Each Monday, I continue to share Western movie reviews. I have now launched a podcast about the making of Westerns and the overall filmmaking process. Click here to listen.


Week 176: Mail Order Bride (1964)


Who would have figured that Budd Boetticher’s favorite scribe would choose a comedic direction to his Western-directing career? That’s exactly what Burt Kennedy did, making over twenty Westerns over three decades and most of them comedies. It started with his second movie as director, Mail Order Bride, but unlike the often disappointing films that would follow, this one is a major achievement.

A Buddy Ebsen-led humorous romp in the Old West co-starring Keir Dullea… it sounds forgettable, doesn’t it? Well, Mail Order Bride may be mostly forgotten in discussions of the genre but it deserves to be remembered. Kennedy’s second film starts out with a light tone, establishing Ebsen’s wandering, supposedly dangerous man and Dullea’s young rascal. It takes an adjustment to get used to both of these actors in their roles. This is not the Ebsen of his famous TV show but a quiet, contemplative man who is full of grit. I mostly associate Dullea with 2001: A Space Odyssey so it was tough to get used to him as the wild, rambunctious Lee but to the actor’s credit, I soon forgot all about Kubrick’s masterpiece. What feels like it’s turning into a run-of-the-mill buddy film becomes something else altogether when the women characters are introduced.

Marie Windsor, always a fun presence in Westerns, gives us a hint of the romantic directions the narrative might take. That hint is then brought to life by Lois Nettleton, a captivating and vulnerable performer. Kennedy’s movie begins to rest on her shoulders as she’s brought in to tame Duella. I won’t spoil anything else because the journey from there is a delightfully humorous and touching one.

What marks this film as different from Kennedy’s other comedies is its basis in reality. He mostly played with broad buddy films and farcical takes on the American West. Here, the story and characters are grounded in reality. Though the story is mostly lighthearted, there is real danger, personified by Warren Oates in one of his best early roles. As stated before, Ebsen may get some laughs but he’s actually playing the role that John Wayne would have. The actor carries the picture with impressive weight, especially in its final moments. There are some unforgettable scenes in this picture, like a heartbreaking conversation between a prostitute played by BarBara Luna and Dullea that cuts through any romanticism circling her profession. The aforementioned ending is still stuck in my mind and I doubt that will change for days.

It’s fascinating that Burt Kennedy made his two best films at the very start of his career. Riding high off of his collaborations, he came out the gate on top.

Watched on Amazon