The Light of Western Stars – 1940 (Film Review)

Some of you have already guessed why I have watched and reviewed this film. (Hi Hamlette!)

I’ve slowly been working my way through Alan Ladd’s filmography, making notes and occasionally managing to get it together enough to write a semi-decent review. Quite some time ago now, I watched and reviewed this version of The Light of Western Stars, which, being from 1940, was made before Mr Ladd was a star. He has a couple of lines in a small part here – appearing for roughly three minutes total. I’ve brought it out of my files to join in on a blogathon celebration of Classic Literature on Film, our blogathon host Mr Paul having been kind enough to allow it. Thank you for having me!

I’m not sure that I would call the source novel classic literature – but the book was apparently first published in 1914 and written by Zane Grey, who is held in a certain esteem. I’ve just read the book in late March, preparing for this blogathon. However, it’s been well over a year since I watched the film. (I can tell its been awhile because this review indulges in footnotes, something I try not to do to my reviews anymore.)

Without further ado… a movie review… The book review and comparison with this movie will be posted separately. The review below is as written well before I read the source novel.

The Light of Western Stars

[1]Released 1940 – 1 hr 4 minutes

Director:  Lesley Selander

Writers: Zane Grey (novel) Norman Houston (screenplay)

Starring: Victor Jory[2], Jo Ann Sayers[3], Russell Hayden[4], Morris Ankrum, Noah Beery Jr, Tom Tyler[5], and twelfth in the credits, Alan Ladd. Also, Georgia Ellis[6].

2 stars out of 5*

“It’s always been my idea that if you give children cap pistols to play with when they get older they want real guns. Real guns that shoot real bullets and kill real people. And the sad part of it is there’s always someone that’ll sell ‘em to ‘em.” – Victor Jory as Gene Stewart in The Light of Western Stars (1940)

This was the fourth filming of the Zane Grey novel of the same name, with the first two movies being silent and both possibly lost to time. Many in the audience in 1940 would likely have been familiar with the story, as, aside from the popularity of Zane Grey, the third film version was released only ten years earlier.

As I watched, I got the sense that the film makers were worried about complaints from fans of the novel if they left out parts of the novel, and I fear that this resulted in the film makers cramming a lot of characters, a palomino horse, and a sprawling plot into an hour or so, and some it just doesn’t really fit right. They should of cared less about getting the whole novel into the movie, and more about making a logically presented and pleasing dramatic cinematic arc in a short b-film time frame.

There are bits of this movie I thought were really quite good, parts that may have been four-star worthy on their own, but nothing seems to stick together properly.

The main focus of the film is on Gene Stewart (played by Victor Jory) an often drunken cowboy (is he foreman of a ranch?) who has gotten on the wrong side of the corrupt officials in town due to being unafraid of making his views on the rights and wrongs of war profiteering, maintaining neutrality while neighbouring countries are in strife, and, specifically, gunrunning, known to all, including the local gunrunner, who has the local lawmen in his pocket. (One is reminded the movie was released during the time the US was not yet involved in the second world war.) Gene also has some surprisingly modern sounding notions about the morality of selling toy weapons to children. Gene becomes romantically involved with a recent arrival from the east. He must ultimately confront the black hats, sober up, and redeem himself in his and his love interest’s eyes. There are, of course, complications. (There was a sequel written to the novel, although, as far as I can tell, no follow up movie.)

“You met a woman on that midnight train.” – Tom Tyler as Sheriff Hawes

“I met a lady.” – Victor Jory as Gene Stewart.

The tone throughout the film shifts unevenly, from literary, to shoot-‘em-up’er, to comedy, to romance, philosophy, and back and forth again. It tries to do all things, and ends up doing nothing special in totality, at least not for me.

More then a few lines were, I strongly suspect, taken directly from the book. At one point, there is a poetic but direct discussion between two characters about faith and redemption. While watching, I wondered if content about war profiteering was in the novel, and if that was why this novel of all the Zane Grey novels was chosen for a movie treatment in 1940, or if that content was added for the movie.

This is very much a b-movie, and it is occasionally evident that another take or two of a scene might have resulted in a better result (and this includes one of Alan Ladd’s brief scenes in which he doesn’t quite nail the intonation I expected in one of his few lines.)

The music is light, and pleasant of it’s kind, although I did think it was somewhat overworked at times and does not always quite match with the action. The film still looks pretty good, despite a few scratches in the copy I saw.

To its credit, the movie includes some ideas, and a pretty good fist fight for it’s time and budget, but the ‘comedy’ mostly fails, some of the acting and characters are very stock, and one feels that the people involved couldn’t decide if they were doing something serious or not.

There are some busy sets, and the Alabama Hills near Lone Pine, California make for fine location shooting during a long stretch of this film.

The gunrunner, Nat Hayworth, is played by a suitably sleazy looking Morris Ankrum.

The action starts with Ms Madeline Hammond (played by Jo Ann Sayers) arriving in a small western town from the east, and preparing to “defend herself” from the “frightening Mexican” (Noah Beery Jr.) she first encounters – this is played for comedy, but is not particularly amusing today (if it ever was,) indeed much of the “comedy” in this movie does not translate well to today’s audience – at least not this audience of one – and I frankly doubt it was ever particularly funny.

