Nelson Eddy (Steve Logan)
Virginia Bruce (Maggie Adams)
Victor McLaglen (Chris Mulligan)
Edward Arnold (Jim Knox)
Lionel Barrymore (Tom Logan)
Charles Butterworth (The Mackerel)
Guy Kibbee (Judge David Bronson)
Raymond Walburn (Editor Underwood)
H. B. Warner (Ned Rutledge)
George F. (“Gabby”) Hayes (Jerry “Pop” Wilkie)
Dick Rich (Bumper Jackson)
Trevor Bardette (Gagan)
Louis Jean Heydt (Ned Wilkie)
Eddie Dunn (Curley, the bartender)
Sarah Padden (Ma Logan)
Captain C.E. Anderson (Sheriff Hicks)
Philo McCullough, Ralph Bushman [Francis X. Bushman, Jr], Harry Fleischmann (Gagan henchmen)
Maude Allen (Hilda, the cook)
Adia Kuznetzoff (Pole)
Luis Alberni (Tony)
Emory Parnell (Axel, the Swede)
Tenen Holtz (Hunky [sic])
Mitchell Lewis (Joe)
Victor Potel (Second Swede, Ole Swenson)
Constantine Romanoff, Akim Dobrynin (Russians)
Lionel Royce (German)
Billy Bevan (Cockney)
Syd Saylor, Ted Thompson (Surveyors)
Hank Bell (Stage driver)
Bruce Mitchell, Cyril Ring, Heinie Conklin, Jimmy Aubrey (Ranchers)
Harry Wilson, Jack Lowe (Workmen)
Art Mix, Harry Tenbrook, James Mason [not the British actor] (Barflies)
Tim Stark, Henry Korn, Norman Nielsen, Ralph DeAngeles, J. Delos Jewkes, Abe Dinovitch (Railroad workers, “Where Else but Here.”)
Nelson Eddy in a Western? Actually, Eddy, whose costumes so frequently sported gold braid or lace, saw himself as a rugged cowboy. His final film, Northwest Outpost, was written around that premise, but at this early stage in his career, Let Freedom Ring probably came his way through chance.
The unlikely title replaced two earlier and even duller ones, Song of the West and The Dusty Road. The film turns out to be a brightly paced Western with all the necessary bad guys and barn burners, but with a new gimmick. Not singing cowboys, for Gene Autry and Roy Rogers were already hot stuff. The new element was patriotism through brotherhood, a theme that Hollywood usually only hinted at with quick shots of minority types saluting the flag from a respectful distance while the “Americans” marched by.
Let Freedom Ring is probably the least known and seen of all Eddy’s films. It turns out to be a minor delight, hokey as all get out and so full of MGM’s finest character actors acting their heads off that there isn’t a dull moment. If the music is singularly thin (definitely not Stothart), we are still treated to Eddy riding a horse, playing a convincing drunk scene, beating up Victor McLaglen, and finally stirring a sullen mob of immigrants with an impassioned speech that sends them off singing “America.”
Eddy’s leading lady, Virginia Bruce, started with bit parts (including Jeanette’s lady-in-waiting in The Love Parade) and worked up to leads in B’s and supporting roles in A’s, mostly wronged wives or secretaries. Here she shows the low-keyed charm that won her a devoted following. Eddy’s father is played by veteran Lionel Barrymore, the eldest of the three remarkable Barrymore children. Like Ethel and John (Maytime), he began with an illustrious stage career and went into films, making over fifty silent features and many silent shorts. He made an unforgettable impression in more than a dozen talkies, including Grand Hotel, Dinner at Eight, and Treasure Island, until he was crippled by a combination of a broken hip and arthritis in 1938. Rather than slowing down, he continued to act from a wheelchair or crutches in major films like You Can’t Take It with You and Duel in the Sun, as well as the Dr. Kildare series in which he played Dr. Gillespie. His handicap is not apparent in Let Freedom Ring, however. Director Jack Conway framed his scenes so that Barrymore always appeared seated or lying down.
Chief among the “character actors” in the film is Victor McLaglen. After starting out in British films, mainly in romantic roles, he came to America and played Flagg in the film version of What Price Glory? (Louis Wolheim created the stage rôle.) McLaglen’s film character was generally the Irish plug-ugly with a heart of gold (e.g., Annabelle’s Affairs and the Flagg-Quirt talkie spin-offs), but he is best remembered as the haunted Gypo in John Ford’s The Informer (RKO 1935), for which he won an Oscar.
