Monday, May 2, 2011

The Painted Hills (MGM, 1951)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film Charles and I ultimately watched last night was the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 offtake of The Painted Hills, a 1951 three-strip Technicolor movie from MGM produced by Chester Franklin, directed by Harold F. Kress, written by True Boardman from a novel called Shep of the Painted Hills by Alexander Hull, and starring Lassie — well, actually starring Pal, the male dog who played the original Lassie, so a boy-dog named Pal is billed as a girl-dog named Lassie playing a girl-dog named Shep (got that?). This time the Transgender collie is the pet of ancient mining prospector Jonathan Harvey (Paul Kelly under heavy makeup and a thick beard that prompted one of the MST3K crew to decide he looked like president Rutherford B. Hayes and offer an hilariously fractured version of Hayes’ life story during one of the interstital segments), who as the film opens has just discovered gold in them thar painted hills (though the glories of the landscape never actually become a plot element they way they did in both versions of The Painted Desert) after decades of fruitlessly trying.

He brings news of his discovery to Lin Taylor (Bruce Cowling), who’s sufficiently swarthy and creepy-looking we know he’s the villain of the piece and will try to do Jonathan out of his gold strike well before any of the characters do. He’s living with — this being the Production Code era he’s presumably married to — Martha Blake (Ann Doran), whose young son Tommy (Gary Gray) supplies the pre-pubescent cutie obligatory in a Lassie (or whatever the bitch’s name is) movie and is as rancidly obnoxious as just about every movie child in the two or three decades following Shirley Temple. For reasons the writers never quite explain, Jonathan wants to palm Lassie — oops, I mean Shep — off on Tommy, but the dog keeps getting a telepathic awareness whenever Jonathan is in danger and tearing off into the titular painted hills to rescue him. The crook finally manages to dispatch Jonathan after poisoning the dog — though some Indian veterinarian medicine men (I’m not making this up, you know!) save Shep’s life and Shep is able to turn the corner on Lin after he tries to shoot the dog but his gun jams — due, at least according to the synopsis, to “an off-screen accident with some liquid nitrogen” — and the mine is saved for Martha, Tommy, Shep a.k.a. Lassie a.k.a. Pal and niceness in general.

The Painted Hills was the seventh and last Lassie feature made by MGM (though it barely counts as one since it was based on a different dog story from those of Eric Knight, creator of the Lassie character, and it was obviously only billed as a Lassie movie because “Lassie” had name recognition — otherwise it would have been just another movie starring a dog) and, according to an trivia item, was the only one not reviewed by the New York Times on initial release — suggesting that both the paper and MGM knew from the outset that this film was, pardon the pun, a dog. Also, it was so short — just 68 minutes, which suggests major surgery in the cutting room (especially since Bruce Cowling is clean-shaven for the first half of the movie and then suddenly has a full beard in the second half, with no indication that enough time has elapsed for him to have grown one normally) — the MST3K crew had to fill it out with one of those abominable “educational” shorts from the 1950’s, Body Care and Grooming, which inspired them (as usual) to more and better mockery than the movie — though their commentary on the film itself was actually one of their more inspired performances, full of surprisingly oblique cultural references for a show aimed largely (at least judging from the fan letters they read on air in the early days!) at kids.