Robert Preston (Union Pacific) – Best Supporting Actor of 1939

Joel McCrea, Barbara Stanwyck, and Robert Preston in a publicity picture for "Union Pacific"

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.

Old friends Robert Preston and Joel McCrea stand together, but are on opposite sides of the fight.

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.



Filed under 1939, Yearly Best Performances

10 responses to “Robert Preston (Union Pacific) – Best Supporting Actor of 1939

  1. Sorry, Jason, but Thomas Mitchell gave four performances that year that would wipe the floor with Preston’s, in Only Angels Have Wings, Stagecoach, Mr Smith and Hunchback. His old mediocre turn was as O’Hara in GWTW.

    To compound this decision, there’s Claude Rains in Mr Smith, Julien Carette in La Regle du Jeu, Jules Berry in Le Jour se Lève, Harry Carey in Mr Smith, Brian Donlevy in Beau Geste, Victor Francen in Le Fin du Jour, Ralph Richardson in The Four Feathers, and so many more. Preston was merely just about the best thing in de Mille’s picture, but that still places him half the ladder below the above.

    I have to respect your braveness, but there’s a point where it becomes foolhardy and requires cyber-sectioning. From one who has been driven to insanity myself, it’s not recommended.

    • I don’t think you’re wrong about Mitchell, but I think you are underestimating Preston’s job in this movie (as most have). He is the best thing in the movie — which I think I probably liked better than you — but he also created a complete and complex character to swim among the moral absolutes of DeMille’s world. I think it’s a fine performance that at least matches Mitchell, who would be my second choice, and Claude Rains (third). (I have forgotten to add my list of runner ups — I will do that later today though).

      And I do appreciate your concern for my cyber-wellbeing. I hope you don’t think I made this choice just to be provocative though. That was not my goal. I truly admire the performance. I did, however, know I wouldn’t get much support here and I think that’s a shame. I hope naysayers might check this movie out and reconsider Preston’s contribution. That was my only goal.

      But thank you for a great, impassioned, and concerned comment!

  2. I have no problem myself with the selection of Robert Preston, and I appreciate the terrific qualification here, but I also see Thomas Mitchell as the best actor of that year. But with his plethora of excellent performances I’d be hard pressed to pick a single one, even if his Oscar winning turn in STAGECOACH is tough to top. Your own runner-up choices (and Allan’s additions) pretty much cover the field, though I’d add a few:

    Ray Bolger, THE WIZARD OF OZ

  3. I got cut off, sorry:

    Charles Coburn, BACHELOR MOTHER
    Paul Henreid, GOODBYE MR. CHIPS
    Edward Rigby, THE STARS LOOK DOWN
    Brian Dunleavy, BEAU GESTE

    I think I would probably go with Claude Rains in MR. SMITH in a razor thin win over Mitchell for STAGECOACH.

    But I love Preston, and feel his THE MUSIC MAN performance a strong candidate for the greatest male lead in any musical ever made.

    • As I said to Alan (who I thought was you even though the response was not quite written in your voice), I think Rains would be my second choice. You have added some great performances (some of which appear on my own runner up list which I just posted). I am especially pleased to see Lionel Atwill on there, one I should have thought about adding myself. I have a hard time watching him in The Son of Frankenstein without thinking about Kenneth Mars in Young Frankenstein and that completely undercuts the atmosphere as I’m giggling.

      And I’m happy to hear some respect for Preston. I also love him in The Music Man — one of the few musicals I can say I truly enjoy.

  4. And Allan, I don’t see Mitchell’s performance as Mr. O’Hara in GWTW as “mediocre.” Geez.

  5. Must admit I haven’t seen ‘Union Pacific’ as yet, but out of the other performances you picked out (well, out of those that I’ve seen) I really like Thomas Mitchell in ‘Only Angels Have Wings’ in particular – I also like him in ‘Stagecoach’, but the Hawks film slightly shades it for me.

    • Mitchell is great in both and I agree that he is better in Only Angels Have Wings. He was a great supporting actor who appeared in what seems to be every major studio picture of the 1930s and 1940s.

  6. Robert Preston as Harold Hill is one of the great movie performances, but you’re right: he also turned in solid performances time and time again. I created a page celebrating those roles. If you’d like to check it out, visit

    Here’s to one cinema’s greats!

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