Saturday, May 5, 2018

Stubs - South of St. Louis

South of St. Louis (1949) Starring Joel McCrea, Alexis Smith, Zachary Scott, Dorothy Malone, Douglas Kennedy, Alan Hale, Victor Jory, Bob Steele, Monte Blue, and Nacho. Director: Ray Enright. Screenplay by Zachary Gold, James R. Webb. Produced by Milton Sperling. Runtime: 89 minutes. U.S.A. Color, Western.

If you haven’t heard of United States Pictures before, you’re not alone. An independent studio run by producer Milton Sperling, United States Pictures produced 14 features from Cloak and Dagger (1946) directed by Fritz Lang to Battle of the Bulge (1965) directed by Ken Annakin. The studio would dabble in several genres, including film noir: Cloak and Dagger, and The Enforcer (1951) directed by Bretaigne Windust & Raoul Walsh; war films: Retreat, Hell! (1952), Merrill's Marauders (film) (1962) directed by Samuel Fuller, Battle of the Bulge; and Westerns: Pursued (1947) directed by Raoul Walsh, Distant Drums (1951) directed by Raoul Walsh, and South of St. Louis (1949) directed by Ray Enright.

South of St. Louis was originally called Distant Drums, a title that would get used later, and was set to star Lilli Palmer with a screenplay by Ben Hecht. Of course, that’s not what happened. It’s hard to know what that film might have been, but that’s not the film we’re dealing with here. The term South of St. Louis is apparently a Civil War expression used to describe army deserters, though that is not really related to the final film.

The film opens in Missouri, south of St. Louis, during the Civil War. Far from the main battlefields of the war, Luke Cottrell (Victor Jory) and his guerrilla raiders operate in the name of the Union Army. Driven from their homesteads, settlers migrate to Texas. On their way out, they pass the Three Bell Ranch which has been burned to the ground. The three owners and best friends, Kip Davis (Joel McCrea), Charlie Burns (Zachary Scott) and Lee Price (Douglas Kennedy), vow revenge.

Charlie Burns (Zachary Scott), Lee Price (Douglas Kennedy) and  Kip Davis (Joel McCrea)
find their ranch The Three Bell has been destroyed.

Despite the fact that Kip’s fiancée, Deborah Miller (Dorothy Malone), wants him to go with her to the small town of Edenton, the three head to the Texas border town of Brownsville, a Union Army stronghold, to look for Cottrell. There at a bar run by Jake Everts (Alan Hale, Sr.), they find Cottrell and Kip beats him up.

Luke Cottrell (Victor Jory) and his guerrilla raiders take a break in a Brownsville bar.

Later, Lee decides to leave and join the Confederate Army. The other two will stay behind and work to raise money to build back the Three Bell.

Lee joins the Confederate Army while Charlie and Kip keep working to raise money to rebuild the Ranch.

Afterward, Rouge de Lisle (Alexis Smith), a saloon singer and Rebel sympathizer, offers Kip $50 to transport a wagon load of furniture for her. Without hesitation, Kip agrees to do it and starts out immediately. However, on the way, he has an accident with a Union Army wagon, revealing that his freight is not furniture but guns intended for the Confederate Army. Kip is arrested and sent to the Stockade.

Rouge de Lisle (Alexis Smith) hires Kip to deliver "furniture".

On his way to the stockade, another Confederate sympathizer paid off by Rouge,  lets him go free. Immediately, a carriage carrying Rouge pulls up. She offers him a chance to work with her smuggling guns for the Confederacy from Matamoros, Mexico into Brownsville.

Rouge’s contact in Matamoros is a Frenchman, Henri Brugnon (Paul Maxey), who informs her that he has no more weapons, having sold them to Cottrell.

Meanwhile, Charlie hires a gang of men, including Slim Hansen (Bob Steele), who used to be a member of Cottrell’s gang.

Slim Hansen (Bob Steele) joins Charlie's gang after having run with Cottrell.

Some months later, Kip, Charlie, and their gang bring a load of guns across the river into Texas and find Cottrell waiting for them. A gunfight ensues, and Kip's men are rescued by a contingent of Confederate soldiers, led by Lee.

Deborah Miller (Dorothy Malone) is the girl Kip leaves behind, but she moves herself.

When they arrive in Edenton with the guns, Kip goes to see Deb, who has been working as a nurse in a converted hospital. She’s happy to see him and begs him to stay with her.  Kip, however, is still determined to rebuild his ranch and continues to smuggle guns to keep making money.

After the Confederate Army recaptures Brownsville, Kip wants to return to Three Bell. Lee, who is now a lieutenant in the army, chooses to continue fighting. Meanwhile, Charlie has become more interested in making money than returning to the ranch and decides to continue gun running.

Kip returns to Edenton and asks Deb to marry him and come back with him to the ranch. Surprisingly, she turns him down, feeling that her work as a nurse it too important and decides she can’t leave. Kip goes back to smuggling, which pleases Rouge, who has fallen in love with him.

