Of the movies Gene Autry made after serving in the Army Air Corps during World War II, Saddle Pals is my favorite so far.
That’s not to say that I loved the picture. I think Gene Autry is a great country singer, but as a leading man, I find him flat. But Saddle Pals is funnier and generally more entertaining than the last few Autry pictures I’ve seen, and it wasn’t a chore to sit through.
The picture begins when the beautiful, wealthy, and devil-may-care Shelly Brooks (Lynne Roberts) buzzes Gene, his boys, and their cows with her brand-new Lincoln. Of course, she blows a tire not long after, and Gene’s such a gentleman that he doesn’t hold her bad behavior against her, and changes the tire for her.
Shelly’s brother Waldo T. Brooks Jr. is raising rents on all the ranches in the valley so his wealthy family can be even wealthier. Not only is it unfair, it’s downright illegal, says attorney Thaddeus Bellweather (Irving Bacon), and he’ll handle the case for Gene just as soon as he gets back from trout season … which is going to last a long time.
So Gene and the Cass County boys (his backup band/ranch hands) head to the Brooks ranch to talk to Waldo, who turns out to be an effeminate, hysterical, rubber-faced hypochondriac played by Sterling Holloway. It turns out that Waldo is barely in control. It’s the Brooks Land Corporation that’s raising rents, under the direction of their evil leader Bradford Collins (Damian O’Flynn).
Waldo gives Gene control of his money. Gene tells Collins that he wants to buy into the corporation. Gene is then forced to come up with $50,000 in 30 days. He comes up with most of the money by selling off the Brooks’s show horses, and then decides to throw a rodeo to raise the rest of the money.
Shelly and Waldo have an adorable little sister, Robin (Jean Van), who wants desperately to be a cowgirl. She’s got the skills to pay the bills, so Gene puts her in the rodeo, but Collins uses the fact that she’s a minor to get Gene in trouble with the law.
Collins doesn’t stop there. If you’ve ever seen a B western from the ’30s or ’40s before, you know those greedy land-grabbing real estate barons never stop at legal malarkey, and sure enough, by the end of the picture there’s an out-of-control wagon on fire with Robin inside, and Gene and his horse Champion Jr. in hot pursuit.
The songs in Saddle Pals are generally good, even though there’s no single stand-out number. The songs include “You Stole My Heart,” “Which Way’d They Go,” “The Covered Wagon Rolled Right Along,” “Amapola,” and “I Wish I Never Had Met Sunshine.” Also, Sterling Holloway, who’s sort of like a less-funny, more-irritating version of Jim Carrey, is used judiciously in the picture, and most of his scenes are humorous, if not exactly hilarious.
Frank McDonald’s Twilight on the Rio Grande features Gene Autry and his co-stars being put through their B-movie paces south of the border.
Crime melodramas (we call them film noirs nowadays) were very popular Hollywood products in 1947, and Twilight on the Rio Grande incorporates several elements from them, such as the hero investigating the murder of his partner, lots of nighttime photography, a plot about jewel smuggling, and a beautiful knife-throwing señorita. (They showed up in noirs every now and then, didn’t they?)
Gene Autry (played by Gene Autry) and his ranch hands, Dusty Morgan (Bob Steele), Pokie (Sterling Holloway), and the singing trio The Cass County Boys, are all down in Mexico, singing in Spanglish and ogling the ladies. (If there was a deeper purpose to their visit, I missed it.)
The diminutive Bob Steele was a western actor whose star had faded by the mid-’40s, and he picks up a pretty easy paycheck in Twilight on the Rio Grande, since his character is murdered in the first reel, which I thought was a shame. I like Steele, and would have enjoyed seeing him and Autry solve the murder of Sterling Holloway’s character, Pokie, since the loose-limbed, rubber-faced Holloway is more annoying than a barrel of Jim Carreys.
The femme fatale of the film is the beautiful and hot-blooded Elena Del Rio (Adele Mara), who throws knives at Gene while he’s singing “I Tipped My Hat and Slowly Rode Away.” She throws one after the other into the wall behind him, in order to show him how angry she is. She has a steady hand, so she doesn’t hurt him. But then Gene shows her his steady hand when he finishes his song, throws her over his knee, and spanks the bejeezus out of her with the flat of a big knife blade.
