I’ve been enjoying contributing to a few blogathons lately, and this is my contribution to another one – the Universal Blogathon, celebrating the studio’s 100th birthday. Please take a look at the great range of postings.
Universal might be best known for its horror films, but the studio also produced many other types of movie over the years, including Westerns. The Alaskan gold rush is the backdrop for The Spoilers, a lighthearted film with a great cast, headed by Marlene Dietrich, John Wayne and Randolph Scott. I’d remembered all the best bits of this film from a previous viewing, before deciding to revisit it for the blogathon, and, having watched it again, would have to admit there are quite a few flaws which had slipped my mind. So it isn’t a masterpiece – but it does provide a lot of fun and there is loads of chemistry between Dietrich and Wayne, who were an item in real life at this time. It’s also interesting to see Western hero Scott in a less than sympathetic role.
Oddly, Wayne is third-billed here, below both Dietrich and Scott, even though he gets far more screen time than the latter. The supporting cast also includes Harry Carey, star of many earlier Westerns, and Richard Barthelmess, a great name from the silent and pre-Code era, here in his last role but one. The film is adapted from a novel by Rex Beach which was brought to the screen several times, including in a 1930 version starring Gary Cooper which apparently does exist but isn’t available to see anywhere. A shame – I’d love to compare it with this version.
The film is set in Nome in 1900. Reprising the same kind of role she played in Destry Rides Again a few years earlier, here Dietrich once again runs a saloon – though, sadly, she doesn’t get a chance to do any singing this time round. I’d misremembered from my previous viewing and was expecting her to get on stage here too. Dietrich’s character, Cherry Malotte, is a strange mixture – warm and down-to-earth, but exuding impossible glamour as she glides around in a succession of breathtaking and wildly impractical gowns which nobody could get away with in real life. Anyone who has only seen Dietrich’s roles in the great pre-Codes she made with Josef von Sternberg might be surprised that she was able to reinvent herself as a more lighthearted Western heroine, but there was often a sense of mischief in those, and it is brought out more in films like this one.
Cherry is in love with gold miner Roy Glennister (Wayne), but she suspects him of a roving eye. When Roy arrives back from a trip away and seems to be too friendly with another passenger on the boat, Helen Chester (Margaret Lindsay), Cherry flies into a jealous rage and it looks as if their romance could be over. Must admit I find Lindsay a somewhat limited actress and here she is exactly the same as she is in all the films she made with James Cagney in the 1930s, again playing a rather prim character. Meanwhile, another new arrival in town, gold commissioner McNamara (Scott) seems extremely interested in moving in on Cherry. Complicating things further, Cherry’s sidekick at the saloon, Bronco (Barthelmess) is also in love with her- and not resigned to playing second fiddle.
As well as all these romantic rivalries, there is also a battle over gold claims. At the start, two comic characters are fuming because someone else is trying to take their claim. But things soon get more serious when Roy and his partner, Dextry (Carey) are told that there is a rival claim for their mine too. The friends must decide whether to trust the law, personified by McNamara and his pal the judge, or whether to stick to the law of the gun.
Unfortunately, supposedly for comic relief, the film features a lot of racial stereotyping, most noticeably in the part of Cherry’s maid, Idabelle, played by Marietta Carty. She’s a talented comic actress and works well with Dietrich, after they struck up a good relationship in their previous film together, The Lady Is Willing, but much of the humour is distinctly queasy, especially a scene involving Wayne in blackface.
Overall, though, while this isn’t a great Western, I still found it very watchable. The plot is good, but the cast is even better. Wayne and Dietrich are jokey and tender together, while a weary-looking Barthelmess steps into the limelight for a couple of memorable scenes. His character, Bronco, always carries a knife – and, when the smarmy McNamara asks why, he answers ‘I never know when I’ll run into a piece of cheese.’ Scott and Wayne also play off one another well, including a spectacular set-piece bar-room brawl which is said to be one of the best scenes of its kind.