Friday 19 February 2021

Klondike Kate (1943)

Director: William Castle
Writers: M. Coates Webster, based on a story by Houston Branch and M. Coates Webster, suggested by the life of Kate Rockwell Matson, the original “Klondike Kate”
Stars: Ann Savage, Tom Neal, Glenda Farrell, Constance Worth, Sheldon Leonard, Lester Allen and George Cleveland

Index: 2021 Centennials.

The obvious film to review to celebrate what would have been Ann Savage’s one hundredth birthday is Detour, the highly regarded low budget film noir from Edgar G. Ulmer and PRC, released in 1945, in which she blackmails Tom Neal. However, as that’s the film that everyone else will be mentioning, I’m going to go back two further years to take a look at Savage’s first leading role, which also tasks her with acting opposite Tom Neal, under the direction of the great William Castle. It’s a biopic, of sorts, merely “suggested by the life of Kate Rockwell Matson”, the real lady behind the titular nickname, which means that it’s about as historically accurate as Klondyke Kate, the song by Suzi Quatro. What’s odd is that, unlike most heavily fictionalised Hollywood biopics, this one was written during the life of its subject, who lived until 1957, and it was apparently Kate herself who personally chose Ann Savage, then an up and coming actor at Columbia, to portray her in this picture.

We can tell how accurate it’s going to be as a biopic from the fact that they correctly name its subject in the opening credits but not in the film itself. The lady who would become known as Klondike Kate was born Kathleen Eloisa Rockwell, later adding a succession of surnames from three marriages. She was born in Junction City, Kansas in 1876, to parents who divorced when she was five, and she spent much of her youth travelling with her mother to places as farflung as Valparaiso, Chile. She became a chorus girl in New York City but soon followed a theatre troupe to Spokane, Washington, in which she’d previously lived, and it was while there that she heard rumours about the Gold Rush in the Klondike. She may or may not have got past the Mounties disguised as a boy, but she arrived in Alaska in 1899 and proved a big success in Dawson City, dancing her Flame Dance at the Palace Grande Theatre. This saw her trail two hundred feet of chiffon that she twisted into the illusion of fire. She made a fortune, sometimes over $750 per night.

It’s a pretty good story, even though it didn’t end well. The gold rush was panning out by 1902, so she headed back south, lending a good chunk of that fortune to her lover, Alexander Pantages, to help launch his career as a theatre manager. Sadly he ditched her in Seattle for a violinist. What’s important, though, is that precisely none of that made it into this movie. The only reasons that this is more accurate as a story about dancer Klondike Kate than a story about British wrestler Klondyke Kate is that the dancer was still alive in the year in which it was set and the wrestler may never have visited the Yukon. The character supposed to be Klondike Kate here, a nickname that incidentally appears only in the opening credits, is Kathleen O’Day, from San Francisco, who travels north to the fictional town of Totem Pole in 1897 to take ownership of the Great Northern Lights hotel and dance hall, which had been built by her father, Michael O’Day, and left with a trusted colleague, whom Kate finds was strung up a couple of years earlier.

And that means that the Great Northern Lights is in the hands of Jefferson Braddock, who has no legal claim on the place at all, but keeps it at the ludicrous trial, in spite of Kate possessing the actual deed, because there’s next to no law in Totem Pole. Braddock has the bar give the jury whatever they want as he’s climbing onto the stand and Horace E. Crossit manoeuvres himself into serving the roles of judge and attorney for both parties. And so we’re all set for Kate to hatch a cunning plan. “Mr. Braddock is on my property and my nerves,” she mutters, as she grudgingly admits inevitable defeat, and we’re absolutely ready for her to take him down. The film sets this up well, with shenanigans starting the moment Kate arrives in town on a train, along with a bevy of dancing girls who attract major attention. As tended to be the case, the population of Totem Pole is almost entirely male, so word quickly spreads and almost everyone races down to meet them. This scene is our introduction to both Kate and Braddock and they don’t start out well.

