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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.
This is one of those history lesson films that tell us an interesting story about the expansion of this country, the failure of the US Post Office to meet the demands for communication in the rapidly expanding country of the 1840s and of the rise of the famed courier service, sort of a modern UPS. Joel McCrea plays one of the early riders, who becomes a stalwart supporter and defender of the rapid expansion theories and in the course of his dedication and absence from home, loses his marriage, redeemed only in the last reel. It's a very interesting film, well done and well played. It received an Oscar nom for Sound, but did not deserve it - instead it did deserve a nod in the Art Direction category, but failed to get it. Most available prints are the 97 minute edited versions - original release was 20 minutes longer. Certainly a good solid film and worthy of a look.
This is a very interesting western, more so nowadays, because it shows how a fast mail service was created in the West at the time that the only sensible way to go to California was on sailing ships passing through Panama. Surprisingly this film did not age and there are some scenes like when they show San Francisco that look incredibly real. The creation of Wells Fargo, is presented through the story of Ramsey MacKay(Joel McCrea), and Justine (Frances Dee). Their relationship gets into trouble because of Ramsay's long absences and also the civil war, where her family joins the Confederates and Ramsay is called by Lincoln to make sure the money arrives to the soldiers. Robert Cummings and Johnny McBrown are on supporting roles.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This is a largely fictional account of Ramsay MacKay (McCrea) who rises
from a humble wagon driver in pre-Civil War New York state to become,
after much travail, one of the Vice Presidents of Wells Fargo, the
Butterfield Overland Stage Company, American Express, the Bank of
America, the Ford Motor Company, AT&T, American Airlines, Ben and
Jerry's, and Microsoft Corporation. Yes, he reaches dizzying heights.
But it costs him dearly over the years. He marries Frances Dee and is alienated from her by the conflict between the Union, for which he works, and the Confederacy, which is her homeland. It takes more than ten years just so straighten that ONE misunderstanding out so the movie can end happily. And there are plenty other misunderstandings and deaths along the way.
The movie fits into the end of a genre, which might be called the rough-hewn biography of an individual or a corporation. The genre flourished in the 30s. There were stories of Reuters, Lloyds of London, Louis Pasteur, Robert Koch, Walter Reed and others. Those were more or less historical. Some were completely fictional, like Howard Hawks' "Come And Get It." They were all pretty much the same -- simple and entertaining -- except that, I guess, "Citizen Kane" fits in there somewhere too.
Joel McCrea is as likable as ever. It's not his fault that I always have to look up the spelling of his last name. He married his co-star here, Frances Dee, and they stayed married for some fifty-seven years. Lucky Joel. She really sparkles and looked just fine well into middle age.
I wish this had come off better than it did. I can't quite pin down the reasons why it's less satisfying than others of its type. I suppose, for one thing, the editing is really clumsy. A stagecoach rushes into a town and the citizens turn out to cheer its arrival. And I swear that for several minutes I couldn't figure out whether we were in San Francisco or St. Louis. The actual BUSINESS of Wells Fargo isn't made clear enough. The telegraph lines figure prominently but seem to have nothing to do with the rest of the movie. Butterfield's Overland Stage and the Pony Express are worked adventitiously into the plot. Lloyd Nolan shows up and then promptly disappears. We see quite a lot of Mister Wells but I can't remember meeting Mister Fargo, although he's in there somewhere because he's listed in the credits. In 1868, Mister Wells was generous enough to build a college for ladies in the Finger Lakes Region of New York.
No reflection on any of the actors. For the most part they hit their marks and say their lines professionally. An exception is the twenty-seven-year old Robert Cummings, who is not yet ready for prime time. There are several scenes of action. As incidents in themselves, they're reasonably well done. It's the script that torpedoes the production.
Since getting a channel exclusively devoted to Westerns, I've seen
that are never seen on regular channels, like Wells Fargo.
Joel McRea, whom I'd enjoyed immensely in These Three, is impressive in a Western. He's rugged and tough, but goes beyond the stereotype, and is sensitive and understanding. He ages from his 20's to his 60's believably. The story of courier service extending out west makes me want to read more about these pioneers of exploration.
Fans of McCrea looking for a standard shoot-em-up should look
elsewhere. That would be okay if the movie were as good as most McCrea
westerns, but it's not. Too much time is spent trying to get Ramsay's
(McCrea) love life straightened out. The trouble is this tends to crowd
out the interesting other two themes namely, opening highways to the
West and action and adventure along the way.
Now, with so much going on, narrative transitions from one thread to the next become important. But, I agree with reviewer Maxwell-- this key element in the storyline is handled very clumsily. It's sometimes hard to follow developments because of muddy segues, plus a sloppy script that appears to want to do too much with too many marginal characters. On a different note, what's with IMDb listing Lloyd Nolan in the credits. If he's in the picture, I couldn't spot him, and he's not someone easy to miss. Maybe he got edited out.
On the plus side are actors McCrea, winsome wife Dee, and a fearsome Mary Nash, some good crowd scenes, and several edifying historical facts. Still, I too, was left wondering just what Wells-Fargo did as a day-to-day business, which seems an odd omission given the movie's title. Anyway, to me, the movie was a disappointment despite a bigger than average budget and an effort at historical sweep.
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