Sunday, June 3, 2012

Tombstone Canyon (KBS/Tiffany/World Wide, 1932)

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

Our “feature” was Tombstone Canyon, a 1932 Western made at the KBS Studios by Ken Maynard and his Wonder Horse, Tarzan (and the horse is indeed a wonder: during the film we see it play dead and function essentially as a “homing horse,” able to find its way between the two main locations entirely on its own without human guidance) — Tarzan actually got second billing in the original ads, well ahead of Maynard’s human co-stars (including Cecelia Parker, who’s best known now as Mickey Rooney’s sister in the Hardy series films). Like Matthew Bourne, Ken (he’s officially listed in the dramatis personae as Ken Mason but his last name is not alluded to in the film) has only the dimmest sense of who or what he is: he’s come to the notoriously dangerous Tombstone Canyon, where a sign warns, “Stranger — don’t let the sun set on you in this town,” with the final period of the sentence supplied by a bullet hole, in search of Luke Waley, who has promised him information as to his identity and heritage. Only when he arrives Luke has already been shot as part of a three-way range war between two rival sets of claimants for the Lazy “S” Ranch — one led by Col. Lee (Lafe McKee) and his daughter Jennie (Cecelia Parker), while the other is led by Alf Sikes (Frank Brownlee), which attempted to ambush Ken as he entered Tombstone Canyon and again in the town’s only bar, the Silver Slipper.

The third faction in this fight is actually a single individual, the “Phantom Killer” (Sheldon Lewis, who was no stranger to incognito villainy — he’d played Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in Louis B. Mayer’s 1920 version, the one Mayer rushed out to compete with the more prestigious, bigger-budgeted Paramount film with John Barrymore), whose motives are as mysterious as his identity. All we learn about him are that he emits a birdlike cry just before he’s about to kill someone and that he’s specifically targeting people on the Sikes side of the range war over the Lazy “S.” Maynard made this film during a temporary period on the “outs” at Universal, where he usually worked, and when he signed to make it the studio was called Tiffany — only Tiffany was on its way out of business due to Depression conditions and instead this KBS production was released via a company called World Wide (which itself went out of business a year later). World Wide’s opening logo is in some ways the most interesting part of this movie — it’s a naked woman, shown from the waist up, holding two giant globes over her breasts (it reminded me of the preposterous cover of the 1968 Die Walküre recorded in Czechoslovakia and released in the U.S. by Westminster, who put on the cover an otherwise naked female model holding Volkswagen hubcaps over her breasts — maybe they figured that in 1968 the Volkswagen and Wagner’s music were America’s two best-known imports from Germany — and it inspired from Charles a nonsense song to the effect that she was suckling asteroids); it’s not surprising virtually none of the extant World Wide films feature this logo (it was probably lopped off for “moral” reasons when the films were sold to TV) but it was a real treat to see it.

Tombstone Canyon made it into the Forgotten Horrors book by George Turner and Michael Price on the strength of its horror elements — Maynard, they wrote, “often mingled a liking for bizarre themes with the usual outdoor action” — and the astonishing salt canyons of the Mojave Desert, where the location scenes were shot (by Ted McCord, unknowingly warming up for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre 16 years later!) — but it’s one of the many “B” Westerns which blew a potentially spectacular premise on sloppy, cheap-jack execution. There are almost no night scenes (a real disappointment given that I was rooting around in the Ken Maynard filmography largely because I’d been so impressed by Smoking Guns, which took place almost entirely at night — but though Smoking Guns had the same star and director, Allan James, as Tombstone Canyon it was filmed during Maynard’s short-lived return to Universal two years later and benefited from the infrastructure of a major studio). There’s a tiresome performance by comedian Bob Burns as the sheriff, who’s played sometimes for comic relief and sometimes seriously (almost always a mistake in a film) and some interesting situations, but surprisingly little action for a “B” Western. The biggest surprise takes place at the end, in which Ken realizes that the Phantom Killer is actually [spoiler alert!] his father — it’s hard to miss the anticipation of Star Wars (another film in which the black-clad arch-villain and the white-knight hero turn out to be father and son!) — and the Phantom has been committing his murders to eliminate the Sikes faction and thereby preserve the Lazy “S” as his son’s heritage; indeed it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that a cultural omnivore like George Lucas may have seen this obscure “B” Western at some point and got the idea from it!