Dusty is murdered with a knife in the back, and a smuggler Gene and his boys rope out on the prairie winds up with a knife in his back that could only have been thrown, not thrust at close range, so suspicions fall on Elena.
The title song is a good one, and was never released as a record by Autry, so if you’re a fan of his music, it’s a reason to see this picture. He sings two versions, a slow, mournful version at Dusty’s funeral, and a more upbeat version to close the picture.
If you’re not a fan of Autry’s music, there is really no reason to see this picture. It’s not terrible, but there are plenty of better B westerns out there.
Have you ever wanted to see Gene Autry rope a stallion from the air? I hadn’t until I saw the climactic few minutes of John English’s Trail to San Antone, but as soon as Gene leaned out of the passenger side of the airplane piloted by feisty Kit Barlow (Peggy Stewart) and dropped a lariat, I said to myself, “Yee haw, Gene! Git ‘er done.”
It’s not as dangerous for the horse as it might sound. Kit doesn’t bring the plane in for a landing while Gene continues to control the horse or anything like that. As soon as the lariat is around the stallion’s neck, Gene drops the rope, which has a spare tire attached to the other end. One more good ropin’ job, and that stallion ain’t goin’ nowhere fast, pardner.
Trail to San Antone is solid entertainment for fans of Gene Autry. He’s backed up by the Cass County Boys (Fred S. Martin, Jerry Scoggins, and Bert Dodson), who do double duty as ranch hands and Autry’s back-up band. Dependable Republic Pictures heavy Tristram Coffin plays the bad guy, Cal Young, who’s attempting to derail the career of a young jockey named Ted Malloy (Johnny Duncan), whom Gene has taken under his wing. And the horrible comic relief is provided by the rubber-faced Sterling Holloway, as the cowardly and pencil-necked Droopy Stearns.
The film is bookended by performances of “Down the Trail to San Antone,” by Deuce Spriggins. Over the course of the picture, Autry and the Cass County Boys belt out plenty of pleasant country & western tunes, including Autry and Cindy Walker’s “The Cowboy Blues,” Spade Cooley’s “Shame on You,” Sid Robin’s “That’s My Home,” and Marty Symes and Joseph Burke’s “By the River of the Roses.”
Frank McDonald’s Sioux City Sue repurposes the script from the 1939 comedy She Married a Cop and takes its title from one of the most popular songs of 1946. It was Gene Autry’s first film after he completed his service in the Army Air Corps during World War II.
More comedy than western, Sioux City Sue is lightweight fluff, but if you like Autry’s music, there’s plenty of it. (Although, if you’re like me, you’ll be a little sick of the title song by the end of the picture.)
In a plot that makes no sense if you stop to think about it for longer than half a second, a pretty blond Hollywood talent scout named Sue Warner (Lynne Roberts) casts Autry in an upcoming movie without telling him that he’ll never actually appear onscreen and is in fact voicing a singing donkey in an animated feature.
Things have changed a lot. Now, Hollywood stars regularly lend their voices to animated features. It’s nice work if you can get it; no time in the makeup chair, no difficult location shooting, and you can take your toddlers to the premiere. But in 1946, no star would ever dream of being in a cartoon. It’s hard, though, not to be delighted and amused by the premiere of the cartoon feature in Sioux City Sue. The little donkey with Autry’s voice, singing to his sweetheart on horseback, both of them wearing western duds, is pretty gosh-darned cute.
But Autry’s been lied to, and that rightly doesn’t sit well with the man. Of course, during the making of the film, Sue fell in love with him, so the big question for the second half of the picture is whether or not she’ll be able to convince him she’s sorry. She does her darnedest, quitting her job and coming to work on his ranch as a cook and general menial laborer.
This being a Republic western programmer, there’s an action-packed climax, and it’s up to Autry and his wonder horse Champion to save the day. The last few minutes of the picture, which involve a dynamited dam, a flood, and a cattle stampede, are exciting. But for the most part, Sioux City Sue is a laid-back and easygoing good time.
