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The Plainsman Movie Review

lincoln arthur film cooper

1937 – Cecil B. De Mille –

The popularity of the western in the 1930s led to more quantity than quality in films. John Wayne's career is a good example: cast in an important role in Raoul Walsh's The Big Trail in 1930, Wayne still failed to become a star (the film failed too) and spent the rest of the decade in B-westerns and serials until 1939 when he finally reached a level of success playing the Ringo Kid in Stagecoach. Prestige, big-budget westerns were less common than the sort of quickie fare that Wayne toiled in. The Plainsman remains one of the few large-scale westerns of significance from the decade.

This was The West according to Cecil B. De Mille, and it became one of the high points of his career as a producer of screen extravaganzas. The film is an extremely romanticized fantasy that connects the lives of Wild Bill Hickock (Gary Cooper), Calamity Jane (Jean Arthur), Buffalo Bill Cody (James Ellison), General Custer (John Miljan), and even Abraham Lincoln (Frank McGlynn). The opening scene is a good sample of the film's lack of finesse: it shows Lincoln meeting with his cabinet as they address the problem of the frontier and the need to keep guns out of the hands of the Indians. Seemingly near a solution, they are interrupted by Mary Todd (Leila McIntyre), who reminds her husband about their plans for the evening. Lincoln leaves saying, “Gentlemen, I promised to take Mrs. Lincoln to Ford's Theater tonight. We will continue this tomorrow. For the frontier must be made safe!” Historically, it may have been totally inaccurate, but audiences seem to suspend their disbelief, especially after Gary Cooper enters the action. Jean Arthur as Calamity Jane may have seemed questionable casting, though the idea to reteam her and Cooper was probably an attempt to capitalize on the popularity of their appearance in Frank Capra's Mr. Deeds Goes to Town in 1936.

De Mille's epic westerns are noted as flamboyant costume dramas, with what now seems like very corny dialogue. The Plainsman is no different. Though stylish enough, the extensive use of rear-projection during action scenes makes it appear somewhat less authentic. The film carries itself on the strength of its stars: Cooper's appeal as the fatalistic Hickock attempting to prevent the evil Charles Bickford from selling guns to the Indians and Arthur's zesty unrequited love for the taciturn Hickock. (Jean Arthur's tomboy performance may have even influenced Doris Day in the later film Calamity Jane.)

Cast: Gary Cooper (Wild Bill Hickock), Jean Arthur (Calamity Jane), James Ellison (Buffalo Bill Cody), Charles Bickford (John Lattimer), Paul Harvey (Chief Yellohand), Helen Burgess (Louise Cody), Porter Hall (Jack McCall), Fuzzy Knight (Dave), Frank McGlynn, Sr. (Abraham Lincoln), Leila McIntyre (Mary Todd Lincoln), John Miljan (Gen. George Armstrong Custer), Charles Stevens (Injun Charlie), George “Gabby” Hayes (Breezy), Charles Herzinger (William H. Seward), Victor Varconi (Painted Horse) Screenwriter: Waldemar Young, Lynn Riggs, Jeannie Macpherson, Harold Lamb Cinematographer: Victor Milner, George Robinson Composer: George Antheil Producer: Cecil B. De Mille for Paramount Running Time: 113 minutes Format: VHS, LV.

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