Western RoundUp: Review – The Cariboo Trail (1950)
It’s hard to believe, but this month’s column marks two years since the Western Roundup debuted here at Classic Movie Hub.
My introductory post covered Five of My Favorite Westerns, and since then it’s been a great honor to share my love for Westerns from a variety of angles including looks at additional favorite Westerns, movies available for streaming, books on the Western genre, film festivals, locations, and visits to interesting Western-related places such as the Autry Museum of the American West and McCrea Ranch.
I appreciate everyone who stops by to read my columns, as I certainly enjoy writing them!
This time around I’ve watched The Cariboo Trail (1950), a movie I’ve never seen starring another Western film legend, Randolph Scott.
Scott is supported by a tremendous cast of great Western faces such as Dale Robertson, Jim Davis, Gabby Hayes, and Bill Williams, for starters; reliable character actors such as Victor Jory, Douglas Kennedy, and James Griffith are also on hand. Leading lady Karin Booth is also a familiar face for fans of the genre.
The Cariboo Trail, set in British Columbia, might more properly be termed a “Northerner,” as some of us like to call films set on the Canadian frontier. The movie combines familiar Western themes of cattle driving and gold prospecting, with Jim Redfern (Scott) doing a little of both.
Jim and his partners Mike (Williams) and Ling (Lee Tung Foo) are driving cattle along the Cariboo Trail from Montana to British Columbia. They drive their cattle across a toll bridge controlled by local tycoon Frank Walsh (Jory) without paying, but in turn, Walsh’s men (including actors Davis and Kennedy) later stampede Jim and Mike’s cattle.
Mike loses his arm in the incident; Jim, Ling, and new friend Grizzly (Hayes) get him to safety in the nearest town, but Mike becomes an embittered alcoholic, spending far too much time drinking at the local saloon owned by Francie (Booth).
Francie and Jim regard one another with noticeable interest, but for the time being Jim is focused on building his future. Walsh wants Francie himself, and her preference for Jim gives him one more reason to cause Jim problems.
With the cattle gone, Jim, Ling, and Grizzly go gold prospecting, looking for a new stake, but are captured by Indians. They manage to get away but are separated in the process; Jim, making his own way through the wilderness, stumbles across a creek with enough gold to get a fresh start in the cattle business.
The three men make a pact with Grizzly’s relatives Martha (Mary Kent) and Jane (Mary Stuart), along with Martha’s foreman Will (Robertson), to go into partnership, taking Martha’s cattle to land Jim has found in a beautiful valley; along the way the group will face plenty more trouble, from both Indians and Walsh’s men.
The Cariboo Trail may not be a great film, but this Randolph Scott fan found it a very enjoyable, solid Western tale. It features a top cast and packs a great deal of story into 81 minutes, and on the whole, I was quite entertained.
In fact, while I’m definitely a fan of shorter films, in this case, I would have liked the movie to be few minutes longer so the supporting cast had more time to shine; in particular, I would have enjoyed seeing more of the secondary love story between Robertson and Stuart.
Scott is terrific, as always. He plays a level-headed man who reminds his partners that while it might be nice to do a little gold prospecting, their long-term future will more reliably be found in good land and raising cattle. He’s also remarkably good-natured and understanding when Mike repeatedly lashes out at him in anger after losing his arm.
Williams’ Mike becomes such an angry man that it’s almost hard to watch him at times, but late in the film he starts down the path toward redemption and becomes a more multi-shaded character. A scene where the one-armed Mike takes down two gunmen is a terrific bit of staging.
Storywise there are some interesting elements scattered throughout the movie. For instance, I found it notable that the loyal cook, Ling, was not relegated to a minor hired servant’s role but was a full, equal partner with Jim, Mike, and Grizzly. Ling has a couple of nice moments in the film, including providing Jim with a getaway horse when it’s needed in a hurry.
Women turn up as independent businesswomen with perhaps surprising regularity in Westerns, typically either running a saloon, a boarding house, or a restaurant. Francie is interesting in that while she runs a business often associated with “bad” women in Westerns — while the “good” women run more respectable establishments — there is never any question about her being Jim’s love interest and potential wife. While Francie looks briefly worried at possible competition from young Jane, that issue is immediately dropped, with Jane and Will having eyes for one another.
Leading lady Karin Booth, who plays Francie, spent much of the ’40s in minor roles, along with occasional more substantive parts such as a ballerina in MGM’s The Unfinished Dance (1947). The Cariboo Trail marked her first film as a Western lead. She would appear opposite George Montgomery in a trio of Westerns and also starred with Sterling Hayden in Top Gun (1955). Booth’s film career ended in 1959.
This was only the fifth film credit for Dale Robertson, who was working his way up from uncredited bit parts. Although the role is small, he’s extremely handsome, and it’s easy to see why his career soon progressed forward into lead roles, including many film and TV Westerns.
Mary Stuart plays Jane, who’s interested in Robertson’s Will. Stuart had played bit roles for the past decade; the year after this film she would star in a new TV soap opera, Search for Tomorrow, and remain with the show for its entire 35-year run. After Search for Tomorrow ended she joined the cast of another soap, The Guiding Light. The Cariboo Trail is a rare opportunity to see Stuart in a nice-sized movie role.
The Cariboo Trail was produced by Nat Holt and released through 20th Century-Fox. The film’s production values waver somewhere between an “A” and a “B” film; the second-unit photography, filmed in Colorado, is extremely good, but at the same time it’s quite clear that stand-ins are used in the long shots and the main cast never left California.
Some of the exterior scenes with cast members are actually filmed inside a sound stage, while other sequences, such as the opening cattle drive, at least took them outdoors to Bronson Canyon in Griffith Park, Los Angeles. The rocky Bronson Canyon backgrounds will look familiar to anyone who’s been there.
The movie was originally filmed by Fred Jackman Jr. in two-strip Cinecolor, and for many years it could only be seen in a black and white print. Happily, the film was restored to its original color a few years ago, a process that took over a year, and the restored print is now available on Blu-ray via Kino Lorber.
Director Edwin L. Marin spent the last few years of his career directing Westerns, including half a dozen starring Scott; sadly, he died less than a year after The Cariboo Trail was released, at only 52 years of age.
While Randolph Scott’s Western career later reached its zenith working with director Budd Boetticher — along with his very last film, Ride the High Country (1962), for director Sam Peckinpah — he made many Westerns in the ’40s and early ’50s which are quite entertaining. The Cariboo Trail is a strong exemplar of this phase of Scott’s Western career and illustrates why he continues to have so many fans.
– 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.