Wednesday, September 28, 2016

B-Western Wednesdays: Trailin’ West (1936)

It is 1864.  The Civil War is taking its toll, pitting brother against brother.  (And in some cases, sister against sister.  Truth be told, a lot of sibling rivalry went on.)  This is quite evident in the weary demeanor of The Great Emancipator himself, President Abraham Lincoln (Robert Barrat), who has been briefed by Union Army officers that the situation in Kent City is quite serious if not hopeless.  All attempts to send in an undercover man have been thwarted, so Lincoln gambles on one last roll of the dice.  Hearing Lt. Red Colton (Dick Foran) entertaining White House guests in an adjoining room with a song, Honest Abe likes the cut of Colton’s jib; he assigns Red the task of ferreting out the enemy activity in Kent City before it erupts into guerilla warfare.

Arriving in Kent City, Colton—masquerading as a gambler named “John Madison”—is a babe in the woods; on his journey there, he was waylaid by a pair of goons in his hotel room…who absconded with his credentials and handed them off to Jefferson Duane (Bill Elliott), the scoundrel behind all of the Kent City subterfuge.  Duane is also working in tandem with the sebaceous Curley Thorne (Addison Richards), the owner of Kent City’s center of night life in The Little Nugget, a saloon/casino.  To bring the evildoers to justice, Colton will have to depend on a newly-acquired sidekick in Happy Simpson (Eddie Schubert) and “dance hall girl” Lucy Blake (Paula Stone)—the Union must survive…at any cost!

Back when TDOY was involved in the Mayberry Mondays project, I made special note of how actor Dick Foran received a “Special Guest Star” credit on an episode entitled “Palm Springs Cowboy”—highly unusual in that there were only two other actors on Mayberry R.F.D. to receive this accolade, Andy Griffith and Don Knotts, which makes sense because they were both Andy Griffith Show alumni.  I reasoned at the time that since “Cowboy” was Foran’s show business swan song that might have been the reason he was singled out for this honor.

Dick was Warner Brothers’ reigning cowboy star during the 1930s—and not just a cowboy star: “the singing cowboy,” as he was frequently billed in the credits of his starring series of B-Westerns.  The studio’s production supervisor, Bryan Foy, made the decision to get back in the oater game in 1935 and according to western film historian Boyd Magers, Foy had originally asked Lyle Talbot to saddle up (Talbot had a fine singing voice though he didn’t get the opportunity to use it much) but Talbot’s attitude was “Find yourself another guy” because he did not like horses.  So Foran and his pipes got the tap.  “Although the Foran westerns have solid production values and the benefit of strong casts,” writes Magers, “what Warner Bros. never got right was what historian Les Adams called ‘that self-taught, down-home, Mama-and-all-them brand of Americana so easily and naturally projected by Gene Autry, Tex Ritter and Roy Rogers among the singers, and John Wayne, Buck Jones, Bill Elliott and Johnny Mack Brown among the straight action performers.’”

I think Brother Boyd speaks the truth on this: the Foran westerns are pleasant enough (and barely run over an hour, so it’s not like you make a costly time investment by sitting down with one) and while I have a tendency to joke about Dick’s sagebrush career, Foran was actually an underrated actor.  I caught him in a Warner’s B a while back called Gentleman Are Born (1934—he was still being billed as “Nick Foran”) in which he sympathetically played a college graduate having difficulty landing a job (sounds kind of relevant today).  Foran wasn’t just limited to oaters while he was at Warner’s: he turns up in films like The Petrified Forest (1936—where he loses Bette Davis to Leslie Howard, fercrissake), Black Legion (1937), and Four Daughters (1938).  But leave us not make any bones about it—there’s a reason Dick was known as “the matinee idol of B pictures.”

Magers gives Trailin’ West (1936) four stars at Western Clippings.  I don’t think it’s a terrible Western, but I don’t think it’s anything to miss Dancing with the Stars about, either.  (Note: I have not and will not ever watch Dancing with the Stars…I reference it only to seem hipper than I actually am.)  West does have a pretty good supporting cast: the presence of future Saturday afternoon cowboy Bill Elliott (billed here as Gordon Elliott) as a bad guy might generate a few chuckles amongst western fans, and co-bad guy Addison Richards is always welcome company.  (Richards’ character is named “Curley,” which is kind of a tip-off he’s up to no good; unless a movie character named “Curley” has “Nyuk nyuk nyuk” and “I’m a victim of coicumstance!” in his vocabulary, bet on him being a villain.)  Eddie Schubert plays it straight as Dick’s buddy, and I was quite taken with Paula Stone as the woman who becomes Mrs. Red Colton at West’s conclusion (she’s a bit too demure to be a “dance hall girl” but there’s a reason for that, as you might guess).  Other familiar faces include the ubiquitous Joseph Crehan, Carlyle Moore, Jr., and Jim Thorpe (All American); you might also spot stuntman Yakima Canutt and Gunsmoke bartender Glenn Strange as well.

