Paramount with the production of Wells Fargo and The Plainsman started the return of westerns to the A picture list with big budgets. Though the Cecil B. DeMille production of The Plainsman is flashier and splashier, Wells Fargo under the direction of Frank Lloyd seems to have had more staying power. It certainly has the budget of a DeMille film and kind of hard to think that Adolph Zukor would have sprung for two big budget westerns in the same year. If they had flopped Paramount would have gone under.
Frank Lloyd is a name all but forgotten by today's fans. Yet he had won two Academy Awards by the time Wells Fargo came out, for The Divine Lady in 1929 and for Cavalcade in 1933. And he had just missed winning a third the year before for his greatest film, Mutiny on the Bounty. He got good performances out of the whole cast.
Stuart Lake wrote the script and he borrows from Edna Ferber's style of story telling. The action of the film covers a twenty five year period from the early 1840s to Reconstruction. Joel McCrea as Ramsey MacKay is an Edna Ferber like hero, a heroic man involved in a big enterprise who sacrifices a lot of personal happiness towards that end. Frances Dee, Mrs. McCrea in real life, is his loving if not always understanding wife, also in the Ferber tradition.
The fictional Ramsey MacKay is an important part of the growing company of Wells Fargo. Henry O'Neill and Frank Clark, play the real life partners of John Wells and William Fargo, with Clarence Kolb as John Butterfield who later merges his stagecoach line with them.
The only part of the film I found a bit ridiculous was the battle between McCrea who is taking a gold shipment east and the Confederates led by Johnny Mack Brown. Somehow I don't believe the desperate Confederacy towards the end of the war would have had Brown offer to parley with McCrea and give him a chance to surrender peacefully if the Confederates were outnumbered. Even with Brown being a friendly rival for Dee's hand earlier on, this was in fact war. When the shooting starts the battle is well staged.
Paramount shot this one on location for the most part and the production values do show. Frank McGlyn played Abraham Lincoln in this film as he did in The Plainsman.
Bob Burns who was a regular on Bing Crosby's Kraft Music Hall at the time and appeared in a few Paramount films with Bing plays the sidekick role here. Look for Bob Cummings in a small part as a young prospector.
Wells Fargo is a well done epic western and in fact it's the film that really made Joel McCrea a western star.
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