Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Cowboy from Brooklyn (Warner Bros., 1938)

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

The film was Cowboy from Brooklyn, a 1938 Warner Bros. release from the dog days of Dick Powell’s status as a Warners contract player. He starts the film as a hobo, Elly Jordan (an oddly “feminine” name for a Dick Powell character!), with a growth of beard that makes him look more like the Dick Powell who played Philip Marlowe than the one who was a Warners musical star, who’s rehearsing in a boxcar with his band “The Three Sharps” (himself on vocal and guitar, Candy Candido on novelty vocals and bass, and Harry Barris — one of the original three Rhythm Boys with Bing Crosby and Al Rinker — on backing vocals and piano). The workers on the train are alerted by the sound and throw The Three Sharps off the train, along with their instruments — including the piano, which wasn’t actually theirs but one the train was shipping that they just opened up and took advantage of. They’re thrown off in Cody, Wyoming near the dude ranch owned by Pop and Ma Hardy (Granville Bates and Emma Dunn) but really run by their daughter Jane (Priscilla Lane).

Elly pleads with her for some food and says he’s willing to work for it; she doesn’t have any extra work on the ranch, but when he says he’s with two other people and they’re a musical band, she puts them to work entertaining at the nightly camp-outs — thereby pissing off her boyfriend Sam Thorne (Dick Foran), who also claims to be a singer-guitarist but merely croaks an off-key version of “Home on the Range.” (Foran actually had a nice, if not great, voice, and four years later he got to do essentially the same plot in Ride ’Em, Cowboy with Abbott and Costello, in which he got to play the urban tenderfoot passed off as a cowboy singer that Powell is playing here.) Elly accepts even though he’s deathly afraid of animals — all animals; he cowers in fear at seeing a rabbit emerge from a burrow hole (“He’s seen Night of the Lepus,” I joked) and flees in terror from a mule in what turns out to be a surprisingly creative (especially for a film whose official director was the hacky Lloyd Bacon) Keatonesque slapstick scene staged in longshot, with Dick Powell in front, the mule behind him, and Priscilla Lane on horseback behind him until she falls off and he gets to rescue and meet-cute her. Things go in this vein for 25 minutes until theatrical producer Roy Chadwick (Pat O’Brien) and his publicity guy/chauffeur Pat Dunn (Ronald Reagan, in his second year in the movie business; this was only his sixth film) show up, hear Elly’s voice and immediately sign him up. The only catch is that he has to use the name “Wyoming Steve Gibson” and pass as a real Westerner, and the scene in which Jane Hardy coaches him to do that (including a warning always to use the word “reckon” when he means “think”) is one of the best in the film. “Gibson” becomes a big in-person and radio star in New York until Thorne crashes an amateur-hour show and, when he’s gonged off, hogs the mike and announces to the city and the world that “Gibson” is a no-good fake who stole his gal.

Eventually “Gibson” has to overcome his fear of animals — which he does by being hypnotized by an entertainer from the dude ranch, Professor Landis (James Stephenson), though as a side effect two other people (including Mr. Urban himself, Pat O’Brien!) are also hypnotized into thinking they’re Wyoming Steve Gibson — and he enters the rodeo at Madison Square Garden, wins a big event, sets a world’s record in something or other (not being a big rodeo fan I didn’t remember what) and ends up with Jane. Cowboy from Brooklyn is considerably funnier than most of Dick Powell’s musicals; based on an old play called Howdy, Stranger by Louis Pelletier and Robert Sloane, it was adapted by Earl Baldwin in a light, campy way that genuinely works on screen — though the songs are pretty simple, not up to the best work of Richard Whiting (Margaret Whiting’s father), Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer, awfully high-powered talents to come up with things with titles like “Cowboy from Brooklyn,” “Howdy, Stranger” and “Ride, Tenderfoot, Ride.”