I've enjoyed two extremely good "B" Westerns today; PANHANDLE (1948) with Rod Cameron was followed by George O'Brien in THE MARSHAL OF MESA CITY (1939). THE MARSHAL OF MESA CITY has an excellent script and performances which elevate a typical Western story far above the routine.
Jud Cronin (Leon Ames) is the evil sheriff of Mesa City, who has an obsession with schoolmarm Virginia King (Virginia Vale). Virginia doesn't appreciate the sheriff's interest, and when he steps over the line one time too many, she decides to pack up and leave town for Yuma.
The sheriff's henchmen waylay the stagecoach, causing a wreck and intending to kidnap Virginia, but fortunately retired lawman Cliff Mason (O'Brien) happens along. Cliff comes to Virginia's rescue and ends up becoming the Mesa City marshal, putting him in direct conflict with the sheriff in more ways than one.
The sheriff brings in Duke (Henry Brandon), a hired gun, to get rid of Cliff but things don't go quite as the sheriff plans...
A bare-bones description of the plot sounds like so many other Westerns of the era, but the execution is such that I watched most of the movie with a delighted smile on my face. These were characters I really enjoyed spending time with. O'Brien's a laid-back, easygoing charmer, and the villains continually underestimate him. Cliff is always thinking one step ahead, and he also manages to outdraw them every time.
O'Brien has nice chemistry with Vale, his frequent leading lady, and his relationship with the hired gun Duke is simply wonderful. The script by Jack Lait Jr. -- based on a Dudley Nichols story, THE PEACEMAKER -- sets audience expectations for Duke's character when he first comes on screen, then demolishes them in one great moment after another, with an excellent blend of action and humor. These scenes are among the best in the film. The final shootout, which takes place in a fog of smoke, is a masterpiece of elegant, economical storytelling.
It took a bit before I realized that Henry Brandon, the young hired gun, was "Chief Scar" from John Ford's THE SEARCHERS (1956). O'Brien himself had a long relationship with John Ford, including THE IRON HORSE (1924), FORT APACHE (1948), SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON (1949), and CHEYENNE AUTUMN (1964), so it was great to see these two actors sharing screen time together in the '30s. This may have been a "B" Western, but it featured top talent, with Ames and Vale also just right in their roles.
The supporting cast includes Mary Gordon, Lloyd Ingraham, Slim Whitaker, and Bob Burns.
THE MARSHAL OF MESA CITY was directed by David Howard and filmed by Harry J. Wild. It runs 62 minutes.
THE MARSHAL OF MESA CITY is available from the Warner Archive in a three-film collection of George O'Brien Westerns. All three films costar Virginia Vale. The DVD can be rented from ClassicFlix.
THE MARSHAL OF MESA CITY will be shown on Turner Classic Movies a week from Tuesday, on June 4, 2013.