Frontier Marshal (1939) may be among the least historically-accurate films about Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral but, on its own terms, it's still an impressive, interesting film. It was based on Stuart N. Lake's biography (much of it fabricated) of the same name, which later was also the starting point for John Ford's My Darling Clementine (1946), though despite claims that Ford's film virtually remakes Frontier Marshal, in fact the two are quite different.
Frontier Marshal, announced as "Wyatt Earp - Frontier Marshall" until Earp's widow, unhappy with the script, threatened to sue, was directed by Allan Dwan. It's memorable mainly for its great cast, including even the minor roles. Randolph Scott is a good Wyatt Earp, though the script slights him somewhat, depicting Earp as little more than the standard, stalwart and incorruptible town marshal. On the other hand, Cesar Romero was an inspired choice to play Doc Holliday, here called Halliday, and his relationships with two contrasting women is really the heart of this above-average Western.
A "Fox Cinema Archives" release, Frontier Marshal gets an excellent transfer that like its other initial offerings belie the cheap-looking packaging. There are no extras, but unlike frequent releasing partner MGM and its MOD line, Frontier Marshal is region-free.
In Tombstone, Arizona, a bitter rivalry exists between Ben Carter (John Carradine), owner of the Palace of Pleasure, and the owners of the Belle Union, a classier joint with saloon girls (i.e., prostitutes) and an impending engagement by nationally famous comedian Eddie Foy (Eddie Foy, Jr.). Alcoholic Indian Charlie (Charles Stevens) is deliberately made drunk to cause trouble. He begins shooting up the place, and the overly cautious town marshal (Ward Bond) refuses to go in after him. Annoyed and trying to get some sleep, ex-Army scout Wyatt Earp (Randolph Scott) goes in and easily takes the ruthless gunman into custody, surprising all.
Earp is offer the job of marshal but he refuses until Carter's associate, Curly Bill (Joe Sawyer) takes him out of town and has him beaten. As the new marshal, Earp quickly begins cleaning up Tombstone. Meanwhile, gunslinger Doc Halliday (Cesar Romero) arrives in Tombstone at the request of saloon girl Jerry (Binnie Barnes, who's good but can't quite hide her British accent), a character based on Mary Horony, "Big Nose Kate." Halliday takes a liking to the new marshal, and Jerry's hold on Doc is further threatened by the arrival of Halliday's former fiancée, a nurse named Sarah Allen (Nancy Kelly).
Unexpectedly, it's this unpredictable love triangle and Doc's conflicting emotions that are the most interesting aspects of Frontier Marshal. For starters, the dialogue is sharp and, in Jerry's case, full of double-entendres. (When he threatens to "break you in two" she replies, "Well, why don't you? Break me.") Sarah, for instance, while Jerry's moral opposite, is no shrinking violet. When Doc and later an innocent boy are wounded, Sarah's nursing instincts kick in and she has no tolerance for Jerry's petty jealousies, literally shoving her out of room in one scene. Halliday/Holliday, a dentist in real life, here is depicted as a kind of fallen physician, whose great compassion for others is reawakened as Sarah reminds Doc of his past selflessness and repressed emotions. It's a moving scene, and Romero and Kelly are very good.
Indeed, so much obvious care is put into this relationship that certain other aspects of the film are almost casually tossed off, including the climatic Gunfight at the OK Corral, which is staged with an almost shocking lack of interest. It plays like an ordinary gunfight.
The supporting cast is great. Sawyer makes a strong adversary, and Lon Chaney Jr. is prominently featured as one of his henchmen, though no one seems to know quite how to use the beefy actor. Dell Henderson, often hilarious in comedies opposite Charley Chase, W.C. Fields and others, has a major supporting part, while Eddie Foy, Jr. gets to play his father (Foy Sr. did in fact cross paths with Earp and Holliday in the 1880s), for the second of at least five times (in Lillian Russell, Yankee Doodle Dandy, etc,). I wonder how accurately he recreates his father's performing style?
Video & Audio
Frontier Marshal, presented in its original full-frame format, has been given a handsome transfer with solid blacks and good contrast. The region-free DVD offers decent mono audio, with no alternate audio or subtitle options. No Extra Features, alas.
As with Dangerous Years the product description on the back of the case inexcusably gives away a major and otherwise unexpected plot point that doesn't even occur until six minutes from the end. Somebody else needs to be doing this.
An above average Western, Frontier Marshal, while historically inaccurate, deserves to be seen alongside My Darling Clementine, Tombstone, and other films about Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and their famous gunfight. It's a very worthwhile film and Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.