Thanks to my friend John Knight I was able to enjoy a rarely seen Paramount Western, THE ROUNDUP (1941), directed by Lesley Selander. I've liked numerous Westerns directed by Selander, and THE ROUNDUP was no exception.
As the film begins, Greg Lane (Preston Foster) rides up to a ranch just in time to see the wedding of Steve Payson (Richard Dix) and Janet Allen (Patricia Morison).
The genial Greg is something of a ne'er-do-well who had been thought dead, and his reappearance comes as a shock to Janet, who had been in love with him. Janet finds herself torn between her steady, quiet husband and the livelier Greg, who takes advantage of the opportunity to escort Janet around Denver for a day when Steve must leave their honeymoon trip early.
When Greg gets into trouble at Denver's gambling tables, Janet impulsively offers the diamond ring Steve gave her to bail him out with weasely Wade McGee (Jerome Cowan) -- which McGee in turn uses to blackmail Greg, knowing he'll do anything to keep Steve from finding out why Janet's ring disappeared.
The love triangle is the spine around which a great deal of action unwinds, including multiple gunfights and Indian battles. It's to the film's credit that the interpersonal conflicts are believable and interesting rather than cliched; the leads are simply flawed people with problems to work out, with no too-obvious villains.
While the basic story may be tried and true, THE ROUNDUP is told with flair, with richly drawn characters and a fine cast. There are some creatively plotted, well-done scenes involving how the sheriff (Don Wilson) handles Steve shooting a man who had mistreated Janet; some lovely black and white location scenes shot in Lone Pine and the San Jacinto Mountains; and songs performed by the King's Men, who included the great choral arranger Ken Darby.
I don't think the stolid Dix (SKY GIANT, TWELVE CROWDED HOURS) will ever be my favorite actor, but he's right for the role as Janet's thoughtful husband. While nursing jealousy and pain at the thought Janet might decide to leave him, he's also guilty because before the wedding he hid from his wife the news that Greg would be returning to town.
Foster is excellent as a man who genuinely loves Janet, but he can't quite make up his mind if he's a good-for-nothing rascal or the hero who rescues a little girl, Mary (Betty Brewer), from an Indian attack. Eventually he turns to drink, before making one last grand gesture. Greg's final scene is well-written and genuinely moving.
The orphaned Janet meanwhile worries people will think she married Steve for his money, when she truly cares for him. Although it's not spelled out, the fact she had been alone for many years also causes her to accept raising the orphaned Mary without question when Greg leaves the child at Steve and Janet's ranch.
Patricia Morison (LADY ON A TRAIN), with her beautiful eyes and long dark hair, is stunningly beautiful in this film. She was about 25 when this was filmed, and she would go on to find fame as a Broadway musical star in KISS ME KATE and THE KING AND I. As a child I saw her as the Baroness in a '70s stage production of THE SOUND OF MUSIC which starred Sally Anne Howes as Maria and Werner Klemperer as Uncle Max. She is now 99 years old and lives in Los Angeles. She's seen here in a still from TARZAN AND THE HUNTRESS (1947).
Ruth Donnelly is around for comic support as Miss Polly, Steve's longtime housekeeper who is sweet on the shy sheriff. The cast also includes Morris Ankrum, Douglas Dumbrille, Lane Chandler, and Richard Curtis.
THE ROUNDUP runs 90 minutes. The strong script was written by Harold Shumate, based on a play by Edmund Day. Shumate's later work included the fine Westerns BLOOD ON THE MOON (1948) and SADDLE TRAMP (1950).
It was filmed in black and white by Russell Harlan.
Like so many other Paramount films of the '40s, THE ROUNDUP has been kept out of circulation by its owner, Universal. It's past time for Universal to start regularly releasing their library in an MOD program such as the Universal Vault Series. These films are part of our American cultural heritage and deserve to be accessible to the public.