Wednesday, October 26, 2016

B-Western Wednesdays: The Omaha Trail

“In the days before the railroad, it was the ox train that moved our mighty empire to the fabled gold coast,” reads the title credits of the 1942 western movie The Omaha Trail.  “Some men saw in the new era of the railroad the end of their own ox train regime.  They fought a stubborn, bloody battle of resistance. This is a story of those times, of those trains, of those men.”  Yes, indeed.  Our starting point in this cinematic journey is Habersford, Missouri—where “Pipestone” Ross (Dean Jagger) operates a successful ox train bidness, assisted by his partner Ben Santley (Howard Da Silva).  Ben’s sister Julie (Pamela Blake) is Ross’ fiancée, his proposal sealed by a diamond engagement ring with more karats than Bugs Bunny.
Ross is going to have to slow his roll…because Patrick Candel (James Craig), a drifter Ben picked up on his return trip to Habersford, has also developed an interest in the fair Julie.   After a donnybrook with one of Ross’ henchmen (Morris Ankrum) in the town saloon, Pat attracts the attention of a man named Vane (Edward Ellis)—who has a business proposition for the scrappy young man, liking the cut of his jib.  Vane wants Candel to transport a locomotive engine to Omaha by oxen, and is prepared to pony up 15 large for his services…and knowing that a fat bankroll like that will put him in excellent stead where courtship with Julie is concerned, he accepts the deal.  There’s just one snag: Candel soon discovers there’s not a stray ox to be had in town; Ross has bought up every available steer…but being a reasonable man, he agrees to sell Pat and Vane a team for—wait for it—$15,000.

So why has Ross demonstrated such agreeability—particularly when his ox team business would be jeopardized by competition from the railroad?  Hard as it is to believe, “Pipestone” is all for progress and is convinced that there’s plenty of room for both the ox train and the choo-choo train.  Okay, I’m just jinkin’ ya—Ross is most displeased with this turn of events, and informs Ben that they will accompany Pat and Vane to Omaha while scheming for a way to (bad pun ahead) derail Vane’s burgeoning venture.

To be honest—I’m never entirely comfortable tackling an M-G-M programmer because the gloss of that studio always makes their B-pictures look like A-minus pictures.  As such, that’s what The Omaha Trail has going for it; sure, it’s a routine shoot-‘em-up with Indians on the warpath and the like, but it has one hell of an impressive cast—who nevertheless treat the humdrum material as if it were Stagecoach (1939).

Future Academy Award-winner Dean Jagger is in fine fettle as the iniquitous Ross, who shows his cowardly colors at the end during the eventual showdown with Craig’s Candel.  Personally, I thought Da Silva ran circles around him in the thespic department; his villainy isn’t in black-and-white and despite recognizing the threat that is Vane’s locomotive to his future business model, he’s squeamish at the thought of people being killed (chiefly his sister, who’s accompanying Ross to Omaha) in the process.  Pamela Blake, whom we last visited in Kid Dynamite (1943), makes for a most beguiling ingénue (I enjoy watching her in serials like The Mysterious Mr. M [1946] and Ghost of Zorro [1949]).  It’s just a shame that her marriage choices are between the oleaginous Jagger and the cardboard Craig.

Yeah, I said it.  I’m not a fan of James Craig’s…and to be even more brutal, I’m perplexed as to how he ever had a movie career in the first place.  Most of his gigs at M-G-M in the 1940s were obtained due to his resemblance to studio “King” Clark Gable, who was “doing his bit” in the U.S. Army Air Force.  This is not to say the actor stunk up every movie he appeared in; he’s surprisingly first-rate in The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941), mildly tol’able in Our Vines Have Tender Grapes (1945) …oh, yeah—he’s also in While the City Sleeps (1956)—though I obviously adore watching that movie for other reasons (Howard Duff, Ida Lupino, Vincent Price, George Sanders, etc., etc., etc.).  When Clark was demobbed, Craig went back to B-picture city and later did quite a bit of TV before calling it a wrap, eventually become successful in real estate.

Chill Wills and Donald Meek provide Omaha Trail with the comic relief; the future voice of Francis, the Talking Mule sings an infectious little ditty entitled ‘Taters and Corn (that’s later reprised by Craig’s character on a pump organ, accompanied by the cast) while Meek effectively plays against type as a cantankerous Scottish engineer in the employ of Ellis’ Vane.  Harry Morgan (still being billed as Henry) also channels his inner goon as Nat, a stooge who works for Ross (and who carelessly causes an incident that brings down the wrath of a Sioux tribe the party meets on the trail).  Iron Eyes Cody and his brother J.W. are the two Native Americans befriended by Candel (before Nat goes on to demonstrate why we can’t have nice things), and there are bits from familiar Western vets like Bud Geary and Ethan Laidlaw.

The Omaha Trail was directed by actor-songwriter Edward Buzzell—who’s a bit out of his wheelhouse with this Western (the only other oater I could find on his resume was 1940’s Go West…and that Marx Brothers romp is stretching the definition of “Western” a bit); he’s better known for M-G-M musicals like Best Foot Forward (1943) and Neptune’s Daughter (1949).  I was more intrigued by the producer credit; I know Jack Chertok mostly for his small screen contributions like The Lone Ranger, Private Secretary, and My Favorite Martian.  Short and sweet (it’s over and done with at 61 minutes), try and catch it the next time it airs on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ (it’s not on DVD).

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