I’m still hot on the trail of William A Wellman’s pre-Code movies, and have been lucky enough to get hold of another couple - starting off with this Western epic. This wasn’t on DVD when I wrote this posting but I’m just editing to say that it is now out on Warner Archive. I don’t think this is one of Wellman’s very best, but I do like it and wish it was more widely-known – and it is definitely a Depression movie, despite largely being set in earlier eras. The film covers everything from the coming of the railways to the early days of silent cinema, and even has a prediction of what is to come for the future near the end, where a character says: “We will have television – and we’ll be able to fly across the whole continent in a couple of hours!” It also includes quite a lot of autobiographical material, with a character who joins the Lafayette Escadrille and becomes a celebrated First World War pilot, just as Wellman himself did.
Ann Harding and Richard Dix star as a young couple who travel out to Nebraska and build a banking dynasty. Both stars have demanding roles, taking them from youth to old age, and Dix even plays his character’s own grandson for good measure! I like Dix in this (for me he is more convincing as a young banker than as a swashbuckling Australian outlaw in Wellman’s Stingaree) but find Harding a bit insipid compared to other heroines in Wellman pre-Codes, such as Barbara Stanwyck or Ruth Chatterton.
Wellman made the movie on loan from Warner to RKO Radio Pictures, who were aiming to repeat the success of another Western epic, Cimarron (1931), directed by Wesley Ruggles, which won the Oscar for best picture. Both films have the same star, Richard Dix and the same screenwriter, Howard Estabrook. I haven’t seen Cimarron as yet, but gather there are also quite a few similarities in terms of plot, with both movies focusing on pioneer families who struggle to build a life for themselves and live through dramatic financial ups and downs.
In the midst of the Depression, it seems there was a demand for movies which showed how earlier generations had battled through economic downturns and come out the other side. (Wellman’s So Big!, released a few months earlier, is another in the same vein). The money markets are a constant theme in The Conquerors, which features scenes following financial collapses in the 1870s and 1890s as well as 1929. Different episodes are bridged by montages showing towers of notes and coins rising and then falling, whirled together with newsreel footage and other images such as mountains crumbling. These extraordinary sequences were created by Slavko Vorkapich, who also made montages for many other movies, and I’ve seen a suggestion that they should really be regarded as mini-films in their own right. A great soundtrack by Max Steiner adds to the atmosphere.
The movie begins amid scenes of wealth in 1870s New York. Harding stars as society beauty Caroline Ogden, who is being wooed by a lowly clerk in her father’s bank, Roger Standish (Dix). There is a characteristic Wellman scene right at the start of the movie where the young couple are kissing on a garden seat – I was reminded of the kissing in garden swings at the start of Wings and The Boob. Here it isn’t actually a swing, just a long seat where they can semi-recline, but the dreamy mood is the same, until it is ruined by the heroine’s furious father. He fires Roger, but they are all quickly overtaken by events when the bank collapses and Caroline’s father is ruined, dying almost immediately.
There is then a painful scene where her family’s goods are sold off at auction – and she and Roger have a conversation which must have been very close to home for many in the cinema audience. “What do people like us do?” asks Roger. “People who want to get married but have no money and no job?” Caroline comes up with the answer “They go West” – and that is just what this couple do, setting off on a long journey to Nebraska.
However, they are robbed on a boat, and then Roger is shot and wounded while defending Caroline from would-be attackers. The couple are taken in by a permanently drunken doctor, Dr Daniel Blake (Guy Kibbee) and his fierce-but-golden-hearted wife Matilda (Edna May Oliver), who run a hotel together in a small frontier town. Blake somehow manages to save Roger’s life despite being unable to remove the bullet lodged in him, and the couple stay at the hotel while Roger slowly recovers, with Caroline scrubbing the floors to show her gratitude to the Blakes.
Mordaunt Hall’s review in the New York Times complained about both Kibbee and Oliver going over the top in their roles. I do partly agree with this – Oliver in particular always seems rather hammy to me, and is an actress I don’t warm to much, although I know a lot of people love her. Kibbee’s comic drunk antics also get rather wearing, but I think Wellman probably intended this, since, as with Frank McHugh’s comic drunk role in Lilly Turner, the comedy surrounding the character becomes very dark after a time and indeed has tragic consequences.
