Monday, August 19, 2019

FAVOURITE MOVIES: Union Pacific (1939)


Film fans and historians often point to the 1939 movie season for its release of genuine, timeless classics. A roll call of movie titles is all that is needed to back up the claim. The western, a popular genre since movie's beginnings due to its easily available outdoor locations and popular stories proved itself profitable in the B market and respected among the A level releases in the 1920s with such classic titles as 3 Bad Men, The Covered Wagon, The Iron Horse, Hell's Heroes, and Tumbleweed.

During the 1930s, fewer of the more serious westerns were on the studio's must-do list. Singing cowboy programmers and those borrowing Zane Grey stories or merely titles were made for easy profit and to keep contractees busy. We can find occasional breakthroughs such as Annie Oakley and The Arizonian, both from 1935, and The Texas Rangers and DeMille's The Plainsman in 1936.

The 1939 releases, however, saw the adult western once more assert itself with the cinematic perfection of John Ford's Stagecoach and his frontier story Drums Along the Mohawk. Henry King directed Nunnally Johnson's psychological study of the outlaw Jesse James. George Marshall directed the classic adventure/spoof Destry Rides Again for Universal. Warner Brothers got into the act with Michael Curtiz and the rousing Dodge City and Lloyd Bacon with The Oklahoma Kid. Alan Dwan brought the Tombstone story back to life in Frontier Marshal, later to be reworked by Ford as My Darling Clementine.

Gary Cooper, Jean Arthur
The Plainsman, 1936

Cecil B. DeMille's 1939 contribution to the western genre and to the legendary year is Union  Pacific. DeMille's first film had been a western, The Squawman, a movie he would remake twice. The Virginian and The Trail of the Lonesome Pine figure prominently in his filmography. What could he possibly do to top throwing Wild Bill Hickcock, Calamity Jane, Buffalo Bill Cody, Painted Horse, and Yellow Hand together in The Plainsman? The only place to go was the building of the transcontinental railroad!

A 1936 Ernest Haycox (Stage to Lordsburg) novel called Trouble Shooters involving a character who took care of troubles for the Union Pacific Railroad was the basis for the story of the film adapted by Jack Cunningham (Wagon Wheels) and written by Walter De Leon (Ruggles of Red Gap).

Brian Donlevy, Sheila Darcy

The great undertaking of linking the Union Pacific from the east with the Central Pacific from California is beset by more than political apathy and Mother Nature. Nefarious forces led by a crooked businessman are bedeviling every mile in the Union Pacific's progress. Sid Campeau played by Brian Donlevy has been hired by these forces to cheat and distract the workers with gambling and women at the end of track. The rampant crime causes delay and confusion.

Joel McCrea, Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Preston

Union Pacific trouble-shooter Jeff Butler played by Joel McCrea has been placed in charge of the railroad's interests. The Civil War veteran is friendly with Campeau's partner Dick Allen played by 21-year-old Robert Preston. The friendship struggles to persist amid their different sides in the matter, and their mutual affection for Mollie Monahan. Barbara Stanwyck plays Mollie, the daughter of an admired engineer, and the postmistress for the railway. Barbara's brogue is both distracting and sweetly sincere. You get used to it.

Akim Tamiroff, Lynne Overman, Joel McCrea

The cast is filled with familiar faces and voices as the story comes to life. Chief among those providing entertainment is Akim Tamiroff and Lynne Overman as the railway overseers assigned to assist Jeff Butler. They are characters! Regis Toomey is a doomed workman and Anthony Quinn a smooth gambler with a quick draw. Robert Barrat is a bully and Richard Denning a young reporter. Evelyn Keyes took a trip over from Tara to play a telegrapher's wife who flirts with her own husband.


Union Pacific has action, adventure, suspense, sacrifice, romance, and humour. The movie has a unique look courtesy of cinematographer Victor Milner. Milner began his career as a newsreel photographer and he brings to these events a sense of their reality and their history. Victor Milner collaborated with Cecil DeMille on eight films including The Plainsman and won an Oscar for his work on Cleopatra.


Union Pacific was Victor Milner's first time shooting Barbara Stanwyck. Their later work includes The Lady Eve, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers and The Furies. Milner would also shoot Joel McCrea for Preston Sturges in The Great Moment and The Palm Beach Story.

