Tucker plays Mike Prescott, who rescues Beth Martin (Mara) and her little brother Tommy (Peter Miles) from Indians after they are separated from their wagon train in a fog. Mike admires the lovely young woman but receives a chilly response, other than her appreciation for him saving their lives, and once Beth is reunited with the wagon train Mike moves on.
Mike and Beth meet again when she arrives in Coarsegold, California, where Mike owns a saloon...and where he has unfortunately just had to kill Beth's brother (Bill Williams) in self-defense. Mike has a very unfriendly business partner, Linc (Davis), who is all too happy to encourage Beth to hate Mike, as he'd like to have pretty Beth for himself.
However, what no one knows is that Linc is a stagecoach robber. He attempts to frame Mike for his crimes, but fortunately Sheriff Willy Clair (Charles Kemper) is on the case. The sheriff's tactics are unusual -- he shocks Beth with his passive reaction to a lynch mob -- but he's no dummy. And Beth, too, gradually realizes she's had misconceptions about both Mike and Linc.
CALIFORNIA PASSAGE was nicely directed by Joseph Kane from a good script by James Edward Grant. Grant wrote my favorite John Wayne film, ANGEL AND THE BADMAN (1947), as well as a number of other excellent movies, including BULLFIGHTER AND THE LADY (1951), HONDO (1953), and THE LAST WAGON (1956).
Admittedly the film is a bit uneven at times, with some excellent scenes followed by more pedestrian moments, and the biggest drawback is there is way too much of the one-note Davis and not enough of Tucker in the movie's second half, just when the viewer would like to see more of Tucker in "hero" mode. Those flaws aside, there is much to like in this movie, which rises quite a ways above your average Western. I enjoyed it a lot.
FLIGHT NURSE (1953) last weekend. He's especially fun in the opening scenes, talking to his horse while taking on some Indians (and was it just me or were those stock footage Indians waaaay too far from his rifle range?). He's a bit of a male chauvinist when dealing with Beth, and in a real "ugh" moment he pauses to scalp an Indian, out of camera range, commenting to the fascinated Tommy that the Indian would have scalped him!
We later suspect, however, that at least a bit of this macho bravado may have been a put-on in order to remain free of romantic entanglements -- after all, Mike goes so far as to lie to Beth he's married! The real Mike proves to be a thoughtful, sensitive guy who maneuvers behind the scenes to return her late brother's mine to Beth and who offers her a job when she needs one. We also learn that Mike keeps Linc around out of loyalty for old time's sake, though Linc doesn't deserve it.
It also seems likely that the scalping was part of a dramatic attempt to help toughen up Tommy and give him a very quick education on wilderness survival, as he teaches Tommy multiple lessons in a short time span. And indeed, in the final sequence Tommy proves to have more guts than Linc when all is said and done.
GUNFIGHTERS (1947), here plays another sheriff, a little more colorful and a lot more unorthodox. As he explains, he's civilizing Coarsegold by degrees and he's only one man, so he picks and chooses his fights. When a lynch mob descends on the jail to remove a murder suspect, that's not a battle he chooses to wage -- because after all, then he'd be dead and then the town would continue to be uncivilized that much longer.
Kemper was good in so many films, including as the very nasty Uncle Shiloh in John Ford's WAGON MASTER (1950), released the same year as CALIFORNIA PASSAGE; it's a great shame he died in an accident the year both films were released, at the too-young age of 49.
Adele Mara has always been a favorite, between her role as Rita Hayworth's sister in one of my favorite musicals, YOU WERE NEVER LOVELIER, and her appearances on her husband's series MAVERICK. (I wrote more about her when she passed away in 2010.) She's lovely and has plenty of spunk, whether verbally fencing with Tucker's Mike or fleeing for her life up a rocky mountain. Speaking of which, it's a nice touch that the fog which separated her from the wagon train at the start of the movie also plays a key role at movie's end, helping Beth and Tommy hide from Linc.
In Thomas Burnett Swann's 1977 book on Republic Pictures actresses, THE HEROINE OR THE HORSE, the author quotes from a letter Forrest Tucker wrote to him about working with Adele Mara, which reads in part, "It was joy. Adele is a LADY in capital letters and seemed to bring out the best in all of us...I think of her every time I see velvet. Adele is made of velvet...Those brief times bring happy memories because I like ladies and velvet."
Estelita Rodriguez (RIO BRAVO) plays a saloon girl in love with Beth's no-good brother, and Paul Fix plays one of Mike's employees. The cast also includes Rhys Williams, Francis McDonald, Charles Stevens, and Iron Eyes Cody (as the Indian who parts with his scalp).
The movie was filmed in black and white by John MacBurnie. It was shot in Southern California, including at Iverson Ranch in Chatsworth. Incidentally, the town of Coarsegold is spelled Coarse Gold in a narrative card in the movie, but I assume it was meant to be the same Gold Rush town.
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