Looks like a Joel McCrea binge is in the works; I’ve just watched five of his 1950s westerns and really enjoyed them all. Thoughts on the first three:
Frenchie (1950) is an enjoyable alternate universe version of Destry Rides Again, where the title character (Shelley Winters) returns to her hometown of Bottleneck and opens a fancy casino. When she was a little girl, her father was murdered by Paul Kelly and his mystery partner. Frenchie’s search for that man’s identity and her quest for revenge put her at odds with Sheriff Tom Banning (McCrea), who’s already cleaned up the town and doesn’t appreciate her snooping, her intentions, or her busy new gambling establishment. Banning stays close, watching and whittling and warning Frenchie, in the form of stories that all begin with “I once knew a man…” But Banning can’t keep the peace or stop the inevitable violence, and it’s complicated by an old love triangle and conflict with the anti-gambling townspeople, so that he ends up a wrongly accused fugitive from a lynch mob. Frenchie’s friend and mentor The Countess (Elsa Lanchester) encourages the young lady’s spunk and ambition but draws the line at shooting, John Russell is good as Frenchie’s loyal but hotheaded right-hand man, and Marie Windsor plays Banning’s old girlfriend, now married to the banker threatening to close down Frenchie’s casino. Conflict and misunderstanding includes a fun Winters-Windsor brawl, and speaking of Windsor, one odd scene is worth mentioning. When she confesses to killing her husband, she keeps her back turned to the the camera; it looked like something added or repaired in post, and deflated a good moment.
In Cattle Drive (1951), spoiled little Chester Graham, Jr. (Dean Stockwell) terrorizes everyone on the train that his father (Leon Ames) is taking out West to finalize a big business deal. When he goofs off too long off at a water stop, Chester gets left behind and after some wandering is picked up by cowboys on a cattle drive. “Chet” as they call him, becomes a responsible and caring young man, thanks to the lessons he learns from tough-love mentor Dan (McCrea), jolly cook Dallas (Chill Wills), competitive and snarky Currie (Henry Brandon) and others (including Bob Steele). Loved this coming-of-age, fish-out-of-water story that breaks down the bratty know-it-all’s ego, and builds up his character through hard work and physical trials, stinging scoldings and the new-to-him experience of facing the consequences of cheating and various other disasters caused by his disobedience. The subplot, of Dan chasing his retirement dream in the form of a wild stallion he calls Midnight, nicely mirrors, marks and emphasizes “Chet’s” growth. Midnight is the reason the boy first shows some honour, when he defends Dan against insults from Currie, around the horse he learns kindness and sense, and catching Midnight is the common goal that proves Chet has become Dan’s valued and earnest companion. Nice touch when McCrea shows off a picture of his girl and it’s Frances Dee, and nice touching twist at the end when Ames, admitting his failings as a distant widowed father, adapts to take part in his boy’s enriching new interests and reclaim his role as father figure.
The Lone Hand (1953) is another coming-of-age tale, this time with McCrea as the poor widowed father, Zachary, who arrives with his son Joshua (Jimmy Hunt) to a new town to try his hand at farming. Income and success are hard to come by, and the area is also plagued by crime thanks to a gang that includes James Arness and Alex Nicol. Father and son eke out a living, make friends, and Zach remarries, to Sarah Jane (Barbara Hale). Little Joshua is disillusioned when his father inexplicably keeps silent about a murder on their land, but he’s downright devastated when a desperate, penniless Zack joins the outlaw gang. Joshua grows more betrayed and confused as he loses both his beloved role model and his new step-mom, when her suspicions cause the couple’s split. In this role, McCrea nicely combines his usual noble, caring qualities with a startling cruelty. He seems mean, defensive and troubled by his choices and the alienating effect they’re having on his son, but the big plot twist is that he’s lying to protect the boy from the truth of his real identity and mission in that community. Beautiful Colorado scenery, action that includes a chase and fall by a gorge, surprise reveal of the evil mastermind, nice mistaken identity surprise involving Arness, another good villain turn by Nicol, and a bonus cute doggie.