Other notables in the cast are H.B. Warner (Girl of the Golden West, New Moon), “Gabby” Hayes (Roy Rogers’ sidekick), Edward Arnold (Three Daring Daughters), and of course the inimitable Charles Butterworth (Love Me Tonight, The Cat and the Fiddle), already fighting a losing battle with alcoholism.
Director Jack Conway had been in Hollywood since the early silent days. He had directed Grace Moore in New Moon (1930) and made some fine if not flashy films: A Tale of Two Cities, Viva Villa!, Tarzan and His Mate, and Saratoga (during which Jean Harlow died and some scenes had to be shot using a double). Some of the camera work for the crowd scenes in both Viva Villa! and Let Freedom Ring seems strongly influenced by Sergei Eisenstein’s Que Viva Mexico (1933). Conway was not a Western director, but then Let Freedom Ring was no ordinary Western picture.
Its theme was tolerance, religious and ethnic. (Racial tolerance wasn’t discovered in Hollywood, or in America for that matter, for another fifteen years.) Religious persecution was very real to many in the film community. Some actors, directors, writers, and technicians were in Hollywood as a direct result of fleeing the growing menace in Nazi Germany, and Hollywood was richer for it. Others who had migrated years earlier still had families in Europe. While Corn Belt America could still sit snugly and smugly in their living rooms, dismissing events in Europe as unrelated to them, much of Hollywood knew better. As early as 1935, Jewish studio executives found they could no longer travel freely throughout Europe in search of talent, new markets, and relaxation as they had been used to doing. Let Freedom Ring became a message picture of the most obvious sort, not only against anti-Semitism (which would have limited its relevancy to the larger cities) but against all forms of discrimination. It sought to sugar-coat its purpose with standard action-picture devices and didn’t quite succeed, but it is a fascinating glimpse into a very real and terrifying era in American history.
The film opens with a title informing us that the greatest battles for civil rights are not fought on battlefields, but in the hearts of a nation’s people. Explosions follow, but it is only blasting to lay railroad track. In a nice montage of beautiful outdoor photography, we see a railroad line pushing through the West. A road sign announces that it is nearing Clover City.
Two surveyors on the project (Syd Saylor and Ted Thompson) have their minds on the civilization ahead and their telescopes on a beautiful blonde lady on a nearby hill. It is Maggie Adams (Virginia Bruce), in animated conversation with her horse, Sitting Bull. She doubts that the iron horse will be as much fun to ride. (Miss Bruce wears a snood and elbow length gloves, two new 1939 fashions.)
Her thoughts are interrupted by a passing buckboard. Rancher Tom Logan (Lionel Barrymore) tells her that a New York fella, Jim Knox, has offered to buy his land. He doesn’t reckon he’ll sell though, at least not until his son, Steve, gets back from Harvard. Maggie already knows of Steve’s imminent arrival. He has written her, telling her to reserve a table at her restaurant and to have fresh doughnuts ready. Her smile indicates she’ll be very glad to see him.
Other ranchers come by and report that Jim railroad-magnate Knox is trying to buy them out too. They all ride on, leaving Maggie alone on the hill. She gazes out over the valley and wonders if she is going to like the railroad. Well, she’ll know in about six weeks.
The screen fills with flames and a title announces that “hooligans” have poured in from the desert to “wrest power” from the people in the name of progress. A number of hooligans find their way to Maggie’s “restaurant,” a saloon where the Mackerel (the delightful Charles Butterworth) plays the piano when he isn’t picking up change by challenging strangers to knock him down for a count of ten.
Into this den of gambling and liquor come an infuriated landowner, Ned Wilkie (Louis Jean Heydt), and his father (George “Gabby” Hayes). They tell the local newspaper editor, Underwood (Raymond Walburn), that Jim Knox’s men have burned their house down. Wilkie challenges two of the arsonists, Bumper (Dick Rich) and Cagan (Trevor Bardette). A gunfight is narrowly averted by the croupier, an elderly man named Rutledge (H.B. Warner). Clearly this is a case for the law.
The law in the form of Judge Bronson (Guy Kibbee, veteran of the Powell-Keeler musicals), takes its course. Wilkie not only fails to make a case against a fine man like Jim Knox, but the judge rules that, as a squatter with no roof over his head, his land is forfeit. Tom Logan and Maggie hear the Judge order the land sold to the highest bidder—or the best bidder in the eyes of the court. There is no doubt in anybody’s mind that he means Jim Knox, the railroad boss.
