October 17, 2008
This one’s all about fathers and sons. It makes sense, watching it, that Charles’ father died when he was so young, and that Charles’ never really knew him.
The 1939 film starts with a rare comic turn by Starrett. He’s “riding” a bucking bronco and gets thrown. Close-ups on his face remind me of the gag in “Cowboy Star” where it is revealed he’s on a wooden horse.
The Sheriff from Buffalo Springs has written Tom Murdoch (Starrett) to ask for help from the Marshals office with a rustling problem. Tom is amazed to read that the man accused of rustling is his own father.
On the other side of the feud are the Brownings, another father and son pair. Tom goes undercover in their outfit as a cattle buyer.
For this job, Tom changes his name (not to Steve) but to Morgan. But Dad is a quick study. He sees Tom undercover and almost immediately winks and nods.
Moments later, Dad is murdered. Undercover or not, Tom shows absolutely no remorse. He leans over the fresh corpse, says something like “he’s dead” and gets along with his business.
Later, when he sees his father’s home for the first time, he merely says “mighty pretty spread.”
Incapable of expressing grief over his father’s murder, he surprises us with his reaction when Browning’s son is framed and arrested. He look shocked and helpless, clinging to the man’s sister as he is lead away. But wait. It’s all a put-on. He drops the concern the moment the riders are out of sight. He turns on a dime – now he’s all smiles and upbeat — he’s sure that the Sons Of The Pioneers will find some clue to clear the guy. He even kids her a little about worrying.
I don’t think the filmmakers’ intent was to make Tom appear to be glib and heartless. It’s hard to imagine that the script called for Charles to play Tom as a sociopath. I’m sure that they probably lacked the time and finesse to deal with messy emotions like sorrow.
In fact, Tom gets exactly four seconds of looking sad after he reveals his true identity, “My name’s not Morgan, it’s Murdock, and Dan Murdock was my father” — just long enough for the gal to put a comforting hand on his arm — before he’s animatedly describing his plan to trap the bad guys.
I think the filmmakers’ miscalculated. Omitting any emotional response from the hero may streamline the story, but it also makes him seem totally strange, and unhinges his actions from reasonable reality.
I also think Charles played this role too well, like a man so used to hiding things and submerging his true emotional connections that he has become a stranger even to himself. A “Stranger From Texas.”
Not much gunplay or fighting in this one, but plenty of good riding. Dick Curtis is great as always.