Director: Preston Sturges
Writer: Earl Felton, from his own story
Stars: Betty Grable, Cesar Romero, Rudy Vallee and Olga San Juan
I’ve enjoyed a lot of Preston Sturges comedies, some more than once, but then I’ve only seen the first half of his career. He started off incredibly well with The Great McGinty, Christmas in July and The Lady Eve, then somehow got even better, with Sullivan’s Travels, The Palm Beach Story and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, movies as universally acclaimed as they are criminally underseen. However, he made thirteen features and I hadn’t got past the middle one, Hail the Conquering Hero, which is just as strong as its predecessors. The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend sits firmly within the second half of his career, an era that critics often pretend doesn’t exist, unless it’s to acknowledge The Sin of Harold Diddlebock, the film that saw Harold Lloyd come out of retirement after nine years away. I hadn’t seen any of these last half dozen until now and this bodes poorly for the rest, even with Betty Grable and what the poster calls ‘the biggest Six-Shooters in the West!!!’ Yes, three exclamation marks for Betty, who would have been a hundred today.
In fact, the poster sums up the picture pretty capably: it over-suggests but under-delivers. The Modernaires sing the theme tune behind the opening credits to set Grable up as a ‘hard tootin’ , freebootin’, high falutin’, rootin tootin’, six-shootin’ beautiful blonde from Bashful Bend’, which is enough to believe that this whole thing started with the song, but it really came from a story by Earl Felton, writer of a whole slew of Richard Fleischer pictures, as varied as Armored Car Robbery, The Narrow Margin and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I wonder what brought him to Fleischer’s attention, as this broad farce wouldn’t seem to be a likely candidate! I see this mostly as a great example of getting what you wish for. Grable’s boss at 20th Century Fox, Darryl F. Zanuck, had tried to push her towards more substantial roles but she successfully fought him on it, continuing on in bright and cheery musicals with paper thin plots summed up by how critic Bosley Crowther described That Lady in Ermine: ‘a bright and beguiling swatch of nonsense’.
It’s also notable today that this white woman who passes for a Swede has a Spanish-speaking boyfriend and a Hispanic companion who passes for Native American. No wonder the Hays Office had problems with this script as, after all, miscegenation was against the Production Code! Certainly Joseph Breen, the head of the Code, had as much trouble with Judge Alfalfa J. O’Toole indulging in an illicit relationship with someone named Conchita as with him having extra-marital relations in a old west saloon’s hotel room. Irony abounds here. While Olga San Juan, who plays Conchita, seemed as Hispanic as her nickname of the Puerto Rican Pepperpot suggests, she was born in Brooklyn and grew up in Puerto Rico, a US territory. However, Cesar Romero, as the Latin lover who so upsets our heroine, had Cuban parents, even if he was born in New York and raised in New Jersey. How Puerto Rican (ie American) blood falls foul of the Production Code’s miscegenation rule but Cuban (ie not American) blood doesn’t, I have no idea.
Here, she’s the grown up version of that gunslinging kid, Little Winifred. Now she’s Freddie Jones, a saloon singer who plays cards and drinks as well as any of the guys at work. Presumably she can still shoot too, but her gun has just got her into trouble. You see, her boyfriend, Blackie Jobero, is a wolf who thinks he can bring a fancy girl called Roulette into her bar and waltz on upstairs with her. Freddie sees red and sidles off stage during her number to grab her gun from behind the bar, follow them, singing all the way, and break into their room to shoot the lowlife dead. Surely we should be with her, but there are two reasons why not. One is that this all unfolds during one of those annoying Hollywood musical numbers which defy the laws of physics; there were no wireless microphones in the Old West (or 1949, for that matter)! The other is that she doesn’t shoot Blackie at all; she accidentally hits the Honorable Alfalfa J. O’Toole instead. ‘Right in the caboose,’ as the doctor says. That he’s played by Porter Hall just makes it funnier.
It’s once they arrive in Snake City that the quality starts to drop. They get there because Conchita steals a couple of travelling bags which drop them into new identities. So Freddie Jones becomes Hilda Swandumper from Wauwatosa, WI, the new schoolteacher in Bashful Bend and Conchita is her ‘little Indian maid’. You can just imagine the political incorrectness that leaps out to play with that situation! Yes, the ticket collector tries it on with her immediately. ‘You leave mama and papa home in tepee?’ he asks. ‘How would you like to go with me and see white man’s choo-choo. Puff puff engine, huh?’ The moment they alight from the train, Mr. Hingleman, the chairman of the school board, pinches her cheek, calls her Little Firewater, and asks, ‘Everything heap good back in wigwam?’ Now, I do get that we’re setting up contrasts in Snake City: half the town are redneck miners and cowboys who howl like wolves at the purty ladies while the other half are respectable citizens, but it’s the latter spouting idiocy like this.
And, if you hadn’t guessed, this makes the last two thirds very silly indeed. Naturally, the inept authorities fail to realise that their wanted woman has just hopped down the track a ways and the one man who does is Blackie Jobero. So, her story comes out while those pesky Basserman boys are camped outside the window, dressed as Indians, and she sets them up to knock her boyfriend out. This long scene feels like a stage farce with its long takes in a single location, its lights going on and off (not always in sync) and its wildly overblown ‘death’ scenes. Then it’s Keystone fight time, merely with guns instead of pies. One bad guy gets shot off of the top of an outhouse and gets back up four times to rejoin the battle. Another picks up his hat four times after it’s shot off. A third is stationed in front of a cattle trough; every time he shoots his gun, the water erupts into his face and he starts trying to outwit the water. If anyone expected the clever wit of early Preston Sturges in this picture, they must have been utterly lost.
For all the silliness, Betty Grable is a lot of fun here and she works well with Olga San Juan. I haven’t seen much of either of them before but I left this film confirmed fans of both. To be fair, they’re the only actors who are really given parts to play; the rest of the cast are given routines instead, mostly the ones they were already justly known for, like Herbert, Hamilton and Holloway, to name just three beginning with the letter H. Cesar Romero is holding back, perhaps to leave the girls in charge. Rudy Vallee is so forgettable that I haven’t talked about him once and it doesn’t matter. The Basserman boys are even more overplayed than their screen father and that’s saying something; I felt like Richard Hale was about to turn on me for looking at him cross-eyed and call me out for a good ol’ fashioned gunfight. He was so ornery here that I expected the film to turn into a commercial for something soothing. After all, if