Friday, November 15, 2013

Joel McCrea and COLORADO TERRITORY (1949)

When Raoul Walsh remade his 1940 gangster flick HIGH SIERRA almost twenty years later as the Western COLORADO TERRITORY, he improved on the story. Today, the Western isn't as well known as the gangster story. I suspect this has everything to do with the fact that the original movie starred Humphrey Bogart, while the remake starred Joel McCrea.

Today, Bogart is one of only a handful of golden age movie stars still remembered by the public at large. We like to talk about stars as immortal figures, but the truth is that we're only now entering the second century of filmmaking and most of us have already forgotten most of the last century's biggest stars. Don't believe me? Take a poll of the people under thirty and ask them if they know who Bette Davis was. Ask them if they can name a Gary Cooper movie. Go back further. How many have any clue who Pearl White was?

This isn't a lament. Nor is it a "what's wrong with these kids these days." Movie stardom is, relatively speaking, still a new phenomenon. Maybe this is just what happens to movie stars. Nobody really gets to live forever.

Just look at Joel McCrea. This guy was an enormous movie star. Westerns, comedies, dramas--he did it all. Today, outside a few movie geeks, he's been forgotten.

But he made some great stuff. Movie buffs probably know him best for SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS (a direct inspiration for O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU?) and the Peckinpah Western RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY. He was an easy, likable screen presence. If he wasn't as distinctive a presence as someone like John Wayne, he was in many ways a more natural actor. Even among fabled Everymen like Cooper and Stewart and Fonda, McCrea was a laidback performer. Watching him today, it's almost a wonder that he was a star in the forties. That era was full of people who filled the screen. McCrea always seems lifesized. Always and at all times, he just sorta seems like a regular guy. My theory is that audiences liked him because he seemed so much like them. He was the Harry Truman of movie stars.

COLORADO TERRITORY is one of his best films. A fast-paced story about a bank robber named Wes McQueen (McCrea) who busts out of the joint and joins up with an outlaw gang for a big train robbery, the film improves on HIGH SIERRA in a couple of important ways. For one thing, the script by the Western vet John Twist and the versatile Edmund North sidesteps the maudlin subplot that marred the gangster picture. Whereas Bogart was committing his crimes to pay for the surgery (and win the love) of a sweet young girl with a clubfoot, McCrea is in love with the selfish Julie Ann (Dorothy Malone). And while in both films the outlaw eventually falls in love with an fellow outcast like himself (Ida Lupino in the earlier picture), in this film the leading lady, Virgina Mayo's mixed race Colorado, is more proactive. She's less of a sideline spectator. No one would hold up this film as a feminist classic, but both of these changes strengthen the female characters.

The film as a whole is a stronger affair than the earlier picture. The cinematography by Sidney Hickox has lovely noir shadings, and Walsh's direction is superb. HIGH SIERRA is a good picture, but I've always thought it was overlong and its conclusion felt a little drawn out. COLORADO TERRITORY, however, moves at a good clip throughout. It also features one of the best train robberies I've ever seen. (And I've seen a lot of trains get robbed.) Moreover, the climax that unfolds in an ancient cliffside Indian village makes for a strangely haunting end to a Western.

Track down COLORADO TERRITORY. It's not as well known as the earlier film, but it's the better picture.     


Walker Martin said...

I also like COLORADO TERRITORY more than HIGH SIERRA. The scene where Virginia Mayo fills her hands and starts blasting away at the posse is a classic.

grimmfo said...

COLORADO TERRITORY also avoids the embarrassing use of Willie Best in HIGH SIERRA.

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