Horse Operetta

Chris Schneider’s back! With sort-of late Allan Dwan — Dwan’s career was so very long, he arguably has at least a decade of late work… DC
“Can’t you hear what the balalaikas are telling you?”
~ Ilona Massey in NORTHWEST OUTPOST.
“I didn’t think it polite to listen.”
~ voice from the audience
*
Operetta is difficult. Notably when, like the Allan Dwan-directed NORTHWEST OUTPOST (1947), it’s of the “Meet me by the stockade” variety.
NORTHWEST OUTPOST isn’t, y’see, the sort of Lubitsch-ian operetta concerned with mythical kingdoms and the lovelife of satirized monarchs (THE LOVE PARADE, THE MERRY WIDOW). Nor is it a Mamoulian-style tale (see. LOVE ME TONIGHT) of country-house assignations. No, it tells of a Russian settlement in 1830s California, a sheriff-like rep of the US government (Nelson Eddy as Capt. Jim Lawrence), and the arrival of a glamorous-yet-suspect Russian general’s daughter (Ilona Massey as Natalya Alanova) for reasons undeclared and suspicious.
In place of a ladies’ tailor we see forced laborers … and one can only raise an eyebrow at the implied *schadenfreude* of a romance precipitated by the sight of a convict being whipped. Or one where the first kiss comes after badinage about whether or not a plum has worms in it. “I deserved that” responds Massey, a tad fatalistically.
Perhaps this gamy, semi-rural atmosphere can be attributed to co-scenarist Richard Sale, author of the novel that became Borzage’s STRANGE CARGO. The prime mover, though, is probably the film’s composer, Rudolph Friml, whose ROSE MARIE had been a monster hit for MacDonald & Eddy some ten years earlier.
“I make a habit of scaring ladies’ horses” says Eddy at one point — though the line might apply to either OUTPOST or ROSE MARIE, what with the baritone-on-horse action.
What does director Dwan do with the singing objects that are Eddy and Massey — though Massey, to her credit, shows signs of dramatic involvement? Well, Dwan surrounds them with first-rate supporting players like, f’rinstance, Elsa Lanchester, who does heroic work as the governor’s wife both conveying plot points and getting her laughs while maintaining a Russian accent. Hugo Haas is no slouch, either, as her none-too-faithful husband. Or Joseph Schildkraut, who glowers as the prisoner Massey was forced to marry in order to save her father (blah blah blah). There’s even an appearance by Jay Silverheels, who is audibly referred to as “Silverheels.” A Brechtian alienation-effect? Not likely.
Dwan-the-director is felt mostly in an extended Orthodox Easter celebration, with tracking-shots, where Eddy is cantor. Also in a dialogue scene, with Lanchester and Eddy, where Lanchester is embroidering and it’s shot, Sternberg-style, through a huge lace screen.
The lyricist is Edward Heyman, who wrote “Blame It On My Youth” and “When I Fall In Love.” (The charitable will overlook THE KISSING BANDIT.) The number that comes off best is an extended duet called “Nearer, Dearer.” There’s also an over-the-top waltz called “Love Is The Time” which is reprised, at the end, by men on horseback who simultaneously guide their horses and balance a female singer on one knee.
One’s eye often rolls. When, that is, one is not cheering Elsa Lanchester.
The good end happily, the bad unhappily, and Yakima Canutt shoots the chase scenes. That is what Republic Pictures operetta means.
*
The players, as David Cairns might say, include: Sergeant Bruce; Elsa Frankenstein; Louise Patterson; Monsieur Walter; Judas Iscariot; Olympe the Courtesan; and Tonto.

8 Responses to “Horse Operetta”

  1. ehrenstein47 Says:

    Heyman wrote “Blame It On My Youth” with Oscar Levant It’s a favorite of Mine

    Whenever I see Ilona Massey I can only think of her in “A Night in Casablanca,” with Chico attempting to seduce her with the (for him) romantic line “You want-a sardines? I a-smother you in sardines!”

  2. chris schneider Says:

    After I gave this to David, I came across the following quote: “I don’t think Friml wrote three notes for the whole show … [music director Robert] Armbruster had to play phrases on the piano or have [Friml] play little phrases out of some song he hadn’t finished and Armbruster would pick it up and finish it.” (Quoted in Frederic Lombardi’s 2013 ALLAN DWAN AND THE RISE AND DECLINE OF THE HOLLYWOOD STUDIOS.)

    I also discovered that Edward Heyman only wrote words for one of the songs of notorious flop THE KISSING BANDIT.

  3. ehrenstein47 Says:

    If “The Kissing Bandit” is remembered at all it’s for this sensational dance number

  4. bensondonald Says:

    Ricardo Montalban eventually tried to distance himself from such Latin lover types. Mark Evanier has a story of him doing so with some charm:
    https://www.newsfromme.com/2009/01/14/ricardo-montalban-r-i-p/

  5. chris schneider Says:

    I knew of KISSING BANDIT as a conspicuous example of Sinatra Movies That Don’t Work, the other two coming to mind being MIRACLE OF THE BELLS and THE PRIDE AND THE PASSION. You might cite DIRTY DINGUS McGEE, too, but by then he had already become a corporate phenomenon … so “working” or “not working” seems beside the point.

  6. Certainly I’d include Four for Texas…

  7. ehrenstein47 Says:

    And occasionally he’d make something really fine like “The Detective.” Mia Farrow was supposed to be in it but they divorced and Jackie Bissett stepped in at the last minute.

  8. Ah, that was when he tried, unwisely, to pressure Mia into walking out of Rosemary’s Baby — at least according to Robert Evans, who is not 100% dependable as a witness.

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