Monday, August 2, 2010

The Fighting Kentuckian

“The Fighting Kentuckian” (1949) is a curious film in John Wayne’s career. I can see him gritting his teeth in frustration at the pedestrian role, but because he was the film’s producer, he has only himself to blame.

It comes smack in the middle of a stretch of incredible films, with a series of roles that really stretched him as an actor. “Red River” (1948), “Fort Apache” (1948), “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” (1949) and his Oscar-nominated role in “Sands of Iwo Jima” (1949) easily put to bed the stereotype of an actor who only played himself. These are some of his best performances, with each character having his own unique personality. His Nathan Brittles in Yellow Ribbon is a much different leader of men than his Sgt. Stryker in Iwo Jima.

But Wayne was still under contract to Republic Pictures, the M-G-M of Poverty Row studios. The biggest name on the Republic roster, studio chief Herbert Yates was not ready to allow his biggest star to leave for greener pastures. Loan outs were one thing, but not a complete abandonment of the home studio. To keep Wayne happy, Yates set up a production company for him, whose first film was the fondly remembered “Angel and the Badman” (1947), a solid winner for Republic.

Wayne’s second film as producer was “The Fighting Kentuckian” and it’s pretty undistinguished. As an action film, its pleasures are few and the action climax is probably the weakest and most forgettable of any Wayne film.

The film is most remembered today for giving Oliver Hardy a rare solo appearance. Wayne desperately Hardy for the role of Willie Paine, Wayne’s friend in the Kentucky unit, but Hardy refused. He felt loyal to long time screen partner Stan Laurel and did not want it to appear that the team was breaking up. Only after Stan gave his blessings to Ollie to accept the role did Hardy say yes to Wayne.

He’s a delight, as he always is, and one wishes he had been given more solo assignments. But when one realizes that the comedy relief is the best thing about a John Wayne western, you know something went wrong.

(As a boy, I had a Super 8 version of this film with select highlights, almost all of which included Oliver Hardy. The people that put together that version knew what they were doing.)

The film’s story line is promising, and somewhat unusual. Despite the film’s title, the story takes place in Alabama, circa 1818. Wayne and his band of Kentuckians help foil a plot to steal land promised to a group of Bonapartists, a group of French citizens exiled from France after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo. Wayne becomes involved after falling in love with Fleurette (Vera Ralston, aka Mrs. Herbert Yates), one of the exiles.
Ralston gets a lot of flak from people. Wayne didn’t think much of her, and resented Yates’ insistence that he use her. Wayne didn’t think the Czech-born Ralston could convincingly play a French woman, and felt the film suffered for it. But she’s no worse than any other young contract player, and the film’s faults lay elsewhere.

The plot is needlessly convoluted, and one is never quite sure who is doing what to whom and why. I’ve seen the film several times over the years and some of the plot’s machinations still leave me confused. Director George Waggner also wrote the script, and he would have been better off giving the writing assignment to someone else. He and Wayne would fare much better two years later with a superior WWII submarine flick “Operation Pacific” (1951).

In addition to Oliver Hardy, the film’s highpoint is the superior musical score of George Antheil. In the 1920s and 1930s he was one of the most notorious figures of the symphonic music world, and even earned the nickname the “Bad Boy of Music.” To augment his concert hall commissions, he wrote film scores, for Cecil B. DeMille in the 1930s and in the 1940s wrote some very interesting scores at Republic. His music for one of their A westerns, “The Plainsman and the Lady” (1946), is very striking and quite modernistic.

For “The Fighting Kentuckian” Antheil provides a lovely frontier soundscape, with the late reel chase and battle scenes scored with all kinds of variations on “Comin’ Round the Mountain” and “La Marseillaise”. If Charles Ives saw this in the theater, he no doubt was nodding his head in approval.

There’s also a memorable sequence where some musicians play a very nice piece at a party, and it sounds like it could be an original piece by Antheil and not source music that he adapted. While the piece is being performed, a couple of the players (including Ollie) do solo turns, and one plays the violin with this teeth, like something one would see the Spike Jones band do. The solos are very striking, as is the entire piece, which leads me to think it’s an original Antheil composition.

“The Fighting Kentuckian” makes for pleasant viewing, but hardly memorable. It’s probably the last B-type movie Wayne would make. He was getting too big for such inconsequential assignments. I’m sure he was forever grateful to Republic for building up his career, but the time was to move on. The next year, he made for Republic “Rio Grande” with Maureen O’Hara and John Ford. Yates asked for a western from them in return for financing “The Quiet Man” (1952).

If “The Fighting Kentuckian”, in a small way, helped “The Quiet Man” get made, then I’m glad to have it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am dissappointed with the picture quality with this volume 2 John Wayne collection distributed by Lionsgate. With more DVD's coming out in Blu Ray, I would hope that the picture quality would at least be done better. I will no longer purchase any DVD's that is distributed by Lionsgate.