Western RoundUp: A Trio of Wyatt Earp Westerns
Real-life Western lawman Wyatt Earp (1848-1929) has been portrayed in countless films over the years. The stories always take a fair amount of dramatic license, but Earp’s legend was such that his name and incidents from his life were a seemingly bottomless well of inspiration for Western filmmakers.
The best-known Earp film of all may be John Ford‘s My Darling Clementine (1946), which is truly an American masterwork. Henry Fonda plays Earp, with Victor Mature a moving Doc Holliday; much of the film centers on their confrontation with the Clantons (headed by Walter Brennan) at the O.K. Corral.
Over the years Earp has been featured in many more films, which again often focus on the famous incident at the O.K. Corral. These titles include Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), with Burt Lancaster as Wyatt Earp and Kirk Douglas as Doc Holliday, and a decade later, Hour of the Gun (1967), with James Garner as Earp and Jason Robards as Holliday.
In more recent years Kurt Russell played Earp in Tombstone (1993), co-starring Val Kilmer as Holliday. The year after that, Kevin Costner played the title role in Wyatt Earp (1994), with Dennis Quaid as Doc Holliday.
This month we’ll take a look at a trio of very good Wyatt Earp films which aren’t nearly as well known as the titles mentioned above yet are worthy, well-done movies.
Frontier Marshal (Allan Dwan, 1939) – Fans of My Darling Clementine (1946) who see Frontier Marshal will feel a curious sense of deja vu, as the movies share a number of similar scenes and characters. Both 20th Century-Fox films were based on Stuart N. Lake’s book Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal, with Sam Hellman’s Frontier Marshal screenplay receiving story credit for Samuel G. Engel and Winston Miller’s later Clementine screenplay. Lake’s book had actually also provided the inspiration for an earlier Fox film also called Frontier Marshal (1934), with George O’Brien playing a character modeled on Earp, though his character had a different name.
Randolph Scott stars as Wyatt Earp in the ’39 Frontier Marshal, with Cesar Romero acquitting himself extremely well as Doc Halliday. (Online sources say the studio changed the name slightly due to fears of a lawsuit from the Holliday family.) Earp initially plans to start a business in Tombstone but soon finds himself employed as a lawman. Earp’s chief nemesis in this version is played by John Carradine, with Lon Chaney Jr. and Joe Sawyer also on hand as bad guys. Scott plays Earp as calm and confident, traits which are also integral to the Wyatt Earp character in the films discussed below.
Frontier Marshal and My Darling Clementine are different in a number of respects, including the fact that the earlier film is significantly shorter at just 71 minutes; it almost seems an abridged telling of the familiar story. Despite the variations between the two films, those who have seen the better-known Clementine will easily recognize various moments in Frontier Marshal, including a girl (Nancy Kelly) from Doc’s past looking at a photo in his hotel room; Doc performing emergency surgery; an actor (Eddie Foy Jr.) performing in a saloon; and even a woman (Binnie Barnes) thrown into a horse trough!
While Frontier Marshal has solid direction by Allan Dwan and is quite entertaining in its own right, the similarity of many scenes with My Darling Clementine certainly brings home to the viewer the added depth which a director like John Ford brought to the table. Frontier Marshal is a good movie, while My Darling Clementine is a masterpiece, with note-perfect performances, emotional resonance, and remarkable visual poetry.
A bit of cast trivia: Charles Stevens plays the role of Indian Charlie in both the ’39 and ’46 films. Ward Bond, who would go on to play Morgan Earp in My Darling Clementine, appears in a small role in this film and for good measure also appeared in the 1934 version! Chris-Pin Martin, who plays Pete, would also appear in the next Earp film discussed, Tombstone: The Town Too Tough to Die (1942).
Tombstone: The Town Too Tough to Die (William C. McGann, 1942) – This movie is rarely seen these days; like many films released by Paramount Pictures, it’s now owned by Universal and is not available on DVD or even VHS. It stars Richard Dix as Wyatt Earp, with Kent Taylor as Doc Holliday and Rex Bell and Harvey Stephens as Virgil and Morgan Earp.