When the bandits who wounded Roger turn up in town and rob the hotel, Roger is determined to make them pay, gets up from his sickbed and gives a fiery speech to the men of the town. He then climbs on a horse to lead the posse against the bandits – and, thinking of Dix’s swashbuckling antics in Stingaree, I was fully expecting him to make a miracle recovery and prove an action man. However, I was wrong – nothing so corny happens. Instead, he faints in the saddle after just a moment or two, falls to the ground and has to go back to the hotel to continue his convalescence. However, although Roger can’t lead the posse, the others do catch the bandits on his behalf, and there is a chilling glimpse of a long row of men being hanged on the spot – one of the violent moments which marks the movie as pre-Code.
As she mops his brow, Caroline suggests that they should set up a bank, starting with just a few dollars in the safe. For the rest of the movie, Roger’s heroism is more of the brand of James Stewart’s in It’s A Wonderful Life – staying in that small town and keeping the bank going for the sake of the community, despite everything that fate and the economy can throw at him.
The rest of the film becomes rather episodic, jumping long periods of years bridged by the montages. At times it feels a little rushed as Wellman packs an awful lot into his 86 minutes, making me wonder if some footage was cut as I know happened with some of his other pre-Codes – but, in any case, there is a lot of powerful drama and tragedy for the central family, woven in with glimpses of what is happening to America as a whole.
The rest of my review does give away some later plot twists, so anyone planning to watch the movie might want to stop here for now and maybe come back later.
Caroline gives birth to twins, a boy and a girl. When the railway arrives in their home town, the whole family turns out for the grand occasion – but tragedy ensues when the doctor, who is still drunk, decides to take the little boy on a ride in his carriage to see the train up close. The horse bolts and the carriage is run down by the train, in one of the film’s most dramatic scenes, killing both the child and the old doctor.
The film then jumps to the wedding day of the girl twin, Frances (Julie Haydon), whose happiness is all too brief. There is another powerful scene amid financial collapse of the 1890s showing a run on the bank, which really reminded me of It’s A Wonderful Life – though here members of the panicking crowd can’t be persuaded to let the bank hang on to their money, and it does have to close down temporarily. Like the film’s first financial collapse, which killed Caroline’s father, this one also has fatal consequences. Frances’ new husband, Warren (Donald Cook) is revealed to have made reckless decisions about lending - and shoots himself behind a closed door as she gives birth to their son, Roger, with the movie cutting between the scenes of death and birth. Cook only has a very small role in this film but brings a dark, angry intensity to it reminiscent of his performance in Wellman’s masterpiece The Public Enemy. I think suicide is one of the elements which wouldn’t have been allowed in a film made after the Code – although the fatal shot isn’t actually seen, only heard.
There is a wonderful scene from little Roger’s childhood where he is shown being taken to a cinema to see silent footage which shows the Wright brothers’ first flights – he jumps up and down in his seat with excitement. A few moments later we learn that the adult Roger (also played by Dix in a double role) has volunteered to serve in the First World War, and transferred from the ambulance service to the Lafayette Escadrille, as Wellman did – there is a scene of his family reading about his exploits shooting down three German planes. When Roger returns from the war, his grandmother dies as she watches him marching in with the other soldiers.
Richard Dix is caked in make-up for the later scenes showing his character as an aged patriarch, as well as putting on a doddery voice – and I did find it a bit distracting when he has scenes talking to his grandson, ie his younger self! The film ends with predictions from the older Roger of how America will rise again after the Depression – including the line I quoted at the start predicting the success of television and jet aircraft. The whole thrust of the film, which has an alternative title for TV of Pioneer Builders, is to show how a community can overcome disaster and rebuild, but spelling it out to the audience in so many words seems a bit clumsy. I wonder if the studio made Wellman add this in, as with the upbeat endings to some of his early 1930s Warner films. I didn’t think I had much to say about this one, but have rambled on as usual, so many thanks to all who have read this far!