by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The film was The Spoilers, the 1942 version of Rex Beach’s five-times filmed novel about the Alaska gold rush of 1898 and skullduggery involving miners, their claims and corrupt judges and government officials trying to steal the mines hard-working independent entrepreneurs have built up with their sweat equity. (After watching this film it’s easier to understand, with this kind of legend built up around their state’s history, how Alaska could give us someone like Sarah Palin.) Beach actually lived in Alaska during the Rush and published his novel in 1906 — and it was first filmed eight years after that, as a silent by the Selig company, with William Farnum as the butch hero Roy Glennister — co-owner of the Midas mine, the richest in the Nome area — and Tom Santschi as Alexander McNamara, the corrupt gold commissioner who’s trying to steal it from him. The film became famous for the final fight scene between the two — and in the days before stunt doubles and the “pass system,” Santschi broke Farnum’s nose and bent two ribs before it was all over.
The Spoilers was remade, again as a silent, in 1923 — a version that was enough of a hit that Stan Laurel shot a parody of it called The Soilers — and its first talkie version was made at Paramount in 1930 with Gary Cooper (who else?) as Glennister and William “Stage” Boyd (not the William Boyd who later played Hopalong Cassidy) as McNamara. In these versions Glennister’s love interest had been focused exclusively on Helen Chester, niece of the crooked Judge Horace Stillman, co-conspirator with McNamara and attorney Jonathan Struve, and there was a much less important female character, Cherry Mallotte, who dealt cards at the local saloon/casino and briefly misled Glennister into thinking that Helen was part of her uncle’s plot against him. For the 1942 version, produced by Frank Lloyd and directed by Ray Enright at Universal, the part of Cherry was built up big-time as a vehicle for Marlene Dietrich, on the ground that she’d already had a major hit in a Western, Destry Rides Again, three years earlier and so she could draw audiences to Beach’s Western in Northern drag.
The overall tone of The Spoilers is established from the first; after the punning foreword that the Gold Rush made normally cold Alaska “almost hot” we see a series of montages advertising rooms for rent at $100 a day and $5 cups of coffee (gold rushes invariably led to such absurd inflation, and it’s been pointed out many times that the real fortunes in the gold rushes were made not by the miners but by the businessmen who sold them food, clothes, lodging and supplies), and a miner comes up to one boarding house only to be informed by the proprietress that there are no rooms available. Then they — and we — hear a gunshot from inside the building, a man comes tumbling down the stairs (in a nice little in-joke he’s identified as “Lee Marcus,” the real name of the film’s associate producer) and the landlady tells the miner that now he can have a room. Glennister is played by John Wayne and McNamara by Randolph Scott in what his biographer, Robert Nott, calls his only “out-and-out bad guy” role, and Dietrich gets top billing (not that big a surprise) Scott is actually billed second and Wayne third, “a fact that rankled the Duke for years,” says Nott.
The Spoilers doesn’t have that much of a plot but it’s done with a real flair and style — probably more due to the witty script by Lawrence Hazard and Tom Reed and the atmospheric cinematography by Milton Krasner than Enright’s acceptable but pedestrian direction. At the opening Cherry is breathlessly awaiting Glennister’s arrival and fending off McNamara’s advances (she’s uninterested in him even before she knows he’s a crook), and the scene in which she’s awaiting word of Glennister’s boat docking is shot silent and shows how marvelous an actress Dietrich could be with gestures and expressions alone — if she had to wait for the sound era and Sternberg to make her a star, it certainly wasn’t because she couldn’t act without her voice! Also rather amusing is Marietta Canty’s performance as Cherry’s Black maid Idabelle, even though she was third in line for the “Mammy” roles after Hattie McDaniel and Louise Beavers; the scene in which Glennister comes into Cherry’s rooms above the saloon in blackface (the crooks have impounded the Midas’s earnings and Glennister and his partner Dextry, played by Harry Carey, have blown open the bank door to steal them back) and she thinks there’s finally a Black man in the Klondike she can cruise is priceless.
