Wednesday, March 09, 2016

"Whispering Smith" (1948)

This is precisely the sort of western I love best:  unironic and uncomplicated and unapologetic.  It's old-fashioned, with heroic heroes and villainous villains, and characters I just want to hang out with a lot.

Don't get me wrong -- I love me a really intense, deep, psychologically dramatic western too.  Definitely do.  (Remember when I wrote three huge posts about 3:10 to Yuma?  Yeeeeeeeeeeah...)  But when I think, "Time to watch a western!" this is the kind I usually mean.  (Other times I think, "Time to watch a deep western," you see.)

NOTE:  If you're totally confused by this post because you thought that Audie Murphy played the character of Whispering Smith, don't worry.  I was confused by that too.  Murphy starred in a TV show by the same name.

The movie centers around the title character of Luke "Whispering" Smith (Alan Ladd), a quiet, serious railroad detective who rides around the country catching bad guys who rob trains.

We first meet him in pursuit of a gang who shoot his horse out from under him and then skedaddle.  Luke flags down a train and climbs aboard, where he finds his good buddy Murray Sinclair (Robert Preston, who'd starred in This Gun for Hire with Ladd too).  Luke and Murray go way back -- they came west with the railroad together as young men, but haven't seen each other in some years.

Murray works for the railroad too, with a wrecking crew that goes and cleans up train wrecks.  (These seem to be pretty regular occurrences, though we never find out if it's because of the rough terrain or hold-ups or what.  Maybe trains just fell off the tracks all the time back then, and we have forgotten that one perilous detail of the iron horse conquering the west.)

Anyway, the gang Luke is tailing seems to be hiding out somewhere in the vicinity, so Murray invites Luke to stay at his ranch while he's trying to find the outlaws.  Luke is reluctant to do so, however, and we soon learn why.  Murray's wife Marian (Brenda Marshall) used to be in love with Luke, and he with her.

Luke gets wounded, though, and winds up at Murray and Marion's house to convalesce.  Sparks still sizzle between Luke and Marian, and Luke honorably stays as far away from her as he can.  He takes a room in town with his good friends Bill and Emmy Dansing (William Demarest and Fay Holden) and avoids Marian and Murray as much as he can.

But of course he keeps bumping into them a lot anyway, because this is a small town and he's the star of the movie.  Marian admits to him that she wishes he'd have proposed because that's all she was waiting for, but he tells her it's no good wishing to change the past, and she should just be happy with Murray.  And she did seem to be reasonably happy with Murray until Luke showed up.  Which is why he's been staying away, I expect.

(Every time Alan Ladd says Marian's name, I think of Shane.  Every time Robert Preston says her name, I think of The Music Man.  This keeps me heartily amused.)

So Murray has this buddy named Barney Rebstock (Donald Crisp) who is a shifty rancher that nobody else much likes or trusts.  Rebstock also has this creepy gunhand named Whitey Du Sang (Frank Faylen) who makes everyone uncomfortable whenever he's around.  And we all know what they say about bad company corrupting good morals.

And then Murray gets in trouble with the railroad because he and his crew have been keeping some of the damaged goods from the train wrecks they help clean up, and the railroad says that's looting.  Murray gets very angry about this and turns against he railroad.  He also figures out that Marion still has feelings for Luke, and he jumps to the conclusion that she must be two-timing him, even though we know she isn't.  He starts hanging out with Rebstock a lot, spending time with saloon girls, and generally degenerating as fast as possible.  And of course, when Murray starts attacking the railroad, who has to go stop him?  His erstwhile best pal, Luke Smith.

I love stories about one-time friends who are now on opposite sides of a problem, and that is a lot of why I like this movie so much.  It's not the best western I've ever seen (though it's also far and away not the worst), but it's a solid, enjoyable story with some first-rate actors who seem to be having a good time playing cowboys.

