Watching 1939: Dodge City (1939)

In 2011, I announced I was trying to see every film released in 1939. This new series chronicles films released in 1939 as I watch them. As we start out this blog feature, this section may become more concrete as I search for a common thread that runs throughout each film of the year. Right now, that’s difficult. 

1939 film:  Dodge City (1939)

Release date:  April 1, 1939

Cast:  Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Ann Sheridan, Bobs Watson, Alan Hale, Bruce Cabot, Frank McHugh, John Litel, Henry Travers, Henry O’Neill, Victor Jory, William Lundigan, Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams, Gloria Holden, Douglas Fowley, Ward Bond, Cora Witherspoon, Thurston Hall (uncredited), Rand Brooks (uncredited)

Studio:  Warner Brothers

Director:  Michael Curtiz

Wade Hatton (Flynn) is a cattle agent and travels to Dodge City, KS. When he sees the constant shooting in the streets and the innocent lives affected, he takes the job of sheriff to clean up the town.

1939 Notes:
• The sixth top grossing film of 1939
• Errol Flynn’s first western. Flynn felt that he was miscast.
• Flynn was in two films in 1939 and both were directed by Michael Curtiz and Olivia De Havilland was in both films.
• Ann Sheridan made six films in 1939.
• Henry O’Neill was in 14 films in 1939.
• Guinn Williams was in nine released in 1939.
• Bobs Watson was in five films released in 1939.

Alan Hale, Errol Flynn, Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams

Other trivia: 
• Originally planned to be a movie about Wyatt Earp starring Paul Muni, according to Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film by Alan K. Rode
• Gary Cooper and James Cagney were considered for the leads. They couldn’t get Cooper, since he was under contract at Paramount, and Cagney was already cast in “The Oklahoma Kid,” according to Rode’s book.
• Errol Flynn was uncomfortable taking the part, since the character in the script was so American. The script explains his accent by having a piece said by Alan Hale about all of his international travels and adventures, according to Rode’s book.
• Olivia de Havilland was unhappy on the set of this film, later calling it “an awful experience.” She had been unsuccessfully begging Jack Warner to loan her to MGM to play Melanie in Gone with the Wind. She was frustrated with always playing Flynn’s romantic sidekick and getting paid only a little more than secondary lead Frank McHugh, according to Rode’s book
• The premiere was held in Dodge City, Kansas
• The fifth of nine films that Flynn and de Havilland made together.
• The four minute saloon brawl cast and estimated $112,000, according to Rode’s book.

Olivia De Havilland in “Dodge City”

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
At a glance, it’s ridiculous to put Errol Flynn, an Austrailian, in a western playing a character modeled after Wyatt Earp. But somehow “Dodge City” (1939) works and Flynn is great in it.

Flynn wasn’t comfortable making the film because he was Australian. But in the film, Alan Hale’s character explains all that away describing Wade Hatton’s adventures all aroudn the world.

“Dodge City” doesn’t feel like your typical run-of-the-mill 1930s western. For starters, it’s filmed in gorgeous Technicolor. But rather than a one dimensional “let’s run the bad guys out of town” story, the story revolves on bringing law and order to a town that has zero laws. Now, bad guys are run out of town and people do ride off into the sunset at the end, so all typical western elements were not lost in this story, but it has a few other tidbits that make this film great.

For starters, child actor Bobs Watson is in the cast and Bobs is at his best with his heartbreaking tears in several scenes. An event involving Bobs ends up being the turning point of what brings Errol Flynn’s character to decide he will help bring law to Dodge City.

And “Dodge City” wasn’t Flynn’s last western. Once they saw they could successfully sell Flynn as a western star, he was cast in Virginia City (1940), Santa Fe Trail (1940), San Antonio (1945) and Montana (1950), just to name a few.

The film is bursting with character actors: Alan Hale, Bruce Cabot, Frank McHugh, John Litel, Henry Travers, Henry O’Neill, Victor Jory, William Lundigan, Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams and Douglas Fowley. Hale’s character is quite funny throughout the film.

For Olivia de Havilland, she found “Dodge City” to be a career let down — yet another film where she played second fiddle to Flynn as his romantic lead. However, 1939 was a catalyst for de Havilland’s career which was significantly boosted by her role as Melanie Wilkes in “Gone with the Wind,” a role she was fighting for while making this film.

Ann Sheridan, wasted in “Dodge City”

To me, the real career let down in this film went to Ann Sheridan. Why was she even cast? Did all of her scenes end up on the cutting room floor? We see Sheridan in a handful of scenes, most memorably singing “Marching Through Georgia” before the big, four minute bar fight breaks out. I’m not sure that we see Ann again after this scene. You would think Sheridan’s character would be there to seduce Flynn’s character to get something she wanted or plot more with the bad guys, but we see very little of her or her romance with Bruce Cabot’s character. One thing you can say about Ann Sheridan: she looks fabulous in the vibrant Technicolor and her red hair looks like it’s on fire it’s so colorful.

“Dodge City” is a very entertaining “good guys brings law and order to the west” film. If you don’t care for westerns, watch this if only for Michael Curtiz’s beautiful Technicolor vision of the west.

Flynn and de Havilland in “Dodge City”

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1 thought on “Watching 1939: Dodge City (1939)

  1. I’m so glad to hear you liked this film! I watched Dodge City for the first time last year (or was it the year before?) and I liked it immediately. And, like you, I wish Ann Sheridan had had more screen time. Maybe her appearance in the film was just supposed to be a cameo?


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