Western Union (Directors Suite) (1941)

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Released 18-Mar-2009

Cover Art

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Western Theatrical Trailer-2:22 Five Graves to Cairo (Billy Wilder) 1.33:1 / 4x3
Theatrical Trailer-2:22 Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder) 1.33:1 / 4x3
Theatrical Trailer-2:41 The Front Page (Billy Wilder) 1.33:1 and 1.92:1 / 4x3
Theatrical Trailer-2:38 Metropolis (Fritz Lang) matted 1.33:1 / 4x3
Audio Commentary- Feature length by two Uni of Melb lecturers.
Rating Rated G
Year Of Production 1941
Running Time 91:23
RSDL / Flipper RSDL (57:48) Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 4 Directed By Fritz Lang
Madman Entertainment
Starring Robert Young
Randolph Scott
Dean Jagger
Virginia Gilmore
John Carradine
Slim Summerville
Chill Wills
Barton MacLane
Russell Hicks
Victor Kilian
Minor Watson
George Chandler
Case Alpha-Transparent
RPI $29.95 Music R.H. Bassett
David Buttolph

Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame Full Frame English Dolby Digital 2.0 mono (224Kb/s)
English Audio Commentary Dolby Digital 2.0 mono (224Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 1.29:1
16x9 Enhancement No
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 1.37:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures Yes
Subtitles None Smoking Yes, In period
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

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Plot Synopsis


    Distinguished German silent film maker, Fritz Lang (Metropolis), relocated to Hollywood in 1934 where he routinely directed film noirish thrillers such as The Woman in the Window (1944) and The Big Heat (1953). These Hollywood years also saw Lang direct three westerns, The Return of Frank James (1940) and Western Union (1941) for Fox, and Rancho Notorious (1952) , with Marlene Dietrich, for RKO. Madman have recently given us a local release of Western Union, a rarely seen western which has more to offer than one might expect.

    Robert Carson, one of the writers on the 1937 A Star Is Born, based his screenplay on a Zane Grey novel, opening on a solitary rider whom we suspect is fleeing from the law. This is Vance Shaw (Randolph Scott), who soon encounters a second solitary horseman, Edward Creighton (Dean Jagger) , a Western Union man who is chief engineer in charge of laying a telegraph wire from Omaha to Salt Lake City. Shaw, with his dubious past, is employed by Creighton, and soon a second recruit arrives in town. This is Richard Blake (Robert Young), an eastern tenderfoot whose position under Creighton is secured by a wealthy father who has invested $50,000 in the establishment of the telegraph link. Creighton's sister, Sue (Virginia Gilmore), soon finds herself the object of the two newcomers' attentions.

    Shaw also has a brother, Jack Slade (Barton MacLane), who remains outside the law and sets about sabotaging the laying of this new communication link. Slade and his cohorts disguise themselves as Indians and raid the telegraph company's work camps, the blame naturally being assigned to the Indians. The fast moving script - aside from some tedious comic relief - gives us action and romance all in glorious Technicolor, with an exciting fire scene climax followed by the predictable shootout in the middle of town.

