Friday, February 12, 2010

Tonight's Movie: The Virginian (1946)

THE VIRGINIAN, starring Joel McCrea in the title role, is one of several film or TV versions of Owen Wister's famous Western novel. It had previously been filmed in 1929 with Gary Cooper and Walter Brennan, and it was also the inspiration for the long-running '60s TV series, although for the most part the series just borrowed the characters' names. There were also silent film versions in 1914 and 1923.

The Cooper version, which I've not yet seen, is perhaps the most highly regarded telling of this story, but this 1946 Paramount film has its pleasures, starting with gorgeous Technicolor. Most of the exterior scenes were shot on various movie ranches in Southern California, which gives the film a nice authentic, outdoorsy feel; a few of the scenes are so crisp and clear, with breezes rifling the actors' hair, that it almost feels it would be possible to reach through the screen and touch the actors. I remember experiencing a similar reaction when watching 1945's SAN ANTONIO last fall.

There are a few back projection scenes, notably in the big cattle rustling sequence, but they're kept to a minimum.

Joel McCrea might have been a bit old for the title role, but since I'm a big McCrea fan I'm not complaining. He's fine, as always, as the honorable cowboy who deals with evil even when it would be easier to walk away. The final sequence was in some ways echoed years later in HIGH NOON (1952).

Barbara Britton plays Molly Wood, the Eastern teacher who initially resists her attraction to the nameless cowboy; Britton's portrayal could be a bit more sympathetic at times, but she looks lovely in the aforementioned Technicolor.

Brian Donlevy and Sonny Tufts round out the lead roles as the evil Trampas and cowboy-gone-bad Steve. Donlevy looks like a Western-style Darth Vader, always decked from head to toe in black, including black gloves. Those who have only seen the TV version might be a bit startled to learn that Trampas and Steve were bad guys!

Favorite character actors appearing in the film include Fay Bainter, Tom Tully, and Henry O'Neill. William Frawley, Minor Watson, and Nana Bryant are also in the cast. Look for Ann Carter from THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE (1944) as a schoolgirl.

The screenplay seems a bit truncated, with references to events which were either left on the cutting-room floor or simply not filmed for the sake of a faster pace. The movie comes to a screeching halt at the end; even another half a minute or so of a happy ending would have been appreciated. This is a movie where a few more minutes of story-telling would definitely have been a good thing.

I haven't read the book in years, but it was a favorite of mine when I was a teenager. I recommend checking it out, as it's a good read and it's quite interesting to compare Wister's original story with the Hollywood versions.

This film was directed by Stuart Gilmore. The beautiful Technicolor photography was by Harry Hallenberger. Barbara Britton's colorful dresses were designed by longtime Paramount designer Edith Head.

THE VIRGINIAN was released on video as part of the Universal Western Collection. (Universal acquired the rights to certain Paramount films, hence this film's inclusion in a Universal series.) It's a very nice print, and the trailer is included on the tape. I don't believe this film has ever had a DVD release.

THE VIRGINIAN is a fairly traditional Saturday matinee style Western which provides enjoyable entertainment.

2012 Update: THE VIRGINIAN is now available in two different DVD editions. It can be purchased as part of the Joel McCrea Westerns Collection from the TCM Vault Collection, and it's also available as a single title in the Universal Vault Collection sold exclusively by Amazon.

Update: THE VIRGINIAN is now also available in a 10-film Westerns collection which is a great value.

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