THE MARSHAL FROM WICHITA….JOEL McCREA (AFTER HE WAS JOEL McCREA) AS WYATT EARP (BEFORE HE WAS “WYATT EARP”) (I Watch Westerns: Take Five)

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Happy to be taking part in Toby Roan’s Joel McCrea Blogathon. Toby blogs at 50 Westerns from the 50’s, which is on my blog-roll and highly recommended for anyone seeking a better understanding of a bottomless subject. His comment section alone is more informative than a lot of books. Anyway, I picked McCrea’s turn as a pre-legend Wyatt Earp in Wichita, one of many superficially unassuming westerns that have grown with time and repeated viewings. Please take the time to click on the link provided and peruse the other entries….There’s always much to learn, even on an average day.

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By the time (1955) Joel McCrea played Wyatt Earp, in Jacques Tourneur’s Wichita, both men were at the height of their fame and iconography. McCrea had been a major Hollywood star for a generation. Earp had been a legend, both in his own mind and elsewhere, for nearly three-quarters of a century.

Nonetheless, on paper it  wasn’t the most natural pairing.

McCrea was sufficiently laconic to give Gary Cooper a run for his money, while Earp’s legend had grown, in part, because of his flamboyance–both as a lawman and a story-teller. Still, in the age just after the closing of the Frontier and just before our present Return to the Primitive, Civilization was thought best managed by the sort of man McCrea was best at portraying. It was what made him a star then and what now leaves him vulnerable to memory’s fast-fade. You don’t quite have to be an aficionado–of Hollywood or the Western–to recognize the value of McCrea’s name in a credit. But, each year more than than the last, it helps.

The Laconic Hero certainly wasn’t all he could play, even in westerns. He wasn’t Preston Sturges’s main boy for nothing, and, in a stone-cold classic like Colorado Territory, he was able to give his rock-solid persona the sort of tiny, invisible nudge (common to the great leading men of his day, virtually unheard of now that everyone’s been to “acting school”), that made him more than credible as the lone competent man in a brutal hole-in-the-wall hold-up gang…and, oh-by-the-way improve on Humphrey Bogart’s star-making turn in High Sierra (of which Colorado Territory was a superior western re-make).

Still, by the fifties, he had grown comfortable in his more basic man-of-the-west persona, and that’s certainly at the core of his presence throughout Wichita.

It’s also part of what makes the movie deceptively quiet. Despite a surfeit of plot and action, plenty of Tourneur’s always deft and subtly impressive visuals, and a strong cast even by fifties’ western standards (Edgar Buchanan, Vera Miles, Walter Coy, Lloyd Bridges, Jack Elam, Robert Wilke…like that, plus an especially fine turn from Wallace Ford as a newspaper editor who’s seen it all before), it can fool you into thinking not much is going on.

Wyatt Earp–not then a name carrying the particular weight that attaches to any version of the Dodge City or Tombstone tales upon which Earp’s legend was built–comes to Wichita to start a business. Then the usual stuff happens.

He averts a holdup at the bank where he is about to deposit his money….

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He turns down a marshal’s badge because he’s not interested….

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He then takes the badge when it becomes evident he’ll never get a business off the ground in any place as wild and lawless as Wichita (the woman is cradling her dead child, just shot through an open window by the cowpokes who have taken over the town…and whose business the town desperately needs)…

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So he tames the town…

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And keeps it tamed….

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To the point where he can enjoy the fruits of his labor…

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In part by wooing the town’s prettiest girl. (Miles, just before she altered the worlds of Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford. And, while she’s fine here–when was she not?–and you can already learn things by watching her, it’s clear Tourneur, one of the period’s finest directors, didn’t see the qualities they saw. One of the distinctions between even great talent and genius I suppose).

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More than all that, he begins to accept his destiny as a “natural born lawman….”

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The man who can turn this…

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and this…

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into this…

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and this…

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And make it stick until he and the girl can ride off into the sunset, where–having both his history and his myth handy–we know he will clean up other, even more raucous towns, and, unlike most legendary western characters, live to make sure at least some of the tales get told the way he wants them told.

