Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Ride ’Em, Cowboy (Universal, 1942)

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

The film was Ride ’Em, Cowboy, sixth in sequence in the Abbott and Costello boxed set at Universal and a movie of which I have extra-special childhood memories because my grandfather gave my mom and stepfather a couple of reels spliced together from home-movie versions of several Universal features put out by Castle Films and Official Films. Some of these were self-contained cartoons and some were artfully re-edited sequences from classic live-action features, including one called No Indians, Please! re-edited from three sequences in Ride ’Em, Cowboy: the one that introduces the Indian characters (Lou Costello, playing around at a trading post, picks up a bow and arrow, shoots it into a heart adorning a tepee, is told that this means he has to marry the woman who lives there, a hot-looking Indian babe named Sunbeam [Linda Brent] emerges and Lou likes the idea — until she explains that the tepee’s owner is her sister Moonbeam [Jody Gilbert], who looks like Oliver Hardy in drag and quite possibly was actually played by a man on screen), a chase scene in which Abbott and Costello try to escape the tribe and a final scene (that actually occurs earlier in the full feature than the chase) in which Costello ends up in “Dr. Ha-Ha’s Sanitarium” and the head of the place turns out to be an Indian. (In the full-length feature he’s really Bud Abbott in “Indian” drag.)

I’d got quite familiar with this digest version well before I saw the film “complete,” and when I did it turned out to have some other delights: it was Ella Fitzgerald’s film debut (she sings “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” on the back of the bus taking the principals to the Lazy S dude ranch on which most of the film takes place, and she also adds a few choice interjections to a song called “Rockin’ and Reelin’” that purports to be a swing version of a square dance) and also the film that first introduced the song “I’ll Remember April” (though an LP collection called Music from the Late Show released in the 1950’s attributed “I’ll Remember April” to the movie Phantom Lady, which actually came out two years later). Ride ’Em, Cowboy was also the fifth and last Abbott and Costello movie directed by Arthur Lubin, who’d started in films as an actor and had begun directing in 1934 — he would continue well into the 1960’s, mostly on TV, and as a director he had a flair for Gothic stylistics but rarely got scripts that would take advantage of it. (One time he did was the 1940 Universal horror/sci-fi movie Black Friday; he also threw some surprisingly noir-ish scenes in the 1947 jazz musical New Orleans, a treasurable film because Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday and Woody Herman are in it, though they’re not all that well used.) Plot-wise, Ride ’Em, Cowboy is the old chestnut about the hot-selling Western writer “Bronco Bob” Mitchell (Dick Foran) whose exploits are being passed off by his publicist as autobiographical when he’s not only not a real cowboy but he barely knows which end of a horse is which ­— which doesn’t stop him from making an entrance in an opening scene at a rodeo riding — or at least moving on top of — a horse and belting out a nicely stentorian “Western” ballad by Don Raye and Gene De Paul called “Give Me My Saddle.”

Abbott and Costello play peanut and hot-dog (respectively) vendors who get themselves fired and chased off the lot; they hide out in one of the chutes out of which a bull is supposed to come out for a roping contest, and the bull rides by Bronco Bob, who panicks at the sight of it and thereby it’s able to gore Anne Shaw (Anne Gwynne) just before she was supposed to enter a trick-riding contest which would have won her $10,000 that her dad Sam Shaw (Samuel S. Hinds) needs to save his Lazy S dude ranch. Bronco Bob offers her a $10,000 check made out to cash, she throws it back in his face, he tosses it to the ground — “Did he just throw away a $10,000 check made out to cash?” an incredulous Charles asked at this point — and Lou Costello picks up the check and tears it up, explaining to Bud Abbott, “It wasn’t even made out to me.” “Who was it made out to?” says Abbott. “Some guy named Cash,” Costello replies. The two hide out in a van with more cows and end up on a train bound for the Lazy S, where Bronco Bob intends to train to learn to do the things for real he’s been making up in his books — and of course he wants Anne to train him, and proximity turns her hate into love. There’s also a real cowhand named “Alabam” Brewster (played by real-life Western star Johnny Mack Brown, who in the late 1920’s had been under contract to MGM and had co-starred with such illustrious names as Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo — only in 1931 MGM production chief Irving Thalberg reviewed the rough cut of a new Crawford/Brown movie called Laughing Sinners, decided Brown wasn’t holding his weight in his scenes, and ordered everything of his reshot with another actor, Clark Gable — so Gable went on to be a superstar and Mack Brown got dropped by MGM and picked up by Universal for a “B” Western series) who’s sort of a rival for Anne’s affections, though writers Edmund L. Hartmann (“original” story), Harold Shumate (“adaptation”), True Boardman and John Grant (script) mercifully don’t push that trope too hard.

