You just ain't seen The Old West until you've seen Cecil B. DeMille's version of The Old West. It begins with Abe Lincoln on his way to Ford's Theatre, ends with Wild Bill Hickock shot in the back in Deadwood, and crams the rest of the American Experience into the middle - all in 113 minutes. And it's great entertainment, as long as you don't give a dang about a little thing called History.
To be fair, DeMille does give us fair warning. Right after the opening credits, we're told, "The story that follows compresses many years, many lives, and widely separated events into one narrative - in an attempt to do justice to the courage of the plainsman of the West."
The story centers around three figures that have attained near-mythic status - those being Wild Bill Hickock, Buffalo Bill Cody and Calamity Jane - so it should be no surprise to see them used in outlandish fashion. But somehow, it is. DeMille puts them through paces that make even the myths sound reasonable.
The casting is interesting too. Personality-wise, Gary Cooper makes a good Hickock, but they made not the slightest effort to make him look like Hickock. No mustache, no beard, and no long hair - despite the fact that the dialogue makes reference at least twice to his hair being long. In short, he looks exactly like Gary Cooper, and I can only assume DeMille didn't want any hair coming between Cooper and his star power.
Jean Arthur is an odd choice for Calamity Jane. As a frontierswoman, she's ridiculous, but as the woman Hickock loves to pretend he doesn't love - which, in the context of this film, is more important - she ain't bad. Then we have the relatively obscure James Ellison portraying Buffalo Bill as an overgrown Boy Scout. And Anthony Quinn makes a brief appearance as a singing Indian. Thankfully, Gabby Hayes rides through with an arrow in his back, just to remind us this is a real Western.
The dialogue is a bit overblown - no surprise in a DeMille film - but I was surprised to see that Harold Lamb was credited as one of the three screenwriters. That was my first inkling that Lamb worked in Hollywood. According to IMDb, he also got partial screenwriting credit for the 1938 version of The Buccaneer, and a 1935 flick called The Crusades. Makes me want to see 'em.
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