We're in Nome in 1900 for what promised to be 'Crashing Fists in the Gold-Crazed Alaska of '98!' Because it's the only version of the five filmed to be easily available, it's the one best known today, but then with Marlene Dietrich, Randolph Scott and John Wayne in the same picture, it's likely to have been the best known one if all five were on TV once a week. Add in Richard Barthelmess, Harry Carey and Margaret Lindsay and how can you go wrong?
What makes this unique is that Randolph Scott, whose mere name elicited hands on hearts and glances to heaven in Blazing Saddles, is the bad guy, Gold Commissioner Alexander McNamara. I can't swear to it but this could well be the only one of his 102 films to see him on the wrong side of the law. In comparison, Dietrich plays the same talented saloon madam that she played in Destry Rides Again. Sure, she's called Cherry Malotte instead of Frenchy, but it's the same character. Wayne is the good guy, of course, and he has plenty of rough edges to colour his character.
It looks good and there's plenty of forties humour on display from moment one. The roads are made of mud, with planks laid down for the ladies, Cherry has more fancy clothes than the entire rest of the town put together and vacant rooms in the hotel are identified by the former owner tumbling down the stairs with a bullet in him. The dialogue doesn't disappoint. Wayne is on the screen for less than two minutes before he calls someone an oldtimer, there's a watermelon joke for Cherry's black maid in her first scene and there's even the classic shot where the camera switches to a bartender for one line: 'Whaddya gonna do about it?'
You could write the script yourself from the generalities above. McNamara is behind a whole bunch of claim jumpers taking over honest folks' stakes. Cherry has been there long enough to know everything about everyone, so she starts investigating. Roy Glennister, the Duke's character, arrives back on the boat with Judge Horace Stillman and his delightful niece Helen Chester, and they all get in on the turmoil too. It all escalates when McNamara, with the force of law (though unjust law) behind him, steals away the Midas, the gold mine that rightfully belongs to Glennister and Dextry, Harry Carey's character.
There's plenty of romantic turmoil as well. Richard Barthelmess is Bronco Kid Farrow, Cherry's right hand man, and he has the hots for her but is well aware he won't get anywhere. Glennister loves Cherry too and she loves him but he infuriates her. Margaret Lindsay as Helen Chester sits right in the middle as a potential rival, even before she actually is. McNamara becomes besotted with Cherry too, so all the fisticuffs work on two levels. Never mind a love triangle, Cherry's the central point for a love vortex.
The stars are on top form: Dietrich smoulders and burns, with her eyes bursting into flame when needed. Her and Lindsay turn scenes to ice. She gets great scenes opposite Scott, Barthelmess, Carey and Wayne, though the Duke steals her thunder in one blisterer with the line, 'You'd look good to me baby, in a burlap bag.' He even gets a blackface scene which leads to exactly what you'd expect. Scott is fine as a villain though it still doesn't seem quite right. Everyone else shows exactly why they were cast, from the Duke's toughness to Lindsay's irresistable voice to Carey's frontier spirit to Barthelmess's depth. Other supporting character actors like Charles Halton and Samuel S Hinds do their job too.
Another plus is the uncredited presence of real Alaskan poet Robert Service, playing himself. The joke is that his one scene involves Cherry Malotte giving him the title for his real poem, The Shooting of Dan McGrew, the one that Margaret Rutherford so dynamically delivers on stage as Miss Marple in Murder Most Foul. The last plus is the finale, which has one of the longest and most carefully choreographed fight scenes of the era: Wayne and Scott duking it out in Cherry's saloon. It's a peach.
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