52 Code Films – Week #26: “The Santa Fe Trail” from 1940; “Happy Birthday, Olivia!” for The Fourth Annual Olivia de Havilland Blogathon

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We usually publish our 52 Code Films articles on Sunday, but I am publishing this week’s entry on Monday for a special reason. Last year, I pondered the fact that there are so many great classic films I have yet to watch. From the American Breen Era alone (1934-1954), there are thousands of feature films, many of which are masterpieces and most of which are at least good movies. However, although I have watched many Code films, I have seen comparatively few of the vast number of Breen movies. I decided that I wanted to start a series in 2019 which would ensure that I committed to watching many Breen Era films which I have never seen before. I decided to call the series 52 Code Films in honor of the fact that I would be watching and reviewing one new Code film each week of the year. Last week was the twenty-sixth week, meaning we are half-way through this series and this year! I have enjoyed this series so far. Because of it, I have watched thirty-nine new films, since I watched some extra new movies earlier in the year. Out of the twenty-five films I have reviewed thus far, I am proud to announce that only four have been poor Code films, three have been fair, and none have been non-Code films. Happily, eleven of the movies have been good Code films, and seven have been perfect Code films! Out of the twenty-five movies, I have only found one film which I would not recommend to my viewers. Considering that these films were all chosen randomly by me, it reflects my opinion that the majority of the films made during the Breen Era are free from Code violations and enjoyable to watch today.

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Today’s topic is The Santa Fe Trail from 1940. Crystal Kalyana of In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and Phyllis of Phyllis Loves Classic Movies are hosting a blogathon in honor of the great Olivia de Havilland again this year. This blogathon, which is being called The Fourth Annual Olivia de Havilland Blogathon, will run from July 1-3, so it officially begins today. It is honoring Miss de Havilland’s 103rd birthday today, which, remarkably, she has lived to celebrate. Happy Birthday, Dame de Havilland! Since the blogathon begins today, I decided to publish this article later than usual as an entry to the blogathon, since I want to honor Olivia again this year. The Santa Fe Trail is available for free on Amazon Video with a Prime membership, so I decided that this was a good excuse for watching this famous movie which has been on our watchlist for a long time. This movie is the third of the nine Olivia de Havilland and Errol Flynn film pairings I have seen so far. This is the first of these movies in which I have really enjoyed them as a couple. I enjoyed watching this movie, and now I am excited to review it as the half-way article in this series!

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Plot

At West Point, a young Southerner has several good friends in his fellow cadets. These young men are eager to begin their military careers. However, there is one young man there who doesn’t get along with his fellow cadets at all. He is a troublemaker, and he loves to argue with the wealthy young man from the South. One night in the barracks, the troublemaker starts reading propaganda material by a famous abolitionist aloud, and a fight ensues. The primary cadets are warned against taking sides in politics, but the instigator is expelled. Upon their graduation, the Southerner, his best friend, and the rest of his pals are assigned to the cavalry in Kansas. It is an extremely difficult position, beyond train service and very dangerous. The area is lawless and plagued by the hostile activities of the abolitionist leader that the expelled cadet admired. On the train out there, the young soldier meets his comrade’s beautiful sister. Both he and his best friend are very interested in this young lady, whose adventurous spirit hasn’t been dampened by her years at an Eastern finishing school. Her father wants to turn the rough Santa Fe Trail into a railroad, but he won’t be able to do that until peace is established in the area. Will the cavalry be able to control the bloodshed as the abolitionist increases his daring tactics to free the slaves?

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Cast

The young soldier from the South is Jeb Stuart, played by Errol Flynn. His best friend and fellow soldier is George Custer, played by Ronald Reagan. The pretty daughter of the railroad owner is Kit Carson Holliday, played by Olivia de Havilland. The abolitionist leader is John Brown, played by Raymond Massey. The conspiratorial cadet who is a follower of John Brown is Rader, played by Van Heflin. Kit’s father is Cyrus Holliday, played by William Lundigan. Her brother, one of Jeb’s friends, is Bob Holliday, played by Henry O’Neill.

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Production Notes

This film was directed by Michael Curtiz. It was produced by Hal B. Wallis with associate producer Robert Fellows. The production company was Warner Bros. The original screenplay was written by Robert Buckner. The score was written by Max Steiner.

