As outlaw Zed Bascomb, Wallace Beery is charmed by Mormon orphan Margaret O'Brien in Bad Bascomb (1946), an under seen western now available on DVD from Warner Archive.
While Bascomb is terrorizing the Rocky Mountain territories with his gang, federal agents are on the search for the crude criminal and his men. When the bandits come upon a friendly missionary, the man is killed by Zeb's sidekick Bart Yancey (J. Carrol Naish), and the manhunt is further intensified.
The gang is ambushed by well-prepared citizens when it attempts to loot its next town, forcing what remains of the group to split up and attempt escape. Zeb and Yancey hide with a caravan of Mormons on its way to Utah, a group which is mourning the loss of their missing brother, who happens to be the slain missionary.
As the pair is accepted by the group, and recruited to aid the unmarried women, Zeb meets orphan Emmy (O'Brien) and finds himself teamed with her sturdy grandmother Abbey (Marjorie Main). Though charmed by the forthright girl, when the bandit learns the wagon train is carrying a fortune in gold meant to be used for building a hospital, he and Yancey decide to steal the money.
Their plans change when Emmy becomes ill and Bascomb abandons Yancey to care for the girl. When Yancey makes an unsuccessful attempt to take the gold, Zeb shoots him as he escapes. His former alley calls upon neighboring Native Americans already angry about the intrusion on their land to attack the caravan in revenge. Suddenly heroic, Bascomb risks his life to save the Mormons.
By the time he appeared in Bascomb, Beery was nearing the end of a hugely successful career. He was one of few stars to successfully make the transition from silents to talkies, and had stayed fairly prolific. At this point he was in his sixties, and beginning to make fewer films a year due to his advancing age. Though only a few years away from his death of a heart attack in 1949, the actor holds his own in several action scenes, appearing to ably handle the demands of his role.
Though Beery was often among the top ten favorite stars during his career, onscreen he was always most popular as part of a team. He was at his best in comedies with the even more beloved Marie Dressler and in a pair of films with child star Jackie Cooper.
Here he finds his second best match with Marjorie Main, who bickers with the actor in her typically corny, but appealingly bracing way. Much like Cooper, O'Brien is a sturdy partner for Beery, complementing, rather than overpowering the actor with her charisma. The trio plays its familiar personas skillfully, fans will be entertained, and those who don't appreciate them are unlikely to be won over here.
It's a beautifully-filmed production, making the most of several Wyoming locations. While it can occasionally be goofy and sentimental, the magnificence of the movie's surroundings lend it a bit more substance. While it takes a mostly comic tone, the action scenes are intense and often brutal compared to the more gentle interactions between Beery and O'Brien.
Though the battle scenes are intricately filmed and thoroughly heart-pounding, they are clearly frightening and painful for many of the horses used by the actors. That and the portrayal of the Native Americans as bloodthirsty barbarians were of course familiar elements in films of the time, as hard as they may be for current audiences to accept. I did find it amusing that the tribal chief gave perfectly logical reasons for not wanting the white man on his land. This is definitely a story in which determining the hero depends upon your point of view.