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Simple enough. But that basic story rests inside a larger, subtler one, one which involves a hard-headed look at small town politics, the responsibilities of leadership and power, the testing of character and, yes, the fragility of Civilization. How close the run is between here…

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and here…

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and here…where even those who rejected Civilization a moment before are suddenly reminded of its virtues.

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By movie’s end, McCrea (and his legend) and Earp (and his legend) have merged in a way that hardly seemed possible at the beginning, when the “pilgrim, probably looking for something to eat” approached a cattle drive that would soon shape his destiny.

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In that beginning, McCrea’s at his most lock-jawed and generic. He really could be almost anybody and it’s only upon reflection that you realize how perfectly that suits the Wyatt Earp who, as a later Prophet might have had it, is busy being born. In the world of 1955, or 2016, we expect anyone playing Earp to have a star quality that’s evident from the moment we set eyes on him. But McCrea, who was perfectly capable of exuding that quality, holds it in check as he rides into the movie. It’s preparatory to his playing Earp as a character we don’t know, and who perhaps does not yet know himself. Once you realize that–and I confess it took me several viewings, though of course that’s an acknowledgement there was always plenty to draw me back–the movie itself gets a whole lot more interesting.

It’s credible that McCrea’s Earp is the kind of man a couple of cowpokes would take for an easy mark. And just as credible that they lose first their sense of superiority, and, consequently, their lives, for their mistake.

That’s the sort of duality McCrea’s rare breed of actor specialized in. He had company in this regard, but you wouldn’t need much more than a card table to seat them. Gary Cooper. Randolph Scott. Just then coming on the scene, James Garner. Maybe Jimmy Stewart at a stretch. But you could be as great as John Wayne or Robert Mitchum or Kirk Douglas and never convince an audience that the dumbest cowpoke ever born could mistake you for a mark.

McCrea splits the difference between “aw shucks” and “don’t push me” so easily it could take the viewer just as long to notice as his adversaries do, even in a film where the adversaries aren’t limited to the obvious bad guys. That he’ll tangle with Bridges, Elam, Buchanan, is clear enough. Here, as elsewhere, they were hired to be the sort of men Joel McCrea would have to dispense with. They, too, could do other things, but it’s not asked of them here at the birth of Wyatt Earp, where they do what they do as superbly as ever.

This Wyatt Earp’s biggest run-in, though, is with Walter Coy’s character, Sam McCoy, and not just because he’s Laurie McCoy’s (Miles) father.

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Coy was a fine actor who was often hired to play basically decent but feckless men. This might be his best turn. He shifts from glad-hander to big shot to concerned father to vengeful widower to the film’s chastened conscience as easily and naturally as McCrea shifts from wanderer to lawman and it’s these performances, along with Ford’s beautifully underplayed curmudgeon and (underutilized though she is) the early peek at Miles, already shouldering the permanently thankless burden of representing Civilization, a heartbeat before The Wrong Man and The Searchers, that give the film enduring interest.

I don’t know if the interest is bottomless…But I feel like I’m a long way from being done with it yet.

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19 thoughts on “THE MARSHAL FROM WICHITA….JOEL McCREA (AFTER HE WAS JOEL McCREA) AS WYATT EARP (BEFORE HE WAS “WYATT EARP”) (I Watch Westerns: Take Five)

  1. Pingback: The Joel McCrea Blogathon. | 50 Westerns From The 50s.

  2. Very well done indeed, chum. This is a terrific film. There’s great depth on view and McCrea is ,as you rightly point out, wholly believable as a man and as a western legend. And Tourneur’s direction and use of the wide lens (which is evident in some of the captures you included here) is exemplary.

    • Thanks Colin. This is definitely one that has grown with repeated viewings. I think I was a bit disappointed the first time I watched it because I wanted more of the McCrea/Miles romance. It didn’t seem to have the force and depth that it might have. But once I’d absorbed that, I started noticing a lot of other things…and boy is there a lot!

  3. A terrific review of a terrific western, one of McCrea’s finest, in my humble opinion. And I thought the widescreen screen-grabs you selected as illustration are first-rate.