We first see Jim Knox (Edward Arnold) in the midst of preparations for a gourmet repast. He is also preparing for “progress.” Newspaper editor Underwood tells him happily that the Clover City Bugle will run a series of articles for the “foreign element,” urging them to vote for Judge Bronson. Tom Logan has decided to oppose the Judge in the coming election, but Knox isn’t worried. “My hunkies will vote for Judge Bronson, even if he were a giraffe.”
Knox suggests that the Judge would be better served by articles on sunsets and scenery. He gives Underwood a large payment for “advertising.” He also dispenses wages to his men, Bumper and Cagan, and tells them they will all be calling on Tom Logan that night. While Knox chats with Logan in the parlor, something just might happen in the barn.
Knox descends the stairs and, amazingly, is in Maggie’s restaurant. He has brought his own dinner, a Welsh rarebit, but wants a chance to eat Maggie’s biscuits and court her. She spiritedly calls him a thief. On Wall Street, he replies cordially, the term is “financier.” She tells him that honest folks only need someone to show them how to fight and then no one can lick them. That someone is Steve Logan and he’ll be home tomorrow. Steve will know what to do.
At that moment, the railroad arrives. Flat wagons full of scruffy workmen pour into town. A few bars of “Funiculi, Funicula” indicate their place of national origin, but the loudest and largest of them is a big Irishman named Chris Mulligan (Victor McLaglen). He reports to Knox, who orders him to take the men over to the courthouse and register them. He’ll need their votes. But, protests Mulligan, most of them have names you can’t spell. Just call them all “Murphy,” Knox replies cheerfully.
At Logan’s ranch that night, Knox’s hoodlum, Bumper, enters the barn with a kerosene can, but is interrupted. A mysterious figure appears in the darkness and knocks Bumper out cold. Knox keeps glancing out the parlor window, expecting to see flames, while he exhorts Tom Logan on the necessity of progress. Instead, there is a knock at the door, and Steve Logan (Nelson) stands before them.
Ma Logan (Sarah Padden) falls joyfully on her son, then steps back in concern. Steve is drunk. He fetches a bottle of whiskey and cordially invites Knox to stay for a drink. Since everyone has been waiting for him to come back and take care of things, he says, he will. They’ve all got to stop standing in the way of progress like a lot of Indians. Imagine calling an important man like Jim Knox a firebug! Tom Logan is astonished and dismayed. He orders his son from the house. As Steve and Knox leave, they find Bumper tied over the saddle of his horse. Crudely painted on the kerosene can at his side is: “Dear Mr. Knox—I lost my matches.”
Steve’s reputation for hard drinking continues through the bars of Clover City, with Mulligan as a companion. In one bar, Steve stops long enough to sing “Home, Sweet Home.” The song reduces the big Irishman to tears, and we begin to suspect that he will turn out all right in the end.
Maggie’s first joyous meeting with Steve shows us an entirely different man. The “drunkenness” vanishes, and he joins Hilda, the cook (Maude Allen), in a few bars of “Love Serenade,” a new lyric to a nineteenth century ballet melody. (It proved so popular that it was taken up as the theme song of the radio soap opera “When a Girl Marries” several months after the film’s release.) Steve had sung that song to Maggie the day he rode away to Boston four years earlier.
Steve is about to tell Maggie the “truth” when Knox walks in. Instantly, he reverts to his former line. Wouldn’t she be proud if he got in with the railroads and became the biggest lawyer in these parts? Maggie is horrified.
Knox admires Steve’s singing (“Dead Broke”) and offers to hire him as his personal troubadour. Steve agrees, to Maggie’s further disgust. And would Maggie request a song? Maggie replies bitterly that Steve knows her favorite.
The Mackerel plays “Love Serenade” on the old piano, and Steve sings. The song is so stirring that Maggie’s icy manner softens. The Mackerel’s attitude toward Steve also changes, for he spots the wound that Steve got fighting in the darkened barn.
