Western RoundUp: Cattle Drive (1951)
Some of the earliest Westerns I watched and loved as a child were Joel McCrea films for Universal Pictures. In fact, I credit those films with helping to develop my love of classic films in general and Westerns in particular.
I’ve also never stopped being a big fan of McCrea, so it’s been a particular joy to pay several visits to his longtime home, McCrea Ranch, over the past decade and get to know his grandson Wyatt. Wyatt is a wonderful keeper of the legacies of the ranch and his grandparents, Joel McCrea and Frances Dee.
Today I return to the topic of Joel McCrea’s work at Universal with a look at another early favorite, Cattle Drive (1951). Cattle Drive reteamed McCrea with his costar from Stars in My Crown (1950), Dean Stockwell, so this column is also a timely chance to pay tribute to one of cinema’s finest child actors. Dean Stockwell passed away at the age of 85 on November 7, 2021.
Stockwell was about 14 when he appeared in Cattle Drive. He plays Chester Graham Jr., who as the movie begins is being insufferably rude and unkind to all while traveling on a train owned by his wealthy father, Chester Sr. (Leon Ames).
Chester’s father means well and is willing to listen to a veteran train conductor (Griff Barnett) who tells him his son is a troublemaker, but he’s a bit hapless about dealing with his son’s ill temperament and poor character.
A series of incidents result in Chester being left behind after the train stops to take on water in the middle of the desert. Fortunately for Chester, he’s found wandering by Dan Mathews (McCrea), who’s taking time out from working on a nearby cattle drive to chase a magnificent stallion.
Chester is initially as sullen and unhelpful to the cowboys as he was on the train, but eventually, the patience of Dan and the chuckwagon cook, Dallas (Chill Wills), gets through to him and he begins to unbend.
Chester, now nicknamed “Chet,” learns varied skills as he pitches in and becomes a working member of the crew before being reunited with his father in Santa Fe. In fact, Chet so comes to like cowboy camaraderie and being useful that he’s reluctant to go back to his more comfortable previous life in the East.
Like many Universal Westerns, this film is short and sweet, with a running time of just 77 minutes. That’s really all that’s needed to successfully put over a solid and entertaining story that has a somewhat unique theme for a Western. Some have likened the script by Lillie Hayward and Jack Natteford to being a Western version of Kipling’s Captains Courageous; that story had been notably filmed in 1937 with Spencer Tracy and Freddie Bartholomew.
With a couple of exceptions, McCrea focused entirely on making Westerns in the ’50s, and for me, this relatively small-scale relationship film is one of his best. McCrea’s easygoing charm is perfect for the role of the endlessly patient Dan, who not only helps Chet mature but firmly protects him from an ornery cowhand (Henry Brandon) who considers the kid bad luck.
McCrea and Stockwell have excellent chemistry; their familiarity from making the very fine Stars in My Crown the previous year doubtless contributed to their ease together in this film. Cattle Drive would be Stockwell’s last feature film for half a decade; he returned to the screen in another Western, Gun for a Coward, in 1956.
McCrea doesn’t have a leading lady in Cattle Drive, but there’s a lovely touch when Dan shows Chet a picture of his “girl” who is waiting for him in Santa Fe. The picture is of McCrea’s real-life wife, Frances Dee.
Leon Ames’ screen credits included many notable roles as fathers, including Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), Little Women (1949), and On Moonlight Bay (1951). He’s perfectly cast as Chet’s amiable if befuddled father, and this fine actor’s presence also brings the film a bit of extra gravitas.
Building on that thought, one of the things I really appreciate about the film is the marvelous supporting cast. Chill Wills is always terrific in sympathetic, humorous roles such as this one, and having someone like Henry Brandon play the film’s villain — as villainous as anyone in the film gets, at any rate — adds to the film’s depth. Brandon was then half a decade away from playing Chief Scar in one of the greatest Westerns ever made, The Searchers (1956)
One of the wonderful things about returning to a film like Cattle Drive for the first time in a number of years is how much more the “deep cast” players mean to me when watching in a new context. For instance, when I watched and rewatched this film as a child I had no idea who Bob Steele was; having now seen him as a leading man in “B” Westerns and in numerous supporting roles in “A” films, his presence here as “Careless” delighted me. I love returning to a film with a fresh perspective and coming away appreciating it even more.
The movie was filmed by Maury Gertsman largely in the great outdoors, including Arizona and Utah; although it’s not listed at IMDb, a few of the backgrounds appeared to be in the Lone Pine area, which was confirmed by Tony Thomas’s book The Films of Joel McCrea.
Cattle Drive incorporates extensive stock footage of the horse Highland Dale from Universal’s Red Canyon (1949), which starred Ann Blyth, George Brent, and Howard Duff. It’s fun to note that Highland Dale would later appear in the title role of a film that starred Joel McCrea’s wife Frances, Gypsy Colt (1954).
Cattle Drive was directed by Kurt Neumann, whose next film, Reunion in Reno (1951), was made with Frances Dee. I’m particularly fond of a film Neumann directed the following year, Son of Ali Baba (1952), starring Tony Curtis and Piper Laurie. I also liked another of Neumann’s Westerns, Bad Men of Tombstone (1949), which starred Barry Sullivan. Earlier this year I was honored to pay my respects to Neumann at his final resting place at Home of Peace Memorial Park in East Los Angeles, California.
Cattle Drive, which holds appeal for adults and children alike, would be an excellent choice for family viewing during the holiday season. It’s available on DVD in the TCM Vault Collection.
– 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.