Frontier Marshal


Wyatt Earp was and is one of the most enduring figures in the mythology of the Old West. I’ve always enjoyed seeing how such people were represented on film, how those representations have evolved over time, and how that evolution reflects changes in the western itself. I’d been planning on running a series of pieces on the various movie incarnations of Wyatt Earp – so here goes. I’m going to look at as many of the screen portrayals of the man as possible; both those that have the famous lawman as the main character, and those that only feature him incidentally. I don’t say that this will be an exhaustive list but it will deal with all the major films chronologically.

1939 was something of a defining year for the western, a turning point – the year the genre started to grow up. After the box office failure of The Big Trail (1930) the western found itself relegated to B movie status. Studios were unwilling to lavish money on what they saw as a bad risk, and so the western would languish on the bottom half of the bill for the remainder of the decade. 1939 was to change all that. John Ford’s Stagecoach, De Mille’s Union Pacific, and Henry King’s Jesse James showed that there was still gold to be found in ‘them thar hills’, and the western returned to A list respectability. Along with those illustrious titles came Allan Dwan’s Frontier Marshal.

I suppose I should start by saying that if you’re one of those who are sticklers for historical accuracy, then this is not the film for you. This adaptation of Stuart N. Lake’s book has a character called Wyatt Earp, who was a lawman in Tombstone – and that’s about as close to the real facts as it gets. In fact, the movie might just as well have been about any marshal in any burgeoning frontier town. There’s a nice little montage sequence at the beginning that establishes the birth and growth of Tombstone, before introducing Earp (Randolph Scott). It’s made abundantly clear that Tombstone is a wide open town where pretty much anything goes. Earp finds himself reluctantly roped into the job of marshal and, by extension, into conflict with the town’s less savoury elements – outlaw Curly Bill Brocius (Joe Sawyer) and his saloon-keeping ally Ben Carter (John Carradine). He also meets the notorious gunslinger Doc Holliday (Cesar Romero), although for some unfathomable reason the script chooses to refer to him as ‘Halliday’. Together, the two heroes take on the might of the criminals in an effort to bring law and order to the streets of Tombstone, culminating in the legendary gunfight at the OK Corral. This scene is pure fantasy since the only relationship to the truth here is that it involves Wyatt Earp and has some people getting shot.

Randolph Scott plays Earp as an arrow straight hero. It’s not a bad performance and more or less par for the course for the era. In later years, Scott would show his ability to play much more complex characters but he was rarely given the opportunity to do so at this stage in his career. Cesar Romero is surprisingly good as the guilt-ridden Doc, though it has to be said that the part has afforded the chance to shine to every actor who ever played the role. The outlaws are portrayed as the standard cardboard cutout villains, although John Carradine always lends a touch of class to any part. Some time I must do a count of how many films I own that feature Carradine, for he seems to turn up everywhere. And while I’m talking about ubiquitous actors, there are parts also for Ward Bond and Lon Chaney Jr. Binnie Barnes is the tough saloon singer in love with Doc, and competes for his affections with the more refined Nancy Kelly. One other interesting piece of casting has Eddie Foy Jr playing his own father, who was supposed to have been performing in Tombstone when the gunfight at the OK Corral took place.

Generally, this is a pretty decent western, and only fails if you expect to learn something about the real Wyatt Earp. There are no Clanton’s, no McLaury’s, and no Virgil or Morgan Earp. If you view it as simply another western about a marshal cleaning up the town, it works well enough. The film  is now available as a bonus feature on the recent R1 ‘Ford at Fox’ release of My Darling Clementine. While it is included in the smaller sub-set it is missing from the full box, but there was a mail-in to allow those who missed out on it to receive the film. The presentation of what is essentially just an extra is excellent, with a very nice, clean transfer. There’s even a trailer and stills gallery included – another fine piece of work from Fox.


19 thoughts on “Frontier Marshal

  1. This is the only review of the disc I’ve seen; thanks Colin.

    The trouble with the (now closed) offer for buyers of the ‘Ford at Fox’ box was that it wasn’t so much a mail-in, as an e-mail-in and thus open to much abuse. The second problem (and most pressing to many I suspect) was that it didn’t seem to apply to non-US buyers of the set.


  2. Yes John, I imagine there have been a fair few claims that were less than honest.
    I didn’t know that about the non-US customers being excluded – that’s unfortunate. Does that mean you didn’t get your disc then? It’s a bit rich to ask those who shelled out for the main set to double-dip again if they want to see this title.


  3. I’d never heard of this before reading your review, Colin, but it sounds intriguing, if more for the cast than the actual quality of the film. A pity it’s only available with My Darling Clementine as I’ve already got the old Studio Classics release.


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  5. This is what I remember most about this film. Charles Stevens in the role of ‘Indian Charlie’ portraying an out of control drunkin’ half-breed (?) Indian. Stevens portrayed the role so well he later duplicated his efforts in MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (1946). It’s as if the writers were so impressed with his role in FRONTIER MARSHAL they purposely recreated the scene once again for Stevens in CLEMENTINE.


    • That’s right, Scott. Both Dwan and Ford produced two quite different films from the same source material, and of course the latter version has all those personal stylistic touches that particularly characterize the director. The fact that this early sequence is much the same in both movies is noticeable.
      The Dwan film is quite good overall – it’s a typically entertaining and brisk piece of work, well played and directed. It only appears a little weaker when looked at as a telling of the Earp story (they really should have just changed the names, in my opinion) or if it’s compared to Ford’s later film.


      • Well Colin you could look at it that way. However, it was the first attempt to bring the Earp name into a large scale film. If CLEMENTINE had never been made maybe it would not be much of an issue.

        Another notable aspect………not only did Charles Stevens have both roles as Indian Charlie, he also portrayed the role in the second Earp saga Paramount’s 1942 TOMBSTONE: The Town Too Tough To Die. If there was an another character actor that portrayed the same role in three different movies I fail to remember.


        • Scott, I like the film well enough myself and find it enjoyable. When you put it next to the raft of other Earp films then attention is drawn to its characteristics more in that particular context. Mind you, I don’t think there’s any need to view in the fashion I just mentioned – I do believe every film ought to be seen on its own terms first and foremost. So as I say, it’s a typically solid and tight piece of filmmaking from Dwan and a cast with Scott, Romero, Carradine and others is worth checking out. Yeah, it’s not at all a poor film and I would hate to think anyone would come away from what I wrote here with that impression as it certainly wasn’t my intention.


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  8. Just watched this for the first time and thoroughly enjoyed it. It looks great thanks to Alan Dwan and Charles Clarke and Ronero really walks away with it – but as you rightly say, the Holliday role seems to be largely bulletproof 😆 Staging the gunfight at the OK Corral at night is a great idea. In many ways there is so much going on, and the production values so high, it feels like an A picture that has been cut down to a B. Another great recommendation, thanks buddy.


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