THE GUNFIGHT AT DODGE CITY should have been plural gunfights, considering all the lead that’s thrown around in this generic, enjoyable 1959 western. The working title had been “The Bat Masterson Story”, but with the TV series Bat Masterson then running (three years with Gene Barry and a catchy theme song), producer Walter Mirisch decided to not confuse little cowboys and figured the ‘Gunfight at’ angle would ricochet some leftover allowance off the big 1957 hit Gunfight At The O.K. Corral. In this showdown the famous frontier lawman is played by western movie icon Joel McCrea. *
Our man Bat becomes the Marshal of corrupt cowtown Dodge City, Kansas after his brother is murdered in the same job. Besides contending with rowdy drovers who like to shoot up the town on Saturday night, and a knavish Sheriff who means to keep Dodge dirty, Bat is conflicted on the home front, having to chose between his late brother’s straight-laced fiancée (Julie Adams) and the admiring owner of the ‘Lady Gay’ saloon (Nancy Gates). Since the saloon gal is friendlier, dresses better, and isn’t a minister’s daughter, the choice would seem obvious, especially since the hotter one is named ‘Lily’. C’mon, Bat, don’t be a putz. While he’s making up his mind, assorted sneering bad guys get Colt-ventilated. **
Directed by proficient craftsman Joseph M. Newman (Red Skies of Montana, This Island Earth), the predictable but plucky script by Daniel B. Ullman and Martin Goldsmith (Detour, The Narrow Margin) is put over with assurance by the cast, peppered with familiar faces. No great shakes, just a reasonably enjoyable 81-minute time-passer for undemanding fans of the genre. Placing 106th in ’59, it grossed $2,100,000.
With John McIntire (the town doctor: he gets the best one-liners and is always up for a snort), Richard Anderson (as cur Dave Rutabaugh), Walter Coy, James Westerfield, Don Haggerty, Wright King, Harry Lauter (Bat’s brother Ed Masterson), Timothy Carey.
* At 53, McCrea, having concentrated almost exclusively on the genre for a decade and a half, intended this to be his bow out (friend Randolph Scott mirroring that experience and idea plan with Comanche Station, also with Nancy Gates). He did the TV series Wichita Town (with his son Jody) for one season, then he and Scott saddled again up for the classic Ride The High Country.
** Portrayed by Richard Anderson as a slick killer plugged by Bat, the real-life Dave Rutabaugh was a thorough no-good, and by the the time he met his end at 31, riddled with bullets and decapitated by a machete in Mexico (his head then stuck on a pole for good measure) he could claim to be the only outlaw who crossed paths with not just Bat, but Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett.
While tons of movies fobbed frontier fibs around Wyatt Earp, the much more interesting and celebrated (in his time) Masterson (1853-1921) got little big screen attention, mostly just a walk-on in Earp-centered flicks. Besides this McCrea turn, buddy Randolph Scott played him in 1947’s Trail Street and George Montgomery was Masterson of Kansas in 1954. Miss Gates showed up there, too. Like Julie Adams, she was quite busy in the 50’s: in ’56 she co-starred in seven pictures.