Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The First Traveling Saleslady (RKO, 1956)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran a curious RKO production from 1956 called The First Traveling Saleslady that’s a goldmine for degrees-of-separation fans because its cast includes Ginger Rogers, Carol Channing and Clint Eastwood (in his first credited film role, though he’d made a singularly inauspicious screen debut the previous year at Universal in Revenge of the Creature, as a clumsy lab assistant who loses control of a rat.) Rogers plays Rose Gillray, owner of the Gillray Corset Company, who’s depicted as a proto-feminist and also as a resourceful businesswoman who figures that in order to promote her product, she’ll get it placed in a Broadway show being produced by Martin Schlessinger (Fred Essler) and have Schlessinger’s star, Molly Wade (Carol Channing), and his chorus perform a number wearing their corsets visibly on stage.

The inevitable happens and the show is shut down by New York’s Purity League after only one day — and the Purity League goes on to organize pickets at Gillray’s factory and at every store that carries her product. Rose is able to stay in business — barely — by paying off all but one of her creditors and using all her cash on hand to do so, but her biggest creditor, Carter Steel Company president James Carter (David Brian), is still unpaid. She goes off to see him and finds that Carter has been unable to sell his latest product, barbed wire, to ranchers in the West despite a federal law, signed by President McKinley, requiring them to use it. Since every male who’s attempted to sell barbed wire out West has been lynched and driven back out of town, Rose offers to take on the task of selling it on the ground that even the crazy Westerners wouldn’t dare do that to a woman — and Molly goes along with her.

Along the way they’re followed by auto pioneer Charlie Masters (Barry Nelson, two years after he’d become the first actor to play James Bond in the 1954 Climax! telecast of Ian Fleming’s novel Casino Royale — still the best adaptation of that story), who seems to turn up at the oddest moments in the witty but coincidence-ridden script by Devery Freeman and Stephen Longstreet. When they get to Kansas City, where a cattlemen’s convention has tied up every hotel room in town, they find that the central figure in the cattlemen’s resistance to barbed wire is Joel Kingdom (James Arness, one year before Gunsmoke went on the air and permanently “typed” him as a TV star), who as the largest rancher in Texas has a vested interest in allowing his cattle to roam, unfenced, into other people’s territory and who has managed to get the smaller ranchers who are actually being hurt by his policies to stand with him anyway (sound familiar?). Molly meets up with a member of the Rough Rider troop named Lt. Jack Rice (Clint Eastwood) and it’s love — or at least lust — at first sight between them (and the attempt of the writers and director Arthur Lubin to stage a love scene between Carol Channing, not as stylized here as she became later but already a bit of an over-the-top caricature of femininity, and the already almost terminally taciturn Eastwood is weirdly entertaining in and of itself).

Unable to get the Texas menfolk to listen to her barbed-wire pitch, Rose organizes a meeting of their wives — and Kingdom has her arrested on the eve of it, after he’s already run her out of town and she’s had to use Charlie Masters’ horseless carriage to get back. (There’s a charming little running gag in which Rose is repeatedly pulling stays out of her own corset to replace Charlie’s continually burning-out spark plugs.) Eventually Rose sells her barbed wire (with the aid of a federal marshal, Clint Eastwood’s Rough Rider troop and a trial in which she demonstrates that cattle will walk around the barbed wire instead of into it, as Kingdom had told the other ranchers they would) and fields marriage proposals from both Kingdom and Carter, but she turns them both down to marry Charlie — in the final scene they’re together in his car as he’s continuing his drive from New York to California to demonstrate the practicality of auto transport, and she’s laying plans for how they’re going to sell cars and already pondering the effect on their business of the next step forward in transportation technology, flying machines.

Produced as well as directed by Arthur Lubin — an occasionally promising filmmaker who once in a while showed a visual flair (notably in his 1940 horror/sci-fi/crime film Black Friday with Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, and the marvelous tracking shot through the streets of Storyville that opens the 1947 New Orleans with Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday and a bunch of boring white people), and who apparently originally envisioned this as a comeback vehicle for Mae West (who would probably have insisted on being allowed to rewrite the script top-to-bottom) — The First Traveling Saleslady is nowhere near as funny as the writers thought it was, but it’s still a charming little movie and Rogers, though well past her prime as a screen beauty, had weathered the years well enough that she’s still believable as the woman at least three men want to marry — and she’s the right “type” for the role, too, neither as obstreperous about her feminism as Katharine Hepburn would have been nor as openly and almost forbiddingly sexy as Mae West would have been.

It’s nice to see Carol Channing before her affectations hardened into caricature — she sings her big song, “A Corset Can Do a Lot for a Lady,” in the painfully mush-mouthed manner we’ve become familiar with from her, but at least she’s wearing her hair normally (and it’s believably blonde instead of that horrible platinum wig that became her trademark) and she comes off as a genuinely feminine woman instead of what the late John Wasserman of the San Francisco Chronicle called “the world’s only female female impersonator.” It’s also nice to be reminded of just how hot Clint Eastwood looked in his youth — the years had already started to take their toll on him by the time the spaghetti Westerns made him a star and Dirty Harry made him a superstar — even though out of the five people greeted in the opening credits with an “Introducing … ” tag, Eastwood’s was the only career that went anywhere (and as one of Hollywood’s biggest jazz fans he may have liked the idea of being directed by the man who’d made Billie Holiday’s only feature film).

The First Traveling Saleslady is also blessed with a title song, written by Irving Gertz and Hal Levy and sung by the Lancers, billed as “Coral recording artists” (Coral was a low-rent subsidiary of Decca best remembered today as Buddy Holly’s label), one of those all-male close-harmony vocal ensembles like the Four Aces and the Four Lads, sometimes known as “plaid” groups — and the song, like the movie, is low-keyed and charming even though definitely a minor work. It’s also nice to see a color film that actually uses most of the visible spectrum and achieves a lovely pastel effect that makes the nostalgic conceits of the story actually work.