Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Two 1938 George O’Brien Westerns from RKO: “Border G-Man” and “Painted Desert”

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

The night before last I’d run a Western in the George O’Brien series at RKO, Border G-Man, and last night I ran another one, Painted Desert. Both were made in 1938 and co-starred Laraine Day (TCM ran them both as a tribute to her), though when they were made she was still using her birth name, Laraine Johnson. (The film I Take This Woman took so long to make — it started in 1937 and wasn’t finished until 1940 — that she was Laraine Johnson when she started it and Laraine Day when it finally wrapped.) O’Brien himself had an unusual career; he got started in films in 1922 and by the end of the silent era was a star player at Fox getting parts in masterpieces like Ford’s The Iron Horse and Three Bad Men and Murnau’s Sunrise. He was in Warners’ ill-fated (three extras died and the film bombed at the box office) Biblical epic Noah’s Ark in 1928 and worked for Ford again in Salute and Seas Beneath, but within a few years he was stuck in “B” Westerns and continued grinding them out until the start of World War II, when he enlisted in the Navy. After the war he played a few more parts, mostly for John Ford, but mostly pursued his father’s career, police work, becoming police chief of San Francisco and later director of the California prison system.

Border G-Man had a contemporary setting and a plot premise that had real potential — FBI agent Jim Galloway (O’Brien) comes to a border town in New Mexico to run down Louis Rankin (John Miljan), whose company is buying up both horses and land and running military drills of his men, with the aim of selling his horses and his men (as mercenaries) to an unnamed foreign power in violation of the U.S. Neutrality Act (you remember, the one that so hamstrung President Franklin Roosevelt when he tried to give aid to the Allies in World War II before December 7, 1941). Had this been a Warners movie, it would have been a fast-paced actioner with a (mostly) urban setting; but since this was RKO, and their Western unit at that, it was a dull movie in which Jim infiltrates Rankin’s organization and has to deal with good girl Betty Holden (Day), sister of senator’s son Leslie (William Stelling), whom Rankin is blackmailing and who got into Rankin’s power in the first place when Rankin’s partner Rita Browning (a nice bad-girl performance by Rita LeRoy) vamped him and got him to sign a contract with Rankin that would ruin his father’s political career (though we never find out just what was in the contract or how it could have hurt dad).

Border G-Men rolls along rather sleepily until its final reel, when director David Howard (working from a script by Oliver Drake) finally came up with an action scene. But it’s too little, too late to save a movie whose main assets are Day’s a.k.a. Johnson’s first starring role in a movie (she turns in a light, appealingly winsome performance) and the two songs by Ray Whitley, sung by him with a light country-style ensemble called Ken Card and the Phelps Brothers. One of the two songs was “Back in the Saddle Again,” which Whitley actually wrote for this film — but a year later Gene Autry wanted to use it in his movie Rovin’ Tumbleweeds, so he and Whitley made a few changes to the lyrics and Autry put his name on the song as co-composer. It’s still so identified with Autry a lot of people don’t realize it was actually written and introduced by someone else!

Painted Desert was a much better movie: a semi-remake of a 1930 Pathé film of that title that was remarkable mainly for giving Clark Gable his first billed role on screen — though, oddly, none of the writing credits are the same; the 1930 Painted Desert credited Tom Buckingham and director Howard Higgin with the story, while the 1938 version (which shed the definite article that had been part of the title in 1930) credits Jack Cunningham with the story and John Rathmell and Oliver Drake with the script. The stories are roughly the same, though this one is more compact (60 rather than 85 minutes’ running time) and actually surprisingly well directed by David Howard. It also features O’Brien and Day (née Johnson) as the leads; this time he’s Bob McVey, a cattle rancher in Arizona (specifically identified as a state rather than a territory, which puts the time period in the early 20th century) who resents that old-time miner Charles Banning (Lloyd Ingraham) and his granddaughter Carol (Laraine Johnson/Day) have staked a mining claim on his rangeland.

Banning, a desperate alcoholic, loses the deed to the claim to the villain, Hugh Fawcett (Fred Kohler, Sr.), who pays $500 for it which Banning then goes to the saloon owned by Yukon Kate (Maude Allen) to try to drink it up. He ends up getting himself killed instead, though not before McVey has bought the claim from Fawcett for $2,000 because he knows, and Fawcett doesn’t, that the mine is rich in tungsten (the use of tungsten, an industrial metal, rather than gold or silver as the mine’s product also denotes this as an early 20th-century story rather than one from the frontier days). For the rest of the film Fawcett carries on a determined and increasingly demented campaign to put the Banning-McVey mine out of business, including sabotaging the beams that hold up the mine tunnels, buying up McVey’s bank loans and refusing him further credit (given the insane speculation in bank loans that contributed to the recent economic collapse, this part of the plot seems contemporary today!), using an agent provocateur to foment a strike among the mine’s workers once they’ve worked for two weeks without pay (because McVey can’t get any credit with which to pay them, though ultimately he bails himself out by selling his cattle — or at least enough of them as he can get to market after a Fawcett agent causes a disturbance on the trail and gets the herd to stampede), causing the team of horses drawing the cart taking his first load of tungsten to the train that will deliver it to its purchaser to stampede so the tungsten shipment gets lost down a 200-foot canyon drop, and finally blowing up the entire mine.

Just why Fawcett is so determined to ruin McVey is unclear, especially since we presume he’s a rich man with plenty of other business interests and it’s not like putting the McVey mine out of business is going to do him any good, but the basic plot at least makes for an exciting, action-filled film with a couple of nice parallel love stories as McVey predictably falls for Carol Banning (to the point of hiring musicians — Ray Whitley’s same band from Border G-Men — to serenade her as they walk in the moonlight!) and McVey’s comic-relief sidekick, Placer Bill (Stanley Fields), less predictably falls for Yukon Kate — whose salty mien and determination to run a clean saloon makes her in some ways the most interesting character in the film. There’s some quite stunning cinematography by Harry Wild, too — later he’d go on to shoot a lot of the great RKO noirs but here he’s working with the natural scenery of Red Rock Canyon, California (“playing” Arizona) and doing it full justice.