    This is all pretty standard western fare, set against an interesting historical time with the Civil War and the expansion of civilization west with the telegraph line. What sets Western Union apart is the surprising depth of the characters. This is most evident in  Vance Shaw, played by stony-faced Randolph Scott. Scott was never a great actor, out of place in light fluff, such as opposite Irene Dunne in Roberta, but he developed a stolid persona that made him one of the great western stars. Scott's film with Fritz Lang was sandwiched between two other western vehicles for the actor, When the Daltons Rode (1940) and Belle Starr 1941). There was, as well, a darker side to all Scott's later western heroes, most notably in his 1950s series of films with director Budd Boetticher, such as Seven Men from Now and The Tall T.. Knowing something of Scott's personal life, which included a remarkably open relationship with Cary Grant which had the two actors living together sharing sun-soaked terrace breakfasts, gives his screen persona as the outcast loner added depth and poignancy. One would expect that top-billed Robert Young would have been the conventional "hero" of the piece. Conventionally handsome, Young was a contract player at Metro, where he had just made Dr Kildare's Crime starring Lew Ayres, but  Richard Blake does not always do what one expects of the western hero. Young's tenderfoot makes a number of severe blunders before he redeems himself just in time for the final fadeout. It is not difficult to see that Vance Shaw represents the "old west", that is vanishing as the "eastern" ways advance further and further west, while Richard Blake symbolises the "new west" emerging as a compromise between the past and the future.
    Dean Jagger is impressive in his role, primarily because this is not the Dean Jagger who has been so boring in countless other movies. Jagger, who during his long career had appeared in 134 films, had by the 50s settled into an on-screen persona and ceased to grow as an actor, playing everyone with the same droning monotone, whether the movie be The Robe or Twelve O'Clock High. In later films Jagger's only variation was either "with pipe" or "without pipe". Even in 1941 the ubiquitous pipe is in evidence, but Jagger had not at this stage of his career established the character that was to be his trademark. With studio hair, and without the drone, Jagger is most effective. Virginia Gilmore's spunky sister cum telegraph operator surprises with her freshness, as she enjoys the attentions of her two swains. The minor characters are played by a host of 1940s character actors, including John Carradine, Slim Summerville, Chill Wills, Russell Hicks and Minor Watson. While all of these are solid welcome performers, some of the situations and "comic" antics are extremely tedious, and, what is worse, unfunny.

    Another plus which sets Western Union apart is the excellent use of Technicolor, although some scenes are a little dark - an aspect of a number of DVD transfers of Fox Technicolor films of the forties. Many of the close-ups are quite startling in their portrait-like clarity. With photography by Edward Cronjager (Ernst Lub****'s Heaven Can Wait) and Allen M. Davey (Cover Girl) the scenery is magnificent, although some of the impact is lost when we continually switch from an outdoor location shot to a close-up using very obvious rear projection. Rear projection was extremely common in films of this era, the technique being as obvious then as it is now. Not nearly as effective as the outdoor scenes are a few extremely stagey internal sets, such as the wagon interiors, which give no feeling at all of the confined space of these vehicles. On the other hand, the horsemanship of the two stars is admirable. No surprise for Scott, but it is surprising to see Robert Young obviously very comfortable in the saddle. Also of note is Lang's use of actual Indians, most notably Chief Big Tree and Chief Thundercloud, rather than Caucasians caked in Max Factor, a practice which was to benefit Australia's Michael Pate during the early fifties. This film treats the Indian characters with dignity and respect, although one "electrifying" scene is sure to give today's audiences some concerns. One of the major scenes involving the native Americans does have a humorous side, with Scott's Vance character acting as interpreter. Scott translates a question to the Indians, and after dialogue in the Indians' native tongue that lasts a full twenty-two seconds, Scott translates back : "He says, 'Yes'".

    On the whole Lang's direction is unremarkable, but then perhaps this is art concealing art. Highly effective is the overtly stylised montage that introduces us to the burgeoning culture of the frontier town. Too obvious and less effective is the focus on Randolph Scott's hand in the film's penultimate scene. Was this Lang's visual pun on All Quiet on the Western Front. For the most part, however, this is basically straight forward story-telling, with some unnecessary buffoonery intruding too often. Zane Grey's tale is told in a straight forward manner, with added depth and texture derived from the background of the Civil War and the impact of  eastern progress on the Indians and the old "man of the west". Western Union is a darned good western, with enough food for thought to fuel a discussion over coffee. Hopefully it might also lead some to seek other films starring "Randy" Scott, such as the recent Sony releases  A Lawless Street, with Angela Lansbury, and Hangman's Knot with Donna Reed.

    One more positive note on which to end. It is very pleasing to see that Madman have used some of the original 1941 artwork on the slick for this release. As melodramatic as it is misleading, it is wonderfully representative of the movie posters of those years. Good to see!  