Make Mine Music (1946)
Directed by Robert Cormack, Clyde Geronimi, Jack Kinney, Hamilton Luske, and Joshua Meador
Walt Disney Productions / RKO Radio Pictures
From 1937 to 1942, Walt Disney Pictures produced some of their best and most famous animated features — Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Pinocchio (1940), Fantasia (1940) Dumbo (1941), and Bambi (1942).
During World War II, however, the U.S. Army contracted Disney to make training and instruction films like Victory Through Air Power (1943), as well as propaganda shorts like Education for Death: The Making of the Nazi (1943), which is still an effective and chilling piece, and Der Fuehrer’s Face (1943), in which Donald Duck has a nightmare and imagines himself a factory worker for the Third Reich. (Have you ever wanted to see Donald Duck read Mein Kampf and give the Sieg Heil salute while quacking “Heil Hitler!” over and over? Of course you have. Check it out if you haven’t already seen it.) These films didn’t generate any income for the studio, so in the post-war years Disney’s feature-length animated films were inexpensive repackagings of short subjects; Make Mine Music (1946), Fun and Fancy Free (1947), and Melody Time (1948).
Like any compilation, Make Mine Music is a mixed bag. It begins with “a rustic ballad,” as the title card tells us. The King’s Men sing “The Martins and the Coys,” a comedic take on the famous Hatfield and McCoy feud of the late 19th century. Sadly, hillbilly humor is something we’ve lost in this country. As cable TV has spread to the farthest reaches of the nation and more people have moved from remote rural areas to suburbs, barefooted hicks who tote shotguns, sleep with their arm around a pig, drink “mountain dew” (a.k.a. moonshine), and never wear a shirt under their overalls have gone the way of the dodo. In 1946, however, there were still plenty of those “reckless mountain boys” running around, and this segment lampoons them in grand style. The Martins and the Coys blast one another to pieces with shotguns until their clans are each left with just one representative. One a young man, the other a young woman. The punchline? They fall in love, get married, and then the bickering and the feuding start all over again, while their deceased ancestors watch with approval from their perches on clouds up in hillbilly heaven.
The second feature is “a tone poem.” The Ken Darby Chorus sing “Blue Bayou” while what appears to be an egret lazily flies around a blue bayou full of dark, dripping colors. Eventually the egret meets a second egret and they slowly disappear into the sky together. This short is audiovisual heroin, and I felt as if I was being shot up against my will.
Luckily, the third feature, “a jazz interlude” featuring Benny Goodman and his Orchestra called “All the Cats Join In,” really knocks it out of the park. Stylized images are created in a sketch book by an oversized pencil and then come to life. First a cat is drawn, then erased, then replaced by an Archie Andrews lookalike. There are even a few risqué images, with a bobby soxer jumping in the shower to get ready for a date, then running around barely covered by a towel, then jumping into her clothes and exposing her frilly underthings while bent over and rummaging around in her closet. All the while her younger sister mimics her every move. Then it’s into the jalopy with the rest of the gang and off to the malt shop. The music in this one is genuinely good, and the animation style looks about 15 years ahead of its time.
At this point, the structure of Make Mine Music becomes clear, as this fun and jazzy number is followed by another mawkish piece of visual barbiturate — “a ballad in blue” — featuring Andy Russell singing “Without You.” Rivulets of water running down a windowpane create one maudlin image after another, none of them memorable, but all designed to evoke a sense of pretty desolation — trees without leaves against a sunset, etc. Eventually we come back in through the window and the piece ends with the image of a dark blue sky surrounded by black with a single star in the sky, mirroring the lyrics of the song. This short is not recommended for the clinically depressed or anyone who’s just been dumped.
True to the established pattern, the next short is tons o’ fun. It’s “a musical recitation” by Jerry Colonna of “Casey at the Bat.” It opens with a series of turn-of-the-century stills and enlightened lyrics like, “The ladies don’t understand baseball a bit, they don’t know a strike from a foul or a hit,” followed by typical goofy “humorous” Disney animation. It’s all silly fun, and the final strikeout sequence is especially over the top.
Unsurprisingly, this is followed by a “ballade ballet” with animated versions of dancers Tania Riabouchinskaya (listed in the credits as just “Riabouchinska”) and David Lichine, accompanied by Dinah Shore singing “Two Silhouettes.” The white silhouetes are clearly based on real figures, and are gag-inducing, but can’t hold a candle in the gorge-rising department to the chubby white cherub silhouettes who fly in at the very end to drape the dancers with something or other.
