Fri 14 Sep 2012
WHEN A MAN’S A MAN. Atherton / Sol Lesser Productions, 1935. Based on the novel by Harold Bell Wright. George O’Brien, Dorothy Wilson, Paul Kelly, Harry Woods, Richard Carlyle. Director: Edward F. Cline.
Here’s a western with a story line that’s as standard as they come, at least as far as Hollywood is concerned – that of one cattle rancher diverting an area’s water supply from a neighboring ranch to his own – but in this case, it’s also one that’s a whole lot more entertaining than anything in the first part of this sentence might suggest.
There are two reasons for this, and one of them may be that the movie’s based on a novel, rather than one dreamed up by a hack of a script writer, no offense intended. The other, though, may be the star, George O’Brien, who is not your typical B-western movie star. Not in When a Man’s a Man, he isn’t.
He’s chunky, he’s from the East (an engineering school, as I recall, where he majored in football), he may be a little naive or idealistic, and when he’s hired by the rancher whose cattle are now dying (see above) he discovers that he’s accidentally become part of a love triangle, the other two being the rancher’s daughter (Dorothy Wilson) and the rancher’s foreman (Paul Kelly). Reluctantly but admirably, he’s willing to stand aside, and stand aside he does.
He’s almost but never quite a comic figure. I don’t think there is any western actor other than George O’Brien who could pull off a role like this and make it succeed.
There is, of course, more to the story than an ill-fated romance – for one of the two men, that is – and that is how to deal with the scheming evil rancher, played by Harry Woods (also see above). This involves a lot of digging, some dynamite, and some last minute rescuing.
All in all, there’s a lot of enjoyment to be had from watching this old western movie, more than you might think if you come across it with no advance notice. Which is what happened to me, and I’m glad it did.
NOTE: There was a second movie that was made based on the same novel, that being Massacre River (1949) starring Guy Madison and Rory Calhoun, but you know how that goes. I’ve read the description of that movie written by someone on the IMBD website, and I don’t see much resemblance between the two films at all.