”, his only horror film, but I have to give the nod to “Virginia City.”

Despite the miscasting, and the often unwieldy script, there’s much to enjoy. Curtiz’s compositions during the action scenes remain a marvel, and Steiner provides some of the best traveling stagecoach music ever. Flynn and Scott provide some stirring self-sacrifice at the end and we even get a climatic plea to Abraham Lincoln that is corny but somehow fits.

The film runs 121 minutes, and, unusually for a Curtiz film, one feels the whole two hours. A little trimming would have helped.

But it’s not a bad film by any means, and I will no doubt re-visit it again in the years ahead. Errol Flynn and Randolph Scott in a big budget western is not something to be ignored.

Rating for “Virginia City”: Two-and-a-half stars.

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