Adapting Rex Beach’s novel The Spoilers for a fourth time in 1942 may have seemed like a bad idea—what story is better the second time around, let alone the fourth?—but somehow, Universal pulled it off. The 1942 version of The Spoilers never stops moving, with loads of characters and action packed into a tight eighty-seven minutes.
The story takes place in Nome, Alaska, a lawless territory full of gold, in 1900. Cherry (Marlene Dietrich) owns a saloon in town, and eagerly awaits the return of her lover, Roy (John Wayne). He arrives from Europe on a ship, along with law and order in the form of a judge (Samuel S. Hinds) and gold commissioner (Randolph Scott). But it turns out that these new lawmen are more crooked than anyone else in town, trying to steal the gold claim owned by Roy and his partner Al (Harry Carey). The commissioner tries to steal Cherry away from Roy as well, leading to a climactic fight scene that plays out for over four brutal minutes.
The fight scene—a staple of the other versions of the story as well—may be the most memorable part of the film, but the three acts that precede it have their charms. The leading trio are great, but the whole ensemble cast populates the town with such vivid characters that eighty-seven minutes almost seems too short. Dietrich may seem somewhat out of place—her character’s part was much smaller in the novel—but she’s still entertaining to watch. She makes a surprisingly good partner for Wayne (at the time, the two were supposedly having an affair), who was typically charming save an unpleasant, offensive scene where he dons blackface.
Though the stars are what ultimately make The Spoilers work, director Ray Enright and screenwriters Lawrence Hazard and Tom Reed deserve a lot of credit for making the story feel fresh. The three leads were clients of agent and producer Charles K. Feldman, whose company produced the film for Universal. Upon its success, he quickly reunited the three for Pittsburgh, hoping for the same results—but it was released the following December to mixed reviews and a less favorable box office.
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