The Daltons

George Marshall’s 1940 western starts with a bang: a low angle shot of a forested road, the branches forming a vertiginous-in-reverse canopy overhead, the gang riding past us, a looong whip-pan after them, landing on a reverse of the road and the gang riding off, a-whoopin’ and a-hollerin’, as Slim Pickens would say.

Then there’s a very verbose bunch of print, all basically to tell us that what follows will be so historically inaccurate you won’t believe your eyes, and then a really nice narration by some never-identified old-timer (Ford fave Edgar Buchanan), and then it finally starts. And very rambunctious it is: does any western really need THREE surly lugs (Brian Donlevy, Broderick Crawford and George Bancroft) or two raspy goofs (Stuart Erwin and Andy Devine)? George Marshall never did like to stint on character. In fact, Bancroft and Erwin underplay so as not to clash with their co-stars.

It’s not all rootin’ and tootin’, though — Kay Fwancis is on hand, who may have tooted occasionally but certainly never lowered herself so far as to root.

Randolph falls for her, but she’s Brod’s broad. And he’s such a swell guy (all the soon-to-be bank robbers are loveable). “Why couldn’t Bob be a low-down no-account worthless Indian?” asks Mr. Scott, hypothetically. (Throwaway racism is something the movies can’t do anymore, which is mainly a good thing, but it means you can’t do lightweight period movies anymore without whitewashing away all the uncomfortable stuff that would have been there. Peter Jackson’s proposed DAMBUSTERS remake hits the rocks because the flyers gave their dog a racist name. (I think you could and should just rename the dog. Unless you’re making a serious film which notes that the raids killed 1,600 civilians and 1,000 forced labourers. If you do that, then you have to change the theme tune, I’m afraid.)

In this movie, the Dalton’s become outlaws when landgrabbers try to, well, you know. And there’s a fight and one of those guys with the narratively convenient glass skulls gets knocked down, so now it’s murder. In reality, they turned to crime after working in law enforcement and finding the horse thievery paid better. But their careers robbing trains and banks was largely disastrous. I like the sound of that movie. But in 1940 they made this kind. A shame, because I think Marshall quite liked bad guys, and would have made a good, piratical movie about them. He gets close, once things really get going here, which takes a while.

Ma Dalton is played by the great Mary Gordon, recently murdered by the Frankenstein monster and soon to take up landladying for Sherlock Holmes. The real Adeline Dalton was not only mother to most of one gang, but aunt to the Younger Gang and a cousin to Frank & Jesse James. This may be the biggest role our Mary ever had: not quite as much screentime as Randolph, but close. Because Randolph has VERY little to do, puttering impotently at the edges of the action and spending most of the climax unconscious.

Yakima Caunutt doubles Broderick to slide under a stagecoach, just as he’d done in STAGECOACH the year before. They’re figured out that giving this gag to a random Indian is less effective than giving it to a protagonist. “We’ll do it different this time,” growls Brod as he clambers aboard again to deal with the guy who knocked him under there.

The real Emmett Dalton, played by Frank Albertson here, had only just died three years before this movie. He had done fourteen years in prison then moved to Hollywood. He acted in one 1916 movie, THE MAN OF THE DESERT.


The movie’s OK, I guess. Easy to forget that westerns had been regarded as kids’ stuff for most of the ’30s until Ford made STAGECOACH. This wants to be adult — while Scott has nothing to do as an honest lawyer, the Daltons themselves are slowly by their brutal lifestyle. The trouble is it’s so full of phony stuff. Just as Scott is pledging his troth to Kay Francis, formerly Brod/Bob’s broad, a brick comes through the window with a message from Brod/Bob. Chased by a posse, the gang abandon their horses and leap from a convenient bluff, I believe is the word, onto a passing train — but how could they have known the bluff was there? Somehow, Ford’s movies use lots of unrealistic genre tropes (bullets cost nothing in the west) but seem passably true to life as well as compelling and beautiful. (One of this film’s writers, Harold Shumate, wrote westerns all through the kidstuff period of the ’30s, and that’s maybe the trouble.)

The ending — well, not the cozy VERY ending, the climax, is practically peckinpahesque, with great physical perfs from the various bodies who expire in it.

Randolph Scott faced the Dalton’s again in BADMAN’S TERRITORY, then again in RETURN OF THE BAD MEN, then joined the related Doolin Gang in THE DOOLINS OF OKLAHOMA.

WHEN THE DALTONS RODE stars Gil Westrum; Mary Stevens, MD; Quatermass McGinty; ‘Bull’ Weed; Harry Brock; Merton Gill; Link Appleyard; Sam Wainwright; Mrs. Hudson; the Wienie King; and The Mister.

9 Responses to “The Daltons”

  1. ehrenstein47 Says:

    Don’t forget Abby Dalton!
    Randy looks quite fetching laying there toying with e piece of straw (and doubtless thinking of Cary )

  2. It’s interesting to see him as a lawyer not a lawman. He never picks up a gun. This doesn’t quite work, because it’s an action movie with a hero reduced to idleness, but at any rate it’s unusual.

  3. Just a wild guess, but are the landgrabbers intending to sell the stolen land to the soon-to-arrive railroad? Somehow I remember that as being the plot of most westerns, movie and television.

    The culpability of the railroad itself would vary with attitudes towards big business. For safe, establishment matinee heroes the railroad was a benign or at least morally neutral presence, legally (and supposedly generously) purchasing land from whoever held it. In more populist pictures the railroad eliminated the middlemen and WAS the villain, so the James brothers were justified in robbing trains and passengers.

    Disney’s Lone Ranger movie offered a rail tycoon as a supervillain — a logical choice for a big franchise movies but not a good match for the character. The masked man and Tonto were committed to bringing law and order, and a sense of community, to isolated settlers and even Native Americans (in the movies based on the 50s TV show, racism against Indians identifies villains and SOBs). His enemies were bullies who thrived on the lack of social order, not top-down oppressors trying to impose one.

  4. I don’t even recall what the land was for. The baddie is identified only in the last real, although easily guessable using Scooby Doo detection techniques (there’s no other suspect).

    Once Upon a Time in the West is my fave railroad baddie movie, with Gabriele Ferzetti hanging from his railroad carriage ceiling to bark commands at Henry Fonda.

  5. Another really interesting version of the Dalton’s adventures is a double episode in a tv series called the outlaws. I heartily recommend this series to all of you. During the first season All the episodes were told from the point of view of the outlaws in a very sympathetic manner. The second season was told from the point of you of the Barton McLain and his deputies

  6. ehrenstein47 Says:

    Did somebody say The Lone Ranger ?

  7. chris schneider Says:

    David, you mention the pre-STAGECOACH period when westerns were thought to be kids’ stuff. But weren’t some of the pre-Code examples like the Vidor BILLY THE KID and (possibly) Cahn’s LAW AND ORDER made with adults in mind — albeit adults interested in lurid tales?

  8. Yes, there were certainly some big-budget adult westerns made in the pre-code period, and smaller ones like the Cahn, but I think they were vastly outnumbered by B-pictures aimed largely at kids, which were insanely numerous. And then post-code but pre-Stagecoach it’s pretty arid, save for all those cheap oaters (many starring Wayne).

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