I think with this film it’s more about….inner beauty?
I had quite a dim view of The Man From Laramie for the first several minutes. I’m lukewarm on Westerns as it is, and that opinion dipped even lower when the opening credits were scored by a corny choir singing the praises of the main character. They dipped even further when I finally met the mysterious “Man From Laramie” they were singing about – and saw that despite the choir claiming he was “a man with a peaceful turn of mind” and “sociable and friendly as any man could be”, our lead was kind of a jerk.
To be fair, Will Lockhart (James Stewart) has cause to be grumpy. He’s come from Laramie to the small frontier town of Coronado with three wagonloads of supplies for the general store, but is also on a more personal mission to find the guy who sold guns to the Apaches nearby; the Apaches had in turn used those guns in an ambush against an earlier wagon train, amid which his brother died.
No one seems all that knowledgeable about the matter – or interested in helping him. Coronado is largely under the sway of the biggest local rancher, Alec Waggoman (Donald Crisp); Alec had spent the past several years ruthlessly building up his ranch, using force and intimidation to buy out most other ranchers. His monopoly extends to the town businesses, including the general store run by his niece Barbara (Cathy O’Donnell). Barbara is engaged to one of Alec’s ranchhands Vic (Arthur Kennedy), but is still much kinder to Lockhart than anyone else in town.
Barbara’s cousin Dave (Alex Nicol) is a different story. He comes upon Lockhart helping himself to some salt from the salt flats near town – Barbara suggested he take some of the salt back to Laramie to trade. But the salt flats are part of the Waggoman property, and Dave sees fit to punish him for the “theft” by burning all three of his wagons and shooting half his mules before Vic can stop him. Alec later repays Lockhart for the loss, but it sets up a wedge between Lockhart and the Waggomans – and Vic, who was ostensibly supposed to be keeping an eye on Dave and whose pay gets docked to cover the loss. Vic, Barbara, and the sheriff all subtly urge Lockhart that it’s probably best if he leave town – but Lockhart is determined to find the gun runner, and his search ultimately threatens the whole Waggoman empire.
I’m going to be super-coy with what I mean by “the Waggoman empire” because it was the bit that most surprised me. The story of the relationships between Alec and his son Dave, Alec and “almost a son” Vic, Dave and Vic, Vic and Barabara, and the Waggomans and the town unfolded slowly; so much so that early on I felt like the film was introducing a lot of unnecessary plot threads just for the sake of keeping the story going. But screenwriters Philip Yordan and Frank Burt went on to not only tie all the threads together, but weave them into an interesting tapestry in which this “Man From Laramie” was ultimately more of a supporting player. Not that Stewart is all that idle – he’s got about three or four decent fight scenes, he crashes a Pueblo wedding, and he’s got a handful of heartfelt talks with different characters. But he’s just the story’s catalyst; the meat of the plot is all Waggoman family drama.
There’s even some comedy, thanks to Aline MacMahon as “Kate Canady” – a character I liked immediately. Kate is a rancher herself, one of the few holdouts against the Waggomans. We first see her when Lockhart and Vic get into a fistfight on Coronado’s main street; Kate is driving by in her wagon, but stops to watch, grinning ear-to-ear and enjoying it immensely. She offers Lockhart a job as a ranch hand while he’s in town, and won’t take no for an answer – popping up repeatedly for the next several scenes to make her pitch, until she is finally in a position to dangle the position as a literal get-out-of-jail-free card (long story). When Lockhart finally gives in, protesting that she’s “a hard, scheming old woman,” Kate just grins and adds “and ugly, too!” But she’s not just comic relief – Kate has her own history with the Waggomans that’s ultimately more complex than her just being the plucky holdout.
There’s one element of the film for which I may have been at a disadvantage. Director Anthony Mann chose to shoot in the then-new Cinemascope technology, showcasing the sweeping New Mexico landscape. Many critics raved about how gorgeous the film looked – but they were watching in theaters, and I was watching on my TV at home. Granted, I have a decently-sized flatscreen, but it still probably pales in comparison to what a theatrical experience would have been. So the story caught more of my attention – and pulled me in despite myself.
But they really should have ditched that God-awful theme song.