Between all the Seven Chances-ish stuff of Lou Costello being pursued by a jumbo-sized Indian drag queen and her/his whole tribe determined to make an honest man of him, there are some spectacular chase scenes and a subplot of a band of gangsters trying to fix the final rodeo so the Lazy S loses, and Mitchell agrees to take the bet against the Lazy S — only he means to win and the $10,000 is his way of paying off the debt to Anne which he feels he owes but she was too good to take from him directly. Ride ’Em, Cowboy is one of Abbott and Costello’s best films, with a good mix of slapstick and dialogue humor (and the slapstick is aided immeasurably by Universal’s excellent process work — similar sequences in the later Laurel and Hardy comedies for Hal Roach sometimes fall relatively flat because the process work is so bad it’s all too clear Stan and Ollie aren’t in any real danger in that supposedly “runaway” car) and great singing by Ella Fitzgerald, who essentially is to this film what the Andrews Sisters were to Buck Privates, In the Navy and Hold That Ghost and Martha Raye was to Keep ’Em Flying. Billed in the original trailer as a “sepia songstress” (the horribly cutesy-poo way they had of letting the audience know she was Black), Ella does her star-making hit “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” (which had hit for her with Chick Webb’s band in 1938, four years before this movie was made) and also interjects into “Rockin’ and Reelin’,” with a white vocal group (three men, one women) called the Merry Macs who turned up on some of Judy Garland’s Decca records at the time and get some pleasant songs here, including “Beside the Rio Tonto Shore,” used as backdrop for a romantic ride at twilight through the Iverson Ranch, the fabled Western location where many of the landscape sequences were shot. Ironically, Ella’s appearance and (ill) use in this movie is uncomfortably premonitory of the way the same director, Arthur Lubin, used Billie Holiday in New Orleans five years later. He cast both Ella and Billie as the white heroine’s maids — and both women seem horribly uncomfortable trying to get the servile maid's dialogue out of their mouths but visibly loosen up when they get to sing.

One wishes that Ella could have introduced “I’ll Remember April” — it’s the sort of lightly jazz-flavored standard she sang so well later on (in the 1950’s, when the slightly congested quality of her voice in the early years had cleared up and her voice had become even more beautiful than it was here) — but instead Dick Foran (who actually had quite a nice voice if you can handle his stentorian tones and unwillingness to phrase) introduces it by singing it to Anne Gwynne during one of those long hayrides. Between the long and inventive slapstick scenes, the nice dialogue bits (though the poker game in which Costello gets involved is a case of having gone to the well once too often and doesn’t have the snap of the craps sequence in Buck Privates), the generally good Raye-De Paul songs and an uninventive but at least serviceable plot (is it only a coincidence that the plot line involving “Bronco Bob” being the creation of a publicity agent promoting his books resembles the real-life career of “Buffalo Bill” Cody?), Ride ’Em, Cowboy is a quite entertaining and very funny film, a worthy one for their last film with their star-making director, Arthur Lubin (and why he never worked with them again after making five of their best films is a mystery) and one well balanced between slapstick and dialogue comedy — and Ella Fitzgerald is just frosting on the cake!