    I am also interested in your point about this kind of laconic underplaying fading into obscurity in 2016 (more’s the pity) so I was especially surprised and thrilled recently when viewing the newest Woody Allen movie “CAFE SOCIETY”. Much of the story is set in 1930s Hollywood with much name-dropping of big stars of the day. Suddenly it is Joel McCrea that is referenced and more than any other big name at that! I was rocked back in my cinema seat. Thanks Woody for remembering.

    • Thanks Jerry. That means a lot coming from you…I follow the comments at Toby’s place closely and I don’t join in much because folks like yourself, Blake, etc. clearly know way–y-y-y more about this stuff than I do. It’s always an education and you’ve turned me on to a lot of films I wouldn’t otherwise know about!

      The diminishing of certain cultural archetypes is one of my running themes here. Very much our loss and nobody represents that more than McCrea. We don’t produce his kind of movie star anymore. I hope it’s not because we don’t product his kind of man anymore because that would be a lot more than a cultural loss.

      This does make me want to see Cafe Society though! Trust Woody to keep us in touch with our past.

  4. Great write up and fine interplay with those screen grabs.
    This film re-ignited my interest in The Western after a
    lengthy lay-off binge watching Horror Flicks during the Hammer,
    Corman.Price AIP era.
    I caught the film at a revival cinema circa 1963,loved it then,and
    still do.It sure stands up to repeated viewings-Earp’s first appearance
    in the film has an almost supernatural feel to it thanks to Tourneur.
    I love the final showdown with Lloyd Bridges “trail trash” Gyp character,
    especially when he says “don’t try to wing me Wyatt”
    McCrea’s Earp totally gets it and the gunfighters code between the two
    is strangely touching.

    • Thanks John…I’ve seen it four or five times here in recent years and feel like I’m just now really catching up to it. Much thanks to Toby for giving me a chance to share my developing thoughs with a bigger audience. Wish I had your experience of seeing on a big screen. Those visuals are impressive on a TV screen…must have been eye-popping in the theater!

    • An excellent review of a terrific western movie, Johnny! I particularly liked the way you integrated those screen grabs into the review – I’d never seen this done as well before. Congratulations!

      And John K, I agree with you about the almost supernatural impact of McCrea’s first appearance, tiny in the distance on top of that hill and then gradually growing larger as he approaches the camera. It put me in mind of Omar Shariff’s entry in “Lawrence of Arabia”. This movie came out well before “Lawrence”… I wonder if David Lean was a western fan who knew a good scene when he saw one!

      • Thanks Barney. Love to see the appreciation for the screen grabs as I work really hard on them (I usually capture at least 5-10 for every one I use) and I think that’s a big part of the fun of having a blog…never let you get away with this in a magazine!

  5. You wrote: “…just before our present Return to the Primitive…”

    Reading this in context of the whole piece, I have a strong impression that you wrote with the same present anxieties and concerns that I have (won’t push this point now though). I don’t know about you but I found it calming and kind of tonic to write about Joel McCrea in his characteristic Western persona in this past week.

    I’m sorry this is belated. I’m trying to catch up with comments on all the pieces and not doing it very fast, but I was deeply impressed with your excellent piece. Like others here, it’s especially because of how well you use and integrate the frame captures and so really represent what the film is. You do that beautifully.

    WICHITA is one of my favorite McCrea movies. Truthfully, though I always liked it, I’d had the misfortune not to see it theatrically so for years only knew it pan and scan and so liked it without appreciating all its qualities and was aware of that. Tourneur’s images are so rich and so subtle–he will never be emphatic but instead will give value to everything that is at play in the frame and so his movies are kind of endlessly satisfying. And the narrative plays so clearly and gracefully in his hands, and unpretentiously too, which makes me appreciate his artfulness all the more.

    So, to get back to what I wanted to say, finally the DVD came out and could appreciate his beautiful use of Cinemascope and the real compositions here and the movie became that much better.

