Friday, October 20, 2017

Men of America (RKO, 1932)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Men of America was a 57-minute RKO vehicle for William Boyd, later Hopalong Cassidy in the long-running series which began at Paramount and ended at United Artists. Here he plays “Jim Parker” in a film set in the year it was made, 1932, though with two prologue sequences featuring Smokey Joe Miller (Charles “Chic” Sale, the second lead) warding off Indians and saving cattle trains (done with quite effective use of stock footage from older, more lavishly budgeted productions — it’s a testimony to the quality of the RKO effects department that the stock footage is not obvious and only the relative unambitiousness of this film gives away the fact that it’s been used) before he settles into a charmingly rustic dotage in the small town of “Paradise Valley” in northern California. Boyd’s character is a World War I veteran desperately trying to make a living as a farmer in the area and flirting with Smokey Joe’s granddaughter Annabelle (Dorothy Wilson, a subtle and genuinely charming performer who could have become a major star with a few more breaks), who clerks in the general store Smokey Joe owns. There’s also a tight-knit community in the area with a wide assortment of ethnic types: Native American “Indian Tom” (Alphonz Ethier), Italian vintner Tony Garboni (Henry Armetta), Ole Jensen (Fred Lindstrom) et al. Trouble comes to paradise (valley) in the form of Cicero (played by Ralph Ince, who also directed), an escapee from Leavenworth, and his gang, who first steal gasoline and food from Smokey Joe’s store and then turn out to be hiding out in the mountain until they can figure out a way to “break” the 50 thousand-dollar bills that are the only money they got in their most recent bank robbery. Just when you think this film is going to anticipate The Petrified Forest by three years, instead of holing up inside Smokey Joe’s store and holding the principals hostage, the gangsters return to their redoubt in Box Canyon after having shot Tony Garboni for having refused to help them pass their stolen money. (Henry Armetta gets a surprising dying-words speech in which he upbraids the mob’s Italian member for giving all Italian-Americans a bad name.)

Thanks to a misunderstanding, Garboni’s seven-year-old son fingers Jim Parker as his father’s murderer, so our poor hero finds himself pursued by both the townspeople (who are threatening to lynch him) and the gangsters (since he’s the only one — aside from Smokey Joe, and he seems to have forgotten all about them! — who’s seen them and knows of their existence). Parker saunters into the schoolhouse where the townspeople are debating his own lynching — exhibiting the kind of self-assured swagger that would later become John Wayne’s trademark — and in nothing flat he manages to convince them that the gangsters exist and they, not he, killed Garboni. (The speed with which he talks them out of lynching him is frankly unbelievable, but let’s be realistic here; it’s only a 57-minute movie.) This sets up a vertiginous shoot-out climax in the mountains in which Parker manages to take out the gang’s machine-gun shooter and later to kill Cicero in a great feat of sharpshooting even though the baddie is holding Annabelle hostage (a bit of business Alfred Hitchcock repeated two years later as the climax of the first version of The Man Who Knew Too Much). The title promises a greater movie than it delivers — one would have expected an expansive, expensive Richard Dix vehicle along the lines of Cimarron and The Conquerors — and director Ince’s pacing is rather stodgy until the climax, while the story is no great shakes either (it was written by Humphrey Pearson and Henry McCarty, and adapted into a screenplay by Samuel Ornitz — later a major writer — and Jack Jungmeyer), but Men of America is the sort of movie with reliable audience appeal, good of its kind (apparently William Boyd took over the direction himself in the scenes in which Ralph Ince appeared — interestingly they’re never on screen at the same time!) and benefiting from beautiful photography by J. Roy Hunt, who was no doubt helped by the fact that virtually all of it took place outdoors and therefore he didn’t have to worry about lights! — 10/27/04


