Sunday, August 25, 2013

Priscilla Lane – Western Star

By Ed Garea

Cowboy From Brooklyn (WB, 1938) – Director: Lloyd Bacon. Cast: Dick Powell, Pat O’Brien, Priscilla Lane, Dick Foran, Ann Sheridan, Johnnie Davis, Ronald Reagan, James Stephenson, Granville Bates, & Emma Dunn. B&W, 77 minutes.

Silver Queen (UA, 1942) – Director: Lloyd Bacon. Cast: George Brent, Priscilla Lane, Bruce Cabot, Lynne Overman, Eugene Pallette, Janet Beecher, Guinn “Big Boy” Williams, Frederick Burton, Roy Barcroft, & Marietta Canty. B&W, 80 minutes.

There are two surprising things about the career of Priscilla Lane: (1) – She made only 22 films before retiring in 1948 to start a family with husband Joseph Howard, an Army Air Force officer she met during World War II. (2) – Of these 22 films, two of them were Westerns. Ironically the same man, Lloyd Bacon, directed them.

Only 22 films? It seemed as if she made more. However, that’s an optical illusion, perhaps spurred on by the fact she made a few very popular films that are often broadcast (Saboteur, Four DaughtersBrother RatThe Roaring Twenties, and Arsenic and Old Lace) and give the impression she made many more.

But back to her Westerns. Technically, both are Westerns only in the academic sense of the word.  Silver Queen is set in the city, and Cowboy From Brooklyn, is more of a musical with a Western setting, sort of like Abbott and Costello’s Ride ‘Em Cowboy (which was a much better film).

Originally titled Romance and RhythmCowboy From Brooklyn stars Powell as Elly Jordan, who, along with his two bandmates, is broke and stranded in Two Bits, Wyoming, where they come across the Hardy Dude Ranch, run by Ma and Pop Hardy (Bates and Dunn), and their children, Jane (Lane) and Jeff (Davis). Elly and his mates are hired to play for the dudes. However, Sam Thorne (Foran) – ranch cowhand, crooner, and Jane’s self-appointed boyfriend – is jealous of Jane’s interest in Elly.

Elly does a good job of singing – so good, in fact, that Roy Chadwick (O’Brien), a theatrical agent spending his vacation at the ranch, signs him up, thinking Elly’s a real cowboy. But even though Jane coaches him on how to talk like a cowboy, there is one thing that could stop Elly’s career cold: his fear of animals, including horses. But he pulls off the deception with help from Chadwick and makes a successful screen test as Wyoming Steve Gibson. While they go to New York to await the Hollywood people, Chadwick is still worried that Elly will be exposed. He has good reason, for while Jane and some of the ranch people are on the train to New York, where Sam will compete on Captain Rose’s Amateur Hour radio show, she tells Sam she’s in love with Elly. Sam is so angered by this confession that when he fails to win on the show he blurts out the real story on Elly over the air.

Chadwick and his press agent Pat Dunn (Reagan) must now show that Elly’s on the level. They suggest that he compete in a rodeo and take him to Professor Landis (Stephenson), who hypnotizes him. While under hypnosis Elly rides a horse to Madison Square Garden and enters the bulldogging contest, where he sets a world’s record. The movie people are convinced he’s the real thing, and Elly signs his contact while kissing Jane to seal both deals.

Truth be told, this is not a very good film. Powell, who had made his bones at Warner Brothers playing juvenile roles, found himself unable to break out of that mold. Although he began starring in a few films such as Hard to Get (1938) with Olivia de Havilland, acquitting himself well in an adult comedy role with the obligatory few songs thrown in, management at the studio wanted him to continue in the juvenile singing roles despite Powell’s strong desire to switch to dramas. The rift grew so broad that two years later, Powell left the studio for good to pursue an acting career.

