Other Noteworthy Performances: John Barrymore (Midnight), Richard Barthelmess (Only Angels Have Wings), Humphrey Bogart (The Roaring Twenties), Brian Donlevy (Beau Geste), Sydney Granville (The Mikado), Cedric Hardwicke (The Hunchback of Notre Dame), Thomas Mitchell (Only Angels Have Wings), Thomas Mitchell (Stagecoach), Claude Rains (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), Ralph Richardson (The Four Feathers), Bob Steele (Of Mice and Men), George Zucco (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes)
When scholars and movie lovers look back on the best performances of 1939, young Robert Preston is rarely acknowledged. The greatest of the supporting actors of the studio era, Thomas Mitchell, delivered two fine performances in Only Angels Have Wings and Stagecoach (which makes me feel a little guilty for passing him over again). Claude Rains masterfully played a conflicted corrupt senator in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. And John Barrymore turned in his last great performance in Midnight. While there would be good arguments for any of these and several other less well known performances, I decided to stick with my original instinct and go with the underrated Robert Preston as Dick Allen in Cecil B. DeMille’s Union Pacific. Preston deserved recognition for his skillful ability to capture the worst instincts of the American character in the nineteenth century counterbalanced by Joel McCrea’s character who embodies our best instincts.
Preston’s Dick Allen is a gambler and a shark, looking out for himself no matter the cost to others. His philosophy of greed is a perversion of U.S. freedom and pursuit of happiness. He is willing to undermine the community and country for his own immediate gain, subverting what Alexis de Tocqueville once admired about American society when he toured the U.S. in the early 1830s. Merchants, farmers, politicians, and other groups promoted “self-interest, properly understood.” By that he meant everyone was looking out for their own welfare, but understood that an unstable, insecure society for others meant their own welfare would eventually be threatened. Looking out for the best interests of one’s community then would ensure (or at least allow) greater personal enrichment in the future, even if it meant an immediate sacrifice in wealth, a lesson many of today’s top one percent would be wise to reexamine as they drive this country further down the path to third world-dom. DeMille uses Allen against McCrea’s hero Jeff Butler as symbols of the competing instincts of the American character. Of course in the movie, Butler beats back the forces of greed and destruction, but the actual outcome of their battle has never truly been resolved (and Butler would be losing today).
In the movie Allen works for Sid Campeau (Brian Donlevy, always a reliable snake in the movies) who has been engaged by a powerful eastern banker to slow the Union Pacific’s eastbound construction of the first transcontinental railroad in the late 1860s by any means necessary. Campeau and his right hand Allen follow the line across Nebraska and Wyoming setting up makeshift towns to serve – and inflame – the vices of the railway workers, thereby weakening their commitment and thinning their numbers.
The Union Pacific, anxious to fulfill Lincoln’s promise to finally join the east and west coast by rail, hires Capt. Jeff Butler (McCrea) clean out the bad elements following their work and to maintain order. Allen is sure he can handle to tin-star lawman, until he recognizes his soon-to-be enemy as a friend with whom he served in the Civil War. There is a moment when both men believe their friendship will be enough to overcome their differences, inserting a bit of level-headedness into the explosive situation. Their missions, however, are contrary to the maintenance of amity. Butler wants to ensure peace and, by extension, more economic and social opportunity for all. Allen only sees what he can get out of a situation, willing to sacrifice the greater good to fill his wallet. Both grapple with doing their jobs, fulfilling their own interpretations of what it means to be an American, with maintaining fidelity to their friendship forged during the war.
If being on opposite sides would not have been enough to force a rupture in their relationship both men fall in love with Mollie Monahan (Barbara Stanwyck), the operator of the railway’s post office and daughter of an engineer. Competition over Mollie pushes both Butler and Allen to consider just how far they would go to get what they want.
The reason I am choosing Robert Preston over some other fine performances is because Preston creates a genuinely likeable villain while grounding him in reality. He understands that Allen isn’t a villain because he’s just a bad man. On the contrary, he is a genuinely fine person, but has bought into the rhetoric of greed that would come to define the coming Gilded Age. Intellectually he justifies everything he is doing by the promise of economic advancement without moral or ethical restrictions. At the same time, Preston plays him as a completely charming man, a man who we believe can still be friends with the morally upright Jeff Butler. Their past relationship only makes sense if we are able to reconcile Allen’s actions in Wyoming with his wartime friendship. Preston ably balances these demands. We see why Butler admires him and, later in the film, we are chilled by some of the actions he takes, especially when he blackmails Mollie into breaking Butler’s heart and hide a bag of money he stole. In return he vows not to kill his old friend. With the three in the room, each trying to outguess the others and read minds, the scene is tense and only works because we believe Allen will kill Butler if Mollie doesn’t do as he says. That Preston is able to alternately inspire admiration and hate in the audience speaks to his skillful interpretation of this complex villain. In lesser hands we would have only seen the superficial cardsharp, but Preston took the character as written and added emotional layers that others would have missed.
Robert Preston is a sadly underrated – or at least underappreciated – actor. Today most remember him either as Prof. Henry Hill in The Music Man or as Toddy in Victor Victoria, (both fine performances) but he had a rich career both on the stage and screen that is overlooked by the casual movie watcher. Though he never really broke through as a leading man in his younger years, he delivered many fine supporting performances. It’s a shame he didn’t receive more attention for his acting prowess early on because he could have easily taken challenging leading roles. It’s easy to forget just how good he really was, but watching him work in Union Pacific and we see a naturally gifted actor at the beginning of his promising career.