Trailin’ West is well-directed by B-picture veteran Noel M. Smith (he also co-helmed 1942’s Gang Busters, one of my favorite serials) and scripted by Anthony Coldeway; one of the highlights of the picture is a spirited donnybrook between Foran and Richards’ characters (well, their stuntmen if you want to be picky).  But the film’s lasting contribution is a sequence that’s technically not in the film: one of the outtakes appears in the short Breakdowns of 1937, in which Foran tries to mount his faithful steed “Smoke” …and fails miserably in the attempt (“I can't raise my ass off the ground!”).  (This hilarious blooper would become a “Breakdowns” tradition.)  Trailin’ West makes the rounds on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ from time to time (that’s where I caught it), but you can also check it out on the Warner Archive’s Dick Foran Western Collection.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Buried Treasures: Frontier Gal (1945)

Johnny Hart (Rod Cameron) comes a-ridin’ into the town of Red Gulch after successfully eluding a posse…and no sooner has he entered the town saloon when he’s engaged in a barroom brawl.  (It will not take us too long to suss out that Monsieur Hart has anger management issues.)  His attentions are quickly drawn toward the “Boss Turkey”—Lorena Dumont (Yvonne De Carlo), the saloon’s owner—which does not sit well with “Blackie” Shoulders (Sheldon Leonard), a disreputable gent who has designs on Lorena hisself.  Despite his rough and rowdy ways, Lorena is quite taken with Johnny…and quickly makes plans to become Mrs. Jonathan Hart.

Here’s a pro tip: if you’re scheduling nuptials, it’s always a good idea to let the groom in on the game plan—Johnny is a little surprised that his becoming betrothed came on all of a sudden (particularly since he was counting on settling down with the more demure, non-saloon-owning Sheila Winthrop [Jan Wiley]) and though he has initial reservations they are dissipated at the point of Lorena’s gun.  (More of a pistola wedding than shotgun.)  No sooner have the couple exchanged “I do’s” when Johnny is placed under arrest by Judge Prescott (Andrew Tombes), who presided over the ceremony.  (It’s more convenient that way.)

Lorena learns from Blackie that Johnny is wanted for manslaughter; Johnny allegedly killed his partner, but you get three guesses as to who the real culprit is and the first two do not count.  (Hint: it rhymes with “lackey.”)  Johnny is able to once again escape the men who would cart him off to the hoosegow, long enough to enjoy a honeymoon night with his new bride.  But you can’t outrun The Long Arm of the Law: Johnny is eventually captured, and does a six-year-stretch before returning to Red Gulch to reunite with Lorena…and the five-year-old daughter (Beverly Simmons) that resulted from that honeymoon canoodling.

Yes, I was hoping that kid would fall.  (I can’t ever catch a break.)

Frontier Gal (1945) is a real oddity: it’s a hybrid of comedy, musical, and Western—and in fact, I was considering it as a candidate for TDOY’s B-Western Wednesdays before disqualifying it because…well, it doesn’t really fit my definition of a programmer, even if it was produced at Universal.   It was lavishly filmed in Technicolor and its budget, according to Time magazine, was $1,400,000—definitely not the seed money for your run-of-the-mill oater.  Stars Rod Cameron and Yvonne De Carlo were reteamed after their success in Salome When She Danced (1945) (Gal was even promoted with the tagline “It’s That ‘Salome’ Gal Again...Lovin' Like A Desperado!”), and would work together a third and final time in River Lady (1948) …though Dan Duryea was Yvonne’s leading man in that one.  Gal was originally going to be a vehicle for the Universal team of Maria Montez and Jon Hall but Maria nixed it because she didn’t like the script.  (Maria had a bit more Moxie on the ball than I gave her previous credit.)

Any movie can’t be all bad if it makes time for Claire Carleton (playing a dance hall gal named “Gracie,” and she’s amazing).

