Friday, February 20, 2015

Tonight's Movie: Union Pacific (1939) at UCLA

Tonight was the last of the films I plan to attend in UCLA's excellent Cecil B. DeMille series, a screening of UNION PACIFIC (1939).

Mark Vieira, author of the new book CECIL B. DEMILLE: THE ART OF HOLLYWOOD, introduced the movie, which stars Joel McCrea, Barbara Stanwyck, and Robert Preston. Also on hand to enjoy the movie tonight were Joel McCrea's grandson, Wyatt, and his wife Lisa.

Vieira spent some time discussing the storied films of 1939, including the info that significantly more money was spent to produce the films made that year than in the couple years preceding -- an interesting tidbit given what a banner year 1939 was in the history of the movies.

Vieira also read from a note which director Cecil B. DeMille sent to his writers, exhorting them to find more drama in the story; his note demanding action included the memorable line that he wanted "a snake under every bed!" There weren't actually any snakes in the movie, but that certainly conveyed the idea! The film was a nonstop series of set pieces, including Indian attacks and a couple of spectacular train crashes.

McCrea plays Jeff Butler, a "troubleshooter" for the Union Pacific in its battle to build the continental railroad. He's up against Sid Campeau (Brian Donlevy), who's being paid to delay the construction by any means possible. Campeau's partner is Dick Allen (Preston), Jeff's old army buddy.

Jeff and Dick are also in competition for the affections of lovely Irish lass Molly Monahan (Stanwyck), daughter of a Union Pacific engineer (J.M. Kerrigan).

The film is 135 fast-moving minutes of action and romance. Other than some antiquated horseback riding shots, which were noticeably done on a mechanical horse in front of back projections, it's an impressively produced film which was great fun to watch.

Best of all, UNION PACIFIC provides a chance to spend time with a marvelous cast. You simply can't do better than McCrea and Stanwyck, and Preston makes an excellent foil for McCrea, playing a bad man who's not all bad.

Akim Tamiroff and Lynne Overman shine as the team who are always on hand to back Jeff's plays; they're rough-looking guys who are seriously good with a gun and a whip while also providing comic relief.

The cast also includes Robert Barrat, Anthony Quinn, Henry Kolker, Stanley Ridges, Richard Lane, Regis Toomey, and Lon Chaney Jr. A young Evelyn Keyes was billed in the opening credits but only had one scene. A very young Richard Denning (CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON) can be spotted as a reporter late in the movie.

Sheila Darcy, who played Sid's paramour Rose, was long married to Preston Foster. Ward Bond shows up in IMDb as a "tracklayer" but I didn't spot him!

The movie was shot by Victor Milner. The film was shot on a range of locations including in Utah and Northern California.

I hadn't seen the film since childhood and didn't remember much of that long-ago viewing, so it was very enjoyable to see it once again, especially in such a beautiful print. A shimmering 35mm print seen with an appreciative audience is the way to see a movie whenever possible.

It was a wonderful evening, including the chance to say hello to friends including Lindsay, Kim, and longtime commenter Jane ("Simple Gifts"). And it's always great to have the chance to chat with Wyatt McCrea, who is so knowledgeable about his grandfather's career.

UNION PACIFIC is available on DVD in the excellent Cecil B. DeMille Collection or as a single-title Universal Vault release.


Blogger Kristina said...

Great way to see this grand movie with so many familiar faces and memorable scenes. It's been some years since I saw it but I always remember the bit where Stanwyck reads (makes up) the letter to Toomey. Have to watch it again soon!

5:40 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Kristina! It really was an ideal way to see it.

That is a great scene you mention. :)

Best wishes,

9:34 PM  
Blogger Stephen Reginald said...

Just seeing this now, Laura. I'm screening it for my film club in a few weeks. Interested to see what they make of it. I love it and like you say, you can't do much better than Stanwyck or McCrea. Hey, that rhymes! All the best. Steve

5:36 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

That's great, Stephen, love hearing that you're showing it! I'd be interested to hear what your audience thinks. Glad you were able to see it, and thanks for stopping by!

Best wishes,

12:11 PM  

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