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...
JOHNNY: Sick?
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).

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