You can get some deeper things from this movie as well as just good-guys-versus-bad-guys, too.  Like I mentioned above, hanging out with bad people and shunning your good friends is not a good plan.  Also, I feel like Marion has a cautionary tale to tell us.  First of all, don't wait around for a guy to do all the romantic work -- what if he's shy, or worried about messing things up for his best friend?  Make your own intentions and feelings clear.  Second, if you give up on one guy and marry another one, then devote yourself to your husband and quit pining around for the other guy.  And if that other guy comes back into your life, whatever you do, don't make googly eyes at him.  Be mentally faithful to your husband as well as physically, because you are going to end up hurting everyone with your foolishness, both the husband who loves you and the guy who gave you up.

(Um, yeah, can you tell I'm not a Marian fan?)

Anyway, I watched this for the first time last month before offering it for the western movies giveaway I did, and it's the movie that bumped Alan Ladd up from "hmm, he's nice" to "I Need More Alan Ladd Right Away!" status for me.  I watched it again last week and still liked it so, so well.

This is my 8th movie reviewed for the PDC.  Time to talk about costumes!  We've got lots of them to ogle.  Marian gets most of them.  We first see her in this pretty dressing gown.  You can tell from their house that Murray is doing well for himself, can't you?  No simple cabin for them!

The next day, Marian has this smart shirtwaist and dark green split riding skirt.

I really like her blue dress, and Tootie has informed me she wants it for Halloween.  (However, yesterday she said she wanted to be a cupcake, and the day before that she wanted to be Mary Poppins, so I have no idea what she'll want six months from now.)

I don't care for this dress of Marian's at all.  It's like a two-sided blanket or something.  Just weird color choices and style.  (But Luke looks mighty nice all cleaned up, doesn't he?)

I wish I could've gotten a full-length shot of this cloak, though, because it is amazing.  I love the color, a deep cranberry.  I would wear it.

But this is my favorite of Marian's ensembles (and Luke's too).  I love the yellow shirt, so very Victorian.  I think the green skirt is the same one from earlier, and I like it when movie characters wear the same clothes more than once because it's so much more realistic than having a new dress for every day.  Luke's got dark green on here too, though it's hard to tell in this shot, and I think it's a lovely color for him.

This fringey buckskin jacket makes me think of Shane, how about you?  (I have this private head-canon story where Shane and Luke Smith are actually the same guy.)

They mostly put Luke in blue, which is also a good color for Ladd, with his lighter hair and blue eyes.  Not a huge fan of the pattern of this shirt, though.  I mostly included it to point out the tea set, because I have a great fondness for red-pattern china.

He pulls off the gentleman-gunfighter look really well too.  (He's not a gunfighter, he's a railroad detective, but whatever.  This shot says "gentleman-gunfighter" to me.)

Emmy mostly wears plainer dresses that manage to be practical without looking dowdy.

I love this shot of the Dansings' sitting room.  They're doing right well for themselves too, aren't they?  This is such a peaceful shot, Luke playing Solitaire and Emmy knitting.  So companionable.  I want to sit down on that sofa behind them and read a book, enjoy the chummy quiet.

For saloon girls, these two have fairly demure dresses, don't they?  I love the contrast of the bright purple and green.

Is this movie family friendly?  Yes.  Zero cussing, and all violence is old-school and minimal.  The above saloon girls are too friendly with Murray, implying he's been tomcatting around, but nothing overt.  Luke and Marian Do Not have an extramarital affair.  They never so much as kiss.  Good boy, Luke.


  1. I really love this western! It is a delightful romp through the west, and it makes my third Alan Ladd western I've seen (you've got me started on an Alan Ladd moviethon now too :), I'm looking for more of his westerns everywhere I go...).

    As usual, he he the quiet, gentle, and dangerous type. His voice is incredible, as always, and fits that role so well.