There are, however, a few toss away lines and moments which do continue to still provide some intentional humour – a bit about “snake eyes” veers dangerously close to camp but worked for me as comedy, and several witchy lines between the mostly neglected female characters are fun.

Noah Beery Jr’s, characterization of “the Mexican,” Poco, may be hard for some viewers to accept, but his character is certainly not the only somewhat stereotypical character in this movie.

Poco is a devoted friend of Gene’s, and spends a fair amount of time trying to care for him. There is a sense of tenderness between Poco and Gene, that I believe is meant to be in the tradition of romantic friendship, but may be interpreted today as a homosexual relationship.

Jo Ann Sayer’s Ms. Hammond is apparently one of the prime protagonists in the novel, however she is not given a lot to do but have “comical” misunderstandings and look lovely in the movie.

I confess to finding myself confused by some of the plot, which I attribute to the film makers trying to hit all the perceived popular high points of the novel within a constrained amount of time, and not doing a particularly successful job of transitioning logically from one plot point to the next given their constraints, not only of time but also of budget. A fair amount of violence happens off screen in this film, and one can only assume it’s because they didn’t have the money to stage it convincingly.

Alan Ladd is only in the first part of this film, playing one of Gene’s friends, the ‘kid’ Danny, dancing in the saloon and then getting hassled and riled up by crooked cops.[7]  I was hoping he would return later in the film, but he does not.

The romance that develops between Ms. Hammond and Gene Stewart will seem rather bizarrely portrayed to many modern audience members, particularly with the start of their relationship. Gene “amusingly” forces Ms. Hammond into almost marrying him as soon as they meet, and then carries her off into the night after she faints. This seems far far more creepy now than I’m sure was intended and perceived at the time.

“If they do kill each other across the border, who cares.” – Morris Ankrum as Nat Hayworth

“Not you Hayworth. You don’t care. Not as long as each poor devil killed is another dirty dollar in your pocket.” – Gene Stewart

Perhaps a Zane Grey devotee would find otherwise, but I would say that for most viewers today there are many films, both newer and older, which are of greater interest. While there are some good scenes, I could not quite convince myself this movie deserved more than 2 stars, it’s just too unsteady and occasionally abrupt in it’s storytelling. I was happy enough to watch it once, but it’s far from a priority re-watch for me.

I am however, looking forward to reading the novel and hoping that over it’s greater length, it is able to better explore the ideas and romance presented in the film, and I would not have been especially interested in reading this novel without this film adaption being made.

[1] Credits and run-times provided by IMDB

[2] Victor Jory has a big damn hero voice, but doesn’t seem quite comfortable as the hero of this movie. Maybe it’s just that he doesn’t really have the classic western hero look, and often played villains. Jory was born in Dawson City, Canada. He has almost 200 TV and film credits. He also worked on radio.

[3] She was quite beautiful. After a fairly brief film career, Jo Ann Sayers worked on TV, radio and in the theater.

[4] Russell Hayden played Hopalong Cassidy’s sidekick in 27 popular-at-the-time films, which is probably why he gets third billing here – to me he seemed a complete nonentity on the screen in a relatively small part.

[5] Tom Tyler was a popular western genre star of the silent era, first starring in films in 1925. He ended up on TV, including repeat appearances on The Gene Autry Show, before an early death in 1954. In The Light of Western Stars he plays a fairly standard-issue menacing corrupt sheriff. (And he slaps Alan Ladd!)

[6] Georgia Ellis played “Kitty” on radio’s Gunsmoke and also acted in many other radio roles. She did not have an extensive film career. Here she has a blink-and-you’ll miss it role as a ditz momentarily enthralled by Victor Jory.

[7] Alan Ladd was well into his 20s by the time this movie was made, but he’s not tall, and not particularly big – and not a star yet – so why not give him this “kid” role? He’s pretty cute, particularly in his first scene.

I apologize for editing and formatting issues you may have encountered reading this post, I had a lot of trouble with wordpress while trying to polish and eventually decided to just let it be done instead of perfect.

Book review and comparison to film.

4 thoughts on “The Light of Western Stars – 1940 (Film Review)”

  1. The director Lesley Selander made some excellent B movies but it sounds as if this movie had trouble finding its footing. Nonetheless, it sounds as if there are some interesting aspects so I may give it a look if The LIght of Western Stars comes my way.
    Thanks for reminding me how much I used to enjoy reading Zane Grey’s novels. I think it will be fun to revisit some of his work soon.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I read the book before I saw the movie, and this is one where I do prefer the book. As you noted, they tried to throw everything possible into the movie (and yet, switched the lead from the girl to the guy because who wants to see a western about a woman???) and kind of just turned it into a big, muddled mess. With enough redeeming points (::cough:: Alan Ladd ::cough::) that I’ll watch it again sometime, but I’m not in a hurry, either.

    Liked by 1 person

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