Sunday, August 02, 2015

Tonight's Movie: Callaway Went Thataway (1951) - A Warner Archive DVD Review

Howard Keel shines in a dual role in CALLAWAY WENT THATAWAY (1951), recently released on DVD by the Warner Archive.

In this interesting look at the early days of television, Fred MacMurray and Dorothy McGuire play Mike and Debbie, executives who snagged the TV rights to air "old" cowboy movies starring Smoky Callaway (Keel).

Smoky's Westerns are a huge hit with kids, and there's a mint waiting to be made on Smoky toys and new Smoky movies -- if only Smoky were actually around to sign contracts and resurrect his film career. Unfortunately no one's seen Smoky in a decade, and at last report he was a raging drunk.

Mike and Debbie hire a been-around-the-block agent (Jesse White) to search for Callaway, and while he's checking every bar in Mexico, Mike and Debbie stumble across an amazing Smoky lookalike, cowboy Stretch Barnes (Keel). Mike and Debbie tell sweet, innocent Stretch that the original Smoky is dead but that he'd be doing a great thing for the kids of America by pretending to be Smoky. Being able to quickly earn the money for his dream ranch convinces Stretch to seal the deal.

Although Stretch is an awkward actor, the director (Don Haggerty) sees a "freshness" in "Smoky" that he likes, and Stretch-as-Smoky is a big hit with the kids in personal appearances, especially as he has genuine cowboy skills. Moved by his hospital visits, Stretch sets up a foundation for kids with polio.

And then it all threatens to collapse as the real Smoky reappears. Keel and makeup artist William Tuttle do a remarkably good job, with the alcoholic Smoky having subtle dark shadows under his eyes and generally looking ragged and older. The film dares to be rather dark, as it doesn't go for easy plot devices such as Smoky going on the wagon and redeeming himself. The snarling Smoky leaves town an angry man, likely destined for cirrhosis of the liver and an early grave. The big question now is what will Stretch do?

I felt some discomfort with the film's general premise, which involves multiple people sustaining a long-term lie, up to and including the imposter signing legal documents. Putting that aside, however, it's a well-done film with many fun moments, and it's also an interesting take on the popularity of TV cowboys in the '50s. In fact, there's even a disclaimer at the end saying the film is all in good fun and not meant to disparage those cowboys who have been great role models for America's children, or words to that effect.

The movie certainly underscores what a talented man Keel was. It's always clear which character the audience is watching, with Keel charming as the singing cowboy and also quite believable as his unpleasant doppelganger.

McGuire seemed to often play rather brittle women, and Debbie is another example. She's got her eyes on dollars and financial security, but bit by bit finds that Stretch's authenticity and good heart are getting to her. Initially Debbie seems ideally matched with her partner Mike (MacMurray), as they cynically banter back and forth, but over time Debbie's eyes are opened to the important things in life. She gradually unbends and takes on a new warmth.

Mike, it seems, will likely remain a fairly shallow fellow, as even near the end of the film he attempts to manipulate Stretch into doing what he wants, even though he knows he really shouldn't. Given how MacMurray is remembered for MY THREE SONS and Disney movies, it's interesting to realize how many times in his career MacMurray played characters with varying degrees of sleaze. The ick factor is fairly mild here, compared to, say, THE APARTMENT (1960), but Mike is definitely out for himself first and foremost, and MacMurray's not afraid to dive into the role.

CALLAWAY WENT THATAWAY was written and directed by Melvin Frank and Norman Panama, a team especially known for writing and sometimes directing comedies and musicals. Their screenplay for the very serious ABOVE AND BEYOND (1952) about the dropping of the first atomic bomb, was unusual fare for the pair; THE COURT JESTER (1956) was more typical.

The movie was shot by Ray June. It runs 81 minutes.

The supporting cast includes Natalie Schafer, Fay Roope, Douglas Kennedy, Acquanetta, Ned Glass, and Stan Freberg. Look for Ann Robinson (THE WAR OF THE WORLDS) as the hatcheck girl at Mocambo's and Hugh Beaumont (LEAVE IT TO BEAVER) as an attorney. There are also fun cameos by a trio of very big name MGM stars of the era.

For more on this film, please visit KC's review at A Classic Movie Blog.

The Warner Archive DVD is a crisp black and white print. The DVD includes the trailer.

Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this DVD. Warner Archive releases are MOD (manufactured on demand) and may be ordered from the Warner Archive Collection at the WBShop.


Blogger KC said...

Yes, so glad you agreed about Keel! I've always liked, but not really been into him. He impressed me so much in this role, or roles I guess I should say. I know he's famous for playing good guys, but I find MacMurray much more entertaining when he's bad. It is interesting how much mainstream movies depend on lies. I suppose that's why we watch them though--to see things we would otherwise not see and watch people do things we would never do! I enjoyed your review.

10:35 PM  
Blogger Caftan Woman said...

Truly a great showcase for Keel, and worth watching for that 50s vibe.

8:04 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Delighted to hear both of your thoughts, and I enjoyed your review, KC!

Best wishes,

12:05 AM  
Blogger Crocheted Lace said...

I read that this was one of Howard Keel's favorite roles.

4:31 PM  

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