More Joel McCrea out West in two very enjoyable stories:
The Outriders (1950) has a setup similar to the recently watched Five Guns West (1955), a hijack-the-gold-shipment mission for a group of Confederates fresh out of prison. In this case, it’s McCrea, Barry Sullivan and James Whitmore playing escapees sent by ruthless, unstable leader Jeff Corey to escort a valuable wagon train right into a Rebel ambush. McCrea cools on the plan as he grows attached to the travelers, which include trusting aristocrat Ramon Novarro and widow Arlene Dahl, who’s taking her young brother-in-law (Claude Jarman Jr.) back up North. Predatory Sullivan becomes McCrea’s rival for Dahl’s attention, and Dahl signals her interest with a special campfire dance reserved for McCrea, in the pretty mini-movie “The Green Shoes.” Beautifully shot with great final shootout and a thrilling river-crossing set piece, where the group pushes their luck with ropes and rafts and lose the chuck wagon and the teen to the rapids. The boy’s admiration and imitation of McCrea’s bravery feeds his growing guilt and misgivings, and relief comes once word arrives that the war is over and the gold no longer needed for the cause. Except that it was meant for Corey and gang’s personal use all along, which separates the plunderers from the hero who abandons his defeated side for love and the protection of innocent civilians. Nice work by Whitmore who had to play older and more grizzled than he was, but he made a wise, measured ally.
Saddle Tramp (1950), directed by Hugo Fregonese, is a total delight, an emotional, heartwarming, hilarious and folksy tale that manages to balance: four boys orphaned by tragedy, a range war and cattle raids, a bitter old coot (John McIntire), a mature young woman (Wanda Hendrix) trying to escape her abuser, and leprechauns. McCrea is perfect as the good-natured drifter, allergic to commitment and responsibility, who gets more of it than he ever thought existed. He complains and hesitates, but refuses to walk away from what fate has dealt him, and naturally comes to love and accept his large “instant” family through the trials of keeping them fed, alive and hidden while he figures out what treachery is afoot at the ranch where he works. The protection and raising of a family are depicted as difficult and heroic, more rewarding than being free as a bird, and women (Hendrix with steely Jeannette Nolan) take up the reins to lead the charge that sorts out all the problems and unites the good men. Plus it’s beyond satisfying to see entitled creep (Ed Begley) get conked on the head before he can snatch his niece back from this healthy, if highly unconventional, new family she’s found. I could have heard “creepin’ creepers” fewer times but that’s a tiny quibble in a movie I had so much fun watching.