Image result for The Santa Fe Trail (1940) posterCode Compliance

This is a perfect Code film. It truly is an excellent example of Code entertainment which is dramatic as well as free from unacceptable elements. There is a lot of battle action, yet there is no excessive violence. The deaths and injuries are not gory, and the blood is very minimal. Despite this, the battle scenes are very exciting. This film provides a unique look at the difficult moral question which America was facing during the 1850s regarding the issue of slavery. I classify this film as perfect because of its proper handling of an extremely difficult type of character, the religious fanatic. John Brown is an extreme abolitionist, so he is fighting against the established American law, because slavery was still legal at this point. John Brown is very religious, and he bases the doings of himself and his followers on God’s law. He constantly invokes the help of God and says that he is committing crimes and killings in His name, since he is doing His bidding by fighting this great sin that plagues the country. He is officially the villain, since he ruthlessly kills soldiers and civilians alike. His methods are rebuked as cruel and treasonous, and he is eventually called a madman. However, he is acting in the name of God, and the cause which he advocates is one which eventually was proven to be right. Does this pre-Civil War story condemn the whole abolition movement? No, it doesn’t. A few characters state that John Brown’s cause is fundamentally right but that his brutal methods are wrong. That is the stance which the film takes. Without pointing fingers at anyone, it makes it clear that slavery was wrong and that something would have to pay for this great mark on the country’s conscience. The moral behind the film is that the inevitable Civil War was the price of slavery and the only means it could be removed. There even is the hint of future strife between the primary cavalry members in the story, since differing sides in the War Between the States would sever friendships and make enemies. How is a character such as John Brown different from similar but unacceptable religious fanatics in un-Code films we have breened, such as Rasputin in Rasputin and the Empress from 1932, Pa in American Gothic from 1987, and Claude Frollo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame from 1996? The main difference is that The Santa Fe Trail was self-regulated while the other films were not. Because of Joseph Breen’s guidance, this character is not a hypocrite. He is a devout, fervent man who truly believes that he is obeying God. He is not a greedy charlatan like Rasputin, a murderous lunatic like Pa, or a licentious egomaniac like Frollo. He sincerely believes in his cause and is not afraid of losing his life for it. The main reason he is able to speak of God so frequently and not be blasphemous is that his cause is right and essentially Christian. He is not a thoroughly despicable villain because he is trying to do God’s work. The Code always allows honest self-examination, which this film provides.

Errol Flynn and Ronald Reagan in Santa Fe Trail (1940)

My Opinion

This is an excellent film. I really enjoyed it. It includes a lot of historical detail, even if it isn’t all accurate. I really appreciated the focus on a less-discussed part of history. Many stories depict the Civil War, but not many tell the story about what led to it. The period costumes are beautiful. The acting is exquisite. Olivia de Havilland is excellent as usual in her role. She brings a lot of extra color to the film. I really liked her interaction with Errol Flynn in this movie. They were such a famous couple, and I am enjoying seeing more of their films together. For last year’s Olivia de Havilland Blogathon, I watched and reviewed my second of their collaborations, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, which I incorporated in my #CleanMovieMonth celebration. This is the first of their collaborations I have seen in which I have really enjoyed their romance. I don’t like The Adventures of Robin Hood because of its non-Codishness, which I know will be surprising to my friends who like this film. I do like The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, but it didn’t feature much screen time for Olivia, and I felt that the real romance was between Errol Flynn and Bette Davis. I love The Santa Fe Trail, which has a touching romance between Olivia and Errol. In this movie, I was really able to appreciate their great partnership. I also enjoyed seeing Ronald Reagan for the first time in a feature film. I have been curious about seeing this Warner Bros. actor in his pre-presidential days for quite a while, and I found his performance in this film to be excellent. Raymond Massey gives a very stirring performance as John Brown. His eyes burn with intense fire as he embodies the zealous abolitionist. The rest of the cast is very good, too.


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Recommendation

I highly recommend this film to my readers. I know that classic film fans will love this movie. It has a lot of exciting action, which will be enjoyed by war film fans, but it is not too gory for people who do not like violence in movies. The romance is sweet, the history is sweeping, and the friendship between the men is touching. The Max Steiner score is beautiful and very dramatic. I feel that this movie was a Warner Bros. reply to Gone with the Wind, which was released the previous year. Like David O. Selznick’s Southern epic, it featured Olivia de Havilland and a glorious Max Steiner score. However, this film tells the story of what led to the Civil War, ending before the war actually starts. Plus, it does it in half the time. Personally, I would rather watch this film. Do you feel the same way?

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For the Blogathon

Olivia de Havilland has become one of my favorite actresses. I actually haven’t seen that many movies with her yet, but I am enjoying discovering more and more of her great performances. She was so beautiful in each of her classic films, and she has a special spark which she brought to all those roles. Just her presence makes already great films even better. I am glad that this blogathon encouraged me to make a movie with Olivia de Havilland one of my new Code films. I can’t wait to see more of her amazing movies. Happy Birthday, Olivia! I am so glad that this lovely lady is still with us, one of the last shining stars of the Golden Era of Hollywood. She began her film career in 1935, so she was strictly a Code actress in her early years. She had the sweet, wholesome quality which was so beneficial to Code leading ladies. Here’s to many more birthday blogathons honoring the continually lustrous life of Dame de Havilland, a queen of the screen!

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Happy #CleanMovieMonth85!

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By the way, please join our month-long celebration of Code films, #CleanMovieMonth85! Throughout July, we are going to watch nothing but American Breen Era films, and we are inviting participants to do the same. Writers can join this celebration with articles about their own favorite films and discoveries during the month, and we will republish them on our website. Here’s to 85 years since the formation of the Production Code Administration!

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As a special high-point of our month-long celebration in July, we are hosting a blogathon on the first weekend in July in honor of the formation of the PCA and the twenty wonderful years of decent cinema which followed during Joseph Breen’s tenure. It will be called The Favorite Code Film Blogathon. On July 5-7, participants will choose their single favorite Code films and write about why these movies from the era of film decency were so good. Please join!

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2 thoughts on “52 Code Films – Week #26: “The Santa Fe Trail” from 1940; “Happy Birthday, Olivia!” for The Fourth Annual Olivia de Havilland Blogathon

  1. I watched this last year for this blogathon! I loved seeing Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland together again, as it was my third film to feature them both, too. I was a little confused when watching it, but I really enjoyed reading your thoughts as it helped clear up the confusion.

    MovieCritic (Movies Meet Their Match)

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  2. Pingback: THE FOURTH ANNUAL OLIVIA DE HAVILLAND BLOGATHON IS HERE – In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood.

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