UNION PACIFIC. Paramount Pictures, 1939. Barbara Stanwyck, Joel McCrea, Robert Preston, Brian Donlevy, Akim Tamiroff, Lynne Overman, Robert Barrat, Henry Kolker, Anthony Quinn, Lon Chaney Jr., Stanley Ridges, Evelyn Keyes, Regis Toomey, Joe Sawyer, J. M. Kerrigan, Richard Lane, Fuzzy Knight. Screenplay by Walter DeLeon, C. Gardner Sullivan, and Jessie Lasky Jr.; adapted by Jack Cunningham from a story Ernest Haycox (also uncredited on the screenplay, along with Frederick Hazlitt Brennan). Directed by Cecil B. DeMille.

   One of Cecil B. DeMille’s better epics, and probably his best Western, the story of the race to Ogden, Utah, by the Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroad centers on the efforts of trouble-shooter Jeff Butler (Joel McCrea) in the employee of General Dodge (Francis McDonald) to prevent murderous gambler Syd Campeau (Brian Donlevy) from sabotaging the advance of the title railroad for crooked Chicago businessman A. M. Barrows (Henry Kolker), who plans to fund the Union Pacific, buy Central Pacific stock and make a fortune selling the former short when it fails by his machinations.

   It’s based on a tight well written story by Ernest Haycox, ironically whose story “The Last Stage to Lordsburg” was filmed as Stagecoach the same year. Cecil B.DeMille and John Ford both using your work as a source the same year was a pretty heady place for a pulpster to be, and it showed when Haycox, already in the slick, soon graduated to the Book Club circuit and best seller list too.

   Complicating things is the three-way romance between Irish postmistress Molly Monahan (Barbara Stanwyck, beautiful, though you can take some issue with her Irish accent), daughter of engineer Monahan (J. M. Kerrigan) who drives the General McPherson, charming rogue Dick Allen (Robert Preston), Butler’s former wartime friend and Campeau’s partner, and Jeff.

   As usual the history in any DeMille epic is only there to back up a good deal of myth and legend and a certain amount of flag-waving and or Bible-thumping, but it is pretty good corn here with lots of riding, shooting (a memorable shootout between McCrea and Anthony Quinn, “It’s a good thing you keep that mirror clean.”), fighting (a good fight between McCrea and Robert Barratt), and romance between Stanwyck and charming Preston and reticent stalwart McCrea (“I loved him from the first time I hit him.”).

   When Allen steals the railroad payroll Molly covers for him, but forces him to return the loot in exchange for marrying him which puts him on the wrong side of Campeau.

   “You know what there is in that sack, champagne, carriages, and enough money to live well the rest of our lives,” Dick tries to explain to her.

   Akim Tamiroff is Fiesta and Lynne Overman, Leach Overmile, Butler’s seedy comedic companions. They were similarly teamed, only on opposite sides, in Northwest Mounted Police. Preston played similar rogues in the former and in Reap the Wild Wind (also with Overman). Virtually everyone in the film from son-in-law Quinn to the least bit part is from a DeMille regular (Monte Blue, Elmo Lincoln, Frank Lacteen, and Iron Eyes Cody all are uncredited and look for a young Richard Denning).

   There is an old saw about the basic kinds of Western, and this one fits clearly in the Empire building category of silent classics like The Iron Horse and Covered Wagon. It’s a bit old fashioned even for 1939, considering it competes with Stagecoach.

   Molly marries Dick to save Jeff, but Campeau talks and Jeff arrests him the day of their wedding. She helps him escape, but when Dick hides out on Molly’s car on the way to Laramie he discovers she really loves Jeff just before they are attacked by a Sioux war party stirred up by Campeau.

   However you view the whitewashing of Western history or the exploitation of Native Americans it is a splendid sequence visually with DeMille at his best right down to the cavalry coming on another train.

   There is some sympathy for Native Americans expressed here, more than in Stagecoach where Ford uses them only as a force of nature.

   That rescue train crossing a burning trestle is beautifully shot, right down to the comic relief when Tamiroff’s mustache is burned off (Overman: “I never liked it in the first place.”)

   There are a number of scenes like that in the film including Irish track layer Regis Toomey murdered by Anthony Quinn speaking of the light as a shadow passes over his dying face and a weeping Stanwyck holds him in her arms on the saloon floor.

   Another nice set piece features Jeff and Monahan pushing the General MacPherson across a snow bridge to cut around a tunnel they can’t complete in time. “’Tis the first time for an engine to run on snow, and if he don’t like it, I’ll put snowshoes on him.”

   Yes, it is corny, right down to the use of “My Darlin’ Clementine” as a running theme throughout the film even as a funeral dirge for Monahan when the first attempt at crossing the snow proves fatal, but it still has cinematic power in the old Hollywood tradition. It may be model work, and obvious to us today, but it was state of the art in 1939.

   Finally at Promontory Point Jeff, Molly, and Dick are reunited as the golden spike is driven in with Campeau planning revenge.

   Molly: Where’s Dick?”

   Jeff: He’ll be waiting for us Molly — at the end of track.

   Just before the vintage railroad becomes a gleaming modern engine cutting across America as the music swells.

   I’ll grant some of you have grown too sophisticated for this to work, some will find a million reasons to find offense at something or other, and I don’t fault you if you do, but even recognizing its flaws, it is splendid film making, a classic Hollywood cast and creative talents working at the top of their form, and Western mythologizing in the epic mode at its best. I still think there is something to be said for the lost arts that made it possible that is worth recognizing and applauding whatever the social flaws or the lack of modern sophistication.

   I hope I never reach the point I can’t still respond to this kind of film a little like the kid lying on the living room floor looking up at a twenty-seven inch black and white screen, eating popcorn, and watching this unfold between commercials. I hope every one of you still has some films that bring back something like that for you.

   There was a reason Hollywood was called the Dream Factory.