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John Ford's Stagecoach may have made John Wayne a front rank star, but he never really stopped being an old-fashioned movie cowboy. Wayne made action-romances with stars like Marlene Dietrich and seemingly won the war singlehanded in the pictures The Flying Tigers and The Fighting Seabees. His strongest studio connection was at Republic, which couldn't afford to compete with the majors. Studio head Herbert J. Yates allowed him to begin producing pictures as well. Wayne made three for Republic before establishing his independent company, Batjac. The first is Angel and the Badman, one of Wayne's most endearing star vehicles. The story of a gunslinger reformed by the love of a young Quaker is a pleasant little morality tale. Wayne's co-star is Gail Russell, whose sensual eyes and face could easily reform any man alive.
Writer-director James Edward Grant would become one of John Wayne's closest collaborators on hits like Hondo and The Alamo. His original story has the simplicity of a silent western fable. Disillusioned Quirt Evans (Wayne) has turned to outlawry. Wounded, he's taken in and cared for by the Worths, a family of Quakers having difficulties establishing their farm. Young Penelope Worth (Gail Russell) develops a crush on Quirt while he's still unconscious, and becomes determined to make him her fella. When Quirt recovers he is surprised to find that such good and generous people even exist. Hearing that neighbor Fred Carson (Paul Hurst) has selfishly cut off the local water supply, Quirt rides to confront him. Carson opens the water gates without delay. The hospitality of Mrs. Worth (Irene Rich) then turns Carson into a fast friend. Quirt is shocked when the Quaker elders honor him with the gift of a Bible, as by now he feels he's not good enough for the adorable Penelope. That feeling is aggravated by the appearance of Quirt's crony Laredo Stevens (Bruce Cabot), who seems determined to cheat the now-recovered gunfighter out of a piece of property. Territorial Marshal Wistful McClintock (Harry Carey) is also close at hand, waiting for evidence to pin a stagecoach robbery on Quirt. He warns Penelope that Quirt is a bad risk, but she isn't about to give up the man of her dreams.
Angel and the Badman is a hundred-minute vacation from violent western entertainment. Its Quaker pioneer family is an unexpected sagebrush precursor to William Wyler and Jessamyn West's pacifist drama Friendly Persuasion. The film generates great chemistry between John Wayne and the dark-haired Gail Russell, who is the antidote for two hundred woefully under-written female parts in Republic westerns. As pure-hearted as they come, Penelope is intrigued, not angered, when Quirt mumbles in his sleep about previous lovers. She even forgives him when he hides out with some dance hall girls. The likeable Wayne is in fine form, and the way Penelope's eyes widen when she sees him without a shirt tells us how thoroughly she's attracted to him. We can judge the extent of Quirt's infatuation by the number of times Penelope convinces him to keep his gun in its holster, and stay around the Worth farm. Wayne would allow the romances in some of his later movies (such as the James Edward Grant-penned McClintock!) to become tiresome parodies of gender roles, mostly based on his hit The Quiet Man. By contrast Quirt and Penelope are inventing their new life together. We just hope Quirt continues to fit in with all of the Quaker values.
A couple of years later John Ford would direct Wayne in Three Godfathers, a purposefully naïve allegory with a Sunday School vision of the West. Angel and the Badman is just as sweet, without the excess sentimentality. Once the outlaw Quirt Evans sees a better way of living with the Worths, his redemption is well under way. The real villains are the two-faced Laredo and his sidekick Hondo, who step in at the conclusion to pay for their sins, and apparently Quirt's as well. Angel and the Badman is also much like Joel McCrea's pacifist western Four Faces West, which is distinguished by the fact that not one shot is fired in anger. When the Quakers hide his bullets, Quirt is forced to bluff his way through one encounter with an empty six-shooter. The crotchety Fred Carson suddenly becomes very cooperative when he realizes he's facing the deadly Quirt Evans, an occurrence that pleasantly, if not convincingly, brings peace to the valley. The Carson-Worth feud seems based on nothing at all, not even religious intolerance or an aversion to the words Thee and Thou. The film seems proud of this happy "friendly persuasion", even though it teaches the dubious lesson that the threat of violence will turn people into good neighbors.
For the most part, Quirt Evans' conversion to pacifist-agrarian values is beautifully handled. All the outlaw has known for years has been struggle and hostility. The Worth farm is a living Utopia for a strong young guy able to work the land, and with Penelope extending an amorous invitation nothing could be more desirable. The balance of Angel and the Badman sees Quirt and Penelope bravely facing the consequences of his past. As the Marshall is played by the kindly, fair-minded Harry Carey, the king of sentimental silent-era cowboy heroes, we look forward to a happy ending.
Republic Pictures gives Angel and the Badman a high production polish. First-time director Grant probably received plenty of assistance from the ambitious Wayne and the ace cameraman Archie Stout. The film is very smoothly directed, with attractive interiors and exteriors that make us believe a genuine little frontier society is nestled up there in the foothills of Sedona, Arizona.
Stuntmen Richard Farnsworth and Chuck Roberson did some of the more difficult cowboy tricks. Both horsemen would later have long acting careers in small parts. In one of the first scenes Gail Russell appears to be an experienced wrangler, driving a buckboard wagon forward at a fast clip and stopping its horse team right on the mark. As it turns out, the horses are really being driven by a stuntman crouching in a hidden compartment, using a second set of plainly visible reins! Just look below Gail's feet on the buckboard.
Olive Films' Blu-ray of Angel and the Badman is an almost flawless transfer of this highly entertaining western romance. A few small scratches appear near the main title, and some white specks align near reel changes, but otherwise the sharp, handsome transfer is very clean indeed. Richard Hageman's traditional music cues sound robust on the HD soundtrack. So many Republic pictures have been released in sad 16mm dupes that one sometimes forgets how technically well crafted they were.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Angel and the Badman Blu-ray rates:
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