The Virginian (1946) McCrae is for Western Lovers.
Synopsis: When new schoolteacher Molly Wood (Barbara Britton) arrives in the small Western town of Medicine Bow, she meets two friends and cowhands who both have romantic notions about her, the charming Steve (Sonny Tufts) and the mysterious Virginian (Joel McCrea). However, there is a cattle war on and Steve starts to take up with the conniving Trampus (Brian Donlevy) who the Virginian believes is behind the spate of rustling. As Molly begins to fall for the Virginian, she is confronted with the realities of law and order on the range.
Review: The Virginian, based on a 1902 book by Owen Lister hailed as the first Western novel, is one of the most remade properties in all of film history. Starting in 1914 with a version by Cecil B. Demille, it has been followed by versions in 1929 (starring Gary Cooper), in 2000 (with Bill Pullman), and even 2014 (with country star Trace Atkins). I was interested in the 1946 film because of my recent viewing of Ride the High Country which starred McCrae and fellow Western legend Randolph Scott. Having no context for McCrae, I wanted to go back and see what stock his classic material came from.
My first impressions of McCrae and The Virginian were that it was going to be a standard horse opera with overtones of romantic comedy. I was quite surprised when the tale descended into betrayal, the brutality of Western justice, and revenge. While there was a constant romantic thread throughout between McCrae and Britton’s school teacher, The Virginian took on a much harder edge, and McCrae was able to convey both the lighter moments and the dramatic twists with relative ease. He had a charm and affability that was quite dynamic when opposed to the mustache twirling evil of Brian Donlevy’s evil rancher.
There were also quite an impressive number of cattle driving scenes, and in one moment, a rustled band of cattle is diverted downstream to cover their tracks. While it is certainly clever on the villain’s part, what impressed me was the footage of dozens of cows treading water down a fairly fast rushing river, a scene today that would only be accomplished through use of computer trickery for fear of animal rights groups. I’m not saying I disagree, but it is an impressive sight. It was an enjoyable movie, but in the end, it left little impression apart from McCrae’s capability.
Final Note: Director Stuart Gilmore would leave directing behind and spent most of his career as am editor working of films such as The Andromeda Strain, Toys in the Attic, and Sweet Charity.