The film traces some familiar Earp territory, as Wyatt agrees to serve as sheriff of Tombstone after seeing a child shot and killed, a theme that would be repeated in the next film discussed, Wichita (1955). Part of the story is unique to this film, focusing on Wyatt working to reform wayward Johnny Duane (Don Castle), including reuniting Johnny with his hometown love (Frances Gifford). More significantly, Wyatt, his brothers, and Doc battle the Clanton gang (Victor Jory, Donald Curtis, and James Ferrara) and outlaw Curly Bill Brocious (Edgar Buchanan), who was played by Joe Sawyer in Frontier Marshal.
I’m not an Earp expert by any means but my reading indicates that some aspects of this film are somewhat more authentic than other Earp movies, particularly the close-range gunfight at the O.K. Corral, which is over and done within a relatively short time. The scene is wonderfully staged, with Earp, his brothers, and Doc checking their gun belts as they walk oh-so-deliberately toward the corral, with the sound of their boots advancing ever closer striking fear in the hearts of the Clantons.
The movie also depicts the murder of Morgan Earp as he played billiards, which in real life took place a few months after the O.K. Corral incident. That’s followed by a massive, nicely staged shootout filmed in the Alabama Hills outside Lone Pine, California — a location also utilized in Frontier Marshal. Director William McGann handles the action well and keeps up a tight pace in this 79-minute film, which was shot by Russell Harlan.
The cast is excellent, headed by Dix as the genial, confident Wyatt Earp. I particularly enjoyed Taylor as Doc Holliday and just wish his part had been a little bigger. There are a handful of moments, such as a bit of “comic relief” with an anonymous couple in a saloon, that could have been pared out in favor of more screen time for the main characters. That said, overall this is a well-done film I like quite well and have enjoyed on multiple occasions.
Wichita (Jacques Tourneur, 1955) – The last film on this list is my favorite. Wichita is a beautiful collaboration between director Jacques Tourneur and leading man Joel McCrea, playing Wyatt Earp. Tourneur and McCrea had previously worked together on another wonderful film, Stars in My Crown (1950), in which McCrea played a small-town pastor in the post Civil War era who faces down a lynch mob and copes with a typhoid epidemic.
In Wichita Tourneur impressively uses the entire CinemaScope frame, with one of the most memorable shots coming near the beginning, when Earp is just a speck riding on the horizon. The movie’s beautiful look, filmed by Harold Lipstein, is paired up with a strong script by Daniel B. Ullman.
In this version of Earp’s life we see his first meeting with a young newsman, Bat Masterson (Keith Larsen); he also courts his wife (Vera Miles), spends time with his brothers (Peter Graves and John Smith), and cleans up Wichita, where the villains include Lloyd Bridges and Robert J. Wilke. As the movie ends, Wyatt Earp is headed for a job in Dodge City.
McCrea’s Earp is a noble man who would prefer to be a businessman, but as he stares at the lifeless body of a child he reaches for a gun and a badge, ready to do the job others won’t do. Earp seems to constantly be confronted with violent situations, noting “I guess I was born under a troublesome star,” yet he’s never less than calm as he deliberately does what must be done. His quiet certitude belies his amazing speed with a gun, which time and again enables him to successfully deal with violent men.
This Allied Artists film is a pitch-perfect, satisfying 81 minutes. Perhaps my only complaint is it needs more of handsome Peter Graves as Morgan Earp, but his sequence is so wonderful I’m willing to forgive him being short-changed on screen time. This is up there with my favorite McCrea performances. It’s a terrific film from start to finish.
Wyatt Earp is a supporting character in several other Westerns, notably Winchester ’73 (1950), played by Will Geer, along with a trio of lesser-known but likeable George Montgomery Westerns: Gun Belt (1953, played by James Millican), Masterson of Kansas (1954, Bruce Cowling), and Badman’s Country (1958, Buster Crabbe). Millican also played an Earp-inspired character in the wonderful Rory Calhoun Western Dawn at Socorro (1954). All of these films are likely to find their way into future Western Roundup columns!
– Laura Grieve for Classic Movie Hub
Laura can be found at her blog, Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings, where she’s been writing about movies since 2005, and on Twitter at @LaurasMiscMovie. A lifelong film fan, Laura loves the classics including Disney, Film Noir, Musicals, and Westerns. She regularly covers Southern California classic film festivals. Laura will scribe on all things western at the ‘Western RoundUp’ for CMH.