Thursday, April 1, 2010

Last of the Wild Horses (Lippert/Screen Guild, 1948)

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

I squeezed in a movie: Last of the Wild Horses, the last item we hadn’t seen on the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 archive disc #22 — coming from 1994, the later years of the show’s run on Comedy Central but early in Mike Nelson’s tenure as host. Last of the Wild Horses was a Robert Lippert “Screen Classics” production from 1948 — unusual in that another producer, Carl K. Hittleman, was credited but Lippert directed it himself (with an uncredited assist from Paul Landres, who officially worked on the film as an editor and eventually took over the direction of Sam Katzman’s rock ’n’ roll movies after Fred F. Sears died — Landres was a decent hack but as far as editors-turned-directors go, he was no David Lean!) based on a script by Jack Harvey. The film had a better-than-usual cast for a “B” Western — the lead was James Ellison, who hadn’t had much of a career but he had co-starred with Alice Faye and Carmen Miranda in Busby Berkeley’s The Gang’s All Here; and one of his two (two?) love interests was Mary Beth Hughes, the marvelous femme fatale of Anthony Mann’s The Great Flamarion), while Douglass Dumbrille (veteran bad guy of two Marx Brothers movies) played a disabled rancher who had the one morally ambiguous part in the entire movie — and given that Dumbrille was almost always “typed” as outwardly respectable, inwardly slimy villains, moral ambiguity was a good thing for him. There’s also Grady Sutton, pretty much wasted in a comedy bit (and not surprisingly the MST3K crew referenced the plot of The Bank Dick in their jokes about him!).

Harvey seemed to have channeled his script out of some memory bank of Western clichés; Ellison plays Duke Barnum, a mystery man who rides into town and rustles up some horse rustlers — we know who’s good and who’s bad because this is literally the sort of movie in which the good guys wear white and the bad guys wear black — forcing them not only to give up the horses they’ve stolen but to walk the three miles back to town without shoes (though their socks look awfully clean and white for people who have supposedly been riding hard for several days). While he’s riding through the country he meets up with Jane Cooper (Jane Frazee, Universal leading lady in the early 1940’s and fill-in for Dale Evans on some of the later Roy Rogers films for Republic) and they have a meet-cute when his horse loses a shoe. She’s the daughter of rancher Charlie Cooper (Douglass Dumbrille), who seems sympathetic when we first meet him but later is revealed to be a tough old bird who insists that all the supposedly “wild” horses in the area (there had to be something that justifies the title!) are his, and is making himself a nuisance enforcing this against other locals.

The real bad guys are Riley Morgan (Reed Hadley) and his henchmen, Rocky Rockford (William Haade) and Hank Davis (Rory Mallinson), who kill Charlie Cooper and frame Duke for the crime by strangling Charlie with an old bandana of Duke’s which they picked up when he dropped it on the range (apparently one of them, or screenwriter Harvey, had read Othello). Duke is sentenced to hang but escapes after the verdict comes in, and while the sheriff (James Millican) wants him taken alive so he can be hanged legally (maybe The Ox-Bow Incident was on Harvey’s reading list, too), but Riley wants to lynch him, especially after the town postmaster (or something), Remedy Williams (Olin Howlin), a more annoying than usual comic-relief character, gets a letter from Hank Davis, who’s quit Riley’s gang and left town, hinting that there’s a truth behind Charlie’s murder that hasn’t been told yet. Riley corners Duke and they have a fight in a barn that’s the kinkiest thing in this whole movie — especially when Riley whips Duke across the face — and indeed that starts the film (after a brief prologue explaining that the film was made in Jacksonville, Oregon, where it takes place, because though 1948-vintage cars roll down its streets it’s otherwise pretty much the way it was in the days of the Old West) and the rest of the story up to that point is then told in flashback — but eventually Riley is dispatched, Duke is exonerated, he and Jane get together and his other girlfriend, Terry Williams (Mary Beth Hughes) — whose connection to the action is never quite explained — loses out (a pity, since she’s a more interesting character and played by a far better actress).

Last of the Wild Horses is a marvelously poetic title that deserves a better movie; as it is, it’s a farrago of Western clichés but at least professionally done and lacking the sheer ineptitude of things like The Brain That Wouldn’t Die and some of the other films MST3K lampooned — and frankly, their lampoon of this film wasn’t that good: they got a few funny bits in (notably their comment on seeing the sign at the gate to Charlie Cooper’s “Double C Ranch” and reading the name as “Double Cranch,” which sounds like a breakfast cereal) but their writing for their own interstital segments was a good deal funnier than their ridicule of the film — notably a sequence early on in which by attempting to transfer a matter dematerializer during an ion storm in space, the principals on both sides are sent to a parallel universe in which Mike Nelson is a scantily-clad evil genius and Dr. Clayton Forrester and TV Frank briefly got to ridicule the movie.