Sunday, December 7, 2008

Rockin’ in the Rockies (Columbia, 1945)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran Charles a rather nifty 1945 Columbia “B” I’d recorded recently from TCM: Rockin’ in the Rockies, one of the few feature-length (more or less: this one times out at just 62 minutes!) films the Three Stooges made during their initial (1934-1957) tenure at Columbia, when they were employed mainly making the famous series of shorts that later proved comeback vehicles for them when Columbia’s TV subsidiary Screen Gems released them to television in 1958. Rockin’ in the Rockies is a modern-dress musical Western set in and around Reno, featuring the Stooges (though they’re top-billed) basically as support for a pair of ingénue leads, young ranch owner Rusty Williams (Jay Kirby) and New York entertainer June McGuire (Mary Beth Hughes, the marvelous femme fatale of The Great Flamarion appealing in this part and doing a couple of nice vocals as well, though I’m not absolutely sure it’s actually her voice).

June and her partner Betty Vale (Gladys Blake) — who gets some nice vocal features of her own — are playing in a Reno casino and have $75 each with which they plan to return to New York when their engagement abruptly ends. Stooges Larry Fine and Curly Howard play two vagrants who are being hunted down by the sheriff; when they accidentally win $1,500 at the casino attached to the nightclub where all this is happening, Shorty Williams (Moe Howard) sees it as an opportunity to make a dishonest dollar and sells them shares in his (nonexistent) mining venture, then tells the sheriff he can’t arrest them as vagrants because they’re his business partners. A comedy with the Three Stooges as comic miners à la Chaplin’s The Gold Rush might have been even more fun than the film we actually get, but the film we actually get is charming (though rarely laugh-out-loud funny — probably the best gag is one in which Larry and Curly fall into an overstuffed trunk Betty has packed and emerge from it in full drag).

The Stooges discover that a Broadway producer, Tom Trove (Tim Ryan), is in town and literally kidnap him to force him to listen to their lineup of country talent, including June, Betty, the Hoosier Hotshots (a comedy-jazz band sort of like a cornpone version of Spike Jones) and the Cappy Barra Boys, a harmonica ensemble who perform — of all things — Count Basie’s star-making hit “One O’Clock Jump” (inexplicably credited to white pianist/bandleader Bob Zurke on the Web page for this film!) — as well as Spade Cooley, the King of Western Swing (both Cooley and Bob Wills were billing themselves that way then), who don’t have a role in the film (unlike most of the other musical performers; the Hoosier Hotshots double as the ranch hands à la The Wizard of Oz) but come on at the end for one song. Meanwhile, Rusty Williams (ya remember Rusty Williams?) has invited mining engineer and entrepreneur Sam Clemens (Forrest Taylor) to come to check out his land to see if there are any potentially valuable minerals on it — and for his pains Clemens gets arrested and then later on in the film both he and Rusty are hog-tied and thrown into a shed by the Stooges so they won’t bother the audition. (There are some amusing gags around Clemens’ name and the fact that it was also the real name of Mark Twain — a rather surprising intellectual conceit for a Three Stooges movie.)

Eventually Rusty gets both Jane and a successful mine (after one of the other characters brings in some smoldering black rocks from his land and they turn out to be a fictitious but highly valuable substance), the Stooges open a nightclub in the ranch house and everyone presumably lives happily and prosperously ever after. Rockin’ in the Rockies is one of those quirky Westerns in which automobiles and horses are equally important means of transportation, and there are so many songs in it that it qualifies as a musical, but at least it’s fun and there’s an attempt to characterize Moe Howard separately from the other Stooges the way Groucho Marx was usually cast as a person with at least one foot in respectable society while his brothers played total rapscallions. (Things slip up in one slapstick scene in which the other two Stooges address Moe as “Moe,” not “Shorty.”)

I’ve blown hot and cold on the Three Stooges: when my age was still in single digits and their shorts were enjoying their renewed popularity on TV, I thought they were hilarious. Later, after I’d seen a lot of truly great silent comedy, they seemed tiresome and decidedly unfunny — and the violence of their “humor” wasn’t the biggest problem; Laurel and Hardy also tripped each other and poked each other in the eyes, but somehow with them you felt for them even as you laughed — Stan and Ollie created characters you liked and cared about, whereas Moe, Larry and Curly came on, did their things and any resemblance between them and real human beings was purely coincidental. Now I can appreciate them a bit more again; though there are funnier movies in the world than the Stooges’ films, one can admire the almost balletic precision of their timing and their ability to stage such violent slapstick and move in the proper, well-rehearsed synch needed for these routines to work — and here, at least, you get them in small enough doses (and with a lot of nice music in between the comedy routines to leaven them) that they’re entertaining instead of oppressive.

The one figure in this film who IS oppressive is male lead Jay Kirby, who in a role that cries out for the winning personality of Gene Autry or Roy Rogers (the obvious models for Columbia’s scripting department) is tall, gangly, nerdy and cursed with a voice that sounds like he was sucking on helium before every line. Still, Rockin’ in the Rockies — scripted by the usual committee (J. Benton Cheney and John Grey from a story by Gail Davenport and Louise Rousseau) and directed by someone named Vernon Keays (and no, I don’t have any idea how to pronounce his last name!) — is a harmlessly fun movie and worth an hour of your time.