Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Kid from Broken Gun (Columbia, 1952)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s curtain-raiser was an intriguing Western item called The Kid from Broken Gun, last in a seven-year series of “B” Westerns from Columbia that starred Charles Starrett (one of those actors, like Randolph Scott, who extended his career about 20 years longer than it would otherwise have run by focusing on Westerns exclusively) as the Durango Kid, a.k.a. Steve Reynolds. Framed by a trial sequence and liberally filled out with stock footage from previous Durango Kid efforts, notably a movie called The Fighting Frontiersman, The Kid from Broken Gun is intriguing because it features Smiley Burnette as Starrett’s comic-relief sidekick — Burnette worked with Gene Autry so long (not only on-screen but also as co-writer of many of Autry’s original songs) it’s somewhat jarring to see him without Autry, especially since he’d got quite a bit more heavy-set than he’d been in his early days with Autry and he’d grown out his hair to a tousled mop that gave him an odd resemblance to Chico Marx.

The Kid from Broken Gun is a fascinating little movie, written by Barry Shipman and Ed. Earl Repp (the period after the two-letter first name is actually on his on-screen credit) with a bit more creativity than the norm for a “B” Western and quite well directed by Fred F. Sears, who was usually pretty hacky but who opens this film with some fascinating overhead shots of a courtroom with a trial in progress five years before the launch of the Perry Mason TV series, which made these sorts of angles a trademark. Sears also delivers a few bits of narration on the soundtrack, telling us that in the old West the sentence for murder was to be hanged by the neck until you were dead, before introducing us to defendant Jack Mahoney (also the real name of the actor playing him, though he was usually credited as Jock Mahoney and the actual name on his birth certificate was Jacques O’Mahoney), who’s on trial for murdering Matt Fallon (Chris Alcaide) in what, in a series of flashbacks representing the stories told during the trial testimony, turns out to be an altercation over a strongbox containing a part of the gold Antonio López de Santa Anna left behind as he and his army were fleeing Texas following their rout at San Jacinto in 1836. Mahoney is being represented by a female attorney, Gail Kingston (an effective Angela Stevens) — this is Wyoming, the first state to give women the vote — and Steve Reynolds, a.k.a. the Durango Kid (Charles Starrett), is watching the trial with his friend Smiley Burnette (also using his own name for his character) when he isn’t out riding around with a black bandana across the lower half of his face — the total extent of his “Durango Kid” disguise and which, as I’ve noted about earlier films in the series, seems to have been effected only to allow stunt doubles to substitute for Starrett in the action scenes. (There’s a comic tag scene at the end which pathetically tries to make us believe that Smiley has no idea his friend is the Durango Kid.)

What sets this apart from most “B” Westerns is, first, the excellent shape it’s survived in — Fayte M. Browne’s cinematography is rich in high-contrast chiaroscuro black-and-white images and the print as it stands does full justice to it: the images are crisp and clear and there are no visible or audible splices or scratches in the film (a boon to anyone who’s suffered through cloudy, grainy, splice-ridden prints of “B” Westerns from the 1930’s) — and the surprising inventiveness of the writing: towards the end Shipman and Repp give us some neck-snapping but still believable reversals, including revealing that Matt Fallon’s girlfriend, saloon entertainer Dixie King (Helen Mowery) was actually attorney Gail Kingston’s sister, and was also part of a plot headed by local 1 percenter Martin Donohugh (Tristram Coffin) and also involving Matt Fallon — that’s right, this is another one of those plots in which not only did the good guy not commit murder, the person he’s supposed to have murdered isn’t really dead at all! — to steal the gold-filled strongbox and set up Mahoney for the theft as well as getting him hanged on a murder charge. This isn’t exactly a world-beater of a movie, but it is a reasonably entertaining way to spend 53 minutes and the clever writing, acceptable acting (and in Angela Stevens’ case considerably better than that; she’s quite good both as the good girl and the bad girl, and she and Helen Mowery look enough like each other to be believable as sisters) and excellent print condition make this one a cut above most “B” Westerns.