Tuesday, July 3, 2012

When the Daltons Rode (1940)

History is complicated, and movies like to make sense of it by fitting it to stories already familiar to the audience. Thus the complicated history of the Dalton Gang was retold as a Depression-era fable about good men turning to crime because corrupt moneymen have driven them off their land.

Plot. Bob Dalton (Broderick Crawford) is sheriff in a Kansas town when a land and development company sends in surveyors to determine that the deed to his family’s farm is invalid. An altercation leads to the accidental death of one of the surveyors, and one of Crawford’s three brothers, Ben (Stewart Erwin), is arrested for murder.

During the trial, Crawford frees his brother at gunpoint, shouting, “Why should we obey the law that’s been twisted to fit the needs of thieves and liars?” Along with two of their brothers (Brian Donlevy, Frank Albertson) plus a friend (Andy Devine), they ride off and into hiding. Holed up in a barn, they learn that the newspapers are blaming them for a crime spree of bank and stagecoach robberies.

Cast, When the Daltons Rode
So they decide to live up to their reputation, hoping to put together a defense fund for a trial in another county. They already have a friendly lawyer (Randolph Scott) willing to plead their case.

Brother Ben is captured and nearly lynched before his mother (Mary Gordon) attempts to intervene and Scott spirits him away to the safety of the jailhouse. Crawford and his brothers engineer a jailbreak, but Ben, still pleading his innocence, is shot dead before they can get out of town.

The three remaining brothers and Devine are in business now in a series of holdups ranging over several states. They have to shoot their way out of a town in Oklahoma where armed citizens trap the brothers in a diner. They jump a train that they discover is full of lawmen and make off with loot from the express car. They make a getaway by jumping from the moving train on horses being transported in an open car, Crawford taking a long dive into a lake.

Crawford throws a punch in the courtroom as Scott looks on
Meanwhile, the misuse of the law for private gain goes on. Scott has learned that a local businessman and speculator (George Bancroft) is the chief culprit in the scheme to throw farmers off their land and resell it to the railroad at a tidy profit. Bancroft is smugly self-confident as Scott threatens to take him to court. Lacking evidence, the man says, it will take years for a grand jury to indict.

All ends badly, of course, as the gang decides to rob the bank in the Daltons’ hometown. In a nod to the Production Code, Crawford’s ma finds him first and pleads with him to change his ways. “You can’t make your own laws,” she tells him.

Discovering that the Daltons are back in town, Bancroft warns the sheriff, and their attempt to rob the bank is thwarted in a hail of gunfire. The gang lies dead or dying in the streets as Bancroft draws a bead on Scott from an upstairs window. With his last ounce of life, Crawford spies Bancroft and puts a last bullet through him.

Randolph Scott, Kay Francis
Romance. There needs to be a happy couple at the end of a western, no matter how unfortunate for those who must learn that crime doesn’t pay. All along there’s been a subplot involving friendly, honest Scott and a woman (Kay Francis) who has been Crawford’s fiancée since the story’s start.

Scott has fallen for her, and the feeling grows mutual. But both attempt to remain loyal to Crawford—she because she’s promised to him and Scott because Crawford is an old friend. Finally, their love wins out, and Crawford doesn’t learn the truth until the fateful day of the failed bank robbery. When he kills Bancroft, he dies honorably, having saved the life of the man who has taken away the woman he's loved.

In the final scene, Scott and Francis are newlyweds and all smiles.

Bill Power, Bob Dalton, Grat Dalton, Dick Broadwell
History. The movie claimed to be based on the memoir of Emmett Dalton (1871-1937) the sole survivor of the brothers in the gang. The gang itself comprised a good many other men over its short career, and the Dalton brothers had numerous siblings who were apparently all law-abiding.

The brothers themselves started out as lawmen in Indian Territory. An older brother Frank was killed there in the line of duty. Bob and the others gradually slipped into outlawry, accused of bringing liquor into Indian Territory and stealing horses. In 1891, one of them was found guilty of robbing a train in California but escaped before being imprisoned by jumping from a train into the San Joaquin River.

The gang’s criminal operations lasted for less than two years, ending in a daring attempt to raid two banks in the Daltons’ hometown of Coffeyville, Kansas, in October 1892. Emmett, sustaining 23 gunshot wounds, survived and served 14 years of a life sentence in the penitentiary before being paroled for good behavior.

Poster, Beyond the Law, 1918
He settled in California, living in south central Los Angeles not far from Wyatt Earp, both men having some involvement with the movie industry. It is said that Emmett got religion in prison and, working as a consultant on film projects, urged filmmakers not to glorify criminals and criminality. In 1918, he portrayed himself in a movie about the gang, Beyond the Law.

Wrapping up. Emmett’s book, When the Daltons Rode (1931), co-written with Jack Jungmeyer, was adapted by Harold Shumate, a veteran Hollywood screenwriter with numerous credits for westerns. Somewhat short on fact, the script apparently took a living person, Julia Johnson Dalton, Emmett’s widow, and recast her as Bob’s girlfriend, and called her Julie.

There’s a good deal of farcical comedy in the film. Andy Devine, playing the whiny, timorous character he made famous, is somehow irresistible to women and gets into one scrape after another with them. Director George Marshall made numerous westerns, often broadly comic, including Destry Rides Again (1939) and Texas (1941), both reviewed here a while ago.

The cast includes crusty Edgar Buchanan as a narrator and wagon shop owner. Yakima Canutt is credited with the numerous death-defying stunts, including leaping onto and off of moving trains and horses. When the Daltons Rode is currently available at amazon and netflix. For more of Tuesday’s Overlooked Movies click over to Todd Mason’s blog, Sweet Freedom.


Photo credits:
Production stills, Universal, 1940
Dalton Gang memento mori and Beyond the Law poster, Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Old West glossary, no. 36


  1. The Daltons were kind of like the Earps gone wrong.

  2. Sounds familiar! Saw this one ages ago, slow, and really staged!

    1. I thought it moved along at a pretty good clip. A lot of characters keep the screen busy.

  3. Kingman, AZ, has an Andy Devine celebration each year. Always liked him.

    1. I was surprised in this film that he was cast as one of the Dalton gang, though he was the same Andy Devine you saw in every other western.

  4. Never can get past Broderick Crawford as a cowboy. Don't know much about him but always see him as the cop in Highway Patrol (not sure if that was the name of his TV series or not, but it was something like that). I have always had an intrest in the Dalton's, thanks for the great reviews.

  5. Never saw this movie but know I'd like it. Once again, lots of history in your post, Ron. Thanks.

  6. Ron, thanks for a fine review. Another Randolph Scott western to watch out for. I really must get around to seeing some of his films. Law-abiding citizens forced to take to crime appears to be a recurring theme, not to mention band of brothers, in western novels and films; possibly a reflection of actual events that took place in the 19th century, as the memoir of Emmett Dalton testifies.

  7. I want to this book as PDF

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