    I agree 100% with what you said about a deeper message those watching can pick up on. You summed it up perfectly: "if you give up on one guy and marry another one, then devote yourself to your husband and quit pining around for the other guy... Be mentally faithful to your husband as well as physically"
    Smitty understood the importance of mental faithfulness and did his very best to distance himself from Marion both physically, mentally, and verbally, but she wasn't getting the message very well. I loved that about Smith's character though, what a manly response and what a loyal friend he was being to Murray.

    On the topic of friendship this movie has a lot to show as well, Alan Ladd does a great job of protraying what a true friend will do for his pal, he stood up for him, told him the painful truths that he needed to hear (even when it wasn't at all what Murray wanted to hear), he tried to encourage his wife to love him and fight for him, and he didn't shy away from the tough job of bringing justice to him ~one of the roughest things a man has to do. So many "friends" cop out on the last one. But not Alan Ladd.
    (There was a great line Smith said on the topic of friendship, I'll have to go find it and come back later)

    I love the top picture of Smith behind the rock...I may have to use it as a photo on my desktop... :)

    1. Annie, isn't it lovely? Which other Ladd western have you seen besides this and Shane? Those are the only two I've seen so far, but I'm inhaling his movies as quickly as I can. Man, I am digging him so much. I started The Blue Dahlia last night and I am going to be going nuts all day waiting for my kids to go to bed tonight so I can finish it.

      But anyway, yes, he plays those quiet, gentle, and dangerous men so well. Such a delicious combo. I love his voice too, though I love his eyes more -- so expressive. He says more with his eyes than his dialog half the time, and wow, just... ::happy sigh::

      Poor Luke. He obviously still cares for Marian very deeply, but he's man enough to fight it and do the right thing. Very lovely, honorable guy, this Smith. Do please come back with that line when you find it!

      That top picture is about as awesome as they come, isn't it? You're right, it would make a splendid desktop. May have to use it on one of my computers as well.

    2. Hi Hamlette, I found the line, it is when Luke is talking with Bill Dansing over breakfast and Bill is getting riled and says:

      "Smitty, I ain't sore and I ain't mad, but I'm telling you, see? Whatever Murray's doing, or ain't doing, I don't think it's any of your business"

      To which Luke replies:

      "You're wrong Bill. He's the best friend I've got. The greatest guy that ever pulled on a boot. When I see him heading for an open switch (railroad talk for running off the rails to destruction) that's my business. It's yours too."

      Boy, Luke's character is what gets me. He is always doing the right thing and being as honorable as a man can be.

      I also loved this line he said to Murray near the beginning of the film about not caring for the opinion and favor of dishonorable men. Luke was trying to warn him that you need never concern yourself with being liked by that kind of a person.

      Murray: "I don't want any trouble with Rebstock."

      Luke" "Since when does a man like Rebstock, a thief and a cattle rustler, mean anything to you."

      Hmmm, it doesn't sound as impressive when it is just typed up here, it looses SO much meaning when you can't hear his voice and inflection, charged with the meaning of the words. Also not being able to see his eyes, which as you said, are so expressive. Oh well. With his vocal and visual acting those two parts are amazing.

      This film is a perfect illustration of the verse "He that walketh with wise men shall be wise: but a companion of fools shall be destroyed." Who you associate with and call your friends really does Luke and Murray painfully find out.

      I've never seen the Blue Dahlia (Isn't it hard to stop in the middle of a film? I had to do that the first time I saw The Great Escape, in a tense, suspenseful part nonetheless! I just about went crazy trying to wait for the next night to come!)
      The other Alan Ladd western I've seen was "The Proud Rebel". The neat thing about that film is that Alan Ladd's real life son plays his son in the film. I love to see family members act together!

      The one I REALLY want to see next is "Branded", it sounds SO good. I've got to see if I can scrape up some loose change around here. :)

    3. Annie, I remember those parts! (I love that I've watched enough of his movies and listened to enough Box 13 now that I can hear those lines in his voice, hee.)