As was the case with their Bs, the studio used this film to showcase new talent, albeit in minor roles, providing them with some experience. Reagan and Lane had only been with the studio for a little over a year, while Sheridan had been in movies since 1934, but most of her parts were unbilled (in fact she had only two brief scenes). The only one that had much to do was Lane in her role as the daughter. The manner in which she played the role would later determine her future with Warner Brothers as “the girl next door.”

Trivia: Dick Foran was actually Warner Brothers’ answer to the singing cowboy craze of the time and starred in series of Westerns, billed as “Dick Foran, the Singing Cowboy . . . Jeffrey Lynn has one line as a reporter . . . Warner Brothers remade the film as Two Guys From Texas, starring Dennis Morgan and Jack Carson. Carson is the one with the fear of animals.
Lane’s next foray into the Western genre came in 1942 with Silver Queen. How it came about is a story for a good movie trivia book. Producer Harry Sherman, famous for his Westerns (he produced the Hopalong Cassidy series) made a deal with Warner Brothers wherein he secured the services of three contractees who were not in the studio’s plans: Lane, Brent, and director Bacon. According to Robert Osbourne, Sherman had a deal in place with Paramount to handle distribution, but United Artists, short on product since the declaration of war, asked Paramount to sell them a few movies to distribute to their theater chain. Silver Queen was among those movies sold.

Silver Queen suffers from the casting of Lane as a card sharp, a role outside her range and one that would have been better in the hands of someone like Barbara Stanwyck, Ida Lupino, Linda Darnell, or even Lana Turner. Ellen Drew was originally set for the part, but Lane replaced her before filming began. Lane’s “girl-next-door” image worked against her, ultimately rendering her unconvincing. Thankfully, her screen time is relatively limited and she is working with Brent, who could make a mannequin look like Vivien Leigh. The rest of the cast is excellent: Cabot, Pallette, and Williams deliver entertaining performance and keep the picture moving.

The movie opens in 1873 against the background of looming financial woes for the United States. A newspaper quotes President Grant as stating the national debt is $3 billion. Cut to James Kincaid (Brent), a professional gambler operating a parlor in 1873 New York City. Assisted by his valet, Blackie (Williams), he makes a good living. He’s invited to a charity ball being held by the fabulously wealthy investment broker Stephen Adams (Pallette), and against Blackie’s advice to the contrary, decides to make an appearance. Once Kincaid arrives, his eyes become riveted to Adams’ daughter, Coralie (Lane), who has inherited her father’s interest in gambling and is indulging in her hobby of poker, cleaning out the other players for charity. It’s love at first sight for both, but there’s one obstacle. (Isn’t there always?) Coralie is engaged to the affluent Gerald Forsythe (Cabot), and before the evening ends, Stephen urges Gerald to tie the knot soon, as he wants to make sure Coralie’s future is assured, both financially and socially.

As we could surmise from the opening, the Panic of 1873 sets in and everyone is scrambling for cash to cover his margins in the stock market. The one thing that would keep the wolves from Stephen’s door is his deed to the “Gambler’s Luck” silver mine. Unfortunately, Stephen withdrew the deed the night before to play poker at Kincaid’s parlor, and has lost it. The shock of the crash and loss of the mine combine to bring on Stephen’s death from heart failure, and Coralie now discovers, in going through her father’s financial portfolio, that he was wealthy only on paper. She assures the creditors she will make good on her father’s debt, and Gerald traces the deed to Kincaid’s, where he offers a substantial sum for the supposedly worthless deed. Kincaid is suspicious of Gerald, but nevertheless does the cavalier thing and gives Gerald the deed to take to Coralie as a wedding gift and heads out with Blackie for greener pastures. Coralie also leaves New York, asking Gerald not to look for her until she sends for him.