Next up is “a fairy tale with music,” which is a version of Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” narrated by Sterling Holloway. If you took a field trip to the symphony when you were a child, chances are “Peter and the Wolf” was on the program, since it’s a great way to introduce young people to a variety of instruments and the concept of musical motifs. Like “Casey at the Bat,” this segment is serviceable, but not wildly memorable.
Following this is the Goodman Quartet performing “After You’ve Gone.” Little anthropomorphic instruments dance around. It’s short and sweet.
The high point of Make Mine Music is “a love story” sung by the Andrews Sisters, “Johnnie Fedora and Alice Bluebonnet.” This one is just adorable. Anthropomorphic hats have the potential to be really creepy, but they’re both pretty cute — especially Johnnie, whose expressive eyes are formed from the divets in the front of the fedora above the hat band. Long story short, Johnnie Fedora and Alice Bluebonnet sit next to each other in a department store window, fall in love, are separated, and eventually find each other again.
Make Mine Music was the first movie my mother remembers seeing. When I was a little kid, I asked her about the first movie she’d ever seen, and the only thing she specifically remembered was “Johnnie Fedora and Alice Bluebonnet.” She even sang the first few bars of the song, and got the melody just right, although not with the Andrews Sisters’ adenoidal twang.
The final short is an “opera pathetique” performed by Nelson Eddy, who does all the voices for the “tragic story” of “The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met.” An impresario from the Met named “Teti Tati” takes off after Willie the whale after reading about him in the newspaper, because he believes that an opera singer has been swallowed by the whale, like Jonah. When Teti Tati discovers that Willie can sing in three voices, he believes that the whale has swallowed three different opera singers. (We get to see a whole lot of Willie’s three vibrating uvulas.) There follows a fantastic dream sequence in which Willie imagines himself in a variety of roles, his bulk spilling out over the stage. He showers himself with “tears” from his blowhole while singing Pagliacci. He appears in flames as Mephistopheles. But unfortunately, it’s all a fantasy, and eventually the impresario succeeds in harpooning Willie. Unlike the duck in “Peter and the Wolf,” however, Willie doesn’t come back. Sure, the conclusion shows us that he’s in heaven singing in “a hundred voices,” but what consolation is that to a five-year-old? Or to a thirty-five-year-old, for that matter?
If you like this movie enough to rent or purchase it on DVD, you’ll find that the first short, “The Martins and the Coys,” has been completely cut out, and the King’s Men have been deleted from the opening credits. Why? Because as a corporate entity, Disney constantly rewrites its own artistic history. When Melody Time was released for the home video market in 1998, a cigarette dangling from Pecos Bill’s mouth was digitally removed. Also, lyrics in the opening song of Aladdin (1992) were altered under pressure from the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.
This is nothing new. When Fantasia was re-released in the late ’40s, some incredibly racist caricatures were excised. Were they offensive? Of course. Should Disney be allowed to get away with whitewashing (no pun intended) their own work? I don’t think so.
Why was “The Martins and the Coys” removed, anyway? A common explanation given is that it contains gunplay, but so does “Johnnie Fedora.” Was it because of stereotypes of rural Americans? What about the Italian stereotypes in “The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met”? Or the chauvinistic lyrics in “Casey at the Bat”?
Will some day the wonderful “All the Cats Join In” be removed from prints of this film under pressure from the fat-acceptance crowd, since in one scene a bobby soxer is drawn a little heavy in the hips, leading a boy to shake his head until the pencil and eraser come back in to “fix” her?
At least when Disney released Der Fuehrer’s Face on DVD as part of the Walt Disney Treasures — On the Front Lines collection, they didn’t mess with it. All you have to do is suffer through Leonard Maltin explaining that during wartime, stereotypes were sometimes used and abused. (And you do have to suffer through it every time you watch it. The DVD is programmed so you can’t fast forward past it.) Disclaimers like that are fine with me. Rewriting history is not.
