Saturday, April 23, 2011

Meanwhile, back at the (old) movies....

Some notes from the local cinephile society’s recent western double feature….

“California Gold Rush,” directed by R.G. Springsteen and released by Republic Pictures in 1946, features a character who’s probably best known today for a movie he never actually appeared in – “A Christmas Story,” Bob Clark’s classic rendition of Jean Shepherd’s masterwork of nostalgic humor.

I’m talking, of course, about Red Ryder – he of the “Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle!” that young Ralphie so desperately wants, despite the adult voices warning him that "You'll shoot your eye out!"

Red Ryder originated as a comic strip character. In the movies he was brought to life by several actors, including, in this film, “Wild Bill” Elliott, accompanied by Bobby Blake (at right, and later known as, yes, that Robert Blake) as his sidekick, Little Beaver.

I’d never seen Elliott before. As an actor he’s no threat to Laurence Olivier, but that’s OK because the part doesn’t call for that. For this kind of role you need a guy who knows his lines, can ride a horse and is very personable – kind of like the next-door neighbor who always says hi with a friendly smile, a guy you can trust; though he might well mostly keep to himself, you know in your heart that you could dig up his basement without finding any trace of a body.

Robert Blake’s charm as a child actor mostly eludes me – and I’m talking about not only this film, but also those Our Gang comedies he was in near the end of that series’ run. He has a nice smile, but when he’s not smiling he seems ill at ease, as if he has to go to the bathroom, or one or both of his parents are just out of camera range, ready to flog him if he blows a line.

And although, years later, I enjoyed “Baretta,” I sometimes feared that Blake’s career would evaporate if he ever lost his right arm – he always seemed to be pointing at he other performer while saying his lines. (“Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time! And! That’s! The! Name! Of! That! Tune!”)

In “California Gold Rush,” Red’s services are requested after a series of stagecoach robberies led by a harmonica-playing smiler with a gun, named Chopin. (That pretty much clues you in to the level of humor here.)

Turns out that the real leader of the gang is the guy who runs the local hotel. Also turns out the guy’s name is Murphy. (A Murphy who’s a less-than-perfect human being? Talk about suspension of disbelief.)

Murphy finds out that Red is on his way, so he hires The Idaho Kid to ambush Red and ride into town accompanied by a kid posing as Little Beaver. (Why just killing Red wouldn’t be enough is never explained, unless I wasn't paying attention.)

Fortunately, Red foils the ambush, in the process killing The Idaho Kid, and comes to town as himself. (He knows The Kid is The Kid because while searching the body he finds a wanted poster of The Kid – and a little bag of money or grub or something that has “The Idaho Kid” written on it. Accommodating, eh what? Red does stop short of checking to see whether the dead bad guy’s mom sewed “The Idaho Kid” into his underwear.)

Eventually Murphy finds out that the guy posing as Red really is Red, then gets him framed for something or other. But eventually things turn out all right.

I realize I’ve been making fun of this movie, but it would be wrong to be too hard on it; I often like watching low-budget movies to see what they do within their limitations. Sometimes they do remarkably well.

In this case, I fear the pardners who rustled up this entertainment shot themselves in the foot by breaking two of the Commandments for Chief Bad Guys. (And I’m not talking about that silly Murphy name.)

1. Thou shalt not surround your Chief Bad Guy with henchmen who are at least half a foot taller than he is.

2. Thou shalt not cast as your Chief Bad Guy an actor whose worst scowl provokes not abject fear but genuine concern that he hath gone far too long without a bowel movement….

“New Frontier” (also known as “Frontier Horizon”), directed by George Sherman and released by Republic in 1939.

The film is one of a series of pictures featuring “The Three Mesquiteers,” a trio of cowpokes who went around righting wrongs in complete compliance with The B-Movie Cowboy Code of Behavior.

According to Wikipedia, 12 actors appeared as Mesquiteers over the run of the series. In this film, the Mesquiteers are Ray Corrigan, Raymond Hatton and a young guy who would soon be going places via a legendary stagecoach captained by John Ford: John Wayne.

In this outing, the Mesquiteers come to the aid of settlers who’ve been swindled in a phony land deal. The chief settler’s daughter is played by a very attractive young woman named Phyllis Isley who, a few years later, would win an Oscar for “The Song of Bernadette” under the name Jennifer Jones.

Playing her brother Jason is Dave O’Brien, who never achieved Isley/Jones’ fame but is fondly remembered as the fall guy (often quite literally) in the Pete Smith shorts.

All in all, it was a mildly entertaining evening at the movies, and the company as always was good.

And none of us got shot in the eye.

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