Westward the Women (1951) ***
Directed by William Wellman. Written by Franks Capra (story) and Charles Schnee (script). Producer, Dore Schary. Photography, William Mellor. Editing, James E. Newcom. Art direction, Daniel B. Cathcart, Cedric Gibbons. Cast: Robert Taylor (Buck), Denise Darcel (Danon), Hope Emerson (Patience), John McIntire (Roy Whitman), Julie Bishop (Lauries), Lenore Lonergan (Maggie), Henry Nakamura (Ito), Marilyn Erskine (Jean), Beverly Dennis (Rose), Renata Vanni (Mrs. Maroni), Guido Martufi (the Maroni son), et al. An MGM-Loew's production. Black & White. 118 minutes.
My third viewing over several years confirms that this is a very good movie. A decent, solid and rather original western, it comes from a story by Frank Capra. It celebrates (as expected) the tenacity and guts of pioneers who, being mostly women, make it into an early, staunch and sincere feminist work. Para-documentary in development, it uses an interesting cast with just one big name (Robert Taylor) in it.
In 1851, John McIntire who runs a big spread in "his" California valley, decides to import "one hundred good women" who will marry his womanless ranch hands.
He convinces skeptical/reluctant trail-boss Robert Taylor to go with him to Chicago and interview hundreds of single women. They do this, then pick and sign up 140 (the extras are for the predicted losses) including a former shady lady, Frenchwoman Denise Darcel and her girlfriend. There is a display of photographs of every man in the McIntire ranch. Each wife-to-be selects one picture.
(How the boss managed to get so many photos made is my major question mark for the story. But let it be.)
The 2,000 mile trek to California beats the 1,500 miles of the cattle drive in "The Overlanders" (q.v.) It has the additional problem of the dozen-plus hired men not obeying Taylor's admonition "Stay away from the women."
Taylor is good in his role. A tough, no-nonsense hombre, he often sounds like a D.I. of Marines. Eventually he has to shoot a rapist; a girl shoots another man; most males leave and so do some women; the masculine staff of the wagon train is reduced to Taylor, McIntire, Henry Nakamura (as Ito, a Hawaiian), and the fellow who is the lover of one of the girls.
Handsome Taylor, diminutive, smart Nakamura, and the women go through an unavoidably harrowing trek with much suffering, stress, several tragedies and the happiness brought about by the birth of a baby. The survivors eventually make it to the valley.
Utah is where "Westward" was shot, and shot very well.
Robert Taylor, ever since the mid-1930s was considered as the handsomest male actor in American films. I fully concur. He remains the Adonis of film to this day. In a sense, his looks, while making him a heartthrob, often distracted from his solid acting abilities. Taylor's 15th or so movie, "Camille" (1937) opposite Greta Garbo, certainly put him on the map. During and after World War II, his repertory, which in a first period was of romantic movies, expanded into several genres and dimensions, from military roles and battle films to Westerns, epics, actioneers, hard-boiled parts, noir movies, even gansgter items. In general his acting was very good.
Supporting actor John McIntire was most distinctive for his ever-likable parts in almost one hundred films. He mostly attracted sympathy through sober, minimalist performances. No exception here, down to his moment of death when he tells (Hollywoodianly) Taylor:"Take them to my valley!"
The big, tall (6' 2") actress Hope Emerson, often seen in villainous roles, plays the aptly named Patience, the most reliable, helpful among the many women. This may well have been the role of her career.
Frenchwoman Darcel is unremarkable as an actress, sex-object or flirt. She played in just a handful of films from 1948 to 1961, all of them Hollywood items, the most notable of which were the W.W.II "Battleground" (1949) directed by "Westward"'s William Wellman; and Robert Aldrich's "Vera Cruz" (1954) with Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster.
The roles of the Italian widow (who knows no English) and her son were, for a change, played by authentic Italians. The film is the first credited role of Renata Vanni who went on to more supporting parts, and the first (and uncredited) role for then young Guido Martufi who appeared in the low credits of a dozen or more Italian films, all in the 1950s.
Movie trivium. In 1953 Ms. Vanni played an Italian mother in Michael Curtiz's "Trouble Along The Way." It starred John Wayne. A bit part went to the then obscure James Dean. Neither Vanni nor Dean was credited.
Also only in a total of 8 movies, all of the 1950s, do we find the promising Henry Nakamura (Ito in the film), the last one being "Lafayette Escadrille" (1958) directed by, again, William Wellman. In "Westward" he supplies clever comic relief, partly based on Taylor's repeated injunction " find the grave of Jim Quackenbush!," which is indeed found --as a stash of whisky.
There's no business like show business when it comes to oddities.