Wednesday, April 19, 2017

From the Rental Vault: The Spoilers (1942)

Though he had definitely gained star status by 1942, three years after his breakouit in Stagecoach, John Wayne carries third billing in this tale of Alaskan gold miners and corrupt officials. He's actually beneath the villain of the picture, played by Randolph Scott. And both men stand behind femme fatale Marlene Dietrich.

Wayne, Scott and Dietrich's version is the fourth of five tellings of the Rex Beach novel: hard-working miner Roy Glennister (Wayne) and his partner Dextry (Harry Carey) find themselves on the wrong end of a swindle engineered by corrupt gold commissioner Alexander McNamara (Scott) and a crooked judge. The law being somewhat far distant from Nome, Alaska in 1900, Roy is probably going to have to take matters into his own hands. On his side is saloon owner Cherry Marlotte (Dietrich) and the judge's niece Helen Chester (Margaret Lindsay), but Cherry's unsure about Roy's affections while Helen is in the picture and her support for him in his fight is just as uncertain.

Scott played villains about as often as Wayne did -- next to never -- but his straight-arrow carriage and tough demeanor make him a great foil for Wayne's two-fisted miner. Rather than a shifty nature or crude character, his ability to charm Cherry and match Roy stare for tough-guy stare make him all the more dangerous an opponent. The threat of physical confrontation pays off in a great six-minute fight scene with a mass brawl that involved 30 stuntmen and acrobats and took 10 days to shoot.

Wayne's best onscreen romances came when his female lead's character was as strong as his and unintimidated by his toughness and swagger. Whether those women took their cue from Dietrich's performance here or not is hard to say, but if there was ever a woman unintimidated by a man, it was Marlene Dietrich. Cherry is her own woman, and while she has obvious feelings for Roy she doesn't let him or those feelings for him run her life. She's not inclined to wait for him to choose between herself and Helen but instead forces the issue herself at several points rather than always react to whatever Roy does.

The Spoilers would get one more telling, in 1955. Wayne, Scott and Dietrich would appear later in 1942 in Pittsburgh, and Wayne's Batjac Productions would produce the first Scott-Budd Boetticher-Harry Brown collaboration, Seven Men From Now.

Beach's oft-told story, itself based on real incidents, offered nothing unique in the world of the Western, But the top-level talent of Wayne, Scott and Dietrich make the 1942 edition of The Spoilers one of the stronger movies of the genre as well as overall.

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