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Wednesday 26 July 2017

O, My Darling Clementine (1943)

Director: Frank McDonald
Writers: Dorrell & Stuart E. McGowan
Stars: Roy Acuff and His Smoky Mountain Boys & Girls, The Radio Rogues, Isabel Randolph, Harry ‘Pappy’ Cheshire and The Tennessee Ramblers

Index: 2017 Centennials

No, not My Darling Clementine, John Ford’s version of the gunfight at the O.K. corral, with Henry Fonda playing Wyatt Earp; that was made three years later in 1946. This is O, My Darling Clementine, a country musical released on the very last day of 1943 by Republic, perhaps to capitalise on the resurgence of the old folk tune, which Bing Crosby had brought into the Top 20 a couple of years prior. It’s a cheap and cheerful picture, corny as all get out, but a whole bundle of fun nonetheless, and it features a host of names we’ve either forgotten or never known, many of whom were most famous for their work on radio. In fact, the film actors were relegated to the second card in the opening credits; the first was reserved for ‘Radio’s Popular Entertainers’, people as forgotten today as the Radio Rogues and the Tennessee Ramblers or Isabel Randolph and Harry ‘Pappy’ Cheshire. Even the film’s star is less remembered today than he used to be. That’s Roy Acuff, still singing and fiddling with his Smoky Mountain Boys and Girls.

He was surely the most famous name at the time and he’s top billed, even though he’s hardly playing the lead. Acuff was one of the pioneers of country music, at a time when that was niche regional music. When he made this film, he’d just co-founded Acuff-Rose Music, the first major country music publishing company in Nashville, and the industry was already changing because of his style and charisma. His importance is perhaps best summed up in a quote from Hank Williams, who said in 1952: ‘He's the biggest singer this music ever knew. You booked him and you didn't worry about crowds. For drawing power in the South, it was Roy Acuff, then God.’ A decade later, in 1962, he became the first living artist to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Ironically, that’s the point at which he was no longer the most famous name in this picture, having been surpassed by Irene Ryan, newly famous as Granny in The Beverly Hillbillies. This is less than two decades earlier but she’s almost unrecognisable.

However, I’m watching today for the lovely young lady who plays the title role of Clementine. That’s Lorna Gray, who would have celebrated her one hundredth birthday today had she not succumbed to a long illness in April; she missed her centennial by fewer than three months, just like Zsa Zsa Gabor in February. She was born Virginia Pound in Grand Rapids, MI, and sang before she ever acted, including for Ben Yost’s Varsity Coeds, a Cleveland group who mostly performed in theatres before movies began. She was initially credited under her real name, when she was credited at all, when working for Paramount. She moved to Columbia in 1938 and they renamed her to Lorna Gray. They put her versatile talents to work in everything from Pest from the West, a Buster Keaton comedy short, to The Man They Could Not Hang, as Boris Karloff’s leading lady, via Red River Range, a western in which she co-starred with the Three Mesquiteers who, at this point, were John Wayne, Ray ‘Crash’ Corrigan and Max Terhune.

Shifting over to Republic after a few freelance movies, she continued to be versatile, playing both extremes of the moral compass. One minute it would be Perils of Nyoka, elevating the cheesy material as the vicious villainous Vultura, an Arab queen with her pet ape, Satan; the next it would be Captain America, playing assistant to the title character and his alter ego of Grant Gardner, D.A. No, it wasn’t particularly faithful to the material and fans of the character today wouldn’t recognise him in this serial at all! While she had been prominent at Republic, they felt the need in 1945 to rename her again, this time to Adrian Booth, and push her as a new ‘discovery’, to be paired with their new cowboy, Monte Hale. Most of the rest of her career would be in westerns, but it wasn’t too long before she’d retire, her final pictures being a couple of seafaring adventures called Yellow Fin and The Sea Hornet, the former at Monogram. That was late 1951 and she’d racked up 69 movies in only a decade and a half.
Here, she’s Clementine Cheshire, a young lady driving home to Harmony as the film begins. Harmony is both an appropriate name for this small town and an ironic one. It’s appropriate because Roy Acuff is the sheriff and we’re going to enjoy a variety of musical numbers there; and it’s ironic because the men, who occupy all the positions of power, are running scared of the women, who tell them what to do, and they’ve told them to do things like shut down all entertainment as immoral and indecent. Chief among those women is Abigail Uppington, the wife of the mayor, who’s Clementine’s mother and who’s sitting in the passenger seat as she gets caught behind a rickety old bus on a diversion. Given that snippet of information, we can easily imagine where the film is going to go simply by reading the sign on the side of that bus. It’s advertising ‘Franklin’s Follies, the greatest girl show on wheels, featuring Bubbles King, with and without her bubble’. And no, girl show isn’t what you think. Behave! It’s just a variety show.

