Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Old Corral (Republic, 1936)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Old Corral, a 1936 Republic production that was one of the early Gene Autry vehicles after the success of the serial The Phantom Empire made him a star — and just as Autry had got his start as a supporting player in Ken Maynard’s serial Mystery Mountain and then taken over the lead in The Phantom Empire after Maynard and Mascot production head Nat Levine had a falling-out, so Roy Rogers reportedly made his film debut in The Old Corral as one of the minor villains (!) and then went on to his own successful series of starring vehicles at Republic — though he’s not listed in the credits and I didn’t recognize him (I didn’t recognize Lon Chaney, Jr. either and he was listed in the credits). What’s amazing about this movie is the sheer multiplicity of plots the writers, Bernard McConville (story) and Sherman Lowe and Joseph Poland (script), were able to crowd into a 54-minute running time, and their obvious tongue-in-cheek awareness that this was a fundamentally silly movie and they weren’t going to take it at all seriously even though they weren’t going to make it an outright parody either.

Like most of Autry’s and Rogers’ films, it actually takes place in contemporary times, and it begins with a gangster scene that approaches film noir — gangster Tony Pearl (Buddy Roosevelt) is shot and killed at the Chicago nightclub he owns by rival gangster Mike Scarlatti (John Bradford), and singer Eleanor Spenser (Hope Manning, who later changed her first name to Irene and remade a couple of Bette Davis roles at Warners, including the lead in Spy Ship in which she played a character based on real-life aviatrix and isolationist speaker Laura Ingalls). Spenser flees West, changes her name to Jane Edwards and hides out in the town of Turquoise City, Arizona after her bus is forced to stop there by bandits, the O’Keefe brothers (played by the real-life singing group the Sons of the Pioneers), who stick up not only the bus passengers but also the local sheriff, Gene Autry (as usual, he’s using his real name as the name of his character), who’d been driving a buckboard with a heavy-set man he was arresting for domestic violence against his wife. The bus had crashed into the buckboard, driving it off the road and breaking it in pieces, and the driver had picked up Autry and his prisoner — and as if that weren’t enough plot for you, Edwards has been cruised on the bus by Martin Simms (Cornelius Keefe), who’s trying to hire her for his saloon/gambling house in town — only he’s really after the money he can get from turning her in, either to the authorities (she fled the scene of Pearl’s murder and therefore became a suspect in it herself) or to Scarlatti, who wants to kill her.

As if that weren’t enough plot for you, a customer of Simms pulls out a gun in the middle of the saloon floor and threatens to kill him — only Autry, who just happens to be there, takes the gun away but refuses to take Simms’ complaint on the ground that Simms is running crooked games in his back-room casino and therefore the man, who’d lost big at Simms’ rigged tables, was justified in going after him even if he did so the wrong way. What’s more, the residents of Turquoise City are about to hold a jubilee celebration in honor of the new dam that’s being built in their town, which will provide them water and electrical power (this was the 1930’s and big infrastructure projects like that were “in” in those days, a part of the Zeitgeist that produced this film that’s almost unimaginable today!), and part of the celebration is supposed to be a big concert which Autry will MC as well as performing himself. Three of the O’Keefe brothers are in jail but demand to be allowed to perform at the concert, explaining that the holdup was just a publicity stunt for their vocal group — but they won’t play unless Autry arrests the two other brothers who got away, on the ground that their vocal arrangements are for five people and won’t sound right with any fewer. The whole thing builds to a climax at what’s called “the old corral” — though it looks just like an old ranch building with no sign that it was ever used to pen a herd of cattle (which is what a “corral” actually is) — in which Gene arrests both Scarlatti and Sims and looks headed for a happily-ever-after finish with Jane née Eleanor (he even kisses her at the end, after previously having shown no discernible romantic interest in her at all!).

Interspersed in all of this are more songs than I could keep count of, as well as some familiar strains in the backing music (their rent-a-score included some classical bits that both Charles and I thought familiar, though we couldn’t place them — nothing as obvious and jarring as “The Moldau” used as a backdrop for a fleet of Polynesian outrigger canoes in Murnau’s Tabu!); Manning tries one duet with Autry but their voices don’t blend for shit (and it didn’t help that Republic kept the level of her voice well below his!) but overall the music, like Autry’s performance, is nice and comfortable (and he does a number with yodels, accompanying himself on guitar, reminding us that before he ever made a film Autry was already a recording star: Columbia had signed him as a yodeling country balladeer to compete with Jimmie Rodgers on Victor!) — and the movie as a whole is respectable light entertainment, made by all concerned with tongues firmly in cheeks and an awareness that this good-natured formula was incredibly popular with audiences of the time.