“The Plainsman,” Cecil B. DeMille’s lavish epic feature begins, when President Abraham Lincoln (Frank McGlynn Sr.) is on the verge of signing crucial legislation that will determine the future of the American West. But he is dragged away from his Cabinet by the scolding Mrs. Lincoln (Leila McIntyre), who informs her husband that he’ll be late for the theater!
The story proper picks up in the years just following the Civil War, as crooked arms dealer John Lattimer (Charles Bickford) schemes to sell a shipment of rifles to the Indians.
Enter Gary Cooper as the man who thwarts Lattimer’s schemes, lawman Wild Bill Hickok (Gary Cooper) who forms a strong alliance with Indian scout Buffalo Bill Cody (James Ellison).
The rambunctious Calamity Jane (Jean Arthur) loves Wild Bill, but he refuses to have anything to do with her, contemptuously wiping his mouth whenever he kisses her. He prefers the company of winsome Louisa (Dorothy Burgess), but gallantly steps aside when Louisa marries Buffalo Bill.
Upon learning that a band of Indians armed with Lattimer’s rifles have attacked a military garrison, Wild Bill informs General Custer (John Miljan), who sends Buffalo Bill to the garrison with a consignment of weapons.
Wild Bill then tries to arrange a peace conference with Indian chief Yellow Hand (Paul Harvey), but is sidetracked when he sees Calamity Jane being captured by Indians. Riding to her rescue, Wild Bill is captured and tortured so that he’ll reveal the whereabouts of Buffalo Bill and his weapons.
He refuses to talk, but Calamity, horrified at Wild Bill’s agony, tells all. Her breach of confidence leads indirectly to Custer’s death at the Little Big Horn. The event is not seen, but described by a young Indian (played by DeMille’s then son-in-law Anthony Quinn), whereupon Wild Bill disgustedly breaks off all communication with her. Hoping to make up for her sins, Calamity warns Wild Bill that Lattimer has come to town a-gunning for him. Wild Bill is shot in the back by the villain’s confederate Jack McCall (Porter Hall). The dying Wild Bill forgives Calamity for revealing the secrets, and she reciprocates with tears in her eyes and a kiss on Wild Bill’s lips that he’ll never wipe off.
Accuracy is not the strong suit of The Plainsman: DeMille was more interested in putting a spectacle on sceen rather than offering an authentic history lesson.
DeMille shot several of his big scenes indoors, and relied heavily on grainy process screens. Even so, DeMille’s version of The Plainsman is more entertaining than the 1966 remake with Don Murray and Abby Dalton.
There’s good rapport between Cooper and Jean Arthur, who in the same year also starred in Fran Capra’s romantic comedy, “Mr Deeds Goes to Town.”
Running time: 113 Minutes.
Directed by Cecil B. DeMille.
Written by Jeanie Macpherson.
Released: November 16, 1936 Wide
DVD: June 1, 2004
Gary Cooper (Wild Bill Hickok)
Jean Arthur (Calamity Jane)
James Ellison (Buffalo Bill Cody)
Charles Bickford (John Lattimer)
Porter Hall (Jack McCall)
Helen Burgess (Louisa Cody)
John Miljan (General George Armstrong Custer)
Victor Varconi (Painted Horse)
Paul Harvey (Chief Yellow Hand)
Frank McGlynn, Sr. (Abraham Lincoln)
Granville Bates (Van Ellyn)
Purnell Pratt (Captain Wood)
Pat Moriarty (Sgt. McGinnis)
Charles Judels (Tony the Barber)
Anthony Quinn (A Cheyenne Warrior)
George MacQuarrie (General Merritt)
George “Gabby” Hayes (Breezy)
Fuzzy Knight (Dave)
George Ernest (An Urchin)
Fred Kohler (Jack)
Frank Albertson (A Young Soldier)
Harry Woods (Quartermaster Sgt.)
Francis McDonald (Gambler on Boat)
Francis Ford (Veteran)
Irving Bacon (Soldier)
Edgar Dearing (Custer’s Messenger)
Edwin Maxwell (Stanton)
John Hyams (Schuyler Colfax)
Bruce Warren (Captain of the “Lizzie Gill”)
Leila McIntyre (Mary Todd Lincoln)
Harry Stubbs (John F. Usher)
Davison Clark (James Speed)
C.W. Herzinger (William H. Seward)
William Humphries (Hugh McCulloch)
Sidney Jarvis (Gideon Welles)
Wadsworth Harris (William Dennison)
Produced by Cecil B. DeMille.
Scenario: Waldemar Young, Harold Lamb, Lynn Riggs. Adaptation: Jeanie MacPherson, based on data from the stories “Wild Bill Hickok” by Frank J. Wilstach and “The Prince of Pistoleers” by Courtney Ryley cooper and Grover Jones.
Camera: Victor Milner, George Robinson.
Musical Score: George Antheil.
Editor: Anne Bauchens.
Associate Producer: William H. Pine.
Sound Recorder: Harry M. Lindgren.
Art Directors: Hans Dreier, Roland Anderson.
Musical Director: Boris Morros.
Second Unit Director: Arthur Rosson.
Assistant Director: Richard Harlan.
Special Camera Effects: Gordon Jennings, Farciot Edouart, Dewey Wrigley.
Set Decorator: A.E. Freudeman.
Costumers: Natalie Visart, Dwight Franklin, Joe De Yong.