September 18, 2010
This is the 1931 film that begot “Wagon Wheels” three years later when that film was made with a good portion of footage from “Fighting Caravans”. Gary Cooper is leading a wagon train through injun country to California. This is not the main focus of the story however. The film is more concerned with two of Cooper’s fellow scouts who are trying to keep him from falling in love with Lily Damita. These old-timers are the true leads in this film, taking up a majority of the screen time afforded to the actors. Imagine two Walter Brennans kibitzing for 92 minutes and you get an idea of how little I enjoyed this film.
I’m more familiar with Cooper from roles he played later in his career. As he aged, his features got fuller and more appealing. Here, he’s gaunt and nearly unrecognizable — except for that distinctive baritone.
One wouldn’t really call 1934’s “Wagon Wheels” a remake. The films share a lot of elements, but the characters are entirely different and the plots are significantly dissimilar.
Perhaps of most interest to readers of this blog is the insight that the differences between these films affords to a discussion of the plot construction in Charles Starrett’s vehicles. The makers of “Wagon Wheels” had to construct a film based around footage from the previous film. This footage suggested scenes and plot elements and resolutions which, by necessity, would need to be part of the new film. Also, budget constraints would not allow expensive new scenes. They would need to be done on existing sets and locations.
All of this would be true with most of the Durango films, especially the later ones. And the filmmakers behind Starrett’s films made many of the same decisions that were made on “Wagon Wheels.” First, in an attempt to tie together diverse footage from another story, they constructed a complicated (and sometimes convoluted) plot. Secondly, they tried to compensate for the lower budget scenes by crowding them with supporting characters. There must have been three or four times as many characters in these films, despite their significantly shorter running times. Finally, there are the songs. “Wagon Wheels” and all of Starrett’s films feature a lot of singing, most of which is hardly motivated, which serve to provide some cheap entertainment and pad the films with un-plotted scenes.
That’s all I’ve got on this one. Except that the exploding-wagon-in-the-river gag featured in both films is pretty nifty.