Sunday, February 09, 2020

Tonight's Movie: The Outriders (1950) - A Warner Archive DVD Review

Joel McCrea stars in THE OUTRIDERS (1950), an MGM Western available on DVD from the Warner Archive.

This movie was released by the Warner Archive in a remastered print in 2011. Since the Warner Archive films are manufactured on demand, it remains as easily available today as when it was first released the better part of a decade ago.

THE OUTRIDERS was a McCrea film I'd somehow not seen before today. While it isn't a perfect movie, it has a number of excellent elements which made it quite enjoyable.

The positive factors begin with the fine cast, directed by Roy Rowland, who would later direct a lesser-known Western I liked a great deal, GUN GLORY (1957).

THE OUTRIDERS gets off to a rousing start thanks to terrific theme music by Andre Previn, who was all of 20 or so when he composed the score. The colorful opening credits called to mind the style of my beloved Universal Pictures Westerns.

The story begins with three Confederate prisoners of war, played by McCrea, Barry Sullivan, and James Whitmore, killing a Union guard and escaping. This was my least favorite part of the film, as it's fairly violent for the era -- and the pleasant young soldier killed was played by William Phipps, who voiced Prince Charming in Disney's CINDERELLA (1950) that same year!

The trio make their getaway but then are caught, not by Union soldiers but by a Quantrill's Raiders type named Keeley (Jeff Corey), who threatens the men with death unless they agree to lead a wagon train carrying gold into an ambush carried out by Keeley's men.

The three men are able to join the wagon train, led by Don Antonio Chaves (Ramon Navarro), after saving it from an Indian attack. As the travelers surmount various challenges on the way from Santa Fe to St. Louis, Will (McCrea) is increasingly troubled by the prospect of the people he has come to know during the journey being killed -- especially as he's fallen in love with Jen (Arlene Dahl), the widow of a Union Army officer.

The film builds toward the confrontation between the wagon train and Keeley's raiders, as it becomes clear that Jesse (Sullivan) doesn't care if the travelers, Jen included, are killed; in fact, Will realizes that Jesse has conspired with Keeley to keep the gold rather than use it to aid the Confederate cause.

By the time the final battle occurs, it's almost anticlimactic and things go pretty much as the viewer anticipates, but as is so often the case with Westerns, it's the journey which matters more than the conclusion.

There are some really top-notch sequences in the film, starting with a strikingly memorable dance scene. One night along the trail Will has let the men unwind with some liquor and dancing, instructing Jen to stay put in her stagecoach. After a while, though, Jen comes out and dances with all the men in turn, wearing out a pair of shoes. Will helps Jen put on a new pair of shoes and they dance as they, and we, realize they have fallen in love.

It's an unexpectedly beautiful sequence in what up to that point had been an entertaining if somewhat routine Western. Though the campfire scene was shot on a soundstage, Dahl's green shoes and long red hair make for some unforgettable visuals.

This is shortly followed by an exciting river crossing sequence. While the nighttime scenes were clearly filmed on a soundstage, the movie also has excellent location work, filmed around Kanab, Utah. (There's a great photo of the cast and crew at Parry Lodge in Kanab here.) The river scenes are beautifully and realistically filmed on location.

A few years ago Blake Lucas wrote a great essay on this film for 50 Westerns From the 50s which I just reread. I especially enjoyed this, referring to the dance and river scenes: "This whole stretch of the movie would be enough to make it stand out -- and that’s true even though these events of a dance and a river crossing have a ritual quality in Westerns and are very familiar (what is arguably the greatest Western of this same year, WAGON MASTER, directed by John Ford, has both) but it’s a welcome familiarity because there is such an eternal resonance of life in both these things." Beautifully stated.

Part of what makes Westerns special is that they hold both familiarity and originality, and that's very true here, as we see the fresh takes this particular group of filmmakers brought to these memorable sequences. In the end, despite some weaker aspects including a slow-ish opening, I quite enjoyed this film and will return to it in the future.

