If you are stuck with a formula Western, how do you make it rise above the others that share a similar plot? Director Richard Thorpe and Producer J. Walter Reuban chose a brilliant location, several writers and a cast of great character actors and one ingénue making her debut. To make “20 Mule Team” (1940) all these things were done and the product is an interesting, distinctive and very entertaining film.
The chosen location is Death Valley and it looks terrific in the changing light that is so unique there. You hire Owen Atkinson and Robert C. DuSoe for the story and Cyril Hume, Richard Mailbaum and Edward E. Paramore for the screenplay. Often too many cooks spoil the broth, but in this case the story is complex with a historic patina, and the dialogue gives the star Wallace Beery and the actors surrounding him something to work with and mangle when appropriate. Besides Beery, there is Majorie Rambeau as Josie Johnson, a match for Beery, Leo Carillo as Paiute Pete and Noah Beery Jr. (a nephew) as Mitch. You add the beautiful Anne Baxter in her first role and you have a fine, if predictable, entertainment that sticks in the viewer’s memory.
(Read more in the Thursday, April 11, 2013 edition of The Inyo Register.)