Thursday 3 June 2010

Haunted Gold (1932)

Director: Mack V Wright
Stars: John Wayne and Duke

This Leon Schlesinger production, a Four Star Western for Warner Brothers from 1932, starts as it means to go on with a repetitious animated bat and a looming shadow to back the credits. The town we soon find ourselves in is dim, dark and apparently empty of everything except howling coyotes and banging doors. It's almost surprising to find a person amidst all the shadows and those we do find, playing poker by candlelight, are pretty scared. It's been thirty years since the town died and its secret panels, creeping shadows and strange noises have them all spooked. The fact that Ed went up to the Sally Ann mine three hours ago and they haven't heard hide nor hair of him since doesn't help either. His horse arrives back eventually, complete with a sinister note: 'I return the horse but let the fate of its rider be a warning to anyone who attempts to enter the Sally Ann mine. Signed, The Phantom.' Yes, you can tell what sort of film this is.

Well, maybe not. It may sound precisely like a standard old dark house yarn, especially given that all the actual residents of the town are old, gaunt and severe, dressed entirely in black, like undertakers, and modern audiences might see it more as a live action Scooby Doo cartoon, but it's really a John Wayne picture. Sure, he's a little thinner than we're used to seeing him, his voice is a little higher and he's far from the measured actor he would become, but he's John Wayne nonetheless. The make up he has plastered over his face makes him look ghostly white, as if to fit the material, and that's assisted by the fact that he has a colourful partner, one who's Blue by name, Brown by character and black by skin. Actor Blue Washington appears a little too dignified for the material, which is the usual idiocy, Clarence Washington Brown being yet another scaredycat black man who rolls dice at the slightest notice.

Wayne plays John Mason but while his horse is named Duke, this apparently isn't where he got his nickname, that having arrived long before courtesy of an Airedale terrier he kept as a boy. Here he's a rancher who owns half the Sally Ann, left to him by his father who discovered it with Bill Carter. Carter's half was lost to a villain by the name of Ryan before he could ever pass it down to his daughter Janet, so it went to Ryan's son instead. Both of these characters are in town too, though Janet was merely mysteriously invited without any explanation. For Mason's part his ranch is just over the ridge and he conveniently just came visiting at the right time. No, the back story doesn't hold up to a heck of a lot of scrutiny, but then it is a B picture called Haunted Gold, after all, not some big budget John Ford feature. I'm sure it won't take much for you to figure out the rest of the story but you might find yourself surprisingly entertained on the way.
This may be predictable but it never quits. The scant 58 minute running time races by, not least because of all the sped up chase and fight scenes, and it looks good, with a production value far above what Wayne would soon be seeing at Monogram, though some footage was recycled from earlier films. There's even a glimpse of the Maltese Falcon from the original 1931 film, on top of the organ that Janet plays right before being kidnapped. The story is recycled, being a remake of a Ken Maynard silent film from 1928 called The Phantom City, but I'd be surprised if everything crammed into this one was crammed into that one too. This is jam packed full of everything you might expect from an action serial, an old dark house story and a western, all thrown together. The stunts are wild and hard hitting, by the horses as well as the stuntmen. I may not have bought Duke's intelligence or Clarence's idiocy but I wasn't bored for a moment.

What stands out most to posterity is the character of Clarence Washington Brown, though he was merely comedic effect in 1932. Supposedly John Mason's sidekick, described at one point as his 'self appointed bodyguard', he gets more screen time than anyone except the Duke. Yet he's a mere eighth on the credits while Wayne's horse shares top billing with his master. At one point he ends up in whiteface, courtesy of mine dust, and he's hindered by a whole slew of lines about spooks and other suggestive slurs. There are racial epithets here I don't even recognise: 'darkie' makes obvious sense but why 'smoky', for instance? Another new one on me is a particularly outrageous line thrown his way while he pretends to be the Phantom. He's pretty successful in a mild disguise until he opens his mouth. 'I iz de Phantom,' he moans, only for the bad guys to reply, 'Not with that watermelon accent!' Sometimes classic Hollywood stuns me.

I've seen enough films from the twenties and thirties to realise that this sort of offensive racial idiocy was merely a screen reflection of a cultural norm, so while it's far from acceptable it is at least understandable for the time. I'm thankful we don't see it any more but I don't find it hard to watch in a film this old. In Haunted Gold though it feels wrong, mostly because Blue Washington, who also appeared in the original film, is so obviously capable of so much more than this. There were a lot of black actors who got work, sometimes very well paid work, acting lazy and stupid. Most obvious were actors like Stepin Fetchit and Sleep 'n' Eat, both real credited stage names, and Mantan Moreland, who played Charlie Chan's manservant. Fetchit even became a millionaire playing an illiterate pauper, but these actors were comedians who were talented enough to make the caricature work. Blue Washington merely seems to be demeaning himself.

As for the Duke, he's not bad here at all as an action western lead, though he nearly drops his gun at one point while doing a fancy twirl. Many of the long shots are apparently Ken Maynard and his horse Tarzan, recycled from old footage, but many of the up close fights and stunts are obviously him. I've only seen one of his other Four Star Westerns from 1932 before, coincidentally another remake of a Ken Maynard silent, this time called Ride Him, Cowboy, and it has a few similarities to this one, not just because of the ghost town and Duke's lifesaving antics. There's much more of a story here, not to mention about ten times more serial action. Wayne gets far more to do too, though he's still very much the lead member of a team rather than the tough man who stands alone, regardless of the circumstances. He gets tied up not once but twice, but of course saves the day and wins the girl in the end. Some things were simply beyond argument, right?

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