Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Telegraph Trail

Stringing telegraph wire from the East to the West Coast was a difficult and sometimes dangerous endeavor and, regardless of whether the events in The Telegraph Trail actually occurred, this 1933 black-and-white movie provides a pleasant diversion for 54 minutes.  Starring John Wayne as John Trent, an Army scout, and Frank McHugh as Tippy, a soldier, this is an action-packed movie with plenty of humor and a romance thrown in for good measure.

After a brief prelude showing scenes of how new technology opened up the West, first by covered wagons in 1830, then with stagecoaches in 1840, followed by the Pony Express in 1850, and finally the telegraph in 1860, the audience sees a group of soldiers attacked by Indians who want to destroy the new communication system.  However, one man is able to send a message to the nearby Army fort before dying in the arms of Alice (Marceline Day), a young lady who happens to ride by in a stagecoach with her uncle at just the right moment. 

At the fort, John Trent volunteers to finish the job of stringing the final section of telegraph wire and Tippy, his trusty sidekick joins him.  The remainder of The Telegraph Trail details the machinations of a white man on the side of the Indians, for reasons that become clear early on, and alternate them with serious and humorous scenes of John, Tippy, Alice, and other townsfolk attempting to finish the telegraph.

There are only the most tenuous of connections between The Telegraph Trail and ASJ.  At one point Tippy asks, “Did I ever tell you about that little redhead I met in Wichita?” which called to mind what Heyes said in How to Rob a Bank in One Hard Lesson when Harry Wagoner captured the boys.  The place where the telegraph wire is being laid is called Red Bluff rather than Red Rock.  Tippy reminded me of Kyle but he talks non-stop like Heyes.

There is a musical interlude but unlike Journey from San Juan and The Legacy of Charlie O’Rourke, the singers/musicians are men; they play “Oh Susannah” as well as “Mandy Lee,” a traditional song written in 1899.  So just like Wheat’s comment about Black Jack Ketchum in The Day They Hanged Kid Curry and Heyes’ comment about the Brown Palace hotel in Denver in The Posse That Wouldn’t Quit, using this song in The Telegraph Trail is anachronistic.

This is clearly an old movie: Many scenes are grainy; the chase scenes look as if the action has been speeded up; and the dialog between High Wolf, the Indian leader, and the white man who is his accomplice, is stereotypically awkward.  The climactic battle lasts far too long, in my opinion, and the ending of the movie is very abrupt and predictable.  Despite all that, however, for a film that is almost 80 years old, The Telegraph Trail is enjoyable and worth watching.

Audio recordings of “Mandy Lee,” archived by the Library of Congress: (from 1902) and (from 1924)