      I have to watch most movies in at least two parts because my only time to watch movies is after my kids go to bed, unless it's one I'm watching with them. It does not get easier to stop, though. Grr.

      Blue Dahlia was good, and I'll probably review it when I've watched it again. (Who am I kidding? I totally will review it.)

      My friend Eva just watched The Proud Rebel and told me I should see it, so it's high up on my list of Ladd films to watch next. And I just got Branded too! So I'll probably watch Two Years Before the Mast next, and then one of those two.

    4. By the way, Annie, "Branded" is reeeeeeally good. Well worth finding! Review coming when I've seen it a second time.

  2. "But of course he still keeps bumping into them a lot anyway, because this is a small town and he's the star of the movie."


    (Seriously, I loved that line. Very good point.)

    Marian's costumes are beautiful . . . but she sounds like quite an Annoying Character. I hate it when female characters just cannot seem to make up their minds about which guy they really want.

    Speaking of which . . . I wanted to ask you, have you ever read "To Tame A Land" by Louis L'Amour? I ask because I just started reading it myself, and it's beautiful--far and away the best western I've ever read. I was almost shocked by how skillful the writing was. (I'd never really tried L'Amour before, although I'd read a bunch of Zane Grey and some Frank H. Spearman. Clearly, I need more L'Amour in my life.)

    1. Jessica, yes, it's just that kind of a movie. The kind where I talk out loud to the characters on screen through the whole thing.

      Marian frustrates me. She could be cool. Instead she's just too emotional for anyone's good.

      Nope, haven't read To Tame a Land, but I'll put it on my list! L'Amour really does write well.

    2. You know, that's something I've noticed quite a bit in older stories by male authors, like "Whispering Smith"--the female characters often come across as markedly emotional, indecisive, and changeable, even to the point of being unlikeable and perhaps unrealistic.

      I don't mean to sound like a raging feminist but I do feel that sometimes, male authors have a tendency to use their female characters as "tools" for Creating More Drama, rather than trying to make them solid, realistic, appealing HUMAN BEINGS. And that bothers me.

      That was one thing I really appreciated about "To Tame A Land," actually--the girl was calm and sensible and knew what she wanted. She didn't throw tantrums, and she didn't change her mind every five minutes. She was somebody I could really relate to--and look up to, even.

    3. Jessica, it's not just older stories either. Although I tend to not pay a lot of attention to what gender authors are versus their characters, once in a while I'll come across a book where either a male author has written a stereotypically awful female, or where a female author has written a stereotypically awful male. It happens. And it's worrisome, sometimes. Makes me wonder if I can write good male characters since I'm not male -- and I write males a LOT. The vast majority of my main characters across everything I write are male. Can I write them?

      I take great comfort in something George R. R. Martin said in an interview. Someone asked him how he could write women so well, and he said, "I've always considered women to be people." When I write, I try not to think so much about "this is a guy -- how do guys think?" but just "how would this person think and act and react?" I think when authors stumble, it's often when they're focusing too much on a character's gender and too little on the character as a person. Then the character becomes a puzzle piece or a pawn instead of part of the story.

      Have you read The Light of Western Stars by Zane Grey? Very intriguing female protag.

    4. I know exactly what you mean--I worry about that, too, in my own writing, whether my male characters will be realistic or not. But my older brother, who's also a writer, told me just what you said: "Try to make them human beings." And it helps a lot :-)

      Yes, I have read it! But . . . to be honest, I didn't like it all that much. I did find Madeline pretty interesting--and Gene Stuart too--UNTIL the end, and then I got mad at them and tossed the book aside in disgust. (As you can probably tell, I didn't enjoy the ending ;-) )

    5. I... must admit I've forgotten how TLOTWS ended. What about it annoyed you?

    6. Oh! Well . . . Madeline and Gene Stuart had a huge fight (about another girl whom Madeline thought Gene was chasing and he WASN'T.) So Gene got mad, kissed Madeline a whole bunch of times without asking permission (and despite her asking him to stop), and stormed off. And promptly got captured by the villain's guys (if memory serves me correctly). And then Madeline got all confused and kept saying that she was actually Gene Stuart's WIFE (which she WASN'T, but I suppose her mind was fogged by remorse? Or something?) And she promptly ran off to search for him. And she found him (eventually) and All Was Right With The World.

