Wednesday, November 16, 2016

B-Western Wednesdays: Gun Law Justice (1949)

Legendary “road agent” Hank Cardigan (Lee Phelps) receives a parole after doing his boardin’ with the warden for the past ten years…and he returns to his old stomping grounds of West Bend, determined to find a job and walk the straight-and-narrow.  But if we have learned anything from dozens of Merle Haggard songs, an ex-con is not always welcomed back into society easily—Cardigan is not having much luck on the employment front, with several West Bendians noticeably hostile to his return.  Hank gets into a barroom scuffle with a pair of rowdies, and gets an assist from Jimmy Wakely (as himself)—who works for a stage line owned and operated by Jane Darnton (Jane Adams).  

Cardigan’s former protégé Duke Corlis (I. Stanford Jolley) can take responsibility for most of the criminal activity in West Bend, and one of the men in his gang is Tom Cardigan (John James), Hank’s son.  So anxious is Duke to have Hank back in the organization (he would prove a most valuable asset) that he arranges for one of his goons, Slim Craig (Bob Curtis), to stage a hold-up at the office of Bill Thorpe (Tom Chatterton), who ends up killed in the commission of the robbery.  Once again, it’s Jimmy to the rescue—he apprehends Slim, and extracts a confession from the outlaw that Hank wasn’t involved (the sheriff [Edmund Cobb] has thrown Cardigan in the sneezer, thinking he was in on Slim’s caper).   Jimmy persuades Jane to hire Hank as a stage guard despite her reservations of having an ex-con on the payroll—as for Cardigan, his loyalty to his employer and his son will be challenged before Gun Law Justice (1949) rolls out the closing credits.

I mentioned in the write-up I did last week for Strictly in the Groove (1942) that Jimmy Wakely—the poor man’s Gene Autry—would be returning to B-Western Wednesdays soon, and here I am to make good on that threat promise.  I discussed Wakely and his career at great length in Brand of Fear (1949), a previous Wednesdays write-up in 2012, so I’ll refrain from rehashing that biography.  Fear is thought to be one of Wakely’s best oaters (maybe his very best), but in reading over what I wrote it looks as if I wasn’t too impressed with it.  I did, however, find Gun Law Justice quite engaging (Boyd Magers gives it three stars at Western Clippings).

Boyd describes Lee Phelps’ turn as reformed outlaw Hank Cardigan as “the part of a lifetime,” and I’m in solid agreement with him on that score; Phelps does an amazing job portraying a man who’s wrestled with his bad man past and is quite sincere about starting a new life.  But society has a prejudice against those who’ve done time, and particularly those individuals who despite having done their penance deserve an opportunity to demonstrate that they’ve learned from their mistakes.  Cardigan’s situation when he’s immediately accused of shooting and killing Bill Thorpe (who was prepared to give his old friend a job) is particularly poignant, and were it not for our hero (go Jimmy!) would probably be at the mercy of the justice system simply due to that previous black mark by his name.  Later in Justice, several townsfolk throw a party in Hank’s honor in an effort to change his mind about leaving West Bend (Hank thinks it’s hopeless to reform son Tom), and when he’s presented with a gun as a token of their esteem his jubilance reminds Tom of “a kid at Christmas.”

Jimmy Wakely has always reminded me of a young Bing Crosby, and while he may not have been the most gifted actor in Western films, he also had an earnestness about him that suggests a little Tim Holt thrown in for good measure.  He was one of the last of the “singing cowboys” in motion pictures, and he gets ample opportunity to do what he does best with a couple of musical numbers including the Foy Willing-penned Rose of Old Santa Fe (performed with Shelby Atchinson and Ray Whitley—Jimmy’s manager at the time).  What I liked best about the musical interludes in Gun Law Justice is that they’re unobtrusive for the most part; my gripe with the Dick Foran westerns is that the songs seem to be forced in with a shoehorn.

The supporting cast in Justice is first-class:  I. Stanford Jolley—who you may remember as “Dr. Jaffa,” one of the villains in our Serial Saturdays feature of The Black Widow (1947—I really need to finish this one of these days)—is very effective as the villainous Duke (towards the end of the film, Duke is ready to double-cross his gang like the sebaceous slug he is), and other B-Western vets like Edmund Cobb and Myron Healey are also a welcome presence.  Before Dub Taylor was Dub Taylor, he was “Cannonball” Taylor—Dub used his sidekick experience along such Western film stars as Charles Starrett, Don “Red” Barry, and “Wild” Bill Elliott to make excellent comic relief for Wakely in sixteen of Jimmy’s features, and he’s in fine form here (the running gag about whether Cannonball should be entrusted to carry a gun is most amusing).  Jane Adams is also sturdy as Jimmy’s love interest (I’ve seen Jane in any number of movies [Batman and Robin, Master Minds], but for some odd reason I remember her best as the hunchbacked nurse in 1945’s House of Dracula).

Basil Dickey wrote Gun Law Justice’s screenplay; the prolific scribe contributed to scores of Western programmers/movie serials including the previously mentioned Black Widow and three other cliffhangers that have received the blog’s Serial Saturdays treatment: The Green Hornet (1940), Riders of Death Valley (1941), and G-Men Never Forget (1948).  The man in the director’s chair was also no stranger to the world of B-oaters and chapter plays; Lamont Hillyer helmed 1943’s Batman, though he’s perhaps better known for the sequel to Dracula, Dracula’s Daughter (1936).  Both Dickey and Lambert knew how to crank ‘em out fast while making sure they entertained audiences, and Justice is an exemplary example of their work—it’s available on the Warner Archive MOD release Monogram Cowboy Collection: Volume 1 (I rented it from ClassicFlix).

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