With the amount of great noir, crime and drama films in 1947, it’s easy to overlook some of the solid westerns of that year, among them Angel and the Badman, Gunfighters, Ramrod, and the movie I picked, Trail Street with Randolph Scott and Robert Ryan.
This RKO picture casts Scott as Bat Masterson, whose talent for cleaning up a town is in high demand by the desperate residents of Liberal, Kansas. They beg him to come sort out the range war between the farmers and the outlaws. Ryan plays the kindly land company financier who watches as all the farmers give up on parched acreage where nothing will grow. The mass abandonment and the diminishing land value plays into the plans of crooked saloon owner Steve Brodie, who wants to buy up the area and raise beef to ship to Chicago. As Scott arrives and lays down some law, Ryan gets word of a secret that might make the land arable again, and that information kicks the dispute to another level that involves murder, a frame-up and a big showdown.
As Scott and Ryan fight for justice they also have to deal with two women in Liberal and their competing interests. One (Madge Meredith) is a refined lady with poor judgement, much admired by Ryan but too easily swayed by town gossip and by the silver-tongued Brodie, who convinces her of Ryan’s bleak future and plays on her painful memories of her parents’ difficulties working this land and policing this township. Meanwhile, saloon girl Anne Jeffreys worries that she’ll lose Brodie; she’s way too good for him but hopes that somewhere under his slimy exterior there’s still a decent guy.
1947 is a milestone for fans of Scott in westerns, since that year saw the release of his last “non-cowboy” film; he went on to work exclusively in the genre for the next 15 years. Trail Street might not rank among his best, but it’s an enjoyable example of his appeal. You know order has arrived with Scott’s stage, as he smiles out at the street brawl and handily saves Ryan from a sneak attack. Scott lets Brodie’s henchman (Billy House, possessor of a most repellent sneer) mouth off about the state of Liberal (in)justice before he introduces himself as none other than Bat Masterson. He’s never showy or arrogant, but remains a calm, steady and reassuring presence in any fight and hardly flinches when the bullets fly.
He gives a stern warning against resorting to mob violence, whether it’s used as a weapon by the villains or arises from the desperation of good people. “Mob rule is a poor substitute for law and order,” he says, “and can only bring wholesale murder.” It’s a tough pill to swallow for the farmers who believe Brodie has cheated them out of land, but the fact is they made a poor choice. Scott insists that for law to work it has to protect even the villains until they can be caught in a crime and proven guilty. He arranges for a trial that will lure Brodie’s gang out to silence an accomplice, and trusts he can depend on the farmers’ help and patience.
Scott may be the star but Robert Ryan got a nice opportunity to build up his presence and his resume. Trail Street was his first movie since returning from the war and it gave him a straightforward good guy role before he moved on to more complicated, ambiguous characters and noir anti-heroes. The two have a nice rapport and believable affinity and mutual respect. Thy’re optimistic men who won’t quit when the cards are stacked against them, and they bond over discussion of their dreams. Scott looks forward to the day these places won’t need his services and he can spend his time writing, while Ryan won’t give up his faith in the land, even if it means losing the woman he loves. There’s a nice scene where Ryan’s search for a murderer leads him right to the secret of fertile wheat fields. He sits down for a glass of milk with the people he’s just rescued, and as the storm shutter is raised from the window, Ryan gets an eyeful of endless amber waves of grain, and his face lights up with hope for the future of the entire state.
Director Ray Enright stages a suspenseful lead-up to a satisfying final shootout. As night falls, the town is empty, Jeffreys sings to the saloon girls, and a signal for action is explained to those who have chosen to stand with Scott and Ryan. The gunplay is exciting, involving everyone from House to baddie Harry Woods (who shoots like he’s using his pistol to throw bullets), and has both ladies pick up a weapon to settle their own scores. Jeffreys gets juicy scenes where she realizes Brodie isn’t worth dirt, then waits for him in his dark office and reveals how she’s wrecked his plans. George ‘Gabby’ Hayes plays the town chatterbox and hesitant but proud deputy, and his comic gimmick here is launching into several long stories about Brandyhead Jones, and boring his listeners to tears (there’s an amusing payoff to that thread before the end credits roll).
Trail Street is an engaging western with a good cast and action, and it’s part of the 1947 Blogathon hosted by Karen of Shadows and Satin, and yours truly, Kristina of Speakeasy. Please check out the entries here and here.