Bill Hickok in his early pre-gunslinger years as a freight-line agent protecting a gold shipment from villains out to steal gold and land out west while America is diverted by the Civil War back east. With the help of Calamity Jane and her horse-trader uncle, Hickok battles the bad guys while trying to win the love of his life, Louise, in a formulaic B western adventure with songs. Written by
Roy Rogers sides with Calamity Jane in historical B-western
In his early years at Republic Pictures, Roy Rogers specialized in historical westerns (DAYS OF JESSE JAMES, BILLY THE KID RETURNS), in contrast with the contemporary settings of his wartime and postwar westerns (DON'T FENCE ME IN, THE GOLDEN STALLION, etc.). YOUNG BILL HICKOK (1940) casts Rogers in the title role and dramatizes the famed gunfighter's first meeting with Calamity Jane (played by Sally Payne in the first onscreen portrayal of the character since Cecil B. DeMille's epic western of 1936, THE PLAINSMAN, which also featured Hickok and paired him with Buffalo Bill, who's absent from this film).
The film starts out promisingly as it details a plot by an unnamed foreign power to take advantage of the divisions of the then-raging Civil War to try to take over California. John Miljan plays the foreign agent, Nicholas Tower, without a trace of an accent or any other hint of which country he's supposed to represent. (The name Nicholas may signal a Russian origin, but weren't the Soviets our wartime allies?) Tower conspires with Morrell (Hal Taliaferro), a local outlaw, to disrupt the stage lines serving California, and when Morrell's Raiders go into action, they run afoul of young Bill Hickok (dubbed Wild Bill by a reporter for "the Chronicle") who soon allies with wagon freighter Gabby Whitaker (Gabby Hayes) and his salty young female partner, Calamity Jane. After introducing all the characters and setting up the basic premise, which offered a good deal of potential for suspense, the action quickly settles into familiar B-western territory as Hickok has to defend himself against a charge of masterminding the theft of a gold shipment he was assigned to guard. Gabby and Jane spring him from jail and work to get the goods on Tower. At a certain point it becomes simply one chase after another, albeit with the usual topflight Republic stunt work.
While the drama wavers in the second half, the spirit of fun is maintained by the delightful performances of Gabby Hayes, in his trademark wizened old westerner role, and the film's genuine revelation, Sally Payne, as the no-nonsense Calamity Jane, whose command of western vernacular is equaled only by Gabby's. (A horse is never a horse, but a "Cayuse.") The homely, mannish Jane was always a challenge to Hollywood, which couldn't resist the urge to make her pretty by casting such top stars as Jean Arthur (THE PLAINSMAN), Yvonne De Carlo (CALAMITY JANE AND SAM BASS) and Doris Day (CALAMITY JANE) in the role. Here she looks and sounds a little closer perhaps to what the real woman was like, although the best Calamity Jane onscreen may arguably be Ellen Barkin in Walter Hill's WILD BILL (1995).
There are a handful of short songs that don't intrude much on the action, including one performed together by Gabby and Sally. Special mention should be made of B-western regular Hal Taliaferro (aka Wally Wales) who delivers a sharp portrayal of bandit Morrell who distrusts the "foreigner" Tower but takes the job anyway because the pay is good. Long-haired, unshaven and tall, with piercing eyes, Taliaferro cut a suitably seedy and menacing figure but with a touch of humanity. It's too bad the importance of his character diminishes as the film progresses, with Tower taking up greater screen time. Iron Eyes Cody is on hand as one of Gabby's Indian workers. Jacqueline Wells (aka Julie Bishop) plays northerner Hickok's southern-born fiancee, lending a bit of romantic conflict to the equation as they bicker about the ongoing war.
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