I very much liked Dahl in this, playing a strong woman who holds her own as the lone female among a large group of men. Perhaps in part because her character is a mature widow, she is not shy or coy around Will, but shares her feelings frankly. She's seen more than her share of grief, but she also appreciates life's joys, something communicated in unspoken fashion during the dance, and she doesn't waver when everything is on the line.

McCrea is perhaps a bit more subdued in this than usual, but it may be his way of communicating his character's internal dilemma. Though he's a quiet man, we never doubt that Jen has developed feelings for him, simply because he's Joel McCrea.

Barry Sullivan is a name I'm always happy to see in a movie's opening credits; I think I most enjoy him as a "good bad guy," such as in the underrated Western DRAGOON WELLS MASSACRE (1957). Here the viewer starts out rooting for his character Jesse as he escapes his wartime prison, but he increasingly reveals himself to be a man with sharp edges; he may have friends and he may also, like Will, be attracted to the lovely Jen, but in the end he's looking out for No. 1, and woe to anyone who stands in his way.

It's a pleasure seeing silent star Navarro in a sizeable role in this, and the top cast also includes Claude Jarman Jr. (the same year he appeared in John Ford's RIO GRANDE), Ted de Corsia (who drifts out of the story midway), Martin Garralaga, Dorothy Adams, and Russell Simpson.

The movie was nicely shot in Technicolor by Charles Schoenbaum, who does the best job possible mixing location filming with soundstages and back projections.

The story and screenplay of this 93-minute film were by Irving Ravetch. I just wrote a bit about Ravetch and his wife, Harriet Frank Jr., in a recent Around the Blogosphere This Week, as Harriet just passed on at the age of 96. Irving died in 2010, age 89.

The remastered Warner Archive print looks terrific. I did find myself turning the volume up and down due to variable sound levels; some of the dialogue is extremely quiet, and then that great Previn theme starts booming or the Indians start whooping!

The disc includes a nice-looking trailer.

Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this DVD. Warner Archive releases are MOD (manufactured on demand) and may be ordered from the Warner Archive Collection at the WBShop or from any online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays are sold.


Blogger Jerry Entract said...

Nice to see your welcome review of this very nice Joel McCrea western, Laura. Certainly it is relatively routine but that is not especially a negative for me; the film has always resonated well with me.
Personally, I like the somewhat brutal opening sequence and the wonderfully contrasting scenes at the dance much later in the film which you have described so very nicely.
A western made at a peak year for both the western movie and for McCrea too.

11:34 PM  
Blogger SimpleGifts said...

Nicely written review, Laura. Charles Schoenbaum was the cinematographer for another McCrea film, STARS IN MY CROWN. His brother Emmett was a gifted studio photographer. We're friends with a Schoenbaum descendent so we invited his family members to the McCrea Ranch. It was a treat to show them around -- they brought a great still of a very young Joel taken by Emmett! Best, Jane

6:16 PM  
Blogger Silver Screenings said...

A new-to-me film which I must see. (I mean, Joel McCrea, for pete sake!)

I like what you said about westerns having both familiarity and originality. I hadn't really thought about it that way before, but it's true!

6:53 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Jerry, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. That's a good point about the contrasting scenes. I'm so glad I finally watched this one. (Hard to believe there are still some Joel McCrea Westerns I haven't seen, but there are a few! I need to make a checklist and work on that!) Glad to know you enjoy this film also.

Jane, thank you so much for your kind words and what a wonderful anecdote about the Schoenbaum family! Joel and Charles Schoenbaum certainly had a great collaboration on 1950 movies at MGM.

Ruth, glad I could alert you to a new-to-you McCrea film! I'm glad you liked that thought on Westerns. :) :) Thanks for stopping by!

Best wishes,

9:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Laura, this is a really good review of a movie that I like very much. I first saw it on a dialing for dollars movie back in the early 1970's. You did such a wonderful write-up there isn't much to add.

Keep writing about Western Movies.

Walter S.

8:09 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thank you, Walter! I especially enjoyed writing this review and so I'm very glad to know you also enjoyed reading it!

I love having those particular kinds of memories of where we first saw movies -- here in So. CA I have many memories of first watching films on KTLA Ch. 5 and KTTV Ch. 11.

Thanks for the encouragement!

Best wishes,

11:39 PM  

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