Wednesday, October 12, 2016

B-Western Wednesdays: Stagecoach Kid (1949)

Wealthy railroad magnate Peter Arnold is headed west by stagecoach to Arizona, where he owns a sizable cattle ranch…and he’s in the company of his daughter Jessie (Jeff Donnell), who would rather have purchased a ticket to anywhere but here.  Jessie has a beau in Frisco, and she wants nothing more than to journey to the land of cable cars and Rice-a-Roni to canoodle with him…but Papa Peter does not approve of the young man, so that’s that.  Arnold’s ranch is being looked after by a nasty no-good named Thatcher (Joe Sawyer)—who’s not only been smoking Arnold’s cigars and drinking up his good liquor but selling off Arnold’s herd and pocketing the proceeds.  This kind of chicanery will not look good on his prospects for continued employment at Rancho Arnold…so Thatch directs his henchmen, Clint (Robert Bray) and Parnell (Robert Williams), to attack the stage and dispose of Mr. A.

The attack on the stagecoach is thwarted by Dave Collins (Tim Holt) and Chito Rafferty (Richard Martin), the two individuals who own the stage line (and like The Lone Ranger and Tonto, just happen to be in the vicinity when all this goes down); Dave and Chito chase those rough boys away before they can commit mayhem, and guide the Arnolds to nearby Casco City.  Once in Casco, Jessie steals away from the old man—and gets a Lucy Ricardo-like idea to don male garb so she can continue on to Prescott, grab a freight to Frisco, and be with the man she loves.  As the stage departs Casco—with “Jesse” and Birdie (Carol Hughes), a lady friend of Chito’s, on board—Clint and Parnell have another go at getting rid of Father Arnold…only to discover he’s not on the stage (he’s back in Casco, looking for his “daughter”).  Thatcher’s goons decide to take a strongbox filled with $20,000 to make up for their oopsie…but in their getaway, Jessie gets a look at Parnell under his kerchief.  The hunt is now on to round up the bandits—and to protect the only witness.

Boyd Magers at Western Clippings gives Stagecoach Kid (1949) a laudatory four-star rating…and despite my stated dislike for Richard Martin as Tim Holt’s sidekick Chito, I am in agreement that Kid is one of the best entries in the R-K-O Holt series.  It’s well-written (story and screenplay by Norman Houston) and well-directed (the indefatigable programmer-meister Lew Landers), with a superb supporting cast that includes Joe Sawyer (who worked in various “mug” roles at Warner’s over the years), future Lassie ranger Robert Bray, Thurston Hall, Carol Hughes, and Kenneth MacDonald—again surprising me by playing a man on the right side of the law (he’s the sheriff of Casco).

It’s Jeff Donnell’s performance as Jessie/Jesse that makes Stagecoach Kid a favorite here at Rancho Yesteryear; I’m a big fan of the actress and her appearances in such classics as The Power of the Whistler (1945), The Phantom Thief (1946), In a Lonely Place (1950), and The Blue Gardenia (1953).  (Director Landers worked with Donnell in the 1942 Boris Karloff-Peter Lorre oddity The Boogie Man Will Get You.)  Jeff later played George Gobel’s wife Alice on his comedy-variety series in the 1950s, and recurring roles on both Dr. Kildare and Julia.

Donnell’s male masquerade requires a huge suspension of disbelief; at one point in Kid, Holt’s character admits that he knew she was a female all along…but I didn’t buy it, and I don’t think anyone else watching this oater will either (my guess is that “Dave Collins” grew up in a monastery).  Jeff has a difficult task in Kid; the character she portrays is a spoiled, selfish woman…and yet the actress makes her quite likable with her insouciant approach to the role.  When she’s first introduced to Martin’s character—he announces he’s “Chito Jose Gonzales Bustamente Rafferty” with his usual flourish—her response is a thing of beauty: “Who cares?”

Many fans of Holt’s westerns have pointed out that the star displays a bit of a romantic side in Stagecoach Kid; there’s even a suggestion that he and Jessie will hook up at the final fadeout (both of them go in for a kiss).  But there’s something mighty distasteful about this romance: if we accept Dave’s assertion of “Yeah, I knew you were a girl the whole time”—then why does he resort to caveman tactics like giving her a swift kick in the ass and, later, turning her across his knee for a spanking?  I could comprehend this behavior if he were disciplining an unruly kid (I don’t endorse it, mind you—but I understand) but if Dave hasn’t been fooled by “Jesse” he kind of comes across as a macho dink.  That part of the picture left a bad taste in my mouth (it’s been suggested by a few that Kid is a western remake of It Happened One Night), and the implication that the two will happy-ever-after once the theatre lights go up doesn’t ring true.

The romance in these films is usually best to the libidinous Chito, the character of Birdie provides an amusing wrap-up to Stagecoach Kid when she turns up in full bridal regalia…prompting Chito to say hello Mexico and adios baby to you.  Carol Hughes, who does fine work as Birdie, was originally going to play Donnell’s part but settled for a supporting role due to a scheduling conflict.  My copy of Kid was obtained, of course, from The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™…but if you’re TCM-deprived (something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, by the way), it’s available on the Warner Archive MOD collection Tim Holt Western Classics: Volume 2.

o protect the only witness.
gets a look at Parnell under his kerchief.  The hunt is now on to round up the bandits--and the man

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