FRONTIER MARSHAL pretends to tell about Wyatt Earp and concludes with a version of the famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral. As one of the posse of well-scaled westerns released in banner 1939, the fiction is reasonably entertaining, but as history it’s rank nonsense, making Jesse James look like a documentary. *
Drifting into the Arizona Territory’s rowdy mining town of Tombstone, calm and fearless Wyatt Earp (Randolph Scott) accepts the job of city marshal, earning equal measures of respect and enmity. He befriends tubercular ‘Doc Halliday’ (Cesar Romero), suave but lethal (predating ‘tough but fair’), while Doc has to contend with attentions from old sweetheart (and ‘good girl’) ‘Sarah Allen’ (Nancy Kelly) and brassy dance hall dame ‘Jerry’ (Binnie Barnes). Never fear, there aren’t frontier love knots that can’t be untwisted with slugs of Colt.45.
Sam Hellman’s script took some sort of inspiration from Stuart N. Lake’s 1931 pop-fiction book, “Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal”, then went whole hog in making even more stuff up. Along with calling Holliday ‘Halliday’ for some arcane reason, and really foofing up the deadly dentists’ background (“the kind young doctor who leaned over sick babies all night“) enough to ‘gag a dog off a gut-wagon’, the script eliminates both Earp’s brothers and the OK Corral figures of the Clanton’s. The bad guys here are fictional louts. They’re played by John Carradine, Lon Chaney Jr. and Joseph Sawyer, so all is not lost. Scott is relaxed. Barnes still has her British accent faintly detectable after five years and 29 movies in Hollywood. Former child model Kelly, just 17, also appeared that year with Randy in Jesse James (Carradine and Chaney in that fave, too).
“Yesterday Big Nose Jackson was buried in Boot Hill. He was shot to death by an unknown party. Joe Triplet who officiates as coroner when not busy in the assay office rendered the following verdict: Body rich in lead, too badly punctured to hold whisky.”
Allan Dwan directs efficiently, and the production is marked by some fine black & white camerawork, especially at night, courtesy of Charles G. Clarke (Guadalcanal Diary, Captain From Castile). The rather noisy score was mashed together by Samuel Kaylin, David Raksin and Walter Scharf. The OK Corral shootout, apart from gross inaccuracy in its presentation, doesn’t have much dramatic heft. Given the most interesting character to play and rising to the occasion, Cesar Romero is the best actor in the cast, doing a sleek job as Doc.
Eddie Foy Jr. plays his own father, who apparently performed his song & dance act in Tombstone during the rowdy days of yore portrayed. The uber-familiar, ever-reliable Ward Bond is also on hand, knocking back one of 21 jobs he logged that year. Grosses amounted to $2,600,000, 94th place in ’39’s K.O.’d corral. 71 minutes. **
* The Wild West as done by Sunset Boulevard in 1939, in order of box-office success: Jesse James, Dodge City, The Oklahoma Kid, Union Pacific, Stagecoach, Stand Up and Fight, Destry Rides Again, Frontier Marshal, Man of Conquest. Those confused by geography and timelines will mistakenly add the frontier sagas from back East like Drums Along The Mohawk and Allegheny Uprising: get a map, pilgrim. Down the prestige scale there were over 100 minor additions to the genre also galloping into theaters that year. There are fans of Geronimo, with Preston Foster battling the fearsome Apache warrior, and The Cisco Kid and the Lady, the first of six in that series that brought extra paychecks to the elegant Cesar Romero, taking over Kid-play duty from five-time-Cisco Warner Baxter.
** This was a remake of a 1934 oater with same title, starring George O’Brien as ‘Michael Wyatt’ (Ward Bond also in the cast), and then was done again, much better and more famously (if still inaccurately) in 1946, as My Darling Clementine (the indefatigable Bond in that classic as well).