Frontier Gal isn’t a terrible film, but its elements don’t really gel (there’s also a lot of soap opera in what should be a Western—the blame for this should go to scribes-producers Michael Fessier and Ernest Pagano, because they insisted on shoehorning a cute little moppet in the form of Beverly Simmons into the proceedings…and you know my revulsion for kid actors outside anyone in Our Gang) and the relationship between Cameron’s Johnny and De Carlo’s Lorena is a consistently sour one.  (Cameron, who I enjoyed in the serials G-Men vs. the Black Dragon [1943] and Secret Service in Darkest Africa [1943] despite his thespic limitations, kind of comes across as a macho schmuck in Gal.)  Rod, Yvonne, and the kid go into a huggy huddle by the time Gal calls it a wrap…but all I was thinking by that point was “There’s a marriage counselor out there who just made plans to add a swimming pool.”

Cameron does figure in a scene in the film that brought about much amusement—mostly because he and Andrew Tombes play it deadpan-straight (Tombes never looks up from his book):

JOHNNY: Hey, what supports this town?
JUDGE: Odd jobs...
JOHNNY: Such as the occasional stagecoach holdup?
JUDGE: So far...nothing's been proven...
JOHNNY: Why don't you do something about it?
JUDGE: I hope to...but I'm the judicial arm...not the executive...
JOHNNY: What's the matter with the sheriff?
JUDGE: Oh...he's indisposed...
JUDGE: Socially, the funeral was considered quite a success...

I used to have a mug similar to the one Andy Devine is quaffing.  I say “used to” because it's apparently disappeared in the same manner as the Frontier Gal DVD.

The strengths of Frontier Gal reside in its great supporting cast: Fuzzy Knight (shout-out to a WV boy!) and Andy Devine make swell comic relief sidekicks (Devine’s “Big Ben” eventually winds up as Red Gulch’s sheriff, explaining that he took the job in “a moment of weakness”) while Clara Blandick—best-remembered as The Wizard of Oz’s “Auntie Em”—has a nice out-of-character turn as “Aunt Abigail,” the disapproving relation of Johnny’s fiancée.  Frank Lackteen generates a few chuckles as Cameron’s Native American sidekick (asked by Johnny what he should do about the care and upkeep of his newly-acquired daughter, “Cherokee” deadpans “Get a squaw”), and there’s solid contributions from favorites like Tombes, Jack Overman, and the usual Western suspects.  The only real disappointment in this is Sheldon Leonard, who’s a bit ineffective as the villainous Blackie (his odd motivation for kidnapping young Simmons seems to be that it’s getting close to the movie’s conclusion) …and I say this as someone who enjoys Shel in everything he’s in.

You can take the boy out of New York…but you can’t take the Noo Yawk out of the boy.  Despite keeping his unmistakable accent, Sheldon Leonard isn’t nearly as menacing as this screen cap makes him appear.

You want music?  Frontier Gal has music: De Carlo does two numbers (Set ‘Em Up, Joe and What is Love?—not the Vern Gosdin and Haddaway hits, obviously) and Knight has a lot of fun with Johnny’s Coming Home—all three songs courtesy of tunesmiths Jack Brooks and Edgar Fairchild.  The decision to make Gal a Technicolor film was a sound one: Yvonne and her fellow dance hall gals sport some dazzlingly beautiful outfits, and this movie also serves as a reminder that De Carlo was quite a fabulous babe back in the 1940s (it’s kind of hard to erase all those episodes of The Munsters from my memory banks).

Frontier Gal was directed by Charles Lamont, the Universal journeyman who rode herd on a number of Abbott & Costello’s later fifties films (Abbott & Costello Meet the Invisible Man [1951], etc.) but his career stretched back to the silent era, directing one- and two-reel comedies for Mack Sennett and Al Christie (he also helmed quite a few Educational shorts starring Buster Keaton).  It’s available on DVD through Universal’s MOD “Vault” series (you can also purchase River Lady on the same label); I acquired my copy through friend of the blog Richard M. Roberts, in a swap for a pair of Warren William Lone Wolf movies he did not own.  (RMR’s Gal was recorded from Encore Westerns, in case you were thinking about pointing fingers and shouting “Bootlegger!”)  I literally had to pick up my bedroom and shake it to find this movie, because the DVD decided to play a bizarre game of hide-and-seek (you wouldn’t think it would be possible to lose a disc…which speaks volumes about my organization skills, I guess).