‘The Virginian’ by Owen Wister is such a mighty novel, so seminal to the whole Western myth, and, by the way, so much fun, that it was inevitable that the studios would turn their hand to it, as they did to versions of other fine Western novels, such as ‘Riders of the Purple Sage’, ‘True Grit’, ‘Shane’, and so on.
But once such a fine film as The Virginian had come out as an early talkie in 1929 starring Gary Cooper (itself a remake of silent movie versions), almost any remake Paramount decided on after the war was pretty well bound to be a pale imitation. The 1929 picture was funny and moving and young Coop was ideal as the Virginian, and superb. All the 1946 version added, really, was color. And a pretty garish color at that.
The ’46 one lacked all the pzazz of the book and the Cooper version. It became just any old cowboy film.
I liked Joel McCrea as a Western lead. He was quietly authoritative and was able to transmit courage and decency with minimal actions and words. He was even outstanding in certain roles. Watch him for example in Buffalo Bill, Ramrod, Colorado Territory, Wichita, The Gunfight at Dodge City or - especially - Four Faces West. Very fine. But he wasn’t Coop. And he wasn’t the Virginian, the man able to hang his pard Steve, say with wry humor and menace, “If you want to call me that, smile!” and woo and win Molly as well. There’s steel in the Virginian but a twinkle in his eye. Coop caught it. McCrea didn’t.
Part of the problem, of course, was the rather wooden script of the post-war version. Howard Estabrook and a team of thousands worked up the Wister novel and play, as he (or they) had done in 1929 but it wasn’t half as good. Then again Victor Fleming directed Cooper while in ’46 Stuart Gilmore wore the jodhpurs. Gilmore had the huge advantage of having been born in Tombstone. Forget silver spoons, that’s like being born with a silver Colt in your holster. But he didn’t direct much (he was an editor really) apart from a couple of TV episodes of Sheena: Queen of the Jungle. What a waste.
Brian Donlevy was hopeless as Trampas. He looked ridiculous in his black gunfighter rig. He was slightly overweight. He made large numbers of Westerns, many no good, and was better in cops & robbers stuff. He was fine as Kent in Destry Rides Again, I must admit, in fact alright whenever he was a saloon heavy, but he was an unconvincing Grat Dalton and a lousy Trampas.
The other actors (with the possible exception of Tom Tully as Nebraska) just say the lines.
There’s lots of back-projection and studio work. It’s quite squeamish about the lynching. Of course, you have to be, and the one major weakness of the book is that try as you might, you can’t have your hero lynch someone and remain sympathetic (although Jones and Duvall came close in Lonesome Dove).
They all wear mid-1940s pants.