      But I was seriously annoyed. ;-)

    7. Oh yeah! Actually, the ending annoyed me too, but not for any of those reasons at all! I was annoyed because nothing at all happened to evil Don Carlos, and so he's still lurking somewhere, and surely will come back to seek vengeance some day, and no one seemed to care. Least of all Zane Grey.

      I don't think Madeline was confused. I think she was trying to impress on everyone how serious she was about needing to find him. They alllllmost got married at the beginning, and he'd spend the rest of the book trying to make amends for his behavior that night, and I think she was trying to show the world (and thus him) that she had forgiven him. Also, didn't she go down to Mexico to find him? Or have to get into a jail of some sort? Being his wife would maybe give her rights and privileges for being allowed to see him that not being his wife wouldn't have, so that's likely why she said it.

    8. Right. That's a problem too. *shakes accusing finger at Zane Grey*

      Hmmmmmmmmmmm. I see where you're coming from . . . but it kind of seemed to me like she actually BELIEVED it herself, too, as well as wanting to convince other people that it was so. So I was disappointed, because it struck me as a really wacky ending to an otherwise cool story.

  3. She reminds me a little bit of the chick in Bend of the River, who still gets me mad because she desserts Arthur Kennedy at the drop of a hat. However, Marian, at least, doesn't dessert Murray. She just gets confused. In her defense, I don't think she thought about Luke until he came back into their lives.

    1. DKoren, yes, I think she was pretty happy with Murray until Luke returned. Which is why I'm kind of stymied that she goes all soppy over him. (Well, except that he's played by Alan Ladd, cuz that makes it all make sense, but still.) Get a grip, woman! He didn't ask you to marry him, when you make it clear he could have, so that ship has sailed and you need to move on. And let him move on too.

      But we know I have zero patience with characters who can't move on, and who refuse to let other people move on either. Hmph.

  4. This looks like a whole heap o' fun. ;-) And Robert Preston is fantastic -- he was so funny in How the West Was Won.

    1. Emma Jane, that is an excellent way to describe it. This is a happy-making heap o' fun. Even all the emotional angst for the characters isn't enough to make it not be fun.

      Robert Preston cracks me up a lot in pretty much everything I've seen him in. HTWWW, The Music Man, this, This Gun for Hire, and the other random places he's popped up. And his hair is so craaaaaazy wavy in this!

  5. Another Alan Ladd movie I feel like I should see ASAP! :) I think I'll be a gigantic fan of him before long...

    1. All part of my sinister plan to remind the world how awesome Ladd was! This one is easy to find, at least, and not pricey. I think you and yours would enjoy this :-)

  6. This is a movie I'd definitely like to see some time. I've seen part of it, when I was at a friend's house and it was on TV, and since then I've wanted to see the whole thing, but somehow never got around to it! Alan Ladd isn't really one of my favorite actors, but he's a good actor and I do like him in his movies that I've seen.

    1. Connie, it's worth seeing, I think :-) I bought it as part of a ten-pack of western movies -- I actually bought the pack because I wanted to see the Joel McRae version of The Virginian, which is one of the others included. But you can buy this on its own too, or as part of a 4-movie pack.

      Alan Ladd wasn't one of my favorite actors either until about a month ago. I felt like he was solid, but not particularly exciting. What a difference a movie or two will make!