    Like you, Nondisposable Johnny, I am quite entranced by Vera Miles and her real place in cinema. I don’t have any complaints about this role for her even if it isn’t the flowering that was coming along (her performances in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” and “The Wrong Man” are among my favorites by any actress). But I don’t think it was there for Tourneur to do more with her here (and again, that’s OK). So just have to disagree a little in your placing of Tourneur in relation to two other great directors. I actually prefer Jacques Tourneur to Alfred Hitchcock (great as Hitchcock is)–it’s more the approach to cinema that I feel the deepest affinity with. I can’t say that he’s as great as John Ford though–but to me, no other director is.

    In any event, again I really appreciated this very much.

    • Blake,

      I hope you get this reply…may try to reach you some other way if I don’t hear back from you.

      First, I apologize for the delay on my end…I finally found this in Spam, how it got there I have no idea. Then I had to approve it (which isn’t supposed to happen either). Anyway I finally have been able to move it to the main page!

      To the more important points…I know by your comments on other sites that we are in much accord on the state of the culture and especially what has been lost in the “modern” western. I hope you’ll have a chance at some point to peruse the western and John Ford categories on the site…Not as much there as I would like as yet, because I take each task seriously and don’t want to short-change anything and I try to write on a broad range of culture, not just movies. Especially hoping to add to my essays on “John Ford’s People” soon.

      To your specific points…I haven’t seen enough of Tourneur’s films to have more than an strong, highly favorable impression. What I have seen (this one, Out of the Past, Canyon Passage, The Flame and the Arrow and the Val Lewton films) are all big favorites of mine and range from masterful to highly enjoyable. When I’ve seen more, I might well move him up a notch from his already high place in my estimation (and happy to take any suggestions on where to look next). I should add that I might end up liking him as much or more that Hitchcock (who I do love but I feel has become a tad overrated), without necessarily thinking him a much a “genius” that quality being a sometimes double-edged sword.

      In any case, Tourneur certainly has a beautiful eye…as I’ve said in one or two of the comments here, I would LOVE to see this one on a big screen. Maybe some day!

      On Vera…she’s a big favorite of mine, too. I’ve written a couple of short but emotional essays on her here, will be happy to send you links if you like, or you can use the search engine on the site to see what I thought of her in Psycho and TMWSLV (which I agree is one of the greatest performances given by any American actress). My gut feeling is that Hitch or Ford would have given her one big scene in a part like this and brought that whole subplot a little more to the forefront, but of course there’s no way to prove that. In any case she’s excellent in the role she’s given…I’m probably just imposing my wish that there were more of her overall in films…Even chasing her down the rabbit hole of YouTube TV appearances, I always find her compelling.

      On Ford: Although I always liked his films, I didn’t really appreciate him fully until about ten years ago. I’m an aspiring novelist and I never really believed I could learn anything about deep narrative (the kind that interests me as both a reader and a writer) from films until I had an epiphany watching The Searchers for the fourth or fifth time. I’ve seen it forty or more times since, never failing to learn something new, and have to conclude that, among all the other great things he was, he was a genius of truly complex narrative in the manner of the great Victorian novelists.. I thought at first it was a quality he would probably share with other great directors and I had just missed it. So I went looking for it in others. At least in the English language he seems to stand alone.

      Lastly, thanks so much for your kind comments. They mean an extra lot coming from you. Big fan of your writing, comments and dvd commentary all of which make me feel like I’m in touch with a kindred spirit so hope you’ll have time to engage here as well!

      John R.

  6. Just a note to say how much I enjoyed your thoughtful piece — this is a favorite McCrea Western, and I love the way you pulled together the illustrations.

    “McCrea splits the difference between “aw shucks” and “don’t push me” so easily it could take the viewer just as long to notice as his adversaries do.” Love that!

    One of my favorite things about the film is Peter Graves, who has a pretty neat entrance. 🙂

    Thanks for calling attention to one of McCrea’s finest films.

    Best wishes,
    Laura

  7. Making the rounds a bit late on this blogathon, really enjoyed your post and like this movie a lot. Agree with you both about that fun bit with the brothers! Nice-looking movie and well-done “clean up the town” plot with interesting comment on what it takes get it done.

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