Saturday, April 14, 2012

Smoking Guns (Ken Maynard Productions/Universal, 1934)

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

The film was Smoking Guns, a 1934 Ken Maynard Western from Universal which I’d been interested in seeing ever since George E. Turner and Michael H. Price briefly referenced it in their book Forgotten Horrors (they didn’t actually devote a chapter to it because as a major-studio production it didn’t count within their purview, which was to write exclusively about independent films of the period). They called it “the weirdest Western ever made” (emphasis in original), “a study of madness, disease and superstition that hardly matches up with the generic blandness of its release title — Maynard had intended to call the project Doomed to Die — and whose defiance of convention provoked Universal Pictures into firing its ticket-selling producer/writer/star.” Unlike most people who worked on “B” Westerns on either side of the camera, Maynard considered himself an artist and not just someone cranking out cheap movies for the money. He not only starred in Smoking Guns but produced it (the title proclaims it “A Ken Maynard Production”) and wrote the original story, though another writer, Nate Gatzert, turned it into a script, and Alan James, a veteran of Maynard’s unit, directed.

Smoking Guns opens in the office of political boss Silas Stone (William Gould), who’s threatening Ken Masters (Ken Maynard — once again a “B” Western star plays a character with a name very similar to his own). Ken has come to Stone to threaten to expose him for the death of his father in prison — Ken claims that his dad was in prison in the first place only because Stone framed him for the crime — and soon enough Silas Stone is murdered by being clubbed with a piece of gold ore. Ken is instantly accused of the crime, even though both we and he know the real killer is Silas Stone’s son Hank (Harold Goodwin) — but the local lawmen are loyal to the Stones and make it clear that if Ken can’t get away from them, they’re going to lynch him instead of arresting him and bothering with minor little details like a trial. Ken does escape, and when next we see him it’s three years later, he’s hiding in the Mexican swamp country (where is there swampland on the Texas/Mexico border? I thought it was all the Rio Grande running through miles and miles of desert on both sides!), his hair is long and gray and he has a long, gray beard — though he’s wearing the same flannel shirt and that’s about the only cue we have to understand that this is he. After three years as a fugitive in Mexico Ken has finally been run down by Texas Ranger Dick Evans (Walter Miller), who insists on handcuffing Ken and taking him in. (Ken, if anything, seems relieved when he’s caught; at least in the hands of the Texas Rangers he has a fighting chance of making it into a courtroom so he can clear himself legally instead of hanging from a convenient tree.)

Along the way Dick catches malaria — the disease isn’t specified in the script but the fact that we’re in (typically mosquito-filled) swamp country, the high fevers and delirium Dick is exhibiting and the fact that both he and Ken lament that they’ve run out of quinine, the basic malaria treatment in the days before antibiotics (and often the first-line treatment even today!), make it clear what he’s sick from — and Dick ultimately ends up so weak that Ken can’t possibly travel with him if they’re handcuffed together. Ken tells Dick he’ll have to remove the handcuffs, but Dick has lost the key for them. Ken offers to shoot off Dick’s end of the cuffs but warns that this could cost him a hand, and Dick agrees on the rather sensible ground that if he doesn’t both of them are doomed to die (a phrase Ken actually uses in his dialogue). Now that they’re no longer handcuffed to each other, Ken and Dick are able to reach the canoe Dick used to reach Ken’s remote location — only as they’re paddling out of the swamp country they come across a pride of crocodiles. Ken warns Dick not to shoot at the crocodiles, saying the crocs will let them pass if they do so without bothering them — but Dick shoots at them anyway and the crocs attack, overturn the canoe and force both Ken and Dick to wade to the shore for safety. Ken makes it but Dick doesn’t; a croc chews up his leg and, back at Dick’s cabin, it becomes gangrenous. Ken offers to do a D.I.Y. amputation to save Dick’s life but Dick chooses instead to commit suicide, asking Ken to deliver a letter he wrote to his girlfriend, Alice Adams. (Referring to the Katharine Hepburn vehicle of that title, made a year later, Charles joked, “You can’t go to see Alice Adams! She’s in a whole other movie!”)