A Walk in the Sun (1945)
Directed by Lewis Milestone
A Walk in the Sun had its premiere on Monday, December 3, 1945, and went into wide release on Christmas day. Produced and directed by Lewis Milestone, the director of All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), A Walk in the Sun tells the story of the ordinary men who serve in the infantry. Long stretches of the film are filled with the men’s meandering thoughts (both in voiceover and spoken aloud) and their circuitous conversations. When violence occurs, it comes suddenly, and its larger significance is unknown. The film’s exploration of the infantryman’s P.O.V. is similar to William A. Wellman’s The Story of G.I. Joe, released earlier the same year. (Burgess Meredith, who played Ernie Pyle in that film, narrates A Walk in the Sun, although he is not listed in the film’s credits. When I first watched this film I was sure it was Henry Fonda’s voice I was hearing. I was surprised when I looked it up and found out it was Meredith.) Unlike The Story of G.I. Joe, however, A Walk in the Sun covers a much briefer period of time (from a pre-dawn landing to noon the same day), and its ending is more heroic, with little sense of loss or tragedy.
Based on the novel by Harry Brown, A Walk in the Sun takes place in 1943, and tells the story of the lead platoon of the Texas division, and their landing on the beach in Salerno, Italy. Square-jawed Dana Andrews plays Staff Sgt. Bill Tyne, a simple man who never had much desire to travel outside of his hometown of Providence, Rhode Island. Richard Conte plays the Italian-American Pvt. Rivera, a tough soldier who loves opera and wants a wife and lots of children some day. George Tyne plays Pvt. Jake Friedman, a born-and-bred New Yorker. John Ireland plays PFC Windy Craven, a minister’s son from Canton, Ohio, who writes letters to his sister in his head, speaking the words aloud. Lloyd Bridges plays Staff Sgt. Ward, a baby-faced, pipe-smoking farmer. Sterling Holloway plays McWilliams, the platoon’s medic, who is Southern, speaks very slowly, and just might be a little touched. Norman Lloyd plays Pvt. Archimbeau, “platoon scout and prophet,” as Meredith describes him in the opening narration; Archimbeau talks incessantly of the war in Tibet he theorizes will occur in the ’50s. Herbert Rudley plays Staff Sgt. Eddie Porter, an opinionated guy who’s always looking for an argument (Normal Rockwell’s wasting his time painting photo-realistic covers for the Saturday Evening Post, Porter says. He should use a camera. Some day magazine covers will have moving pictures on them anyway.) Richard Benedict plays Pvt. Tranella, who “speaks two languages, Italian and Brooklyn,” and whose fluency in the former will prove useful when the platoon runs across two Italian deserters.
All of these “types” seem clichéd now, but they’re probably not unrealistic characters for the time. The only really dated thing about A Walk in the Sun is the song that appears throughout the film, and helps to narrate the action. “It Was Just a Little Walk in the Sun,” with music by Earl Robinson and lyrics by Millard Lampell, is sung by Kenneth Spencer in the deep, mournful style of a spiritual. I didn’t dislike the song, but its frequent appearance as a kind of Greek chorus felt intrusive.
One thing that really impressed me about A Walk in the Sun was the cinematography by Russell Harlan. While A Walk in the Sun is clearly filmed in California, Harlan makes the most of starkly contrasted black and white shots that could have been shot anywhere. One of the film’s motifs is black figures against a white sky. There are a couple of scenes that reminded me of the famous final scene in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957) in which death leads a procession of people down a hill. Several times in A Walk in the Sun, the platoon is depicted as groups of indistinguishable black figures walking down a black hillside, silhouetted against a completely white sky. And in keeping with the infantryman’s P.O.V., when the platoon lies down to rest there are a couple of shots from the ground, looking up at the sky, while arms reach up across the frame and exchange cigarettes.
A Walk in the Sun is one of the better World War II films I’ve seen, and it’s generally well-regarded, but not everyone liked it. Samuel Fuller, who saw combat in World War II as a rifleman in the U.S. 1st Infantry Division and would go on to direct many cult favorites, wrote a letter to Milestone complaining about the film. “Why a man of your calibre should resort to a colonel’s technical advice on what happens in a platoon is something I’ll never figure out,” he wrote. “When colonels are back in their garrison hutments where they belong I’ll come out with a yarn that won’t make any doggie that was ever on the line retch with disgust.”