Friday, April 16, 2010

Go West, Young Lady (Columbia, 1941)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Go West, Young Lady, one of the quirkier items in TCM’s recent tribute to dance star Ann Miller, and though her role in this one was only peripheral it turned out to be a minor delight. A period “Western” released as a “B” by Columbia in 1941, it was apparently created as an opportunity for the director and star of Columbia’s popular Blondie series, Frank R. Strayer and Penny Singleton, to take a break from the long-running suburban sitcom about the Bumsteads while continuing to work together. Go West, Young Lady was written by Karen DeWolf and Richard Flournoy with a fascinatingly warm and bemused awareness of how campy and silly the whole plot premise was, and as an reviewer (“lugonian” from Kissimmee, Florida) noted, not only did they rip off the title from the 1936 Mae West vehicle Go West, Young Man but they also took a lot of the plot from the West-W. C. Fields collaboration from 1940, My Little Chickadee (including the opening shot of a stagecoach saved from an Indian attack by the incredible shooting of its female occupant, and the mysterious masked bandit who turns out to be one of the principals in disguise), and much of the spirit from the David Belasco play The Girl of the Golden West, of which My Little Chickadee had been a parody.

The film casts Penny Singleton as Belinda “Bill” Pendergast, whose father so wanted a boy he trained her to ride and shoot. She’s on a stagecoach to the city of Headstone (a name which itself sums up the wry wit behind a lot of this movie) to join her uncle Jim (Charlie Ruggles), who owns the Crystal Palace saloon and dance hall and is expecting her to be a he (a cleverly gender-ambiguous letter which refers to her only as “Bill” and “the kid” has been the herald from her father, who wrote it just before he died, that she’s on her way) and to take over the job as sheriff of Headstone. Only the federal marshals responsible for law enforcement in this particular bit of territory have already appointed a sheriff, “Tex” Miller (Glenn Ford, lanky, almost uncoordinated and speaking his lines in a drawl that seems like his singularly unsuccessful attempt to evoke Gary Cooper, or maybe John Wayne — one could forgive 1941 audiences looking at him and saying to themselves, “This loser will never amount to anything”). The reason they need a new sheriff is that the old ones keep getting murdered by “Killer Pete,” a masked outlaw who regularly holds up the Crystal Palace and the other businesses in Headstone, and shoots any sheriff bold or daring enough to get in his way.

Once he realizes that Belinda is really his niece “Bill,” and he got a girl when he was expecting a guy, Jim explains to her that every time “Killer Pete” holds up the Crystal Palace he ends up having to borrow more money from the town banker, Tom Hannegan (Onslow Stevens), and he’s so much in hock to Hannegan now that Hannegan could take over the Crystal Palace any time he wanted to. The moment we hear this, we’ve figured out the plot — Hannegan is “Killer Pete” and he’s staging the robberies to get the whole town totally in hock to him so he can take it over and own it, and its businesses, outright — but it takes several reels for anybody in the movie to catch on. Hannegan also has a spy at the Crystal Palace in Lola (Ann Miller — you see, we’d get to her somewhere!), his girlfriend and, it turns out, an active participant in his plot (she and Singleton get a big bitch fight obviously inspired by the one between Marlene Dietrich and Una Merkel in Destry Rides Again).

Go West, Young Lady is a movie with a lot of charms — almost all of them from Penny Singleton; though she can’t outdance Ann Miller (who could?), she sings in a nice, charming voice (assuming it’s hers; it certainly matches her speaking voice, and doesn’t list a voice double, so I think it’s really Penny’s), holds her own on the Crystal Palace stage when she’s forced to go on after Lola walks out, and manages to look both convincingly feminine and convincingly butch. There’s also a running gag in which she heaves a pie at Glenn Ford at least twice, and Singleton manages to pull off that bit of Slapstick 101 just fine too. Another attraction of Go West, Young Lady is the score by Sammy Cahn and Saul Chaplin — also more prestigious names than usually got attached to a “B” Western — and Cahn’s lyrics to songs with titles like “I Wish I Could Be a Singing Cowboy” (done as a duet between Ann Miller and the golden throat of Allen Jenkins — he also tries to keep up with her on the dance floor and is game in his try, though the best part of Jenkins’ performance is an early scene in which he complains that “Killer Pete” is knocking off the sheriffs so fast he has to re-use the same eulogy for each one; he doesn’t have time to write a new one for each victim) and “Dogie, Take Your Time” play with the Western cliché conventions much the same way the dialogue does.

Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys are also dragged in — alas, for only one song, “Ida Red” (neither the 1952 song by Black R&B singer Chris Powell nor the novelty Chuck Berry wrote under that title but, because of the pre-existing “Ida Red”’s, changed to “Maybellene” and had a career-establishing hit on) — and while one wonders where his electric lap guitar player plugged in this early (though Lola’s room at the Crystal Palace has a record player in it, which would set the time of this film as early 20th century) Wills’ number is a refreshing relief even though the Foursome (a vocal quartet who double on ocarinas — Charles joked that there was more ocarina playing in this movie than in others we’ve seen that actually took place at sea) and even Allen Jenkins get to sing more songs than Wills and his great Western-swing band do. Go West, Young Lady is a nice, clever movie that plays appealingly with its own clichés — and though the fish-out-of-water protagonist is a white woman instead of a Black man, it certainly seems like a Production Code-safe version of Blazing Saddles, down to the big action highlight at the end. If they’d only had Penny Singleton high-five Count Basie in the desert on her way to town!