Wednesday 4 June 2008

The Fighting Kentuckian (1949)

The setting of this film seems rather bizarre but apparently is based on fact. I hear that far too much lately and mostly these true stories are far from true. It would seem that after the fall of Napoleon a whole slew of his supporters were a little unwelcome in their native France, so shifted off to America to be granted four townships in Alabama by the US Congress. The film open in 1818 in Mobile, 200 miles south of the French settlement in Demopolis, and the 2nd Kentucky regiment is marching home after five years away. In Mobile these rough and ready Kentucky soldiers with their coonskin hats meet up with the sophisticated French and chaos ensues.

The chaos we're supposed to pay attention to has to do with John Breen and Fleurette de Marchand falling for each other. The problem is that John Breen (almost always spoken as if it's one word) is the fighting Kentuckian of the title, played by John Wayne himself, and Fleurette is betrothed to Blake Randolph, one of the most important men in Demopolis, and apparently the future of the French in Alabama, according to her father. The chaos we really pay attention is the fact that the Duke's sidekick is Oliver Hardy and theres a reason why we don't talk about Wayne & Hardy as a double act.

It's not that they're bad together, but they're bad together. It's not just that Stan Laurel is more than a little conspicuous by his absence, but he is. It's not even the surreal experience of watching Babe Hardy and the Duke sing together, which is rather bizarre. It's mostly that the entire film hasn't got the faintest clue what it wants to be. It tries to be serious while telling jokes and it tries to be funny while being serious. It leans towards slapstick, which is hardly surprising, then leans towards sophistication and it ends up just leaning one way and another until we lose track of which way is up. Sometimes it's a romance, sometimes a comedy, sometimes a historical film, sometimes a crime drama, sometimes a swashbuckler, never anything in particular. Sometimes it's a western in which the good guys are mostly immigrants and the bad guys are the Americans.

The Duke produced the film so it seems strange to suggest that he doesn't seem to have a clue what to do at any given moment, but he doesn't. Half the time he seems to be highly enjoying himself, but the other he's trying to work out where he is and what he's doing. The rest of the cast cope a little better and Oliver Hardy is highly effective, but then they're generally used to a wider range of roles than the Duke generally found in his career.

The lovely leading lady is played by Vera Ralston, who was as far from French as she was from American, being a Czech ice skater. Hugo Haas, who plays her father, was also born in the Czech Republic but it was Austria-Hungary at the time. Odette Myrtil is her mother here but I've seen her in films as different as Yankee Doodle Dandy, Strangers on a Train and Here Comes the Groom. The instigator of the serious side of the plot is Marie Windsor, who I last saw as the leader of Roger Corman's Swamp Women. She's working with Paul Fix, the Marshal from The Rifleman to defraud Philip Dorn, a former Dutch matinee idol. The sinister Blake Randolph is John Howard, probably best known for playing Bulldog Drummond.

What a hodgepodge cast this is! It's good but not consistent. Unfortunately the film is neither.

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