Wednesday, June 24, 2009

California Mail (Warners, 1936)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran California Mail, a 1936 “B” Western from Warner Bros., who had obviously noted the burgeoning popularity of the “Singing Westerns” with Gene Autry at Republic and decided to do a singing Western of their own. They picked Dick Foran as their star — he had a nice tenor voice, probably “better” than Autry’s but less distinctive — though they only gave him two songs, one (“Ridin’ the Mail”) used early on while he’s doing just that as a member of the Pony Express, and another (“Love Begins at Evening”) which he sings at a dance where he’s courting his girlfriend. Foran plays Bill Harkins, a Pony Express rider who realizes that the days of the Pony Express are numbered (the service only lasted two years in real life!) and in future mail will be brought to the West in stagecoaches.

Accordingly he buys a stagecoach and puts in a bid for the mail contract, and since there are two other bids and the three are close in terms of the numbers, the post office (not a private stagecoach company, as mis-stated in the American Film Institute Catalog’s synopsis) decides to sponsor a stagecoach race along the most treacherous part of the mail run. One of the competing bidders, Ferguson (Fred Barnes), is harmless; the others, brothers Roy (Ed Cobb) and Burt (Milton Kibbee) Banton, are quite dangerous. Not only are they willing to do anything to win the contract — including sawing through the wheels of Harkins’ stagecoach to sabotage it so it crashes on the run — but once they win the contract they work with a gang of bandits led by Fred Wyatt (Bob Woodward) to rob their own stagecoaches, thereby getting both legal and illegal sources of income. (One member of the gang, “Bud,” is played by future Frankenstein monster Glenn Strange — his first name has only one “n” here and he’s a gangly Ray Bolger type, hardly the sort of actor one would expect to step into Boris Karloff’s asphalter’s boots except for his great height, obviously why he got that part.) After trying and failing to murder Harkins at least twice, they set him up to take the fall for a murder actually committed by Wyatt — and to make it even more complicated, the murder victim is Dan Tolliver (James Farley), father of Mary Tolliver (Linda Perry), the woman Bill and Roy have been fighting over all movie (including starting a big saloon brawl over her).

There’s absolutely nothing distinctive about California Mail — it’s one of those movies where the credited writers, Roy Chanslor and Harold Buckley, seem more to have compiled their script from lists of clichés rather than thinking up anything original — except maybe the role of “Smoke” the Wonder Horse, listed in the credits as playing himself (and billed third!), who’s actually more heroic than the human lead: he kills Wyatt and captures Roy, in both cases by knocking them down and kicking them. Watching “Smoke” in action it’s clear that this is the studio that made Rin Tin Tin a star; they seemed to be trying to duplicate that success with another species of animal. California Mail is a bit of a “cheat” in that Foran is billed as a “Singing Cowboy” but after the movie is 15 minutes old (of a total one-hour running time) he sings no more — but he’s personable and either he’s good at taking falls or his stunt double looked more like him than usual, though it’s a bit difficult to take him seriously in this movie if you’ve seen the Abbott and Costello vehicle Ride ’Em, Cowboy from six years later, in which Foran plays an actor posing as a singing cowboy (in which he got to introduce the Don Raye/Gene de Paul standard “I’ll Remember April,” a far better song than any he got to sing here!) when he’s really a totally hapless tenderfoot.