I figured I could squeeze in at least a “B” movie last night before Charles and I crashed, and I found it in one of my later recordings off Turner Classic Movies: Men of America, an hour-long RKO “B” modern-day Western from 1932 starring William Boyd as Joe Parker, a rancher who’s unjustly suspected of murdering a local farmer. The film starts with a charming montage of “Smokey Joe” Miller (Charles “Chic” Sale, an important character star of the time in radio and on bookshelves as well as in films: he did a surprisingly restrained performance as Abraham Lincoln in a 1935 MGM short about the Gettysburg Address called The Perfect Tribute, but most of his other appearances, including this one, are just annoying), first in 1887 Arizona (where he’s shooting at cattle rustlers), then in 1899 California (where he’s shooting at bandits), then in 1932 (where he’s running a gas station and blacksmith shop — thereby servicing both horse and car owners — and popping popcorn over the open fire of his furnace). All this tales place in the idyllic farming town writers Henry McCarty, Humphrey Pearson, Sam Ornitz and Jack Jungmeyer all too obviously named “Paradise Valley,” only it gets invaded by a bunch of big-city bank robbers in a fancy car. The gang is headed by Caesar (Ralph Ince, who’s also credited with directing the film, though according to William Boyd co-directed, taking over behind the cameras for all the scenes Ralph Ince was in), who’s pissed off because all they brought back from the bank robbery was 50 $1,000 bills, way too big to risk spending and thereby bringing the law down on them. They hide out in a deserted canyon near Paradise Valley and get the windshield of their car shot at by Smokey Joe, who probably would have bit the big one then and there had not shining Western hero Jim Parker come along, noticed that the gangsters had Thompson submachine guns (the famous “Tommy gun”) and therefore Smokey Joe was hopelessly under-armed.

Nothing much happens in this movie except that the gangsters steal from the locals and ultimately shoot down and kill the head of an Italian-American farming family, Tony Garboni (played by another habitually annoying character actor, Henry Armetta). Thanks to testimony from Garboni’s son, who saw his dad and Parker having an argument and noticed that Parker was carrying a gun, the townspeople organize a vigilante posse aimed at either arresting Parker or lynching him — but they’re talked out of it in nothing flat by Parker himself, who persuades Garboni figlio that he couldn’t possibly have murdered the kid’s dad and re-organizes the townspeople to go after the real crooks. Only the real crooks have kidnapped Parker’s girlfriend Anne (Dorothy Wilson, a potentially good actress way overqualified for this damsel-in-distress role) and intend to take her with them as a hostage while they make their getaway. There’s a surprisingly violent (for a 1932 movie; apparently the relative freedom of loose Production Code enforcement in the so-called “pre-Code” era went to violence as well as sex!) shoot-out in which both most of the gangsters and a few of the townspeople bite the big one, and the climax eerily anticipates the ending of the first version of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much two years later: with his unparalleled skills as a marksman, Jim Parker has to pick off Caesar without hurting his girlfriend, whom Caesar is holding hostage. The problem with Men of America — aside from the gap between its grandiloquent title and its prosaic reality (in 1932 one would have expected an RKO film called Men of America to be an epic multi-generational saga starring Richard Dix, along the lines of Cimarron and The Conquerors) — is that so many of its basic dramatic tropes were done much better in later films: The Petrified Forest, High Sierra and others. Indeed, the whole Western-town-menaced-by-gangsters schtick was what Mel Brooks and his writing committee were making fun of in Blazing Saddles.

It’s a decently done film but hampered by an odd slowness one doesn’t expect to find in an hour-long “B” — it’s not until 45 minutes in that we see anyone get killed (though we hear that one of the bank robbers was shot and killed during the robbery by a bank security guard, and that the dead gang member was the one who was carrying the bag full of low-denomination bills, which is why the gang left the bank only with those peskily difficult-to-pass $1,000’s) and the members of the writing committee really have to race through the last 15 minutes of the film to make the good guys triumph and resolve all their plot strands within an hour’s total running time. Men of America’s acting ranges from the unfulfilled promise of Dorothy Wilson’s spunky performace as the heroine to serviceable (William Boyd, who was still pretty enough to get away with this sort of part — later, after RKO fired him in a case of mistaken identity because another actor named William Boyd had been arrested for alcohol and drug possession; the good William Boyd sued the bad William Boyd and won a judgment that the bad one thenceforth had to bill himself as William “Stage” Boyd so the good Boyd wouldn’t be blamed for the bad Boyd’s defalcations: alas, the bad Boyd made only one movie under his “Stage” moniker, the 1935 serial The Lost City, before his bad habits caught up to him and he died young) to irritating (Sale and Armetta). Its best aspects are the spectacular real-life (albeit movie-familiar) Western locations and the gorgeous cinematography of them by J. Roy Hunt (veteran RKO director of photography and the man who would shoot a lot of their classic noirs in the 1940’s), and also some stirring strains from scores Max Steiner had originally composed for other RKO movies, but overall Men of America is an odd little disappointment, blazing a few trails other filmmakers did considerably more with in later movies. — 10/20/17