Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Tonight's Movie: Wells Fargo (1937)

WELLS FARGO is an absorbing Western drama about the founding of the famous express company, starring the husband and wife team of Joel McCrea and Frances Dee.

McCrea plays Ramsay MacKay, who is instrumental in helping the company expand its services to St. Louis and ultimately San Francisco. Dee plays Justine, his supportive wife, who endures long separations as her husband criss-crosses the country, but then sees her marriage flounder due to conflict over the Civil War.

This is an interesting, well-made film directed by Frank Lloyd, who was something of a specialist in historical epics and costume dramas. (There's more about his career in a recent post on 1941's THE LADY FROM CHEYENNE.) Lloyd keeps the pace moving along nicely, even when the characters must age over the decades. Lloyd worked again with Frances Dee on her next film, IF I WERE KING (1938), also starring Ronald Colman.

Of course, Lloyd was fortunate to have a pair of fine actors in the lead roles. McCrea and Dee, who had previously appeared together in THE SILVER CORD (1933) and ONE MAN'S JOURNEY (1933), married the same year those films were released, and by the time of WELLS FARGO they were parents of two sons, Jody and David. It's a real treat for those who love the actors to watch them acting together. They're both sympathetic, even when their characters are not in harmony with one another, and many of their scenes are quite touching.

McCrea and Dee would later appear together in the very fine Western FOUR FACES WEST (1948), a film which deserves to be better known.

WELLS FARGO has an interesting supporting cast, including a delightful young Robert Cummings as a giddily lovestruck prospector and Peggy Stewart as McCrea and Dee's teenage daughter. Johnny Mack Brown, Lloyd Nolan, Ralph Morgan, Henry O'Neill, and Harry Davenport are among the other faces in the large cast.

This film runs 97 minutes. Some sources indicate the original release version ran 116 minutes.

The black and white cinematography was by Theodor Sparkuhl, who had a lengthy career before his death at the age of 51 in 1946. Location shooting took place at numerous sites, including in Northern California.

Sadly, this Paramount film, like so many others from that studio, is not available on DVD or video. My thanks to Kristina for enabling me to see it!

November 2015 Update: WELLS FARGO is now available on DVD in the Universal Vault Series.


Blogger SimpleGifts said...

Hi, Laura – Well, you know I love this film! Favorite scenes: When Ramsay is coaxing young Justine to go on a buggy ride – the exchange is adorable. And when Ramsay explains why he missed the birth of their child – wonderfully nuanced performances by both actors. Yes, I’ve heard there is a longer version that, I assume, includes the scene where Frances appears looking gorgeous in that strapless black velvet dress you have pictured. Perhaps they’ll screen the uncut version at the McCrea Ranch when it opens!
Best, Jane

11:00 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

I'd certainly love to see the longer version, Jane, especially if it more fully develops the relationship between the lead characters. I loved the scenes you described -- although I think my favorite is when Justine apologizes for greeting him in such a "forward" manner. :)

Best wishes,

11:41 PM  
Blogger Yaacov said...

Laura I have 11 old Chart/Posters of this movie that I am trying to find out something about. No one seems to have ever seen them before. They are all labeled Chart No. 1 and so forth. The look to be original storyboards of some type...possibly post production? In one of the scenes it mentions that the picture was taken from the original negative of the "movie to be seen later in theatres." giving rise to the possibility of these being made before the showing of the movie. Also there appears to be scenes left out of the movie which leads to another question as to why one of the lead characters who was named on the orignal posters is left out of this telling of the story on these charts? Have you any thoughts of who I might contact regarding these charts? Thanks and this really is one of the all time great movies in my opinion!

5:56 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Jim,

Sorry I can't help you with information, other than to tell you that the movie was trimmed down from nearly two hours at original release to 97 minutes later. So your photos may have scenes from the full-length version!

I wish I knew who holds the Paramount archives -- I know many of the films are at UCLA but I don't know about things such as publicity materials. If you were able to find that out perhaps someone with knowledge on the topic could give you more information about your collection.

Best wishes,

2:40 PM  
Blogger Don Bitz said...


I'm a researcher and historian for Paramount Ranch who works in partnership with the National Park Service, who now owns what remains of the historic old film ranch. Paramount Ranch is one of the parks that make up the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area in Southern California.

Portions of Wells Fargo were filmed at the original Paramount Ranch. The studio built two large scale sets, one for San Francisco circa about 1847 and what was then the largest outdoor set ever built, San Francisco about 1857. I have set stills of both of these sets in my personal collection and the Park Service has some in their archives. We continue to be amazed that the larger set appears onscreen for only a short time. I suspect that there is more of it in the original cut of the movie. Hopefully, the lost footage will turn up one of these days.

Universal owns the rights to the older Paramount movies, which explains why the DVD releases are Universal releases and why it takes so long for certain films to appear on DVD. They tend to favor the "more famous" ones for DVD release.

As to doing archival research, the Motion Picture Academy's Margaret Herrick Library has endless archival materials. I'm pretty sure that they have files on Wells Fargo that fellow NPS research colleagues have looked through. Without seeing what the charts that the poster, Jim, is asking about, I can't comment on what they are. But, if you ever decide to part with them, Jim, the NPS could be interested in them for the archives if they are pre-production materials.


Don Bitz, Paramount Ranch Historian

9:06 AM  

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