American Empire (1942)
“The spectacular romance of America’s Greatest Adventure”
Director: William McGann
Cast: Richard Dix, Leo Carrillo, Preston Foster
Synopsis: Two men join forces to build a cattle empire, and battle rustlers, bad weather and each other.
American Empire’s title makes it sound like it should be some big-budget epic clocking in around the three-hour mark, but it is, in fact, a fairly modest B-movie lasting only eighty minutes. It was produced by Harry Sherman, the man who made all those Hopalong Cassidy movies in the 1940s, and stars Richard Dix and Preston Foster (I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, Kansas City Confidential), neither of whom exactly set the screen alight — in fact, it’s difficult to tell them apart in some early scenes — and both of whom are outshone by Leo Carrillo as a roguish French-Cajun, whose performance foreshadows his turn as the Cisco Kid’s sidekick Pancho on TV in the 1950s.
Dix and Foster play Dan Taylor and Paxton Bryce respectively. They’re Civil War veterans who, when American Empire opens, are operating a steamer along the Sabine River with the hapless help of bickering shipmates Sailaway (Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams — Bad Men of Tombstone, Al Jennings of Oklahoma) and Runty (Cliff Edwards) who provide desperately unfunny comic relief. They run across — and nearly into — Dominique Beauchard (Leo Carrillo) who is transporting a herd down river, but when Beauchard reveals he’s unable to pay they throw him overboard, and so it’s upon this stolen herd of cattle that the eponymous American empire is built.
Before we can build empires, however, we need a little love interest, which is provided in the luscious form of Frances Gifford (Bringing Up Baby) as Taylor’s kid sister, Abby. Gifford possesses some impressive eyebrows — or at least she did whilst making this movie. She had a bleak future ahead of her though, one that comprised of a twenty-year stay in a mental institution after receiving severe brain damage in an automobile accident in 1948. Anyway, it’s not long before Paxton and Abby are making eyes at one another. Then the movie fast-forwards about seven years to show us the ranch Taylor and Paxton have established. Paxton and Abby are now married and have a young son, Pax Jr (Merrill Guy Rodin), and the ranch is thriving. But there are clouds on the horizon: Bryce takes exception to other ranchers herding their cattle across his land and is thinking of investing wholesale in some of that new-fangled barb wire; not only that, the railroad’s coming but, while his neighbours are all for it, Bryce sees only the problems that will be posed by the inevitable settlers that will accompany the railroad. Somehow, this progressive young man has mutated into a staid Conservative in middle age…
American Empire is very ambitious for a B-movie, but its budget can’t keep pace with that ambition, so that the epic scope the story requires is notably lacking. The story also doesn’t have a whole lot to do in its middle section; it just sits back on its heels and lets the character potter around. First-billed Dix’s part amounts to little more than a supporting role, one which requires him to wander around offering sage advice to his partner and gazing on with earnest concern as his advice is disregarded. Preston Foster’s character at least has some cojones about him, and isn’t afraid of stirring things up. But American Empire resolutely refuses to be stirred until an unexpectedly brutal turn of events which heralds an energetic and surprisingly well-staged finale.
Although it’s a B-movie, American Empire is a B-movie made by a major studio in the 1940s, and therefore benefits from all the expertise and craftsmanship that the vast experience of a studio like Paramount brought to all its productions. It wasn’t made to be remembered, it was made to fill that gap before the main feature began. It knew its place, and it filled it well.
(Reviewed 10th February 2014)