It gets even better when Glennister takes off his hat, thereby “outing” himself (and disappointing Idabelle no end), and gives her his shirt to have the burnt cork (or whatever he was using) cleaned off it — and then he’s forced to put something on over his chest even though the only thing that’s available is one of Cherry’s farthest-out costumes, a see-through something-or-other trimmed with feather boas: hey, any movie in which John Wayne goes both transracial and transgender is worth seeing! Dietrich’s presence in this Wild North setting is even more bizarre than usual — her huge bouffant hairdo practically becomes a character itself and her appearance has utterly no believable context, especially since she doesn’t get to sing a song (and as good as it is The Spoilers would have been even better if Cherry had been able to take the stage of the Northern Saloon for a Frederick Hollander number) — and the rest of the film is cast strongly, though Randolph Scott is just a bit too sincere to be believable as a villain (much like Gregory Peck in Duel in the Sun four years later).
His co-conspirators, Samuel S. Hinds as Judge Stillman and the marvelously oily Charles Halton as attorney Struve, are fine, and the film abounds in welcome character performances, some of them by silent-era veterans: Richard Barthelmess, in his final film, as the Bronco Kid (in Beach’s original story he was Helen Chester’s long-lost brother but their relationship, preserved in the two silent films of The Spoilers, was removed in the script for the 1930 film and that change was kept here), who tries to get Glennister killed because he’s in love with Cherry himself; and William Farnum, star of the 1914 film of The Spoilers, as Wheaton, the honest attorney Glennister hires to appeal the case, only to find that he has no money because the Midas’s funds have been frozen (hence the bank robbery) and he can’t get the attorney on the ship to Seattle because McNamara has issued an order forbidding the captain from letting him board (though the captain gives Glennister a hint that if he sends Wheaton out in a boat and it looks like he’s drifting, according to the law of the sea the captain will have to pick him up).
Helen Chester is played by Margaret Lindsay, who was used to playing the good girl to Bette Davis’s bad girl in innumerable Warner Bros. films, and indeed her entrance is strikingly similar to her entrance in Jezebel: he comes in on the arm of her rival’s beloved after he’s returning from a trip and Cherry, like Julie Marsden (Davis’s character in Jezebel), puts on a brave face to hide her devastation. The plot comes to a climax when McNamara arrests Glennister for the bank robbery and the murder of the town sheriff (shot and killed during the robbery, actually by the Bronco Kid), then hatches a plot to get rid of Glennister permanently: he has the jail guard leave the door to Glennister’s cell unlocked so he can “escape,” and stations two men in the back of the jail to ambush Glennister and kill him — only Glennister goes out through the front door, lives and confronts McNamara in Cherry’s apartment, whereupon the two start a fist fight that, though largely doubled (by Edwin “Eddie” Parker for Wayne and Alan Pomeroy for Scott), gives us enough close-ups of the stars with bloodied faces it looks totally convincing. According to Robert Nott, “Scott, not a man known for telling Hollywood tales or exaggerating the truth, later said that he and Wayne sustained considerable damage from the fight, and that some of the blows were thrown in earnest due to an off-set rivalry for both billing and the lead role.”
The great action director B. Reaves Eason was brought in to stage the fight scene — the first time Charles and I watched The Spoilers he referenced Ray Enright’s most famous credit, doing the plot sequences for the Busby Berkeley musical Dames, and wondered if Enright could ever make a movie without someone helping him out on the most spectacular scenes. The parallel is actually rather cogent because Eason shoots quite a lot of the fight scene from overhead — the two men are shown breaking a hanging pipe during their fisticuffs and the pipe itself hangs over a good part of the subsequent action, adding a malevolent presence even before the fight works its way out of the upper story of the Northern Saloon down to the barroom floor where, needless to say, most of the Northern’s other patrons get involved in it on one side or another. The Spoilers isn’t a film for the ages but it is marvelous entertainment, great fun for fans of the genre or the stars — and it’s nice to see Wayne while he was still at least somewhat good-looking (though he’d already aged considerably from the beautiful and almost unearthly being he played in his 1930 film The Big Trail and the puffiness that would afflict his face in later years had already begun) before he became, in Douglas Sirk’s term, “petrified.”