Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Border Patrolman (Atherton Productions, 1936)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I ran a short movie that will probably be the last one I comment on in 2013: The Border Patrolman, an archive.org download of a 1936 production from Sol Lesser’s Atherton Productions (one of Lesser’s many corporate identities), directed by David Howard from a script by Dan Jarrett and Ben Cohen that seems to have originated when one of the writers said to the other, “Hey! Let’s do It Happened One Night as a modern-dress Western!” George O’Brien, whose career rivaled Johnny Mack Brown’s in its sudden descent from prestige roles in major films (like F. W. Murnau’s masterpiece Sunrise and Michael Curtiz’ Noah’s Ark) to a long stint in “B” Westerns, stars as Bob Wallace, a border policeman — it’s unclear what government agency he works for, but his job seems to consist of riding along the fence separating New Mexico from the original Mexico, which as of 1936 was just two strands of barbed wire stretched across a line of thigh-high fenceposts (ah, how times have changed!), and busting people for relatively penny-ante offenses like smoking in fire-prone parkland. This part of his job causes him to run afoul of spoiled heiress Patricia Huntley (Polly Ann Young, sister of Loretta Young and Sally Blane), who thinks nothing of diving into the swimming pool of the New Mexico resort where she’s staying in her tennis outfit, stealing someone else’s robe to dry herself, and generally cutting a swath of destruction and misappropriation, secure in the knowledge that her grandfather’s money will pay for it all. Granddad is Jeremiah Huntley (William P. Carleton), who raised Patricia — that’s right, this is yet another movie featuring the Magically Disappearing Parents — and who’s spoiled her rotten, indulging her in her every whim except one: he strongly disapproves of the man she’s become engaged to, lounge lizard Courtney Maybrook (LeRoy Allen). Wallace catches Patricia and Courtney smoking in a national park and busts them, then is forced to let Patricia go and apologize to her when she comes on to his supervisor, Captain Stevens (Frank Campeau) — whereupon Wallace abruptly quits his job as border patrolman in protest against having to suck up to the rich bitch’s whims. It turns out, as anyone who’d seen more than about three movies in their life might guess, that this is all a blind; Wallace and Stevens are working together to catch a gang of jewel thieves who are smuggling stolen gems across the border and using the New Mexico resort as their base of operations. Needless to say, in addition to being a lounge lizard, a male gold-digger and an overall creep, Courtney is also the mastermind of the jewel-stealing ring; he has two associates, Johnson (Tom London) and Myra (Mary Doran — who had a long career in the 1950’s playing mothers, so it’s something of a surprise to see her young!), whom he’s told to lay low in Mexico until the border patrol stops putting so much heat on the area.

They’re getting restless, though, especially since Myra is in love with Courtney and is understandably jealous of all the attention he’s paying to Patricia. Polly Ann Young and Mary Doran look strikingly alike, and there’s at least one casually dropped line of dialogue suggesting that at some point the writers intended to make that a plot point, but instead they go the It Happened One Night route of having the heiress taken down by a hard-ass proletarian determined to teach her the virtues of simple living. Jeremiah Huntley hires Wallace to “bridle” his granddaughter — the script actually compares taming the wild heiress to breaking a wild horse! — which Wallace does by getting word to the hotel management that she is to have nothing: no cash, no gasoline for her cars, no drinks, without his written approval. She rebels by running off with Courtney and agreeing to marry him immediately in Mexico, which is just fine with him because he’s already stolen a priceless piece of jewelry (we’re told it’s a necklace but onscreen it looks more like a broach) and decided to get it across the border by buying her a Mexican handbag as a present, concealing the piece in a secret compartment in the bag, and thus making her his unwitting “mule.” The film is set in 1936 — something we were made aware of instantly by seeing a car in the opening establishing shot — and the final chase is done with cars instead of horses, though the cars are convertibles so that Wallace, once the baddies shoot out his own tires, is able to do a flying leap into Courtney’s car, take over the wheel and get the now-subdued crooks across the border so they can be arrested. The Border Patrolman benefits from reasonably creative direction by David Howard, who shot the final action sequence in Death Valley (and used it quite effectively, though the scene is handicapped by the lack of a music score — albeit the sorts of sorry stock recordings available to producers like Lesser might not have been much help), but it’s taming-of-the-shrew plot line had already been done to death in far superior screwball comedies.

Indeed, there seems to have been at least some attempt to make The Border Patrolman what I call a “portmanteau movie” — one with a lot of disparate elements seeking to appeal to as many different audiences as possible (a common strategy of producers in the 1930’s and a far cry from the narrow “niche marketing” most filmmakers pursue today, aiming their movies at one and only one set of filmgoers!): it contains a screwball plot, plenty of Western settings (and horses, even though the principals also drive cars) for the Saturday-matinee crowd, a typically dry comic-relief performance by Smiley Burnette (Gene Autry must have had that week off), who also sings two songs, and even a Mexican band (guitar, chitarrón, violin and bass) who do two songs in Spanish in the rather sad-looking cantina to which Courtney takes Patricia for the quickie Mexican wedding he wants to put her through (only she threatens to derail his plans when she gets cold feet and wants to wait). Charles pointed out that in Mexico a cantina is a really sleazy sort of bar to which women would be unlikely to go, but the place in this film is raunchy enough one can well understand Patricia’s disquiet at her groom’s insistence on marrying her in such a place. The film ends, of course, as you’d expect it to, with the crooks in jail, Wallace restored to the good graces of the border police force, and Patricia solidly attached to the poor but decent Wallace, with whom she’s inevitably fallen in love; it isn’t much as a film, but this is at least a good, solid piece of “B” moviemaking and probably helped O’Brien make his re-entrée to the world of the major studios (RKO would sign him after this one for a long-running series of “B” Westerns, with better production finishes than The Border Patrolman but generally without this film’s quirky appeal).