Wednesday, November 12, 2008

San Antonio

Another Alamo movie, though this time the famous church only plays a cameo role. “San Antonio” (1945) is a big-budget “A” western from Warner Bros. that seems to me to be the studio’s answer to the kinds of “B” westerns Roy Rogers was churning out at Republic Studios. Contemporary viewers may scoff at these Rogers westerns, but he was one of the biggest box office attractions of the era.

Like a Roy Rogers western, most of the action takes place at the end while the beginning is loaded with musical numbers and comedy. It’s an enjoyable two hours, but if it was any lighter it would float right out of the DVD player. Just look at the poster and you can see we’re not talking serious western fare here.

Star Errol Flynn was likely bemused to find himself a western hero. At the time of filming “San Antonio” he referred to himself as “the rich man’s Roy Rogers” which leads me to believe he also saw the parallels. (Not that I could picture Flynn watching Roy Rogers movies in his spare time).

Filmed in gorgeous Technicolor, the plot of “San Antonio” is strictly routine fare, having to do with Flynn as gunfighter Clay Hardin out to settle a score with crooked Roy Stuart (Paul Kelly). That’s about it.

Before the gunplay though, we get comedy courtesy of S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall, manager of singing star Jeanne Starr (Alexis Smith). Jeanne was led to believe San Antonio was more cultured than it was, and she’s somewhat horrified she’s been hired by Stuart to sing in his saloon. This she does with the Oscar-nominated song “Some Sunday Morning”, a most catchy tune. Flynn and Smith also enjoy a dance together and there’s comedy provided by Sakall and Smith’s servant, the always enjoyable Florence Bates. We also get one more song from Smith before it’s over.

Oh, there is a gunfight towards the beginning with Flynn beating Tom Tyler to the draw. Tyler had one of the most interesting faces in Hollywood, like a hawk ready to pounce on his prey. Ironically, he’s best known today for putting that visage under tons of make-up in “The Mummy’s Hand.” (1940).

There is plenty of action at the end, including a mass gunfight that starts in the saloon and ends in the streets outside, complete with bodies falling off the balcony and into the street. Dramatically it makes no sense, as a potshot is taken at Flynn, who returns fire. Pretty soon everyone in the saloon is shooting at each other for no reason. But it sure is loud. In fact, I would reckon that every piece of blank ammunition on the Warner Bros. lot was used for that sequence.

The gunfight concludes with Flynn chasing Kelly into the Alamo, a marvelously atmospheric sequence filled with shadows and menace. It’s a terrific sequence.

I greatly enjoyed Flynn’s performance in this. He’s very relaxed and loose, and from what I’ve read it probably captures his real-life personality. At one point, he’s visited by his friend John Litel, who surprises a young senorita taking a bath in a barrel in his courtyard. She jumps out screaming and runs away with a towel wrapped around her.

Flynn looks at Litel and says very gentlemanly, “We wouldn’t look.” Then he does a double take and says, “Would we?” He then turns to watch the girl run away and continues watching her even as he’s talking to Litel. One can well imagine Flynn doing the same thing in real life.

“San Antonio” was written by a couple of heavy hitters, W.R. Burnett, author of “Little Caesar”, “The Asphalt Jungle”, “High Sierra” and other celebrated crime novels, and Alan LeMay, author of “The Searchers.” It’s a pretty routine effort, though their fingerprints can be found in the scenes between the villains Paul Kelly and his partner Victor Francen. These two don’t trust each other, and you can tell they would turn on each other in an instant if it became worthwhile to them. There’s some interesting dynamics there.

I think the stress on music and comedy was the reason the film was assigned to director David Butler, rather than, say, a Raoul Walsh. Butler seems a most affable chap as seen in his cameos in “Thank Your Lucky Stars” (1943) and “It’s a Great Feeling” (1949), and he specialized in musicals and comedies at Warner Bros. No doubt that background gave him the assignment.

Max Steiner contributes another good score, and offers over the main titles a reprise of his title music from “Dodge City” (1939), the first Flynn western, though orchestrated differently.

“San Antonio” is no great shakes, but it’s pleasant entertainment, with nice color, songs, good action and a most unusual use for the Alamo.

Rating for “San Antonio”: Three stars.

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