Cottrell threatens to kill Kip and Charlie if they ever return to Matamoros, so Slim suggests that they steal the shipment before it arrives. Dressed as Union soldiers, they steal the guns. However, getting back into Texas poses a problem when they are intercepted by Confederate soldiers as they cross the river. Mistaking them for Union soldiers, the Confederates open fire and a shootout ensues. While Kip and Charlie survive, they end up killing the leader of the Confederate band. Back in Texas, Lee suspects the truth and ends his long-term partnership with Kip and Charlie.

The three friends start to splinter when Lee suspects his friends have killed his fellow soldiers.

When Cottrell kills one of Kip's men, Kip resolves to kill him. Slim, who used to ride with him, warns Cottrell, hoping that warning him will help eliminate Kip allowing Charlie to become the sole leader of the gang.

Kip avoids Cottrell’s ambush, but before Cottrell can tell him about Slim's double-cross, Slim kills him.

Returning to Edenton, Kip learns that Deb has fallen in love with Lee. After having lost both his friends and his fiancée, Kip leaves for Matamoros, accompanied by Rouge. With time on his hands, Kip starts to drink heavily.

After the war, Lee joins the newly established Texas Rangers and he is sent to Brownsville to clean things up. It’s not clear what he’s supposed to clean up, but apparently, it’s his old friend Charlie’s operations, since as soon as he arrives in town, Charlie threatens him. Concerned for his safety, Deb, who is with her husband, rides to Matamoros to ask for Kip's help.

Rouge convinces Kip to help his old friend.

At first, Kip isn’t keen to get involved, but with Rouge’s encouragement, he rides to stand by Lee’s side. There is a standoff between Charlie and his gang against Kip and Lee. When Slim tells Charlie that he has a sharpshooter ready to kill Kip and Lee, Charlie can't take it and at the last minute, he joins his old friends in a shootout with his own gang.

The Three Bells stand side by side in their last gunfight.

While the three friends are victorious, a mortally wounded Slim shoots him. As Charlie lies there dying, Kip promises him that the ranch will always be called the Three Bell and that they won’t change the brand.

Later, married to Rouge, Kip returns to rebuild the ranch. When Kip mentions that they’ll need a couple of boys to help them rebuild, Rouge promises, if he gives her a couple of years, to provide them.

The fact that this is called a Western does not sit quite right with me. Westerns are often set on the American frontier during the last part of the 19th century (1865-1900) following the Civil War, in a geographically western (trans-Mississippi) setting with romantic, sweeping frontier landscapes or rugged rural terrain. Typically, the subjects are white settlers vs. Indians, cattle ranchers vs. sheepherders, the coming of the railroad, cattle drives, and the like. Most of this film takes place during the Civil War, and while there is talk of cattle, we never really ever see any. No railroads. No Indians. Not that I’m against bending genres, but this one seems to be a Western only in passing.

Also, there are the bells that the three main characters wear on their spurs. Lee even continues to wear one with his Confederate uniform. Not sure what the motivation would be for three grown men to wear a little bell like that. There is never any explanation. This may sound a little old-fashioned on my part, but its a little too cute to be believable.

While I’m not a Civil War history buff, I am still dubious about the film’s historical accuracy. I always thought that Texas fell at the end of the war, rather than during it, as this film seems to suggest. Nor that Brownsville ever fell to the Union only to be retaken by the South. This film comes across more as bending history to make the movie work.

And speaking of the Civil War, the film’s protagonists are obviously on the wrong side of history. While there is no indication that none of them actually own slaves, we’re still supposed to be rooting for Confederate sympathizers. I’m not one of those PC types, but it still seems surprising that Hollywood would choose to make heroes out of them, even back in 1949. Don’t get me wrong, there can be some very compelling stories about people in this position, but sadly this isn’t one of them.

The acting is okay, but nothing really to write home about. Joel McCrea always seems to play the same sort of character, always earnest and likable. Not that I have seen all that many McCrea films, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him play a drunk before and he’s not all that believable as one.

Zachary Scott always seems to play the heavy, even though he starts out as a friend and ends up as one, there is a good part of the film where money has become the most important thing to him, friendships be damned.

Alexis Smith and Dorothy Malone seem to play two sides of the same character. Dorothy’s Deb is the pretty country girl who seems, at least in the beginning, to be in love with Kip. It’s only when her work and his work pull them in different directions that she ends up with another man. Alexis’ Rouge is a saloon singer, who one suspects has not been a one-woman man, but she is there to pick Kip up when he stumbles. In the end, both Deb and Rouge end up married and surprisingly it is Rouge who ends up on the ranch looking forward to being a mother.

Of all the genres, Westerns were probably the most popular in Hollywood. Relatively inexpensive to make, they always seemed to have a fan base. That said, there are several better examples of the genre out there that I would recommend over this outing. This film is sadly more forgettable than memorable. If you want a horse opera, you would be better served to look elsewhere.

No comments:

Post a Comment