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Don't look for award nominations for the 1951 Technicolor western Silver City, but rest assured that it's a highly enjoyable, unpretentious western with pretty much everything "oater" fans enjoy -- gunfights, fistfights, dangerous-looking stunts. Besides an intelligent story, it has a well-developed romantic angle thanks to the presence of the gorgeous Yvonne De Carlo and the tempting Laura Elliott. Silver City is also an opportunity to marvel at star Edmond O'Brien, whose looks don't even approach matinee idol status. Yet he played a romantic hero in at least two dozen films. The actor has personality to burn -- we like him in almost everything, even as an avaricious mobster in pictures like 711 Ocean Drive.
The story conflict revolves around the mining claim of Dutch Surrency (Edgar Buchanan) and his daughter Candace (Yvonne De Carlo). They have only a few days to pull some extremely valuable silver ore out of the mine before mineral rights revert back to the miserly, unethical R.R. Jarboe (Barry Fitzgerald). Jarboe uses gunslinger Bill Taff (Michael Moore) and thug Arnie (John Dierkes) to hinder the Surrencys' progress. He also wants to obtain the assay report for the mine, to find out how much money he'll gain if he can get out of his contract with Dutch Surrency. Into the mix comes Larkin Moffatt (Edmond O'Brien), a discredited assay clerk prevented from working by a disloyal friend, Charles Storrs (Richard Arlen). A year before Moffatt considered stealing an assay report for another claim, to get money for his demanding girl friend, Josephine (Laura Elliott). Moffatt immediately returned the money but Storrs has been spreading calumny against him ever since -- and married Josephine as well. Moffat eventually agrees to help Candace extract the precious ore before the mine lease runs out. But that means that he must confront Jarboe's henchmen, Storrs' and Josephine's interference, and his own lost reputation.
Silver City moves swiftly and gives good dialogue to its nicely-drawn characters. It also features a non-gratuitous action scene every reel or so, filmed by Ray Rennahan's Technicolor camera in beautiful mountain locations. Larkin fights some thieves while riding atop rail cars loaded with giant redwoods, and a major chase scene takes place in an old sawmill, with spinning blades and massive machinery putting the stuntmen in what looks like real jeopardy. The movie's only action cliché is a mass fistfight in a saloon. Silver City freshens it with the comic business of Larkin retrieving his miners after the opposition has waylaid them with free liquor.
The romance between Larkin and Candace is slow to warm up, but is satisfying just the same. Yvonne De Carlo's first full-face close-up comes past the film's mid-point, and is a real stunner: she's breathtakingly beautiful. Laura Elliot later reverted to the name Kasey Rogers in an attempt to re-ignite her career. I think I've written before about Elliott suffering a major career setback this very same year. She should have earned more visibility with her expert playing of the ill-fated tease Miriam in Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train -- a stand-up-and-notice role if there ever was one. But Ms. Eliott was cheated when neither Warners nor Paramount, who loaned her out, made the effort to publicize her top-rank performance. That's how things were in the old Hollywood.
Laura Elliot's Josephine is interesting because she truly loves Larkin, but foolishly put money before love. She despises her husband Storrs, giving the cold businessman another reason to persecute Larkin. When Larkin and Josephine meet briefly, the dependably slimy bad guy Taff fires up Storrs, hoping that a murder will result. Taff has been commissioned to kill Larkin, but would be much happier if the crime fell on someone else's head.
Byron Haskin doesn't get much critical praise from the auteurist crowd. Andrew Sarris said that "his career has seemed incidental to the processes of personal expression," the kind of backhanded put-down that no professional deserves. Haskin's pictures may not be artworks for the ages but they're consistently entertaining and very handsomely put together. Silver City has spirit and fun, even if it isn't examining the most crucial social issues of the day.
On the other hand, maybe it is a socially relevant film. Neither screenwriter Frank Gruber nor story source Luke Short appear to have anything remotely "subversive" in their filmographies, but let's just pretend that they're trying to undermine the fabric of our great, great country. At first Larkin Moffat seems to be the victim of a blacklist-like vendetta. He's fired from job after job, and one employer even consults a "do not hire" list before giving him the boot. But as it turns out, Larkin is technically guilty of conspiring with thieves to steal an assay report (think "industrial secret"). Rotten ex-partner Storrs is now in good with the big mining company, while Larkin must eke out a living performing assays, which is apparently only profitable if one is dishonest. Larkin is honest, or he's learned his lesson. He points the Surrencys to a rich vein of silver ore that they'd passed by, and tries to refuse a cut of the profit.
But so much else in Silver City circles around shady business practices. Storrs knows that cheating and violence is going on, but prefers to watch and wait until he can confirm the assay to buy. R.R. Jarboe doesn't want to get his hands dirty, yet doesn't mind sending Arnie and Bill Taff to do his dirty work. Arnie, a man of few words, agrees to kill simply because he really needs the money. Bill Taff sets up Arnie and Storrs as fall guys for murder, and angles to get himself a piece of Jarboe's profits. As the saying goes, they all end in mincemeat, which is good entertainment but also the same sort of anti-capitalist stuff that Hollywood leftists were writing, stories in which human values are cruelly subordinated to profit.
Frankly, it's unusual for matinee westerns to get much further into economics than showing thieves that lust after "the payroll" or steal the mortgage money for Grandpa's farm. The villains in Silver City are trying to "game" an aspect of the mining system: the assay, the claim, the lease, physically getting the ore out. R.R. Jarboe chortles when he says that he and Storrs will control the refining aspect that comes later. It's a lesson in predatory business practices, I tells ya.
Even the girls get into the act. The virtuous Candace tells Jarboe that all the strife and killing is too much, that she'd rather just give him the mine early and walk away. (What is she, a socialist?) The conflicted Josephine blew her chance with Larkin Moffat by demanding that he get some quick cash; now Storrs dissolves their marriage, and hands her a billfold with "some money" in it. She gets what she originally wanted, and now has to live with no man at all.
Edmond O'Brien, Yvonne De Carlo and Laura Elliott make Silver City work as an all-round entertainment. I can see women who walk out of other westerns hanging around to see how this show turns out. Barry Fitzgerald is quite good, atypically cast as a no-good bad guy. Richard Arlen was never much of an actor but he seems happy to be working under the Paramount banner. He makes a strange quasi-villain. Not only does his Storrs never work things out with Larkin, Arlen gives no indication that he knows he's playing a bad guy. Veteran Gladys George trades smart talk with Richard Arlen in the hotel scenes. Unfamiliar face Michael Moore is of course not that Michael Moore. As a standard black hat creep, his is the least interesting character in the show.
Olive Films' Blu-ray of Silver City is a pleasant surprise in the quality department. We don't expect much of Technicolor titles from this era, as all must be transferred from vintage composite Eastman elements, many of which were poorly manufactured. So we're happy to report that color and registration are very good throughout the picture. A few Day for Night shots are too bright, some white speckles plague a dark scene near a reel break and one -- just one -- dissolve transition lasting about three seconds is a mess. Otherwise the transfer looks great, with punchy sound and a clear music soundtrack from Paul Sawtell.
Olive offers no extras, which is Paramount's choice, not theirs. Next up is Edmond O'Brien's follow-up western Denver & Rio Grande also directed by Byron Haskin. It co-stars Laura Elliott as well.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Silver City Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.