  7. Another movie I'd like to see now that you've introduced me to it.
    I think you better wait until October 30th for the Halloween costume. :)

    1. Jennifer, yay! Another potential Whispering Smith fan!

      I have learned to tell my kids they can change their minds as often as they want about Halloween costumes until the last week of September, when I start making them. Once I buy fabric or paint or whatever it is I'll be needing, you are locked in on that costume and can't change again. (Unless you want to wear someone else's old costume from a previous year, if it's still around.) Last year, we were walking around inside the fabric store looking at fabric before Sarah finally made up her mind to be a "soft, huggable pumpkin" and not a cupcake.

  8. It's funny the things you have to figure out as a mom. I'm slightly brain dead this morning so no specific examples come to mind, but I know I've had to make similar rules.
    I've added "Whispering Smith" to our wish list. Did you know they also did a TV series called "Whispering Smith"? Do you know if it was any good?

    1. Jennifer, we have some of The Most Ridiculous Rules in our family. Such as, "Daddy can only turn into a bear once per meal." And that is an important rule, too. Yeesh.

      I have not seen the Whispering Smith TV series. Yet. I do know it starred Audie Murphy, and I believe my dad has it, so when I go visit my folks after Easter, I plan to try an ep or two if he does have it. If it's good, I'll probably get it myself cuz I see it's pretty cheap on Amazon right now, and I do like Audie Murphy westerns.

    2. And you can let us know if it's worth investing in for our children.
      Sounds like rules and all you have a fun house.

    3. Will do!

      We try to have fun :-)

    4. Whispering Smith TV series has Audie Murphy as a deputy working for the Denver Police in the 1870's. It is a real hit or miss type of series. There are a few quite tight episodes but for the most part the series is rather weak. I have reviews up at the usual place for about 10-12 episodes.

      By the way, you hit the nail on the head review wise for the film.


    5. Gord, good to know! I still haven't watched any of it.

      Thanks :-)

  9. I finally saw this a few weeks ago thanks to the DVD I won I your Western Cinema Week giveaway! I was reading Gatsby at the time so I was a little tired of the "married girl likes guy from the past" situation because Marian was very annoying but I still enjoyed it. It also reminded me a lot of Poldark. Have you seen that? Ross Poldark is the equivalent of Luke and Francis Poldark is the equivalent of Murray. The big difference is that I despise Ross (even though he's the main character who you're supposed to like...) and I really understand Francis (maybe too much so...) and in here I LOVED Luke and didn't like Murray. I mean, I desperately wanted him to become a better person, you know? Which made the ending break me up, but I'll be fine. I can totally see how this set you up for loving Alan Ladd because Luke was just the best. MY HEART!

    I had never seen Robert Preston in anything besides The Music Man, so that was a new experience for me, haha! I had "Marian the Librarian" stuck in my head the whole time. Really liked reading your thoughts!

    1. MC, oh, yay! I'm so glad you had a chance to watch it. "Married girl still likes a guy from her past" is not a favorite trope for me either, but on the other hand, it feels like it could totally happen. I haven't watched Poldark, but that's interesting how it's similar, but flipped.

      I think Music Man was my intro to Robert Preston too. Either that or How the West Was Won. Seeing him as a villain the first time (I think in the western Blood on the Moon) was kind of a shock! I really like him opposite Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake in This Gun for Hire -- he's playing a straight arrow in that one.

      Thanks for stopping by to chat about this one!

    2. Whispering Smith is an under-rated film in my opinion. Nice work by everyone involved, cast, crew and direction. Can not say the same for the Audie Murphy series of the same name. Some poor writing on more than a few of the episodes. My mother told me that Whispering Smith was the first film her and my father went to before getting married. Before she passed, I showed it to her on dvd and she cried the whole way through.

  10. Gordon, I think this film definitely should be more well-known than it is! It's such a solid, enjoyable, well-made western. I haven't seen the Audie Murphy series, so can't compare there. But how cool that your parents saw this in the theater on a date! What a great film to have such a special memory attached to.


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