Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Pardon My Gun (U.S. Pathé, 1930)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Pardon My Gun, a 1930 comedy/musical/Western from Pathé, which Charles and I watched last Sunday right after seeing the comedy masterpiece True Confession on TCM. Just about anything would have seemed like an anticlimax after True Confession — a screamingly funny character-driven comedy with Carole Lombard at the peak of her powers and Fred MacMurray as a rather stuck-up leading man (they clash over his insistence on total honesty and her reliance on lying her way out of embarrassing situations) — but Pardon My Gun at least had a certain charm. I was interested in this mainly because it contained the song “Deep Down South,” recorded September 9, 1930 by Bix Beiderbecke and His Orchestra in that very weird session he made for Victor with jazz aces like Benny Goodman, Pee Wee Russell, Jimmy Dorsey and Gene Krupa — and a nerdy-voiced singer named Weston Vaughan who was also used by Artie Shaw for his first session as a bandleader. Ironically, that was the only song listed for this film on imdb.com even though it contains quite a lot of music, including a title song sung by a chorus over the credits as well as an instrumental version of “Twelfth Street Rag” and a quite nice vocal version of a far more famous song than “Deep Down South,” Willard Robison’s “A Cottage for Sale.” Pardon My Gun was also the last movie ever produced by the U.S. branch of the French Pathé studio; Pathé’s U.S. subsidiary had got such a good start that in 1913 U.S. film trade papers were publishing hysterical (in both senses of the word) stories about how Pathé threatened to take control of the entire U.S. film industry. The company maintained its success well into the 1920’s, thanks to their relationship with comedian Harold Lloyd, who produced his own films but used Pathé as his distributor. Then they were hit by three blows in rapid succession: first Lloyd decamped to Paramount, then Hal Roach switched his distribution from Pathé to MGM (thereby costing Pathé the services of up-and-coming comedy team Laurel and Hardy), and in 1929 Pathé was making a quickie musical in New York when a fire broke out on the set and 11 people died — still the worst accident ever, in terms of loss of life, during the actual shooting of a film. Pathé’s public image in the U.S. never recovered from that blow, and though the company nominally continued to exist for two more years it was taken over by RKO and ultimately completely merged with it (though Pathé’s actual physical plant was bought by former RKO production head David O. Selznick, who used it to make the Selznick International movies, including Gone with the Wind).

Pardon My Gun was ostensibly a vehicle for Western star Tom Keene (t/n George Duryea) — he’s the only performer billed above the title — and it has at least a nominal plot: Keene plays Ted Duncan, ranch hand for Pa Martin (Robert Edeson) and boyfriend of Martin’s daughter Mary (Sally Starr). Alas, there’s a rival for ownership of both Martin’s ranch and Martin’s daughter: Cooper (Harry Woods), and Martin and Cooper have bet the ownership of the ranch on an upcoming horse relay race (the riders remain the same throughout but the “relay” part means they change horses in mid-race) between Cooper and Duncan. Cooper hires a gang to kidnap Duncan but he’s rescued, surprisingly easily, by Martin’s younger kids: Peggy (Mona Ray), Hank (Hank McFarlane) and Tom (Tom McFarlane). Not that the plot matters much; it’s basically a set of periodic interruptions between the “barn dance” concert given by Abe Lyman and His Orchestra during the first half of the film and the rodeo that takes up most of the second half, both of which are considerably more entertaining than what there is of a story in this film. During the barn dance we get to see some quite spectacular hoofing by Al Norman (who plays a ranch hand and anticipates Ray Bolger both as a dancer and a “type”) and Ida May Chadwick. “Deep Down South” is performed by Mona Ray with Abe Lyman’s orchestra — and her version is slightly slower than the Bix version and much better sung. Though the song is one of those silly longing-for-the-South ditties, Ray tears into it and belts it out with far more gusto than Weston Vaughan on Bix’s record (Richard Hadlock called Vaughan “glandless,” which probably wasn’t literally true but might as well have been), enough so that I couldn’t help but wish Bix would have had Ray on his record as well. “A Cottage for Sale” is done by the Lyman band with one of his musicians standing up in mid-song and taking a quite nice vocal; it’s faster than the song is usually done today, but then so was Robison’s own recording from 1931. Pardon My Gun isn’t much as a movie, but the musical numbers and the spectacular rodeo sequences make it a fun way to spend 62 minutes even though we have to endure a Black “comedian” (quotes definitely intended) named “Stompie,” playing a character named “Lightnin’,” given a ridiculous fright wig that makes him look like a beta version of Don King and put through all the stereotypical shuffling-servant paces — a far cry from the way Hattie McDaniel was used as one of her voice-of-reason characters in True Confession!