It’s a great scene. Braddock is clearly someone, because he drives down in a carriage instead of running through the muddy streets, and that’s partly so he can talk the dancing girls into signing a contract for him, instead of “Sometime” Smith, his competitor, who had sent for them to begin with. He pauses when he sees a miner manhandling Kate, who he hasn’t met, so he knocks him on his ass in the mud. He’s no hero though because he promptly steals a kiss himself and gets slapped for his trouble. And he takes it and likes it, conquering Kate now elevated towards the top of his priority list. Tom Neal is a delicious cad here. He stands and moves a lot like James Cagney, a stick of dynamite ready to explode, but thinks of himself more like Clark Gable and grins so much that we know he can’t remotely be above board about anything. It’s an appropriate role for him because he came from a wealthy family and built an impressive record as an amateur boxer, but eventually proved himself to be a violent thug whom nobody wanted to work with.

He’s so good here that the script seems to fall for his crap the way everyone else does. For maybe half its running time, it’s a heck of a lot of fun. It has more budget to play with than 64 minute B movies from 1943 tended to have and everything looks good, not only on a grand scale but in the details too. The setup is cheesy and obvious but it’s well handled and the cast is full of reliable names. It’s notable that, Tom Neal aside, the top billed are all women: Savage at the top, with Glenda Farrell as Molly, the charismatic leader of the dancing girls, and an icy Constance Worth as Braddock’s presumed former flame, Lita, who resents being the former anything. It’s hard not to like George Cleveland as Judge Crossit, as he’s the archetypal lovable rogue we know from so many westerns, with a cat, Mr. Blackstone, as his constant companion. I enjoyed Dan Seymour’s performance too as Harry, the rotund piano player, with a number of scene-stealing moments to cherish. The jury has thirteen men, so Harry just bumps one off the bar and says “twelve”.

But, maybe halfway through the picture, after we’ve enjoyed the setup and prepare to enjoy how Kate will take down Braddock, in what we’re thinking will probably be a crooked faro game, writer M. Coates Webster, working from a story he wrote with Houston Branch, just gives up the ghost. While some of what happens in the second half is decent enough, it isn’t remotely what we signed up for. This is an Ann Savage picture, about Klondike Kate, and, while it’s fair that she initially lets Braddock get a few over on her, because he’s a practiced conman and she’s a young lady new in town, it’s not fair that he keep the upper hand. I believe I can speak for most viewers when I state that none of us want Kate to drift from revenge protagonist towards love interest or for “Sometime” Smith, only present thus far in an embarrassing early scene as he fails utterly to get his dancers back from Braddock, to return and become the villain of the piece. We have a villain already: it’s Braddock, and we want Kate to take him down. Sigh.

So, while this film should have been retitled Jefferson Braddock, Ann Savage does at least acquit herself capably in her first lead role. She was a busy lady in 1943, her debut year on the big screen, appearing in no fewer than eleven features for Columbia, including a few entries in ongoing series: the final two films with Warren William as the Lone Wolf, One Dangerous Night and Passport to Suez, in two different parts; After Midnight with Boston Blackie, as the only credited female actor; and a Blondie, Footlight Glamour. She proved versatile, as these eleven also included a western, Saddles and Sagebrush; a musical, Two SeƱoritas from Chicago; and a comedy murder mystery, Dangerous Blondes. Clearly Columbia felt that she had screen charisma with Tom Neal, as it promptly cast them together in Two-Man Submarine and The Unwritten Code in 1944, before PRC immortalised their screen partnership in Detour. In reality, she said, “He was like a silly kid, pinching my behind all the time and making stupid remarks. I didn’t like him at all.”

Sadly, while many have rightly called out her performance in Detour as important, director Wim Wenders calling it “at least fifteen years ahead of its time”, what she got to do—and, more notably, not do—in Klondike Kate was more typical and she knew it. She was the top billed actor here, playing the title character, and yet it fits well in her reminiscence of her forties films: “The actresses were just scenery,” she said. “The stories all revolved around the male actors; they really had the choice roles. All the actresses had to do was to look lovely, since the dialogue was ridiculous.” That wasn’t the case with Detour, of course, one reason why it holds up better than these other B movies, but this one only teases at it. Braddock wants Kate from the very beginning and he pursues her like he’s never seen a woman before, but she manages to keep him at bay. At one point, she gets him out of her bedroom by sending him for a glass of water and locking her door. At another, she keeps him walking up and down the sidewalk outside until she’s tired.