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Transfer Quality


    Western Union has not been restored for this DVD release, unlike a number of Fox titles, retained under the Fox banner - the Betty Grable, Alice Fay and Carmen Miranda  box sets, for example. It would seem that Fox have "lost" or have leased the rights to Lang's western, but this Madman release derives from good source material which is obviously in very fine condition.

    The transfer is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.30:1, the original having been 1.37:1.
    From the moment the Fox searchlight logo appears on the screen, one's hopes rise and we are not disappointed. The delicate hues of this famous trademark are beautifully reproduced in a sharp, clean and clear image. The legendary Natalie Kalmus is credited as "Technicolor Director", and not "consultant", which is the usual credit she was given.
    The Technicolor image throughout the film is extremely clear and sharp. with a moderate amount of grain. Throughout the film there are delicate vistas of open country and highly detailed close-ups that are coffee book quality. The palette is rather subdued and soft, a sharp contrast to the garishness of some of today's colour. The projected backgrounds are made more obvious by their inferior image quality.
    Although there is at times a darkness to the image, such as in Robert Young's initial progression along the main street of the western town (16:30), shadow detail is good and there is no low level noise.
    There are a modest number of MPEG artefacts in the transfer. Aliasing rarely occurs but is seen on brickwork (10:55) and weatherboards (57:56) while chroma noise is evident in an occasional pan over trees (71:35).
    Although this film has not been restored, there are minimal film-to-video artefacts. There is a small amount of telecine wobble throughout the length of the film, most noticeable during the opening credits, and reel cue marks are still present. There was what appeared to be some light damage for a couple of frames (17:23) but apart from the occasional flecking the print is in extremely good condition.

    There are no subtitles.

    The invisible layer change occurs at 57:48 neatly placed in the blackout between chapters nine and ten.

Video Ratings Summary
Shadow Detail
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts


        There are two audio streams on this local release, the original soundtrack and the audio commentary, both Dolby Digital 2.0 mono encoded at 224 Kbps.
        A pleasing feature of the commentary track was that the volume of the film was raised when the lecturers paused to let the film speak for itself.

        This audio transfer of this feature is very satisfactory.
        Every syllable of the dialogue is crystal clear, and there are no sync problems.
        The soundtrack is in comparable condition to that of the image, with an extremely quiet sound field, free of hiss and crackle. There is one "POP" (16:08) which stands out in the otherwise very clean soundtrack.
        There is no musical score credit, with David Buttolph credited as "musical director". The music is basically a pastiche of traditional melodies, such as Camptown Races and Little Brown Jug. As such, the music is bright and varied, with amusing comic variations for appropriate scenes (21:30). In addition, there is the customary "injun" music when the redskins are on the scene. It all sounds fine in the large orchestral recording using Fox's orchestra and technical expertise.

        The mono sound is limited compared to today's soundtracks, but there is nothing here to detract from the enjoyment of the film.



Audio Ratings Summary
Audio Sync
Surround Channel Use



Main Menu :

       The main menu is presented very nicely with live action and the rousing final cast credit music.
       Options are : Play Feature
                            Select Scenes : Three screens offer twelve thumbnailed chapters, with no animation or audio.
                            Extras : A screen using a still from the film, no animation or audio offers :                                                      
                                                       * Directors Suite Trailers
                                                       * Commentary by Dr Wendy Haslem, Lecturer in Film at the University of Melbourne and Dr Angela Noalianis, Associate Professor in Film at the University of Melbourne.

Directors Suite Trailers :

Five Graves to Cairo (2:22) :
    This is Billy Wilder's 1946 exciting WW2 yarn, with doses of Wilder and Charles Brackett humour. Stars are Franchot Tone, Anne Baxter, Akim Tamiroff and Erich von Stroheim as Rommel. Very good quality, 1.33:1 with mono Dolby Digital audio.

Double Indemnity (2:22) : Billy Wilder again, this time with the 1944 classic - and I am not using that term loosely - film noir with Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray setting the screen on fire, and Edward G. Robinson as their nemesis. Good image and sound, with slight damage.

The Front Page (2:36) :
    Billy Wilder again, with this 1974 newspaper comedy. Stars are Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Carol Burnett and Susan Sarandon. This is a messy trailer, in structure and quality, and being cropped Panavision doesn't help. The final few seconds are letterboxed at approximately 2.00:1 while the remainder is 1.33:1.

Metropolis (2:38) :
    This is the trailer for the Kino restored release of Fritz Lang's 1927 silent classic. The newly recorded orchestral score sounds brilliant in this trailer, while the image is pristine. Whets the appetite for the film itself.

    The inside of the slick has a short piece of about three hundred words on the film career of Fritz Lang.

Fritz Lang : Filmography as Director
    The inside of the slick also lists the films directed by Lang, from 1919's The Half-Caste to The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse in 1960, a total of forty-three films.

Audio Commentary :
    This feature length commentary is painful to sit through. If I was not writing this review I would have not have stayed the distance. I had a feeling of impending doom when the word "commodification" was used in the opening moments of the commentary. There are a number of problems with word usage throughout. One of the speakers uses "shaven" instead of "shaved". The character in the barber chair was being "shaved" not "shaven". When the barber has completed the task, then the customer will be "shaven". Then there is the informed exchange beginning with the question, "What do you call a male cow?" This burning question was never answered, and that's no "male cow"! 
   The actors fare no better than the language. Poor Chill Wills, of The Harvey Girls, Giant and the voice of Francis the Talking Mule, is referred to at least three times as "the man up the telegraph pole". They DID NOT KNOW the name of one of Hollywood's great character actors. Indeed, the commentators only seemed to be acquainted with the work of actors if they had done a TV series. Robert Young was of note, according to the Melbourne Uni duo, because of Father Knows Best and Marcus Welby, Barton MacLane was known for I Dream of Jeanie, and John Carradine - no mention of his Universal horror films or the Grapes of Wrath - is noteworthy because son David made his Kung Fu TV series.
    Then there are the outright errors. Reference is made to director Fritz Lang's The Revenge of Frank James - sorry, it's The Return of Frank James. The fire sequence that is the action climax of the film is compared to Ben Hur, with its "burning bush" and "later, the parting of the Red Sea". That's The Ten Commandments, not Ben Hur! Is that enough?
    Madman should have saved their money, and released the disc just with the trailers, perhaps at a lower price.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

    The only other release of Western Union is in Region 2, where it is available without extras in Optimum's Western Classics series. It is also available in an economically priced Optimum box set, The Western Classics Collection. Other titles in the collection are Garden of Evil, Warlock, Forty Guns, Broken Lance, Rancho Notorious and  Broken Arrow - quite a collection! The first three in that list were Fox CinemaScope releases, and I cannot vouch for the format of all three in this box set.I do own the Optimum Garden of Evil, and it, at least, is 2.35:1, 16x9 enhanced and looks very good indeed.


    Western Union is a 1941 western from Twentieth Century Fox, with some very interesting aspects. Set against the establishment of a telegraph link from Omaha to Salt Lake City, the 1941 Technicolor photography makes looking at the great outdoors a real pleasure. While there is enough action and spectacle to please any western fan, director Fritz Lang has added interesting psychological undertones which give much more resonance to the goings on. Randolph Scott was a great western star, and Robert Young and Dean Jagger give fine support.

Ratings (out of 5)


© Garry Armstrong (BioGarry)
Friday, April 24, 2009
Review Equipment
DVDSONY BLU RAY BDP-S350, using Component output
DisplayPhilips Plasma 42FD9954/69c. Calibrated with THX Optimizer. This display device is 16x9 capable. This display device has a maximum native resolution of 1080i.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to DVD player. Calibrated with THX Optimizer.
AmplificationOnkyo TX-DS777
SpeakersVAF DC-X fronts; VAF DC-6 center; VAF DC-2 rears; LFE-07subwoofer (80W X 2)

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Comments (Add)
Western Union is a great film -
Commentary - wolfgirv
Other Randolph Scott western DVDs -
Commentary - REPLY POSTED