Unfortunately for Coralie, she’s neglected to ask about the deed. Gerald has it and he’s keeping it. Cut to 1877 and we find Coralie and her maid, Ruby (Canty) in San Francisco, where she’s used her talents at poker to amass a tidy fortune and become a casino owner. She sends Gerald her final payment of $10,000 to cover her debts, but unknown to her, Gerald’s been funneling the payments into the Gambler’s Luck mine, hoping for that rich silver vein that will make all his problems disappear. Despite all the money he’s scammed from Coralie, he still needs $30,000 to keep in running. So he goes to his mother for the extra scratch, but Mother knows that Sonny Boy’s a cad and refuses to give him one thin dime. Gerald then orders the mine foreman, Carson (Barcroft) to cut expenses to the bone.

Meanwhile James and Blackie arrive in San Francisco looking for action, and James is startled to discover that the renowned dealer known as the “Silver Queen” is none other than Coralie. He also learns that Coralie and Gerald never married, and when they meet once again, it’s still love at first sight. We now enter the world of absurd plotting: Enter Coralie’s Uncle Hector (Overman). He’s was also wiped out by the crash and never recovered. When James learns that no one knows of the fate of the mine, James gives Hector money, Coralie’s address, and a note telling her he’s going to Nevada City to check everything out. But Hector falls victim to that old screenwriter’s solution for a sticky situation – a carriage runs him over in the fog, and all Coralie can get out of him before he dies is that James has gone to Nevada City.

Continuing the absurdity, enter Gerald, who tells Coralie that Hector lost all his money gambling and that he purchased the mine from Kincaid on her behalf. His solution to everything is that Coralie should marry him ASAP. Gerald’s obvious duplicity should be setting off red lights and klaxons in Coralie’s head; but, no, she accepts the proposal, her only caveat being that they should wed in the town of her birth and where her father discovered the mine: Nevada City. Upon their arrival, James and Blackie crash the party and are threatened by Carson and the sheriff, confirming James’s suspicion that Gerald is crooked. A fistfight ensues between James and Gerald. Gerald pulls a gun and shoots, but hits Coralie. Blackie grabs the sheriff’s badge, declares that he’s the new law in town and hauls off the three to the hoosegow. The doctor takes Coralie away, but can’t find anything wrong save for the fact she’ s unconscious, and we soon learn that Coralie collapsed only to prevent further shooting.  When she overhears the truth about Gerald, she suddenly comes to and pledges her lifelong love to James, giving us the requisite happy ending.

Yeah, the plot has more holes than a wheel of Swiss cheese, but film buffs have long learned that bad plotting can be overcome by good acting with interesting characters. Besides. It isn’t exactly Howard Hawks or John Ford in that director’s chair. It’s only Bacon and he’s trying to do his best with a limited budget. Fortunately for Bacon, the one person around whom the entire film revolves is the excellent Brent. Brent is a consummate professional who could develop chemistry with the Bride of Frankenstein. Here he has Lane and they work well together, allowing us to overlook the fact that Lane’s not exactly the Annie Duke type when it comes to card playing.

Cabot is solid playing a role he is noted for – the bad guy, and pulls off the required villainy without resorting to mugging or other obvious overacting. In fact, if anything, Cabot underplays the role, allowing Gerald to emerge as even worse. Williams was also fine playing a role his limited range calls for – the buddy, and his chemistry with Brent allows us to believe that these guys are really a team. The only fly in the soup, aside from Lane’s miscasting, is that one of our favorite supporting players, Pallette, has a small role that doesn’t really allow him to expand his talents. It’s almost like a cameo. Looking back, anyone could have played the role of Stephen Adams and it seems like a waste of a good actor. On the other hand, it’s always good to see Pallette in a film. Silver Queen is a good way to spend 80 minutes; you could do way worse.

Trivia: My uncle, who served in the Marine Corps during World War Two and saw considerable action in the Pacific, told me that producer Sherman’s Hopalong Cassidy movies were by far the most popular with the troops. They could watch them again and again without ever becoming bored. When I asked him why, he simply replied that there was something about Hopalong few others had. Only Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart rivaled Cassidy’s popularity among the men. Among women, Betty Grable and Lana Turner led the field.

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