Steve has been banished from his home and so takes up quarters with the Mackerel. The little man begs Steve to confide in Maggie too, but Steve refuses. There must be no slip-up in his plan to catch Knox. He is, of course, a government agent sent to gather evidence against the tyrant Knox. While he’s at it, he manages quite a few patriotic homilies like: “If we could only get the truth to them, we might turn them into Americans,” and “A man’s as good as he thinks he is. All he’s got to do is think.” If only he had a newspaper, Steve says, he could reach the railroad workers. The Mackerel points out that there’s one across the street.
“How do you feel about stealing?” Steve asks. “Oh, I’m indifferent,” replies the Mackerel amiably.
The presses and editor of the Daily Bugle are soon packed for removal to a more secluded spot. Steve steps out to see if the coast is clear and meets first Maggie and then Mulligan, who is on his way into the newspaper office. Steve has just refused a romantic interlude with Maggie on the grounds that he is sick, but when Mulligan tries to pass, he insists they all go to Maggie’s for a musical evening. Maggie is furious and leaves them in her parlor. There Steve regales Mulligan with “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling,” while frantically signaling to the Mackerel to depart with their wagonload of equipment and the reluctant Editor Underwood.
The Mackerel is oblivious and settles down outside the window to enjoy the concert. Finally, in desperation, Steve invents a phony song (“Pat, Sez He”) with a constant reprise of “Off to the mountains, off to the cave—giddyup, giddyup, giddyup!” The Mackerel gets the message on the fifth repeat and drives away.
A montage of whirling printing presses and headlines follows: “Vote for Thomas Logan and Human Rights”—“Knox Brand of Tyranny Stronger than American Ideals?” The papers are delivered in the night, tacked on doors and tucked in horses’ harnesses. One man finds a copy in the seat of his long johns on the clothes line. Another reaches for a towel and gets a Bugle. The attacks are signed “The Wasp.” Knox is in a rage, and Mulligan is especially incensed at a reference to himself as a “half-human hyena.”
Steve is among the volunteers who go to search for “The Wasp,” and Maggie follows him into the hills, thinking he means to betray her idol. She finds Steve just outside the cave that houses his press and steals his horse to stop his supposed treachery. Mulligan also turns up near the cave, and the Mackerel tries to lead him away. In a comical sequence, the printing ink on the Mackerel’s hands ends up all over Mulligan’s face while the Irishman bemoans the lack of a trail.
Steve and the Mackerel rush back to their precious press and find that Editor Underwood has managed to smash it to pieces in their absence. Steve returns to town and notes a $500 reward poster for “The Wasp.” Mulligan is at the bar, denouncing the effects of “The Wasp” on the railroad workers. “Creatures you could scarcely distinguish from cattle calling themselves Americans,” he snorts.
Knox is a very congenial villain. He is still trying to convince Maggie to marry him. Why does he want a woman who doesn’t love him? she asks. “Maybe because the woman who did want him wouldn’t be worth marrying,” he replies. (Some self-esteem issues here!) Steve walks in at this moment, and, to spite him, Maggie agrees to Knox’s proposal. Knox joyfully orders Steve to sing. The Mackerel doesn’t want him to sing with a broken heart (“This is worse than East Lynne”), but Steve insists and delivers the robust “Dusty Road,” the one-time title song of the film, which bears no relation to anything happening at the moment. “Much worse than East Lynne,” the Mackerel decides.
Steve’s purpose in coming to town is to persuade Knox to fight “The Wasp” by sending for another printing press so he can put out his own paper. In a beautiful long shot, we see the stagecoach bearing the new press crossing the prairie. Unfortunately the coach is waylaid by a masked cowboy and an odd-looking Indian, and the new press is soon turning out anti-Knox papers.
Steve sets out to deliver the latest Bugles surreptitiously to the railroad camp and ends up delivering a boisterous patriotic song, “Where Else but Here,” appealing to each ethnic group. When he drops off another load of papers at his father’s ranch, old Tom Logan learns the truth about his son. If they can just get the workers to “vote right,” Knox will be finished. A trap has been set by Knox, however, and Steve escapes in a hail of bullets. Unknown to him, his father is wounded.
Steve eludes his pursuers in the mountains, but Mulligan finds him. He thinks Steve is chasing “The Wasp” too, until Steve enlightens him. Mulligan decides to beat him to a pulp. Steve takes him on, telling him in purple Ben Hecht prose that, as soon as he’s had a good thrashing, he will see things right and become a good American. They fight in the eerie half-light, the action speeded somewhat comically, until Steve wins. Maggie has witnessed their fight and learned the truth.
