Starring: Marlene Dietrich, Randolph Scott, John Wayne
Director: Ray Enright
Mood: If you want an oldschool Western with a fun story and strong acting and don’t mind coming away from it thinking about all the shitty racist stuff Hollywood has perpetuated.
Today is the one year anniversary of I Review Westerns getting a professional web design facelift, so I wanted to mark the occasion with a new review! I needed a Western that was almost guaranteed to be a hit, so I picked The Spoilers.
I chose poorly.
This movie has the powerhouse bombshell Marlene Dietrich, and a cocky young John Wayne. It’s from the black-and-white film era that naturally makes Westerns feel more Western-y. How is it not amazing?
I’ll tell you how: it’s SUPER OFFENSIVE.
The acting is great, but the story contains cringey stereotypes of Black people, and then the white guys all wear blackface to rob a bank even though there are no Black men living in the town. It’s a disappointing choice that drags down an otherwise solid movie.
The Spoilers takes place in Nome, Alaska, at the tail end of the gold rush. A prospector is told that the hotel is sold out, but then a man is shot and tumbles down the stairs, and the proprietor is like, “wait, he’s checking out; room 24 down the hall.”
Most of the movie bounces along with that rowdy, good-time vibe.
Cherry Malotte (Marlene Dietrich) is a saucy saloon owner. She backed a couple of prospectors in a highly successful goldmine, but like many other locals they’ve recently been claim-jumped. The town’s new gold commissioner, Alexander McNamara (Randolph Scott), is a shifty gent with a judge in his pocket – and a serious urge to get under Cherry’s skirts.
At the same time, Cherry’s main man Roy Glennister (John Wayne) returns from Europe with a pretty young thing on his arm. The new gal is the judge’s niece, and blinded by lust, Glennister believes the judge and McNamara that they’ll help the locals and put a stop to the claim-jumping.
Will the bad guys get away with robbing the nice miner dudes and spoiling this friendly town? Has Glennister gone over to the dark side? Should we even be rooting for him to come back to Cherry?!
Let’s start with the good, because there IS lots of good in The Spoilers.
- Dietrich oozes fiery, sexy confidence, and you can clearly see why she had her pick of male and female lovers throughout her life
- Her wardrobe is also absolutely outstanding; I’m surprised nobody has rebooted any of these looks on the Drag Race runway
- Harry Carey is a quiet scene stealer as the level-headed Al Dextry (not to be confused with Tom Destry of Dietrich’s 1939 Western Destry Rides Again)
- Russell Simpson and George Cleveland are comedy gold as crusty prospectors Flapjack and Banty
- Richard Barthelmess delivers a layered performance – which was his last – as Bronco, Cherry’s jealous, lovestruck henchman
- Wayne’s character is a highly toxic male by modern standards, but Wayne delivers the most energetic performance I’ve ever seen from him
- Wayne also deserves mad props for holding up his half of a nearly four-minute fist fight scene – one of Hollywood’s longest to date, which took five days to shoot!
- On that note, there’s a TON of classic Western action here that is extremely fun to watch
- The indoor sets feel authentic, probably because in the ‘40s there were still Old West saloons left and people had actual memories of real saloons to work with
- There’s a brief uncredited appearance from beloved Yukon poet Robert Service! He’s at Cherry’s saloon penning his famous work, ‘The Shooting of Dan McGrew’
Now let’s address the bad stuff. SPOILERS AHEAD – yes, spoilers of The Spoilers.
At first you feel uncomfortable watching Marietta Canty as Cherry’s maid, Idabelle. Although she radiates warmth and enthusiasm, her dialogue is a series of stereotypes.
Then there’s a scene where Glennister wants Cherry to ignore how shitty he’s been acting and hop into bed. When she refuses, he angrily grabs her and tells her he’ll have his way. McNamara later does the same thing, when she says she’s had a traumatic evening and won’t cozy up to him.
And as mentioned, there’s major blackface. Glennister and a huge posse of men cork their faces before staging a bank robbery. Glennister and Dextry joke back and forth while getting ready, calling each other by the names from an 1800s minstrel show – a disgusting type of ‘entertainment’ that involved blackface and making fun of Black people.
As if that’s not enough, Glennister goes back to Cherry’s room and presents himself as a Black man to Idabelle, speaking in a horrible accent. And of course the Black maid is written to think it’s funny and charming because he’s talkin’ like her.
I know racism and sexism were prevalent and even applauded in the 1940s. You can say “it was a different time” and point out that people are heavily influenced by their upbringings, education, and popular media. But that doesn’t mean it was okay.
The Spoilers is based on a 1906 novel of the same name, which was actually made into a movie FIVE TIMES between 1914 and 1955. I may have to seek out this book.
I’d still say the movie is worth a watch, especially if you love Dietrich and Wayne. It’s fun to see Wayne so young, smiling all the time, and in such a comedic role. At one point he’s even wearing one of Cherry’s feather robes, which was the only time Wayne ever appeared in women’s clothing.
If it wasn’t for the offensive stuff, I’d have ranked this movie quite highly because it excels in every other category.
This is a case of ‘you could do worse’ than to throw on The Spoilers. But you could also do a whole lot better.