[16 June 2014]
Now available on demand from Warner Archive, this modest B picture from MGM offers unique pleasures and allows us to explore the mystery of writer-director Norman Foster.
This is the almost-nothing-happens, not-quite-romance between a tall, gangling, aw-shucks, naive young cowpoke (Carleton Carpenter) and a tight-sweatered blonde (Jan Sterling) who always seems about two minutes away from taking his cash and leaving him flat. The story is so light and anecdotal, it’s a wonder it stretches to 70 minutes, but those 70 engage the viewer enough to see it through as our cowboy chalks up a learning experience.
The characters may be cliches, but they’re agreeable, and the movie spends much of its time simply observing their behavior as they wander around Las Vegas like a couple of rubes. And what scenes of 1952 Vegas are here. You won’t believe how poky and podunk is this dazzling sin city, and it’s all captured in crystalline location photography on a pristine print that seems never to have run through a projector. Further, Foster’s dawdling script reveals that the characters are deeper and more thoughtful than they seem at first, such as the initially hostile and barely tolerant proprietor (Keenan Wynn) of the slot-machine joint where our young drink of water has his first run of luck.
In its modest way, this movie reminds me distantly of Foster’s Rachel and the Stranger, one of the most decent and humane westerns I’ve ever seen. If we wish to trace the resonance back further, let’s recall that Foster played the innocent farmboy who experiences a bittersweet romantic encounter in the original 1933 State Fair. That pre-Code project implied more than this 1952 B could, but we can always squint between the lines; this Romeo and his Julie-baby spend the night in the desert and remark that they didn’t get any sleep. That’s during the final reel, suddenly contrived with action about driving through the desert; it symbolizes, or rather reifies, their relationship’s rocky road.
Foster turned out this project between writing and directing two more personal and unusual films: the same year’s Navajo, an Oscar-nominated ethnographic docudrama with an Indian cast, and the following year’s Sombrero, a Technicolor floperoo that sounds wild. These are still unseen by me, alas, but I’m on the lookout. After this, he spent a profitable career directing period adventures for Disney’s TV shows, especially tales of Davy Crockett and Zorro, and ending up in adult TV westerns of the late ‘60s.
For film buffs, the Foster mystery is embodied by the dazzling Journey Into Fear, an Orson Welles picture in all but the director’s credit. The viewer takes one look at the visual flourishes and wonders if Foster did anything, and that’s unfair. Prior to this, he’d done a good job directing the Mr. Moto pictures with Peter Lorre, plus one of the best Charlie Chans (Charlie Chan at Treasure Island). He’d also worked on a Mexican segment of Welles’ unfinished It’s All True. Still, the evidence suggests that Foster concentrated on the writing (especially his own) over “style”, and spent most of his time on set coaxing good work from his actors.
This movie is also for connosseurs of the era’s almost-stars. Carpenter’s Hollywood career peaked early in 1950, when he provided support in an auspicious string of musicals (most famously singing “Aba Daba Honeymoon” with Debbie Reynolds in Two Weeks with Love and Father of the Bride—and here he is, two years later, ambling through a minor B. Hardbitten specialist Sterling was two years away from a supporting Oscar for The High and the Mighty. She was in some good pictures, but never got higher or mightier. Lanky cowboy coot Hank Worden dominates the opening scene, howling with his feet up a few years before The Searchers. And the biggest almost-star, perhaps, is Foster, whose intelligent work never broke him into auteur heaven. At least he had the moon.