Upon its first viewing Union Pacific has the feel of a movie you have seen before. It features every character stereotype you might expect in an epic western; the stalwart hero, the feisty leading lady, and the roguish scoundrel. Every plot cliche established from caveman days makes an appearance from a daring robbery to an Indian attack to a train wreck.

I felt comfortably at home with Union Pacific on my first viewing. It was presented by Elwy Yost on TVOntario's beloved Saturday Night at the Movies (1974-1999), which featured an uncut double bill with an educational component. The movie is pleasant in its familiarity and admirable in its craft. I also felt that way on my most recent viewing where the visit with this old movie friends was accompanied by a companionable glass of wine.


The antique railway equipment and engines used in this film and future endeavours are now housed in a museum in Carson City, Nevada. 

Union Pacific was awarded a Palm d'Or in 2002 by the Cannes Film Festival in recognition of the submissions of the 1939 inaugural event which did not take place until after WW2 in 1946.












15 comments:

  1. I've seen a few Elwy Yost clips on YouTube, fortunately, but I wish I could have grown up with his program. I do have a very strong memory of watching this movie when I was probably 8 or 9, sitting on the living room floor on a Saturday afternoon, following on a map of the US where this railroad was supposed to be going. Classic films (though we did not call them classics in the early 1970s/late 1960s, just as we did not yet have the term film noir) always gave me a lot to ponder. Great post.

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    1. Thank you.

      It makes me chuckle to how many Jeopardy! answers/questions I get today from those early years of watching classic movies. Even the "out there" movies hovered around the facts and I can follow the trail.

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  2. I saw this one years ago when Barbara Stanwyck was star of the month on TCM. I thought it was great fun! I've been waiting for a chance ever since to watch it again.

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    1. We're so lucky that Joel McCrea is getting the Summer Under the Stars treatment on Wednesday because TCM has thoughtfully included this rouser for our entertainment.

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  3. BARBARA STANWYCK received the CECIL B. DEMILLE AWARD from the GOLDEN GLOBES in 1986. Barbara was a lady, a mentor, a good friend and a very talented actress. She was born RUBY STEVENS. She said I don't walk on water. Im just a dame from Brooklyn.

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    1. Also I think MISS STANWYCK looked prettier with her white hair on THE BIG VALLEY than when she was much younger.

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    2. The Big Valley was my introduction to Miss Barbara Stanwyck and she immediately became my favourite actress. The more I saw of her film work through the years, the more that position was cemented in my mind and heart.

      Nominated four times for the leading actress Oscar, her first competitive award was the 1961 Primetime Emmy Award for The Barbara Stanwyck Show.

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  4. Who are your favorite leading men for MISS STANWYCK? I know she worked with JOEL MCCRAE and FRED MACMURRAY several times. Also have you seen her play bad women very often?

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  5. I was just thinking that BARBARA STANWYCK would have been good as a killer on COLUMBO. Also on the PERRY MASON series there were guest star lawyers including BETTE DAVIS, BARRY SULLIVAN and WALTER PIDGEON. Barbara would have been good in that role too. What do you think of my suggestions?

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    1. 1. I can't think of a leading man with whom Barbara Stanwyck didn't have great chemistry. Gary Cooper is another one.

      2. I think your suggestions are wonderful. Indeed, I wish such appearances had happened.

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  6. Do you like to see Barbara play good (moral) characters in movies more than bad ones? Or do you like her equally well in both? Do you recall what the first movies were that you saw her in?

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    1. I enjoy all of her work. I first saw her on The Big Valley, and the first movies that made an impression on me (in my tween years) were The File of Thelma Jordan and Remember the Night. I was in awe.

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  7. A fine review of a memorable film! But most of all, thanks for reminding me that 1939 was a year of transformation for the Western.

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    1. Thank you. I had great fun looking at 1939 through the western lens. I'm afraid it gets overlooked far too often.

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  8. Hi there. Awesome idea for this type of blog, I am your honest reader.
    I'm definitely enjoying browsing your blog. How did you manage such blog? Thanks for this, compared to other blogs this one is great. You need to write more articles, hope to see you more often, bye

    ReplyDelete

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