Tuesday, November 20, 2007

“The loud, crude, boisterous, brawling days…when the West was a shameless hussy and men fought to win her!”

Joan Walsh—editor-columnist at Salon.com—posted this blurb the other day about a donnybrook raging on at The New York Times’ Op-Ed pages between liberals Paul Krugman and Bob Herbert and conservative David Brooks and Ronald Reagan biographer Lou Cannon regarding the interpretation of the infamous 1980 campaign stop near Philadelphia, Mississippi by then-Republican Party presidential nominee Reagan. Reagan, in what was surely the mother of all coinky-dinks, just happened to stump-speech not far from where three young civil rights workers—Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney—were murdered in 1964.

Krugman and Herbert charge that Reagan—addled old coot that he was—was adopting Richard Nixon’s famed “Southern strategy” to appeal to Mississippi voters’ inner Klansmen; while Brooks and Cannon argue that, yes, Ronnie was indeed attempting to reach out to white conservatives, but he wasn’t a racist—he was just arguing in favor of “states’ rights.” Now, this post isn’t going to delve into who’s right or wrong in this debate (though if you really want to know, I side with Doghouse Riley) only because I’ll admit up front I can’t be impartial in this matter. Mr. Reagan is a taboo subject here at Rancho Yesteryear because his 1981 recession was responsible for putting the old man out of work. I mention this brouhaha (brouhaha?) only because at the time it started, I had taken the WABAC machine to 1954—just about the time Reagan was stooging for General Electric—to watch one of two double-feature Westerns recently purchased on DVD from VCI: Cattle Queen of Montana.

In Cattle Queen, Barbara Stanwyck plays Sierra Nevada Jones, a feisty, red-headed lass who’s journeyed to the Treasure State with her pop (Morris Ankrum) and comic-relief sidekick Nat Collins (Chubby Johnson). Pop, Sierra and Nat are determined to build a cattle empire in their new surroundings, which doesn’t sit too well with rival rancher Tom McCord (Gene Evans)—who not only hires a gunslinger named Farrell (played by Reagan…who apparently lost his first name in a game of faro) to keep up with the Joneses, but prevails upon a black-sheep Blackfoot Indian named Natchakoa (Anthony Caruso) to conduct a massacre on Camp Jones the very first night they’re there. (A hell of a Welcome Wagon, let me tell you; they kill everybody but Sierra and her stooge Nat, and run off the cattle where Natch and McCord divvy up the livestock.) Plucky heroine that she is, Sierra refuses to allow this indignity to go unchallenged and with the help of Colorados (Lance Fuller), another Blackfoot who plays Gallant to Natchakoa’s Goofus, dusts herself off and continues with her plans (though faithful Nat ends up snuffing it) despite interference from McCord and his men—not to mention the townspeople, whose enmity Babs earns when she’s seen in broad daylight riding through the town’s main drag with Colorados by her side. (“A white woman with an Indian? I can’t believe it!” exclaims one of the town’s bluenoses as she barely makes it to the fainting couch.) Farrell also proves to be an obstacle until the final two reels, when it’s revealed that he’s really an undercover Fed trying to get the goods on McCord. (Reagan, as you may be aware, played a similar role in real life—particularly during the height of the HUAC witch-hunts.)

It’s really hard not to enjoy Cattle Queen: Babs is in rare form as a strong-willed woman not too far removed from that of Victoria Barkley on TV’s The Big Valley, and Reagan is so ineffectual Stanwyck practically out-butches him through out the entire flick. Still, it’s competently made (with direction by veteran Allan Dwan and cinematography from noir master John Alton) and features some rousing action sequences and appearances from character greats like Jack Elam, Myron Healey, Byron Foulger and Jonathan “Mr. Dithers” Hale. Cattle Queen was one of several movies Dwan directed for independent producer Benedict Bogeaus (including the previously discussed Silver Lode), an individual whose name was later satirized for a villain, “Benedict Bogus,” in many of the Three Stooges comic-book stories written and illustrated by Norman Maurer, future son-in-law of Moe Howard.

Dwan, Bogeaus, Alton and star Reagan return in the second feature on this DVD, 1955’s Tennessee’s Partner—based on a story by author Bret Harte. Ronnie is the “partner,” a drifter who goes by “Cowpoke” and who befriends a gambler (John Payne) named after the Volunteer State, who saves his new friend from being bushwhacked by a goon who lost big to Tennessee in a poker game. The two men are accused of murder but are set free once a whorehouse madam known as the Duchess (Rhonda Fleming) arranges for her “girls” to provide them with an alibi. (The “Duchess,” it would seem, is carrying quite the torch for Tennessee.) Cowpoke is in town only to meet his fiancée, a gal named Goldie (played by TDOY fave Coleen Gray)—which doesn’t sit well with his friend who doesn’t think much of women (in fact, their relationship in this movie is a bit too close, especially when Payne has to emote lines like “What if some gal friend of mine came along and busted us up?”)…but he knows a good deal about Goldie’s past (let’s just say she’s not going to be applying for a loan anytime soon) and decides to do the honorable thing by running off with her. This doesn’t sit well with Cowpoke, who vows to kill Tennessee—but the gambler has his own problems, particularly when he’s accused of murdering comic-relief gold miner Grubstake (Chubby Johnson).

I didn’t enjoy Payne in Partner as much as I did his performance in Silver Lode; but, of course, I’ll watch Gray in anything and Fleming is serviceable despite the fact she’s a bit squeaky-clean to be running a bordello. What I find amusing about these Dwan-Bogeaus productions is that they seemed to have a “stock company” in the tradition of directors like John Ford and Preston Sturges: Johnson, Caruso, Ankrum and Healey all return for this film (and Healey and Ankrum were also in Lode) along with familiar faces like Leo Gordon, Frank Jenks, Pierce Lyden and Jack Mulhall…and an uncredited bit by Angie Dickinson as a saloon gal.

1 comment:

Toby said...

I saw part of 'Tennessee's Partner' once, that last twenty minutes. The weird thing, considering was that it showed on some local access cable channel up here in NYC either the day of or the next day after the assassination attempt.

I've always given the station the benefit of the doubt that it was pre-programmed or they had no clue what happens in the movie.