Tuesday, January 27, 2015

DVR Diary: TEXAS (1941)

Speaking of the wave of 1939 westerns, George Marshall's Destry Rides Again was the Stagecoach of comedy westerns. It's still my favorite of that subgenre apart from the outright burlesque Blazing Saddles. Marshall was on a tear from 1939 through 1941, directing the superior comedies You Can't Cheat an Honest Man and The Ghost Breakers while maintaining his western credentials with the Randolph Scott vehicle (as yet unseen by me) When the Daltons Rode. Texas was his first generic follow-up to Destry: a mostly comic western that turns tragicomic toward the end. Working at Columbia, he had access to two young actors with great futures ahead of them: William Holden, age 23, and Glenn Ford, age 25. In addition, he had Stagecoach's own Claire Trevor as the romantic interest, but Texas is closer to what we might today call a tragicomic bromance. Holden and Ford are Johnny Rebs turned drifters after the Civil War, and the first half of the picture is a picaresque account of their misadventures in search of fortune. Marshall is at the height of his comic powers here. He stages an epic bare-knuckle bout between Holden's character (the actor had gotten his big break in the fight drama Golden Boy two years earlier) and a local champion, Dutch Henry. Lyle Latell, an actor who seems to have spent much of his film career uncredited, plays Dutch Henry. He should have made a career of slapstick comedy because he gives a hilarious physical performance. The bout is fought under London Prize Ring Rules: a knockdown ends a round and the downed man has thirty seconds to toe the line or lose. Dutch Henry toes the line every time like the perfect cartoon of an old-fashioned fighter, striking an outlandishly crouching "put up your dukes" pose that Holden occasionally tries to imitate. They fight like Rockem Sockem Robots, smacking each other in the face, staggering backward, and reassuming the position. Most rounds end with Holden going down; they begin with him staggering back to the mark after getting a bucket of water in the face. Dutch Henry fights dirty by our standards, usually pulling a "What do you think I did?" face afterward, and Holden strives to answer in kind. Holden and Latell take epic pratfalls, Holden opening one round by charging at Latell, missing entirely, and hurtling out of the ring. Holden finally prevails, only to learn that his buddy Ford had blown their stake by betting on Dutch Henry.

Later, they witness a stage holdup and decide to rob the holdup men. A posse descends upon them before they can decide whether to turn the loot over. The lawmen are in a lynching mood but Holden, who had left Ford alone to go hunting, tricks them into thinking that Injuns are hot on his tail. As the posse takes defensive positions, our antiheroes separate to make good their individual mistakes, Holden meeting cute with Trevor by hijacking her buckboard. There's plenty of good physical comedy as they grapple for control of the vehicle. After Holden moves on, she meets cute with Ford, who ends up working for her family ranch while Holden takes up with Windy McKay (George Bancroft, also of Stagecoach), the promoter of the Dutch Henry fight and a major cattle buyer. After Holden and Ford reunite, they become friendly rivals for Trevor. We renew our acquaintance with the dentist Doc Thorpe (Edgar Buchanan), who'd been robbed on the stage. In another nicely done comic set piece, he leads a town meeting in choruses of "Buffalo Gals" while Trevor plays an organ powered by bellows that are supposed to be operated by Ford and/or Holden. But they're too eager to ogle Trevor to keep the music running properly. All ends well this time, but things go south from here.

Marshall has cleverly introduced us to a couple of folksy, charismatic characters, played by Bancroft and Buchanan, who prove the film's villains without surrendering any of their folksy charisma. The idea of the mildly curmudgeonly, already elderly Edgar Buchanan as the film's evil mastermind is a masterstroke, but once Texas resolves itself into a battle of good and bad men, with our youthful good-bad men caught in the middle, it loses much of its comic steam. It still has plenty of twists in its plot -- Bancroft sends Holden to rustle cattle on a big drive so he doesn't have to pay top dollar to the cattlemen, but Holden decides the easier score is to rob Bancroft of his bankroll -- but the growing sense that Holden is doomed -- to be killed by Bancroft, Buchanan or Ford -- tends to kill the mood. Marshall and his writers (including Horace "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" McCoy) can't make anything comic out of Holden's fate, but I suppose that part of the picture counts as pathos, which wasn't alien to comedy for old-timers like the director. Marshall doesn't even attempt a comic closing note here as he did with Destry, but Texas, if a lesser film, is entertaining all the way through and a surprising alternative to the patriotic winning-of-the-west pabulum the title led me to expect. Its combination of sympathetic youngsters (Trevor is the eldest of the love triangle), eccentric crooks and well-staged action in both comic and dramatic mode should win over most western fans and  earns Texas the title of an underrated film.

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