Directed by Ray Enright
Written by Zachary Gold and James R. Webb
Director Of Photography: Karl Freund, ASC
Film Editor: Clarence Kolster
Music by Max Steiner
Wardrobe by Milo Anderson
Cast: Joel McCrea (Kip Davis), Alexis Smith (Rouge de Lisle), Zachary Scott (Charlie Burns), Dorothy Malone (Deborah Miller), Douglas Kennedy (Lee Price), Alan Hale (Jake Evarts), Victor Jory (Luke Cottrell), Bob Steele (Slim Hansen), Art Smith (Bronco), Monte Blue (Captain Jeffery), Nacho Galindo (Manuel), Paul Maxey (Papa Brugnon)
It’s the Civil War. Kip Davis (Joel McCrea), Charlie Burns (Zachary Scott) and Lee Price (Douglas Kennedy) are partners in Three Bell Ranch (the three ranchers have little bells on their spurs). When their spread is plundered and burned by the Union guerrilla raider Luke Cottrell (Victor Jory), the partners head to Brownsville, Texas, to look for Cottrell and start raising a stake to rebuild their ranch.
Lee decides to join the Confederate Army. Kip and Charlie are soon up to their ears in trouble, smuggling guns up from Mexico for the Confederates. It’s dangerous work, but there’s the promise of the money they need to rebuild the Three Bell.
Kip becomes so focused on revenge and rebuilding his ranch, he loses his fiancee (Dorothy Malone) to Lee. But he soon catches the eye of Rouge (Alexis Smith), the saloon singer who’s in on the smuggling operation. All the while, Charlie is becoming more and more transfixed by the money — and less and less interested in ranching.
It all comes down to a final shootout, with friend pitted against friend — and the jingling of those three bells reminding the men of what they once meant to each other. It’d be hard to find a movie with a more satisfying last reel. All in all, it’s a moving story of the power of friendship, the pitfalls of revenge and the glory of redemption — with plenty of gunplay.
Produced by United States Pictures, and released by Warner Bros., South Of St. Louis is a remake of Warner’s own gangster picture The Roaring Twenties (1939), which starred Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney.
Director Ray Enright began his career as an assistant editor and gag man for Mack Sennett. After serving in the First World War, he made his way to Warner Bros. — where he was eventually made a director. Naturally, given his tutelage at the Sennett studio, Enright had a real flair for both comedy and action, and his films always scoot along at a steady pace. The fight scene between John Wayne and Randolph Scott in his The Spoilers (1942) remains one of the Movies’ best — the legend goes that some of the blood you see is real. Enright worked with Hollywood’s greatest Western stars: Wayne, Scott (Trail Street, Coroner Creek, etc.), Audie Murphy (1950’s Kansas Raiders), Sterling Hayden (Flaming Feather in 1952) and, of course, this one time with McCrea.
Enright was given a splendid cast to work with on this one, and he got solid performances from them all. McCrea’s grace and naturalism are in full force here, helping guide us through some odd choices his character makes along the way. Alexis Smith is fine in a role that would’ve been perfect for Claire Trevor. One of McCrea and Smith’s later scenes together — he’s drowning his sorrow in tequila down in Matamoros, Mexico, and she’s tired of watching him “eating [his] heart out with hate” — is very well done, setting up the ending just perfectly.
Zachary Scott is terrific — we can really watch Charlie lose his soul to money. Douglas Kennedy and Dorothy Malone don’t have all that much to do, though they do it well. Alan Hale does what he always does as the saloon keeper, be the delightful Alan Hale, and Bob Steele is at his best as a bad guy. I love it when Steele gets a good amount of screen time. Victor Jory sneers his way through the picture as the evil Luke Cottrell. He turns in one of my favorites of his many wonderful performances.
Thanks to the gorgeous Blu-Ray available from Olive Films, we can see that one of the picture’s greatest assets is the stunning Technicolor work of Karl Freund. Freund (his nickname was “Papa”) came to the U.S. from Germany in 1929, and was soon behind the camera at Universal on stuff like Dracula (1931). He directed The Mummy (1932), one of the most visually stunning of the Universal monster movies. He won an Academy Award for his cinematography for The Good Earth (1937), and eventually helped develop (with Desi Arnaz) the three-camera system for lighting and shooting I Love Lucy in front of a live audience. This technique is still in use today.
Freund has every frame of South Of St. Louis looking like something you’d hang over your mantel. With her red hair, rouge and Milo Anderson costumes, Alexis Smith looks like she’d glow in the dark. And with its Technicolor red, the Confederate flag never looked so majestic. (Be sure to note the curtains in Alan Hale’s Brownsville Drovers’ Rest Saloon. The red practically leaps out of your TV.)
South Of St. Louis had its premiere in Brownsville, Texas (in two theaters), with McCrea and Smith making the rounds to promote the picture. When it opened in New York at the Strand Theatre, Desi Arnaz and his orchestra performed. The picture was a big hit, and Jack Warner soon had McCrea in Colorado Territory (1949), a remake of the Bogart picture High Sierra (1941) — both films directed by the mighty Raoul Walsh. Then for McCrea, it was Stars In My Crown (1950) at MGM and a near-perfect string of medium-budget Westerns for Universal-International. He was really on a roll.