Of course, like the script, she kind of gives up the ghost. She does get one excellent scene during the second half, which happens to backfire magnificently later, in which she talks the town into ditching complete anarchy. “Sometime” Smith, whose name is never explained, unless it’s to highlight how often he’s not in this film, decides that he’s going to take over the Great Northern Lights and so hatches a ridiculously simple plan to achieve that feat. He cheats, of course, but he does so in public with a deck of cards that, to everyone watching, actually belongs to Braddock, as his real ace in the hole is Braddock’s ex, Lita, who he’s treated abominably for the entire time we’ve been in Totem Pole. Braddock’s a cheat himself, so he sees through the card trick and calls him out. Kate sees Smith’s men trailing them outside, realises that they’re going to kill him one way or another, so thinks up a way out. Let ’em fight, she says. They’ll bury anyone who dies. But the other will be hanged without a trial. Now, they’ll each need to keep the other alive.

It’s a good scene in a film that has a few good scenes for Ann Savage, if not as many as there should have been. Her musical number is underwhelming, though she’s good in it—it just isn’t the right song for the occasion. Why didn’t she do the Flame Dance? Surely a film about Klondike Kate should have at least something in it that Klondike Kate actually did. The props would have been cheap and it seems likely that Kate Rockwell Matson, as she was at the time, would surely have been willing to teach it to Savage. At this point, I was more fascinated with what Columbia had told the real Kate would be in the feature that was supposedly going to be about her than I was about what was actually in the film. In fact, there’s almost as much that rings true for Ann Savage as Kathleen Rockwell, given that she wasn’t born in San Francisco either and didn’t inherit a hotel in Totem Pole. We know Savage looked down on it later in life, along with most of her other films of the era, but what did the real Kate think of it?

Hilariously, it could be argued that Klondike Kate had more in common with Ann Savage than her fictionalisation here. The actress was born Berniece Maxine Lyon in Columbia, South Carolina and, like Kate, lost her father at a young age, albeit to death instead of divorce and at four rather than five, and she also travelled around a lot early in her life, albeit before that point rather than after it, as her father was a U.S. Army officer and his family followed him from base to base. After being widowed, her mother moved to the west coast and she grew up in Los Angeles among many current and future stars, before joining show business, albeit on film rather than the vaudeville stage. She failed her MGM screen test, leading her to get her teeth capped, and decided not to show up to one at 20th Century Fox, because they were buried in blondes already. After twenty-five films in only four years, she shifted to television, as indeed Kate did, given that she appeared, as Kate Van Duren, as a contestant on Groucho Marx’s You Bet Your Life in 1954.

Savage apparently liked the pace of television but, like Kate in vaudeville, the parts dried up and she left the industry, both of them trying their hand at a host of different jobs. Kate set up a movie theatre, homesteaded 320 acres and eventually became known as a charity fundraiser in Bend, Oregon, where she lived her last forty-five years, even while training young starlets in Hollywood. Her third husband was an accountant, while Savage’s was her agent. When he died in 1969, leaving Ann broke, she worked a host of odd jobs to pay for flying lessons and became a licensed pilot, in addition to co-owning a tool company. Later, she became a receptionist and then a secretary at an L.A. law firm. If that suggests a surprising amount of anonymity for a former Hollywood star, a fantastic story backs that up. During the Q&A after a screening of Detour, in tribute to its director, Edgar G. Ulmer, his widow suggested that, “We have no idea where Ann Savage is, or if indeed she is alive.” Savage promptly stood up in the audience to say, “I’m right here.”

Whatever profession she took at any particular time, she never quite left the business behind her. Having not acted on screen since an episode of Gang Busters in 1955, she played a nun in the 1986 feature, Fire with Fire; appeared in an uncredited role as a teacher in a 1991 episode of Saved by the Bell; and, most notably, played Guy Maddin’s mother in the “docu-fantasia” portrait of his home town called My Winnipeg, a performance that drew much praise. Maddin has said that he cast her as she “would have scared the pants off Bette Davis” in a return to film the likes of which “Norma Desmond could only have dreamed of”. It didn’t land her the Oscar some had suggested that she deserved, but it brought her much attention and landed her many new fans, almost at the end of her life. It was released in 2007 and she saw much of the success it achieved before she died on Christmas Day the next year, at the age of 87, an impressive but very concentrated career left behind for us to remember her through.

Obituary: Ann Savage at The Telegraph.

No comments: