Virginia City (1940)
8/10
Short of a classic but very under-rated
11 February 2021
Warning: Spoilers
1940 may have been the peak year of Errol Flynn's career. He made three memorable films that year: 'Virginia City', 'The Sea Hawk and 'Santa Fe Trail'. This was the first of them.

At the end of 1939's 'Dodge City', Flynn's character in that one, Wade Hatton, who just cleaned up that Kansas city, has agreed to go out to Virginia City, (in Nevada), and audiences must have thought the new film was a sequel to that one. It is not. The action in this one predates that one and Flynn here plays Kerry Bradford, an Irishman fighting for the Union who escapes from Libby Prison and is assigned to go to the western city not to 'clean it up' but to secure the gold being produced there for the Union. There he finds, in a classic movie irony, the former commandant of Libby, Randolph Scott, who has been assigned to remove much of that gold to the Confederacy to finance the war effort. Hollywood had to straddle the subject of the Civil War in those days, (same with the Revolution), because the losers of the war were now a major part of the market for their films. As a result, Flynn and Scott are depicted as rivals, rather than good or bad guys.

This necessitates the introduction of a genuinely bad guy, someone with no cause and no principles Enter Humphrey Bogart, who had been playing bad guy, (or worse guy) in Edward G. Robinson and Jimmy Cagney movies. Here he's a Mexican bandit with a small army of henchmen who rob and steal throughout the west. He's wearing one of those pencil moustaches that were popular at the time and using a sort of Mexican accent that comes and goes. But he does a good job of providing a real bad guy, allowing both Flynn and Scott to appear admirable by contrast.

A major weakness in the film is the leading lady. It was supposed to be Olivia de Havilland. Who had grown tired of being Flynn's love interest, so much so that in Dodge City, she wanted to switch roles with Ann Sheridan, who played sexy dance hall performer and have Ann play the demure, wistful heroine. Had she taken the role in Virginia City, she would have been able to play both roles in one. 'Julia Hayne' is a strange hybrid of a southern belle and girlfriend of Scott's who is not above spying for her beloved confederacy. Somehow that has transformed her into saloon entertainer in Nevada. She falls for Flynn on a stagecoach trip west but remains loyal to the Confederacy and helps Scott, whom she continues to love as well. She has a final scene in which she pleads with President Lincoln to spare Flynn, who has hidden the gold to save it from Bogart but prevent it from getting to the Confederacy but also insure that it won't be used against them, (talk about fence-straddling!), after which she is so impressed with Lincoln that she promises to tell the people of the south what a great man he is. That must have been an interesting trip.

With de Havilland refusing to play the role, it probably should have gone to Sheridan but instead Miriam Hopkins, a good character actress approaching 40, (when that was middle aged) was chosen. She lacks the stunning looks and glamour de Havilland would have brought to the project and can't sing a note. Her scenes with Flynn fall flat. Flynn's affection for her seems forced although his reaction to her betrayal of him seems realistic. They lack any screen chemistry.

Despite these problems, the film is very entertaining, better, in my view than Dodge City which is often said to over-shadow it. As in that film, Alan Hale and Guinn "Big Boy" Williams form a comedy team of protectors for Flynn. Dickie Jones joins Scotty Beckett, ('The Charge of the Light Brigade'), and Bobs Watson, ('Dodge City'), as young boys whose on-screen deaths show how cruel the bad guys are. John Litel adds some gravitas in another small role. What dominates the film are the big, exciting action scenes, the amazing stunt work, impressive use of actual locations and painted backdrops and the larger-than-life musical score from Max Steiner, which gives the film an epic feel that 'Dodge City tried for but came up a bit short on. One wonders why this one wasn't made in technicolor.

A couple of sad notes: As noted in the trivia sections, this film was re-released in 1956 and advertised as a Randolph Scott - Humphrey Bogart film. Hopkins had been forgotten and Flynn's life and career had deteriorated to the point that he was no longer a drawing card. But in 1940 he was at the height of his powers and easily dominates this film. He was one of two great heroes of my youth, (I was born in 1953). An afternoon movie show presented many of Flynn's best films and "The Adventures of Superman" was being broadcast with my other hero, George Reeves, who appears briefly here as an army telegrapher. Both died in 1959 and my parents didn't have the heart to me that they were gone.
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