"Me heart's still shakin' on me back teeth," chirps Barbara Stanwyck, courtesy of Cecil B. DeMille
Mar 14, 2011
What was it that Cecil B. DeMille gave to his movies? Well, how about sentimentality as thick as mashed potatoes, florid exposition, corny humor, American patriotism on a platter, shameless death scenes, ethnic stereotypes, casual and condescending racism, hypocritical bible thumping, leering sex, truly hairy beards, ponderous oratory and the kind of obviously manipulative situations that can turn even the best actors into mannequins. Did I leave anything out?
But DeMille knew how to serve up spectacle and action, paced to keep the story moving faster and faster. His movies for the most part are awful, even if a few still at times stand up to current tastes. In an unfair world, they nearly all are still watchable, with their flaws often as enjoyable as their merits. That brings us to Union Pacific, DeMille's telling of the great effort to build the first rail line across the American continent.
Or as the movie tells us, "The legend of Union Pacific is the drama of a nation, young, tough, prodigal and invincible, conquering with an iron highroad the endless reaches of the West. For the West is America's Empire and only yesterday Union Pacific was the West."
The Central Pacific would build east and the Union Pacific, from Omaha, would build west. The idea was to meet in Ogden, Utah. The company that gets there first will establish a major rail terminal and make lots and lots of money. If unscrupulous financial opportunist Asa Burrows has his way, it won't be the Union Pacific. If Captain Jeff Butler (Joel McCrea) does his job, it will be. Butler is the smart, brave, handsome, fast-with-a-gun, true and honest chief troubleshooter for the Union Pacific. Opposing him is Burrows' unscrupulous agent, the gambler Sid Campeau (Brian Donlevy). The plan is simple. Campeau will bring in gambling, easy women, bullyboys and liquor to put all those Irish tracklayers working for the Union Pacific out of commission. Helping him is his partner, Dick Allen (Robert Preston), a smooth gambler with loose ethics...who happens to be a close war buddy of Jeff's. Who could be missing? Molly Monahan for one, an Irish colleen who is the postmistress for end-of-track, the moving base camp for the Union Pacific. Molly is pert, feisty and as Irish as a shamrock. Jeff and Dick both fall for her. She's also Barbara Stanwyck.
The Union Pacific's struggle to bridge the continent with steel track, not to mention Jeff's struggle to make it happen and win Molly, will not be easy. Or as the movie also tells us: "For three valiant years Indians redden the rails with the blood of tracklayers. But the ROAD pushes on! Spawning, in its wake, roaring, lawless towns -- and fighting the hidden hand that tries to fight its progress."
DeMille's Union Pacific is a sprawl of massive train wrecks (two), heroic track laying, Indian attacks, mistaken sacrifice, back shooting, brawling Irishmen smoking little clay pipes and speaking with terrible Hollywood Irish accents, and some smart gunplay by Jeff. The comic relief is corny and overplayed (no fault of Akim Tamiroff and Lynn Overman who play Jeff's sidekicks), with awful Indian stereotypes. Joel McCrea is first rate when he can be brave and clever at the same time. When he's just brave, DeMille turns him into something with a noble chin. Preston is just fine, but he's doing nothing much different from what he did in any number of his second lead movie roles.
On the bright side is Brian Donlevy as a snake. It's all Hollywood hokum but Donlevy was good at being bad. And there's Barbara Stanwyck. What a strong presence she was in all her movies. She survives this one with energy and lovability to spare...but her Irish accent would make any real Irishman go pale. "Me heart's still shakin' on me back teeth," she chirps at one point.
Somehow, Union Pacific manages to be a watchable movie. DeMille knew how to keep us hooked in spite of ourselves. If it's not nefarious plotting it's our hero's standard response to being asked to take brave action. When Jeff drawls, "Mebbe," we know something worth watching is about to happen. And those two train wrecks are wowzers.
DeMille knew what the movie goers wanted...patriotism, spectacle and sex or the Bible, spectacle and sex; with heroes (men brave and true) and deep-breathing women (sexy, whether pure or impure). He exploited this with skill. He was no artist and barely a craftsman. He made up for it by being an utterly confident showman. DeMille, with all his ego, knew how to tell a story, even if it was as phony as a drugstore Indian. His pompous, dynamic, melodramatic and self-important spoken narratives and introductions give a perfect picture of the man. He died at 77 in 1959, just in time, perhaps, to realize that his movies would most likely go down as being quaint. In 1957, David Lean had come up with The Bridge on the River Kwai. In 1959 it was William Wyler with Ben Hur. DeMille's era of old fashioned, corny spectacle was on life support, and the ticket buyers were catching on.