A randomly comprehensive survey of extraordinary movie experiences from the art house to the grindhouse, featuring the good, the bad, the ugly, but not the boring or the banal.
Monday, May 12, 2014
DVR Diary: SCARLET RIVER (1933)
Tom Keene was RKO's cowboy star during the Pre-Code era. He made some A pictures but quickly settled into B stardom before sinking further gradually, from RKO to Monogram by the 1940s. For some reason he changed his stage name to Richard Powers later that decade. He used that name steadily to the end of his career, but one fan of Thirties cowboys saw value in the name abandoned by the man born George Duryea. Such fame as Keene has today is owed to his employment by Ed Wood, first in a failed TV pilot, The Crossroads Avenger, and later in Plan 9 From Outer Space, in which he and Gregory Wolcott have an epic confrontation with Eros the alien. Yet here's Tom Keene in Otto Brower's Scarlet River hobnobbing with Myrna Loy, Bruce Cabot and other studio players in an RKO commissary. This is more a movie-movie than a true western, with Keene playing a thinly disguised version of himself, or his star self: a cowboy actor named Tom. The modern world's encroaching on the old west and director Edgar Kennedy is having a hard time finding pristine locations for his latest horse opera. This is illustrated in the trick opening, the dialogue of a pioneer couple, Keene as the husband, interrupted by a honking automobile. Another location is disrupted by cross-country runners. Aren't the Los Angeles Olympics over by now? the crew wonders. Finally a ranch is found far from the cares and snares of 1933, but there's a serpent in this eden -- a foreman who at one moment courts the pretty young owner, whose younger brother idolizes him, and in the next schemes with a crook to defraud her out of the ranch. He squares these contradictory tactics in his mind by taking for granted that the girl will marry him. This is Creighton Chaney in his fifth movie role as an adult, two years before he dares claim the mantle, or at least the name, of his much-mourned father. Creighton is 27 years old, his frame and his voice less husky than we know them, but you still know his character doesn't stand a chance with the girl, if only because this is a Tom Keene picture. It's not as if Keene is a matinee idol -- far from it, it seems to me -- but young Chaney is still very green. He can't really project either charisma or menace, so the foreman ends up a subordinate villain, his conflicted motives leading him to confront and get killed by the principal heavy when that scoundrel threatens the heroine. Earlier in the picture, Creighton is the butt of the film's great joke. Usually when westerns send up Hollywood they hypocritically make Hollywood the other, the hero becoming an authentic westerner who shows up the dude actor. In Scarlet River the gag is that Tom the cowboy actor both talks the talk and walks the walk, showing up the real cowboys. He's a better cowboy than Creighton the full-time rancher. In one scene Tom's wandered away from the set and director Kennedy challenges Chaney to do the classic taking-control-of-the-runaway-stagecoach stunt. Proud Creighton, already jealous of the girl's attention to the star, assumes himself capable, but ends up having to take the classic Yakima Canutt dive between the rows of horses to escape trampling. More accurately, I guess, Canutt himself takes the dive, as he does when Tom reappears to prove his superiority by "doing his own stunt." Canutt's an invisible man, however -- though he has a bit role in his own right -- while the kiddies were supposed to believe in Keene's own miraculous skills. You're left wondering how seriously the film takes itself, especially when Tom plays the moral-exemplar film to the hilt. Chronologically this picture should be part of the Pre-Code Parade, but it's a movie in which Tom Keene spanks a teenage boy for smoking cigarettes. So Scarlet River is working its own trail while the parade passes by, and the director is happy as long as no one marches in front of his camera. Historically this is one of those historical-footnote pictures in a trivial way. It's not quite on the level of Clark Gable playing the heavy in a William Boyd movie, but Lon Chaney Jr. definitely looms much larger in the collective moviegoing consciousness than Tom Keene does, and the retroactive disproportion of their roles gives Scarlet River a slight psychotronic pathos, as does our knowledge of their respective fates. Plan 9 is one thing, Dracula vs. Frankenstein another. Who did fare better in the end?