Saturday, February 5, 2011

Ghost-Town Gold (Republic, 1936)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Ghost-Town Gold, one of the first “Three Mesquiteers” Westerns made by Republic (in 1936, when Nat Levine from Republic’s predecessor company Mascot was still in charge of production) and one actually based on a novel of the same title by William Colt MacDonald, who created the “Three Mesquiteers” characters: ranch owner Stony Brook (Robert Livingston), his foreman Tucson Smith (Ray Corrigan) and the comic-relief sidekick Lullaby Joslin (William Terhune). One surprise from the “Three Mesquiteers” series is that it’s just a bunch of Western stories with three leading men — any thought you might have had that MacDonald was riffing more than a title from Alexandre Dumas père and actually attempting to translate the appeal of the Three Musketeers to a Western setting will quickly disappear when you actually watch these movies, which are perfectly competent “B” Westerns but also totally unsophisticated entertainments with only the barest attempts at character definition.

The film begins with Stony and Tucson receiving a check for $42,000 for their latest herd of cattle (it’s hard for me to write the words “herd of cattle” without thinking of the Abbott and Costello comedy routine in which Lou Costello says, “Sure, I heard of cattle!”) and sending Lullaby into the nearby town of Prospect to deposit it. They lament the fact that the even nearer town, Nemesis (where did MacDonald and his screen adapters, Bernard McConville, John Rathmell and Oliver Drake, get these place names?), doesn’t have a bank — though Nemesis doesn’t have much of anything (it’s the “ghost town” of the film’s title) except a few disintegrating buildings and an eccentric who holds a gun on Stony and Tuscon because he thinks they’re there to make him an offer to buy the town, and he won’t sell. As soon as Stony and Tucson give Lullaby the check with solemn warnings not to play cards, gamble or do any of the other horrible things he did the last time they let him alone with money, we know what’s going to happen — thought the writing committee has at least a few mild surprises on us: Lullaby visits the three-card monte table at a carnival sideshow but he out-cons the con man (he sneaks his own cards in so all the three cards are the same, meaning he wins no matter what) and wins a near-life-size doll he uses through the rest of the film as a ventriloquist’s dummy. Alas, the carnival distracts him so he doesn’t get to the bank by its 3 p.m. closing time (Charles commented that modern viewers, used to banks being open longer than that, won’t know what the phrase “banker’s hours” means).

The bank’s owner, Thornton (Burr Caruth), is also the town’s mayor, and he has a nice-looking daughter, Sabina (Kay Hughes, who’s a sprightly screen personality even though she can’t act for shit). Thornton is trying to reclaim the town for its respectable element against the efforts of saloon owner Barrington (LeRoy Mason), who’s staging prize fights in town — the one fight we get to see was obviously filmed especially for this movie (a lot of films with bigger budgets than this just cut in stock footage when they wanted to represent a prize fight!) and director Joseph Kane, a sporadically interesting filmmaker who labored his whole career in the salt mines of Republic’s “B” Western unit, doesn’t use many camera angles on it but at least stages the action well. The fight goes on with Tucson fighting the challenger, Kamatski (Frank Hagney), after champion O’Brien (Robert C. Thomas) walks out because he’s not sure Barrington will be able to afford to pay him — not with Mayor Thornton trying to close down Barrington’s saloon and run him out of town — and Barrington avenges himself by hiring a gold prospector and part-time thug, Jake Rawlins (Milburn Morante), to rob the Thornton bank, thereby threatening to put it out of business. The climax shows a mob of people recruited by Barrington firing on the bank when they’re not sure it will be able to pay back the money they’ve deposited there (a scene that in 1936, in the middle of a Depression marked by bank failures that had cost a lot of people their life savings, probably “read” a lot differently than the filmmakers intended it to!), while the Mesquiteers capture Rawlins and recover the stolen money, but then have to ride back to Prospect and sneak in the bank through the back way to replace it because the front entrance is being fired on by the angry mob.

The running time of this print was 53 minutes and I wondered if it was one of those Republic produced for TV in the early 1950’s, cutting down longer features so they could fit in a one-hour (less commercials) time slot — it’s indicative of the relative restraint in the early years of commercial TV that back then an hour show was 54 minutes of program and six minutes of commercials; today it’s 43 minutes of program and 17 of commercials — but according to the American Film Institute Catalog the film was nearly that short when it was originally released theatrically. What’s most interesting about the movie is how well the action is staged (Yakima Canutt is credited with a small part and probably had a lot to do with designing the fight scenes — he was also likely an all-purpose stunt double for more than one of the billed actors) and how relentless it is; Republic, even that early, was run by people who knew what their market wanted and supplied it by keeping plot exposition to a bare minimum and cutting from action scene to action scene at a breathless pace — even though some of the L.A.-area locations they used are so familiar from other “B” Westerns and action movies you want to wave to them and say hello!