Sunday 18 December 2016

The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend (1949)

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’.
And this is as surely bright and beguiling as it is a swatch of utter nonsense at first glance. At a second, it’s not much better, but it’s a little more forward looking than people have generally given it credit for. It has a feminist edge, not only because it has a female lead but because she’s clearly able and willing to take care of herself. The scene that kicks the film off is eye-opening today because it features a six or seven year old girl being taught how to shoot; at the time it was eye-opening because it features a girl not a boy. Little Winifred just wants to play with her dolly, but her grandfather makes her practice with her pistol first. ‘It won’t get you into trouble,’ he suggests, ‘but it may get you out of it.’ Now, that’s irony because it does precisely nothing but get her into trouble and we simply wouldn’t have a film without that, but it does give her a confidence that allows her to survive in a world dominated by men. As uneducated as she may be, she’s fully in charge throughout, whoever she’s facing off against and with what.

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.
Then again, Betty Grable, born in St. Louis, Missouri, but with Dutch, Irish, German and English ancestry, spends half of the movie masquerading as a Swede. Her star has faded over the decades, partly because she was insecure enough about her talents to make fluff that hasn’t dated well but also partly because it was a very bright star at the time. If we think of her today, it’s usually because of a cheeky 1943 photo that was the most popular pin-up poster for GIs serving in World War II. Maybe that also sparks a memory that her studio had insured her legendary legs, so prominent on that poster, for a million dollars; she’d even made a movie called Million Dollar Legs in 1939. What we don’t tend to remember is that she was the best paid actor (of either sex) in 1947 (some sources call her the highest salaried woman in America), or that she was a top ten box office draw for ten years running (only Clark Gable and Bob Hope had had longer runs). She even topped that poll in 1943 above Bob Hope, Abbott and Costello and Bing Crosby.

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.
Hall, a regular in Preston Sturges comedies, is only one recognisable face here. His wife, Elvira O’Toole, is an uncredited Margaret Hamilton who plays the shrew to perfection, especially when Conchita flounces in to ask her sweetie, ‘Why is your mother upset?’ Musical number aside, I had a lot of fun with the first half hour of this film and the cast are a lot of the reason behind that. Casting Hugh Herbert as the mostly blind doctor trying to retrieve the bullet is genius! No wonder the judge is boiling, but he calms down when Freddie shows up. She apologises very well and he might even be about ready to forgive her. After all, she was just mad at a man she slaved for ‘playing puss in the corner with some beezle’! Unfortunately, then they bring in Blackie and Roulette and, after saying that she’s the mild type, she promptly grabs a gun and tries to shoot him again. And guess what? Somehow the back end of Alfalfa J. O’Toole manages to get in the way for a second time! So, off go Freddie and Conchita to skip town on the next train.

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.
I should add that these lower class citizens are played by some formerly major names in western movies, such as Kermit Maynard, Tom Tyler and Tex Cooper for a start. Richard Hale is also uncredited, oddly given that he gets a decent amount of screen time as Mr. Gus Basserman, an ornery local who proceeds to start a gun battle in town and lynch a couple of people to boot. You’re getting that this is a comedy, right? Well, one of the reasons that it may have failed both critically and commercially at the time (though it did eventually make its money back) is because it’s really not the usual late forties musical. The tone of the piece is inconsistent to crazy degrees. The first third is farce, but written rather cleverly. The middle third, as our fake Swede tries to outwit Basserman’s two idiot kids, is so far into pantomime that I expected someone to shout ‘He’s behind you!’ The final third is a very slow Keystone comedy and slapstick was long dead in 1949. Then again, Chester Conklin and Snub Pollard are here too. This cast has everyone!

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.
What’s more, not one person gets hurt. It doesn’t matter how much lead flies and there’s a great deal winging its way down Main Street. It doesn’t matter how close a shooter is to his target. It doesn’t matter even when we know that they got hit, like the judge, whose wounds set the whole story into motion. Nobody gets hurt and not one lick of blood is spilled. It’s like watching an episode of The A-Team, but with musical numbers and Betty Grable periodically stripping down to her abundant underwear to show us her pair of million dollar legs. Even when we want someone to get hurt, like the highly annoying Basserman boys, they don’t, even as Freddie gets serious about disciplining them on her first day in class as Hilda Swandumper. She pulls out her gun to shoot a bottle out of one’s hand, a cigarette out of the other’s mouth and then a couple of ink bottles off the tops of their heads. Now I’m seeing how Donald Trump could get elected President; lily livered liberals would never stand for this sort of discipline!

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 can sooth the temper of Gus Basserman, imagine what it can do for you!
Apparently Betty Grable didn’t like this film at all and said so. If that’s true, she kept it from affecting her performance, which is a delight, even when the film gets silly. One reason why she does so well is that she was able to play up her status as a bona fide sex symbol but appear to be just one of the boys. The theme can call her high falutin’ all it likes, but she’s thoroughly down to earth. I could fantasise about meeting a Marilyn Monroe character, but it’s unrealistic in the extreme. Yet, if I found the saloon that Betty Grable sings at in this movie, I could totally believe buying Freddie Jones a drink. Of course, she’d probably fleece me at poker too. Her career would last six more years and eight more movies, including How to Marry a Millionaire, but she was probably very happy to retire. Preston Sturges, on the other hand, probably wanted to keep on going, but he’d never direct another Hollywood feature. His final film was Les Carnets du Major Thompson, shot in France in 1955 and it was ignored even more than this.

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