The Virginian (1946)

Directed by Stuart Gilmore
Written by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett

Not even 50 films into my trek West and I feel I’ve already mentioned how limited the array of stories there are to be told within the frontier landscape. That fatigue will be never ending from here on out, but with The Virginian, we have the first occurrence of a re-make within the marathon. In fact it’s the second time it was remade, or rather the third time it was adapted from the novel by Owen Wister. And it would go on to become a long running television series as well. The last time we checked in with the famed cowboy, The Viginian was Gary Cooper in one of the first early sound films in 1929 (with the first adaptation a silent film not reviewed for this marathon and directed by Cecil B. DeMille). This time the story gets updated again, this time with technicolor!

For those familiar with the story already, nothing has changed. Molly (Barbara Britton) is a young woman from back east who is arriving into Medicine Bow, Wyoming to be the new schoolteacher. There she is encountered by a couple cowboy suitors, including a man known only as The Virginian (Joel McCrea) and his old friend Steve (Sonny Tufts), who has just recently returned to civilization from treks out West. The town of Medicine Bow is friendly enough, but The Virginian soon finds himself at odds with Steve, who has taken up with Trampas (Brian Donlevy), a questionable cattle rancher whom The Virginian suspects may have something to do with the recent cattle rustling in the area.

Even though technicolor has been an available technology for a number of the past films in this marathon, it’s rarely utilized (and I expect that trend to continue). The technicolor here is a welcome change within the marathon. I always felt like the western landscape was perfectly suited for color, and while the cinematography here is not overwhelming, it enhances the experience. Unfortunately the differences between the Gary Cooper version and this one end there. The story is bang on the same, and I would even say the performances are similarly impressive.

Joel McCrea is a solid star, but isn’t quite Gary Cooper. When comparing the performances, Cooper struggles to transition from silent to sound at first, but his presence and charisma still oozes off the screen as The Virginian. Joel McCrea on the other hand is just ever so slightly behind him in charisma. But what the 1946 version of The Virginian  does better is the all around ensemble. Stuart Gilmore’s film feels much more polished and focused than the 1929 version. Brian Donlevy and Barbara Britton are perfect compliments to McCrea, who doesn’t shy away from being the star.

I will admit that seeing the exact same story again was slightly boring and taxing on my attention, but it’s still a classic story, and one which is delivered quite well from the ensemble. As is evident in the above paragraphs, it’s impossible for me to separate the two versions in my mind, which is to my own detriment. But the Joel McCrea led version is a solid western from start to finish which doesn’t find any pitfalls, but rather smoothly progresses through the familiar story in a leisurely, but precise pace making The Virginian an easy film to sit through, even if it won’t wow you or be a film remembered by the end of my trek West.

*** – Good

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