Steve’s triumph is short-lived. He looks up and sees his father’s barn on fire. “What is it?” asks Mulligan. “It’s America burning!” cries Steve.
Badly wounded, Steve’s father has been taken to Maggie’s restaurant, where Knox orders him to reveal the name of “The Wasp.” Steve enters and calmly confronts Knox. He is “The Wasp,” he announces.
Knox orders father and son hanged, but Rutledge, the old croupier, draws his gun. Steve turns to the crowd of surly railroad workers and makes an impassioned speech about tyrants and freedom. The men murmur among themselves. Knox senses rebellion and orders them out of the bar-room. The men mill about and begin moving reluctantly toward the door as Knox’s men seize Steve.
Maggie steps forward and quietly begins singing “America.” Steve takes up the song, and the crowd pauses. Knox screams at them to get out if they know what’s good for them. The singing continues. Chris Mulligan turns and joins them, bellowing the song. The grizzled men stop, and, one by one, they begin singing until the whole room vibrates. Even editor Underwood joins them. Slowly Maggie walks through the crowd to meet Steve. They embrace as the crowd sings the second verse of “America,” a truly remarkable feat for any American.
“Let Freedom Ring is momentous,” wrote Variety. “It’s the first in the cycle of [proposed] film offerings to stress the American type of democracy and freedom for the classes and masses. Sweeping along with powerful, patriotic spine tingling, picture climaxes with Nelson Eddy leading a gang of railroad workers singing ‘America.’ In handing the lead assignment to Eddy, Metro apparently decided to provide him with a rôle that calls for a square jaw and a pair of handy fists. He takes full advantage of the opportunity, displaying a vigorous characterization of the western youth who battles all comers when necessary. Battle in the cave between Eddy and McLaglen is excitingly staged.”
On the other end of the spectrum, William Boehnel of the New York World-Telegram deplored the story: “Leave it to Hollywood to spoil a good thing when it gets it.” He had his usual knocks for Eddy: “The young Harvard lawyer is played by Nelson Eddy, which certainly makes it appear as if it took Steve a lot longer than the customary four to six years to get his degree.”
Frank Nugent in the New York Times took a middle course: “It is sound dramatic stuff, as sure-fire now as it has always been. We don’t dare criticize it adversely under penalty of being summoned before the Dies committee and we shouldn’t, if we dare, for the piece has vigor, good characterization and, fortunately, Mr. Eddy’s good singing.”
“The Dusty Road”
“Love Serenade” [also called “Drigo’s Serenade”]
In listing performers after each title, “and” denotes a genuine duet, while commas between names indicate a sequence of singers.
Overture: “The Dusty Road” with fragment of “Oh! Susanna” by Stephen Foster, “Nellie Gray”
by B.R. Hanby, “Over the Waves” by J. Rosas (orchestral)
“I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” (male chorus) – traditional, with fragments of “Funiculi,
“Home, Sweet Home” (Eddy) – by Sir Henry Bishop, lyrics by John Howard Payne
“Love Serenade” [“Drigo’s Serenade”] (Maude Allen, Eddy, Bruce) – by Riccardo Drigo from
his nineteenth-century ballet, “Les Millions d’Arlequin,” new lyrics by Bob Wright and Chet Forrest
“Dead Broke” [“Ten Thousand Cattle Straying”] (Eddy) – music and lyrics by Owen Wister,
written for his 1904 production of The Virginian, also used in the 1929 Paramount film with Gary Cooper
“Love Serenade” reprise (Eddy)
“When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” (Eddy) – by Ernest R. Ball, Chauncey Olcott and
George Graff Jr.
“Pat, Sez He” (Eddy and Butterworth) – music by Phil Ohman, lyrics by Foster Carling and
“The Dusty Road” (Eddy) – by Otis and Leon René. Original title song of the film.
“Where Else but Here” (Eddy and male chorus, with spoken lines by several railroad workers) –
music by Sigmund Romberg, lyrics by Edward Heyman. (Pay records for male chorus
list Tim Stark, Henry Korn, Norman Nielsen, Ralph DeAngeles, J. Delos Jewkes, Abe
“America” [“My Country, ’Tis of Thee”] (Bruce, Eddy, Victor McLaglen, Lionel Barrymore, Raymond Walburn, chorus) – by Henry Carey and Samuel Francis Smith
Finale: “America” (orchestral)