Bubbles is Patricia Knox, whose career ran almost parallel to Lorna Gray’s, running just two years shorter from 1939 to 1951, with a brief uncredited return in 1960 for the intriguingly titled I Passed for White. She’s quite fun on the bus, singing Barrel House Bessie in the back seat with a dejected tone. You see, they’re all broke, even though ‘Dapper’ Dan Franklin, in the driver’s seat, seems to be able to talk the talk like nobody’s business. He’s Frank Albertson, one of those names that we don’t remember that’s attached to a face that we can’t forget; he was a prolific wise-cracking lead in cheap movies throughout the first few decades of sound film. He should be taking them to Broadway, but they can’t afford it, so they’re going wherever they’re going, which soon turns out to be Harmony. When he stops to fill up the bus’s radiator with water from a creek, Clementine, frustrated from being stuck behind him so long, deliberately drenches him. She breaks down and ‘Dapper’ Dan tows her into town. It’s love at first sight.
Well... not quite. He’s fallen for her, in lust as much as love if his dialogue is anything to go by (‘A girl that beautiful can give me a bath any time,’ he pronounces), but she hasn’t fallen for him at all, making for a stalkery sort of romance; she tells him to get lost and he consistently fails to do so. Of course, given that he has the gift of the gab, we expect him to win out in the end and I’m sure that we’re supposed to be rooting for him to do so. No, this isn’t politically correct in the slightest; ‘Dapper’ Dan’s eager pursuit of Clementine is the film in a microcosm because it’s all about women being wrong and men having to discover the balls to be right. Can you imagine something like that today? Just wait for Albertson’s humorous impression of a gentleman of colour as they arrive in town and he finds that he’s coated Clementine and her mother in dust and mud and whatever else the bus happened to kick up at their convertible. Well, I’m sure it was humorous at the time; today, we gape in wonder and rewind to see if we were dreaming.

They arrive during an auction, which unfolds without any urgency at all. On peeking inside a previously unopened trunk that’s up for grabs, they find a collection of musical instruments. ‘How do we know those things will play?’ one man asks. Sheriff Roy Acuff promptly sets off the fire alarm, because the Harmony fire brigade are played by his Smoky Mountain Boys and Girls and they set up to play the Fire Ball Mail with Acuff doing a great impression of a train whistle without any props to aid him. The music is by far the best reason to watch O, My Darling Clementine today, which you’ll have to do on YouTube because it’s not yet been released to a home audience. Later, Acuff sings Smoke on the Water (no, not that one), which sounds to me like the Grand Ole Opry Song, which had a nod to Acuff in its lyrics. The most fun is a playful rendition of Polly Wolly Doodle, with each member of the band, presumably the Tennessee Ramblers, finishing off by helping to play a colleague’s instrument at the same time as their own.
Lorna Gray gets a musical number towards the end, when ‘Dapper’ Dan has orchestrated a full production in the City Hall, and she acquits herself well, but she’s more fun in the romance angle, as the only character to dominate her would be lover. At one point, preparing to be kicked out of town, Dan steals a kiss from her in the street, so she promptly steals one back. While he, to nobody’s surprise, wins out in the end, she gives him a run for his money, which is why the romance doesn’t feel as acutely uncomfortable as it easily could have done. To be fair, he is also kept busy, because the worthless lot he buys in the auction, as part of the mayor’s attempt to keep him and his entertainers in town, turns out to be City Hall itself and he has his own plans that may or may not be compatible with the mayor’s. Albertson is a capable lead, even with so many capable supporting actors backing him up; they don’t steal the show from under him. Well, except perhaps for Irene Ryan.

As strange as it might sound, she was my real discovery here. She wore make-up in The Beverly Hillbillies to make her look older, so much so that people didn’t recognise her in the street after she’d taken it off. She was sixty then and looked much older; here she was only 41 but looked younger and she has an ease to her that’s engaging. She’s sharp too, as a fake psychic called Princess Sheba, ‘direct from Cairo’, (the one in Illinois). When Mrs. Uppington pronounces with ironic theatricality, ‘The theatre is the medium of the devil!’ she pipes up with, ‘I’m a devil of a medium myself!’ While she’s just comic relief in the supporting cast, she gets a great opportunity to shine by developing a crush on Sheriff Acuff, who doesn’t want to know. I’m not convinced that I’ve ever seen her in anything except The Beverly Hillbillies, but I find that I really want to, having enjoyed her performance here so much. She made almost fifty movies, so there has to be a bunch in there of interest, even if they’re not great pictures.
There’s certainly a bunch in this film of interest, even if I’m still trying to identify all those radio stars. Isabel Randolph, a fitting name for someone with such an imperious voice, plays the pompous Mrs. Abigail Uppington, a character she created on radio for Fibber McGee and Molly, which aired from 1935 to 1959, and which she played in a number of other movies too. In a similar fashion, Harry Cheshire plays a version of a character he created for radio, on which he performed to an unimaginable degree. In 1939, it seems, he was on the air for 746 hours and 12 minutes, averaging just over two hours a day, amazing for a time when radio was a thriving medium, bustling with personalities. The Radio Rogues consisted of Eddie Bartell, Jimmy Hollywood and Henry Taylor, a trio known as much for their impersonations as their comedy. One of them (I have no idea which one) does a fantastic Peter Lorre and another does pretty well as W. C. Fields.

As you can imagine, this is more a set of variety performances, linked together by a vague storyline, and it’s a corny one at that. It wins out by sheer force of personality, everyone in the ensemble cast appearing to have a lot of fun with the wacky plot and their enjoyment rubbing off on us. Frank Albertson is really the leading man, with Lorna Gray his leading lady and Irene Ryan fairly the next billed talent after them, but it’s those radio folk who may end up most memorable, translating what they did on radio really well to the visual medium. It’s just odd, even after watching the film, to see Acuff’s name at the top of the credits because he’s not particularly dynamic as an actor here. He’s great as a singer and fiddler but he clearly felt most comfortable backing up the actors who had no problem dominating their scenes, especially Albertson, Randolph and Ryan, but Cheshire and Gray too. While this isn’t essential cinema, it’s a fascinating trip into the world of 1943.

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