Dakota is one of Republic Pictures' sturdy 1940's Westerns that still hold up well today. Republic was not a "poverty row" studio, as often erroneously stated, but it did know how to operate on the cheap while turning out a slick looking product. Most of the studio's output were programmers, but a few bigger budget "quality" pictures were produced every year. Dakota was one of these for year 1945. It has the scope and scale befitting the super star John Wayne wasn't yet but someday would be.
The action starts with a madcap chase in Chicago, chugs across the prairie on a train, then churns upriver to Fargo Dakota on a rickety paddle wheel steamboat captained by Walter Brennan at his most eccentrically colorful. There is a large cast of extras along with a fine cast of principal and supporting players, including along with Wayne and Brennan, Ward Bond, Mike Mazurki, Ona Munson, Hugo Haas, Grant Withers, Paul Fix, and last, but not least the Republic studio boss's main squeeze, the beautiful but allegedly untalented Vera Ralston. More about her later. Thanks to the taut direction of Joseph Kane and skilled, fluid editing, Dakota has a pleasingly fast pace with a jaunty, almost light-hearted air. There is not a wasted camera shot in this movie. It provides almost non-stop action from beginning to end, though it does so without an excess of violence. We get coach chases, buckboard chases, foot chases, horseback chases, a fight in a train car, a robbery on a riverboat, a riverboat wreck, burning wheat fields (looking suspiciously like file footage from The Westerner), a woman jumping off roofs, and a spectacular night-time finale shootout. As an added bonus, Munson leads a chorus of pretty dance hall girls in a charming period musical number. Dakota displays an authentic look and feel we wish we could find in more westerns from any period. The men wear suits and ties most of the time with their long-barreled six-shooters tucked into their waistbands under their coats. The women wear long, period dresses instead of butt-tight jeans. The men, even the bad guys are polite and helpful to women in keeping with Victorian sensibilities. The sets are well-turned out and convincing of the period. The story by Carl Foreman like the script by Lawrence Hazard is intelligent and engaging.
Dakota is one of John Wayne's "intermediate period" westerns -- that is intermediate between Stagecoach and Red River. Stagecoach raised Wayne out of the doldrums of the grade-Z western programmer circuit he had been stuck in through most of the 1930's. He was an "A" star now, but not yet really the big star he would later become. Still a star of the second rank like George Brent or Dennis O'Keefe. Through most of the 1940's, he was still being second-billed in "A" pictures behind such male stars as Robert Montgomery (They Were Expendable) and Ray Milland (Reap the Wild Wind) and top female stars such as Caludette Colbert (Without Reservations) and Joan Crawford (Reunion in France). It would take a magisterial performance in that Western of all Westerns Red River, released three years after Dakota, to raise Duke Wayne to the status of super star. But he was already showing the signs of what was to come in Dakota, completely relaxed and confident, with all the movements and looks of the mature John Wayne. He would feel confident enough of his stardom in the late 'forties to refuse to do any more movies with Vera Ralston for fear her bad acting would give him a bad name.
Critics then and now have gone on and on about how bad the pretty Ms Ralston's acting was, that she was only a star only because she was having a relationship with and eventually married the head of Republic Pictures Herbert J. Yates (39 years older than she!) But she didn't seem so bad in Dakota. She was lively and energetic to the point of athletic, as you would expect from a woman who came to public attention by her ice-skating ability. Not a Bette Davis by any means, but here adequate for a not undemanding part which shows her as not only devoted to her husband, but resourceful, clever and somewhat manipulative -- in a sweet, and gentle way. She did look slightly bewildered at times -- not surprising since the recent Czech émigré's English was so poor, she often had to phonetically memorize her lines without understanding the content. Not as bad as Bo Derrick, or many others. Whatever Vera lacked in dramatic panache, she made up for it by projecting a sweet, innocent -- not to mention sexy -- charm. Everyone has just jumped on an anti-Vera bandwagon because she was an easy target, being the boss's babe and all. John Wayne in spite of his later remarks, seems to have had good chemistry with her in Dakota. But after all, she was a real babe, and what man wouldn't throw a few sparks hugging up against that buxom but tight ice-skater's figure!
Dakota in a rarity amongst Westerns in having the male and female leads start the movie just married, and happily so against the opposition of her volatile father (Haas). No drifter and saloon floozy here. The love interests are a substantial married couple, so all the distracting courting business has already happened, and we can get on with the riding and the shooting. And there was enough of both and much else in this minor epic to satisfy nearly any aficionado of the horse opera.
Dakota is top-notch Western entertainment from Old Hollywood's Golden Era.
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