Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Tonight's Movie: California Passage (1950)

CALIFORNIA PASSAGE (1950) is an entertaining Republic Pictures Western starring Forrest Tucker, Adele Mara, and Jim Davis.

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).

The film has some terrific dialogue -- sharp and funny enough at times that I actually double-checked to make sure Adele Mara's future husband, Roy Huggins (MAVERICK), didn't have any credit on the script! There are other aspects to the film which are outside the ordinary, such as Kemper's creatively written sheriff.

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.

CALIFORNIA PASSAGE continues to make me a new fan of Forrest Tucker, following watching his appealing performance in 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.

Charles Kemper, who was so good as the wise sheriff in 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.

CALIFORNIA PASSAGE can be rented for streaming from Amazon; there is no additional charge for Amazon Prime members.


Blogger john k said...

It's so wonderful that you are virtually on a crusade to give these wonderful
Republic A pictures an exposure to a wider audience. As always I loved your
review and also the way you mention fascinating details about the supporting
players in these films.
I too love the "Women of Republic" and I guess that list would have to include
Joan Leslie and Adrian Booth as well as Adele Mara who I also really like.
The other Tucker Republic A Western where Tucker had the lead is the engaging
ROCK ISLAND TRAIL and that one had the advantage of Trucolor.
The film is full of eccentric details including a duel fought between Tucker
and Bruce Cabot armed with floor mops dipped in hot soup!
Lovely Adrian Booth plays a cigar smoking Native American Princess.
As you may gather the film is great fun.
Oh,Laura I almost forgot,I thought the lovely poster artwork that you sourced
was sensational!

3:38 AM  
Blogger Kristina said...

Looks good! Fun to see you get into someone new with Tucker. Great thing about movies is always finding new faces and movies to follow. I know this is not up your alley genre-wise but someday you have to see him in a movie I love, THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN :)

9:50 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thank you so much, John! What a pleasure to keep discovering more great stuff to watch. Classic movies are the gift that keeps on giving.

Needless to say now I want to see ROCK ISLAND TRAIL!!!

Delighted you enjoyed the posters. I especially liked the one at the top of the post.

Best wishes,

3:38 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Kristina!

"Great thing about movies is always finding new faces and movies to follow."


And to think I'm just starting to dip into Japanese movies, silents, and Forrest Tucker, and that's just for starters. LOL.

How could I resist a movie with the title THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN?!

Best wishes,

3:39 PM  
Blogger Elisabeth Grace Foley said...

This sounds like fun. What a great supporting cast! I always enjoy Republic movies because of the plethora of familiar faces, after growing up watching their B-Westerns. Have you ever seen the Republic Christmas film The Cheaters (1945)? I just saw that this past Christmas and thought it was fun—a bit like a My Man Godfrey-type comedy in a Christmas setting.

3:58 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Elisabeth!

Thanks much for the recommendation of THE CHEATERS. I see it was also directed by Joseph Kane. I recorded it from TCM a while back but it's a title I haven't gotten around to watching yet. Sounds like I should bump it up! :)

Best wishes,

4:14 PM  
Blogger Rick said...

It will be interesting to see your reaction to THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN if you get to see it. It's not what one might expect from that title. It's actually a very thoughtful and intelligent film with some wonderful actors, including Forrest Tucker and Peter Cushing.

Just don't go into it expecting a goofy schlockfest.

7:19 PM  
Blogger Jerry E said...

A weird coincidence - "The Abominable Snowman" is having a rare outing next week on UK TV (in the middle of the night)(appropriate?).

I am so enjoying your reviews of these Republic films, Laura. Good work!!

And it's Tuck again too! I guess the one regular Republic lady (the most frequent one)who just might not get the same praise is Vera Hruba Ralston (aka Mrs. Yates).

9:44 AM  
Blogger Maricatrin said...

I'm glad you enjoyed this one (right after I recommended it, I remembered the scalping scene, and hoped that you would be able to get past it!)

Mike may also have felt the need to appear meaner than he was because he was actually a nice guy, and that sets you at a disadvantage in a savage world. Linc was rotten clean through, so he had no problem pretending to be "civilized" in order to fool people like Beth.

Now that you mention it, there were some bits that made me think of Maverick at times. Among them the darkly comic way the lynching was presented (in all fairness to the Sheriff, I don't think he would have been so easygoing if he hadn't known the man was guilty as sin.)

Again, glad you enjoyed this one, I know I did:-)

11:36 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks, Rick! Cushing and Tucker is a combo I wouldn't have expected. :)

I appreciate that, Jerry! I'm having so much fun exploring. More to come! I intend it revisit JUBILEE TRAIL soon, which also starred Tucker and his FLIGHT NURSE costar Joan Leslie. I loved the Gwen Bristow book as a teen -- and when I saw the movie on TV shortly afterwards I could not believe how bad Ralston was, or how unlike my conception of her character. I've been hoping she'll seem better the next time I see the movie...but maybe that's too much to hope for! :)

Hi Maricatrin -- At least they handled the scalping scene as tastefully as one could handle such a moment, leaving it all to the imagination (grin). I like your thoughts on Mike initially covering up that he's a nice guy very much. I guess you could say the character we see in that opening sequence is the tough guy act he puts on for strangers.

This is one I'll be returning to again in the future.

Best wishes,

10:00 PM  
Blogger Hal said...

Laura: Glad to see you becoming a fan of Tuck's. CALIFORNIA PASSAGE is one of my favorites; Adele Mara worked with him a total of five times, and as John noted earlier was his leading lady in ROCK ISLAND TRAIL too.

One of his best vehicles as a hero is coming out on DVD March 31 via Olive Films, 1957's THE QUIET GUN, a Regalscope picture. (He also starred in STAGECOACH TO FURY for Regal, but QUIET GUN is much better). Jim Davis is also in GUN, along with a young Lee Van Cleef, Mara Corday, and Hank Worden. It's a real sleeper.

Thanks for letting me know FLIGHT NURSE is now on YouTube; haven't seen it in years. I need to review it for my blog as well.

CALIFORNIA PASSAGE is also on Epix Instant, and was on Netflix for awhile too and might be back.

2:02 PM  

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