Saturday, March 12, 2011

I’m from Arkansas (PRC, 1944)

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

I eventually ran us a movie called I’m from Arkansas, which I had expected to be a nice funny movie about hillbillies (the fact that Arkansans are not hillbillies in real life didn’t stop screenwriters Marcy Klauber and Joseph Carole from trotting out all the old “hillbilly” clichés) but turned out to be deadly dull in between some mediocre but still appealing songs. The top-billed actors were Slim Summerville, El Brendel, Iris Adrian and Bruce Bennett — in that order! — for Bennett this was the last circle before he got out of movie hell and started getting roles in prestige productions like Mildred Pierce and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. It also featured singer Jimmy Wakely (whom I’d otherwise heard only on those duets with Margaret Whiting which were aimed at the country market after her popularity began to fall and she could no longer get big sales from the general pop market), the Sunshine Girls (who sing backup for Wakely on — you guessed it — “You Are My Sunshine”!) and the Pied Pipers — just how they ended up in a weird movie like this just two years after they’d been performing with Frank Sinatra as part of Tommy Dorsey’s band is one of the entertainment community’s little mysteries.

Also in the film are the Milo Twins (who performed with Tex Ritter in the PRC musical Western Marked for Murder, a title which seemed to promise a thriller or film noir rather than a musical or a Western) and Carolina Cotton, whose two songs are called “I Love to Yodel” and “Yodel Mountain” — she’s actually one of the best things in the film, and her yodeling isn’t all that different from the kind of ornamentation sung by coloratura soprani, but at the same time I can see the frustration of country-music fans who got tired of the yodeling fad and told Jimmie Rodgers’ first serious biographer, “That damned Jimmie Rodgers, he taught every country boy to yodel.” When I saw the opening credits and noticed nine, count ’em, nine songs listed for a 65-minute movie I wondered how the people in the movie would find time to do anything but sing, and as things turned out it would have been better if PRC had just presented it as a country-music revue without a plot at all.

The plotlet they did give it is as banal as all heck (euphemism used in compliance with the likely morals of these characters): Esmeralda, the prize sow belonging to widow Matilda Alden (Maude Eburne, the marvelous character actress who’d appeared with Barbara Stanwyck as a fellow women’s prison inmate in Ladies They Talk About but seems lost here in the thickets of her stereotyped character), has just given birth to a litter of 18 piglets. (Charles immediately noticed that the pigs were visibly different in appearance, revealing that the filmmakers had tapped more than one litter — but then pigs are always problematic on screen; for what’s probably the most famous pig movie of all time, Babe, 15 pigs had to be used to play the title role because pigs grow very rapidly and it was crucial for the concept that the pig appear to be the same size throughout the film; and for the flop sequel, Babe II: Pig in the City, over 100 pigs had to be used to play Babe because of a longer shooting schedule.)

The city fathers of Pitchfork, Arkansas, where all of this takes place, ultimately realize that the reason for Esmeralda’s unusual fecundity is a mud deposit on Matilda Allen’s farmland — and representatives of the Stowe Packing Company try to grab the land cheaply and trick Matilda into selling it, only because Matilda has just trapped town lout Juniper Jenkins (Slim Summerville) into marrying her, she’s lost ownership of the farm and it’s devolved to her daughter Abigail (Carolina Cotton), who’s savvy enough not to sell. There’s also a New York-based radio band that plays “country” music and goes to Pitchfork on a talent-scouting trip, and its leader, Bob Hamline (Bruce Bennett), falls for Abigail, while Jenkins’ son Efus (Danny Jackson) falls in love with Hamline’s singing star Doris (Iris Adrian). Eventually the plot complications get resolved at the end of reel five and the last part of the film is the talent show Hamline’s musicians put on backing the local performers.

I’m from Arkansas could have been a lot more charming than it was — I was especially disappointed that instead of tapping into the rambunctious, quick-to-anger, feuding stereotypes of rural people the writers and director Lew Landers, the King of Hacks, decided instead to use the stereotypes of rural people as lazy and unenergetic, to the point where when Efus is laying across the porch of his family’s home and his dad is inside trying to get past his son to get out, he just stands there, neither stepping over his son (which would have been easy to do) nor asking him to move; eventually he lifts up his son’s legs so he can get by. One wonders how the actors who’d done better things with their lives in the past — not only Eburne but also Al St. John, who had once played support to Charlie Chaplin and Fatty Arbuckle and here appeared in a small role as a farmer — handled the humiliation of being in a movie like this, especially since this was PRC and there was probably little money in it for them!