Ken shaves off his beard and darkens his hair, then assumes Dick’s identity and heads for the town where Alice (Gloria Shea) lives with her father, Captain Adams of the Texas Rangers (Jack Rockwell). His plan is to impersonate Dick and tell people it was Ken who died on the trek home, but that in the meantime he (Dick) became convinced Hank Stone actually killed his father and he wants to enlist the Rangers to get the goods on him. The Adamses’ living room contains an unusual music player that looked like a disc phonograph but was actually a giant music box: it played metal discs with prongs on the surface that triggered tone bars, like an ordinary music box, but the discs could be changed so the player could play different songs. I’d always seen this device referred to as a Regina, after one of the companies that manufactured them (I don’t know whether Regina had a patent monopoly on the process or it had competitors; I do know that after phonographs became popular, the Regina company made a machine that could play both records and Regina music-box discs). Alice “outs” the false “Dick” as Ken when he walks in while she’s playing one of the discs; he pretends to like the song but Alice knows the real Dick always hated that song. She’s also on to him because he calls her “Alice” instead of “Kitten,” Dick’s pet name for her. But she agrees to keep his secret and help him once he gives her Dick’s last letter.

Also in the house are the Adamses’ Black servants, Cinders (Martin Tarner) — “Well, at least they didn’t call him ‘Snowflake,’” Charles said — and his girlfriend Clementine (Etta McDaniel, Hattie’s near-lookalike sister), who are driving through the local cemetery (in a cart pulled by Cinders’ improbably named horse, Deuteronomy) when they spot what Cinders is convinced is a ghost. He’s actually Ken’s supposedly “dead” father Bob (Ed Coxen), who somehow got out of prison and escaped the plot on his life, and has been living in the cemetery ever since and has got as grizzled and unkempt as his son and Dick did earlier in the film. Then Hank Stone appears on the scene as Ken’s (Dick’s) rival for Alice’s hand; he takes her to a Hallowe’en party even though she’d much rather go with Ken, and has a jealous hissy-fit when Ken grabs the first dance with Alice. At the party, Hank figures out who Ken really is and organizes his henchmen to ambush and kill Ken, which they plan to do in a mineshaft connected to the graveyard by a secret passage (don’t ask — there must have been a lot of tunnels in the Universal set archive that represented secret passages in their horror films). The “smoking guns” come out in the mine tunnels and Ken and his dad try their best to hold off Hank’s men, and then finally Captain Adams leads the Rangers to save the day, catch the baddies and allow Ken to rescue Alice, who’s been kidnapped by Hank; Ken does a daring rescue and literally pulls Alice off Hank’s cart (though there’s a cut that spares us the actual rescue; I guess Ken Maynard Productions’ budget didn’t stretch to stunt doubles willing and/or able to do this) for a happy ending.

Smoking Guns is the sort of movie that takes a genre with well-established conventions and runs roughshod (pardon the “Western” metaphor) over them, and while it never again gets quite as moving or in-your-face as it is in the scenes with Ken and Dick (the real one) in the swamp, it’s still a quite daring piece of work. It also benefits big-time from having been shot by a major studio with access to state-of-the-art production equipment for 1934 — including processors able to do day-for-night shots (oddly, the Sinister Cinema disc we were watching includes the original trailer — in which shots that are nighttime scenes in the actual film were shown in daylight!) and plenty of lights (one reason a lot of ultra-cheap production companies in the 1930’s specialized in Westerns was they could be written so they took place almost entirely outdoors and in daylight, eliminating the need for lights — but the notoriously impatient Maynard wasn’t about to put up with those sorts of limitations on his imagination and at Universal he didn’t have to) — though, oddly, there’s almost no background music (and while enough 1930’s talkies were overscored that we don’t miss it, there are scenes that could have benefited from well-chosen stock cues from Universal’s library).

It’s an utterly fascinating movie that benefits from Maynard’s obsessiveness — though the American Film Institute Catalog (whose reviewers were unable to see it, by the way) claims that it was shot in Bronson Canyon, it certainly didn’t look like those ultra-familiar locations, mainly because so much of it was deliberately kept dark and shadowy. (Not many Westerns — even big-budget ones with enormous stars — are set so near-totally at night as this one is.) Maynard had a horrible reputation in the industry — an contributor signed as “Jack Backstreet” wrote that Maynard “had an enormous ego with a temper to match, and he had an unfailing habit of alienating almost everyone he worked with. Unlike his brother Kermit, Maynard was widely considered to be an arrogant jackass — he drank heavily and spent his large salary like a drunken sailor. He lavished a fortune on women, fancy cars and even had his own airplane. … [He] cussed out casts and crews alike; his ego was out of control and he was loathed by everyone” (one wonders if he was the model for the scapegrace Western-star character played by Howard Keel in the 1951 Western spoof Callaway Went Thataway) — but anyone who could make as unconventional a movie as Smoking Guns, achieving unusual quality and originality in one of the most formulaic genres of all time, deserves acknowledgment.