Monday, June 27, 2016

The Wistful Widow of Wagon Gap (Universal-International, 1947)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I broke out a movie that was pretty dramatically different from Boys for Beauty: the next film in sequence in the Abbott and Costello boxed set from Universal, The Wistful Widow of Wagon Gap. It’s not a film I was that familiar with before — I think I had it confused with their film Comin’ ’Round the Mountain from four years later (which featured one of the most preposterous singers of all time, “Dorothy Shay, the Park Avenue Hillbilly”) — but it turned out to be one of their best, thanks to the presence of Marjorie Main as the title character. (She actually shared billing ahead of the title with Abbott and Costello, and deserved it.) The opening scenes achieve a kind of absurd if unwitting surrealism that carries over through the rest of the film even though the writers were A&C’s “usual suspects” (Robert Lees, Frederic Rinaldo and John Grant, adapting an “original” story by D. D. Beauchamp and William Bowers) and the director, Charles T. Barton, was also an A&C “regular.”

Abbott and Costello play Duke Egan and Chester Wooley (respectively), household-goods salesmen who hope to make a quick few bucks dumping their wares on the housewives of Wagon Gap, Montana (the opening credits proclaim the setting as “MONTANA — In the Days when Men Were Men … with Two Exceptions”), only the stagecoach taking them there stops three miles outside of town (a Universal self-parody of the beginning of Dracula, where Dwight Frye’s stage won’t take him to the doors of Castle Dracula?) because Wagon Gap is a wide-open town where murder seems to be the inhabitants’ principal avocation. The stage driver sells Abbott and Costello guns for their own protection — naturally Abbott’s gun is considerably longer than Costello’s and there’s a nice bit of byplay about who has the bigger gun (what do they think they’re doing — running for President as Republicans?) — and Costello fires his in the air once they get to Wagon Gap. An outlaw falls off the roof of a building, shot dead, and while his real killer is fellow badass and local saloon owner Jake Frame (Gordon Jones), Costello gets blamed for the killing. At first the townspeople couldn’t be gladder that the traveling salesman apparently got rid of the outlaw, but then they change their minds and decide that Abbott and Costello should be lynched immediately — this film was made just four years after The Ox-Bow Incident and it seemed like the writers were deliberately parodying it — only Jim Simpson (William Ching), leader of a group that’s trying to bring law and order to Wagon Gap, insists to Judge Benbow (George Cleveland in a very W. C. Fieldsian performance) that the two out-of-towners be given a fair trial. Eventually Simpson cites a law that says that because he killed the outlaw Hawkins, he’s now responsible for all Hawkins’ debts and also for supporting his widow (Marjorie Main) and seven kids. Accordingly Abbott and Costello end up basically as indentured servants on the Widow Hawkins’ ranch — though Abbott typically manages to evade having to do any work — and among Costello’s tasks is keeping the widow’s daughter Juanita (Audrey Young, later Mrs. Billy Wilder) from fulfilling her desire to sing at Frame’s saloon (a set obviously recycled from the Mae West-W. C. Fields vehicle My Little Chickadee).

Eventually Costello is appointed the town sheriff on the ground that nobody will dare kill him for fear of being stuck with the obligation to take care of Widow Hawkins and her kids, though to keep Costello from having to marry the widow Hawkins Abbott cooks up a scheme to spread the rumor that a railroad is going to buy the widow’s property and make her the richest woman in town — only the rumor turns out to be true, Hawkins ends up with Judge Benbow, and Abbott and Costello end up in a buckboard on their way to California — only Costello fires a gun into the air again and ends up with a band of Indians chasing them. Charles noted the similarities to the Abbott and Costello cycle of horror-film spoofs which came later — particularly the tag scene of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (made two films later on their résumé and also directed by Charles T. Barton) in which, having vanquished all the other menaces, Abbott and Costello hear the voice of the Invisible Man (Vincent Price) on the soundtrack threatening them anew (though Laurel and Hardy also used the gimmick of having the duo put in some new or new-old peril that forces them to flee just as it seems there’s going to be a happy ending for them, most notably in Pack Up Your Troubles) — and it also features the gimmick which A&C used again and again and again, in which Lou Costello complains of some horrible anomaly — in this case, a frog hiding in the bowl of soup which is supposed to be his dinner at Marjorie Main’s table — only when Abbott responds the scene has reverted to normal. The Wistful Widow of Wagon Gap is a quirky outlier in the Abbott and Costello oeuvre, made at Universal-International at a time when they’d fallen from their peak of popularity but still sold enough tickets that the new management kept them under contract despite the International merger and the attempt of the new studio to cultivate a higher-class image. It’s also a very funny film, though much of the humor is a good deal more subtle than the A&C norm — and Marjorie Main’s performance is a jolt of energy start-to-finish even though she was a real-life widow whose attitude towards her late husband was quite different from her character’s goodbye-and-good-riddance: not only did she never date again, but people who worked with her on films made after her husband died recalled her turning her head nowhere in particular after a take and asking her late husband, “Was that O.K.?”