This week's Movie Monday selection is the 1956 comedy/drama/western The King and Four Queens!
I spent way too much time toiling at a video store, back when those things existed. It was hardly my chosen career path, but I will say this: our store had everything, a real movie lover's paradise. So I took advantage of our vast selection (and free rental policy) to send myself to film school, in that I watched everything I could get my hands on.
One of the sections we had was called Hollywood's Best, which grouped films by star, and sometimes director. I would pick a particular star--say, Woody Allen or Clint Eastwood--and simply go through every one of their films. For some stars, I was surprised how many films there were I had never heard of. Sure, everyone knew Dirty Harry, but what the heck was The Beguiled (more on that later)? I enjoyed rummaging through the lesser known films of certain stars; it seemed like you'd find an occasional overlooked gem, some odd little movie that probably only got made because the Big Time Movie Star was in it.
That's what I thought of when I came across The King and Four Queens, starring none other than Clark Gable, on Netflix WI. I had no familiarity with this movie at all, so the combo of Gable and director Raoul Walsh (White Heat) was enough to get me to try it out:
Gable plays con man Dan Kehoe, who wanders into the proverbial small western town (called Wagon Mound), that was probably used in several thousand previous westerns. He stops by the local saloon, grabbing a drink and a shave:
...you gotta love those Character Actor faces. People don't look like this in movies anymore.
Anyway, Kehoe learns about the McDade family at the edge of town, consisting of all women: a mother (Jo Van Fleet), and four daughters-in-law (Barbara Nichols, Jean Wiles, Sara Shane, and Eleanor Parker), who are supposedly sitting on a cache of stolen loot. Of course, it only takes Kehoe a few minutes to head over there, where he introduces himself by firing his pistol in the air. All five women hear the shot, and each gets a marvelous introduction:
Ma McDade wounds Kehoe for getting too close, and then they take him in and bring him back to health (seems counterproductive to me, but then I never lived in the Old West). After he wakes up, Kehoe tries to charm each of the daughters (not bothering with the Old Lady, even though the actress playing her--Jo Van Fleet--was a full thirteen years younger than Gable) to see if he can find the location of the loot.
It's at this point the movie settles into what you could call a rut: Gable seems a bit long in the tooth to be playing the charming young buck, and because of the Production Code, there's only so much passion that could be shown: at one point Kehoe is bathing in a pond, and the daughter known as Birdie decides to join him, only to get interrupted by some visitors before she can even get one article of clothing off.
Ma McDade has four sons (of course), who are stagecoach robbers. She hears three of them have been killed, but doesn't know which one. Each daughter-in-law hopes its her husband who has survived, since he will presumably come home, take his wife and the loot, and head out for a better life than the one in Wagon Mound. The one mild surprise in the movie is that one of the daughters isn't exactly who she claims to be--and eventually pairs up with Kehoe to double-cross her family and run away with him.
"Frankly, Ma McDade, I don't give a damn."
Kehoe finally decides to leave, having found the loot (in a reveal so anti-climactic I almost thought I had missed something). He runs into some trouble (again, mild) with a sheriff's posse, who have captured the remaining brother. Kehoe talks his way out of trouble, only to be rewarded for his honesty, in a roundabout way. He meets up with the fake McDade daughter, and together they ride off into the sunset.
Most reviews of The King and Four Queens say the same thing, and I guess I'm going to as well: there's nothing inherently wrong with this movie, it's just so bland that it seems like a waste to have such talents like Gable and Walsh involved in it. The comedy is mild, the action very mild, and the drama mild--no one in the movie ever gets too worked up about anything, so why should we?
I mentioned Clint Eastwood's The Beguiled at the beginning of this review, and I couldn't help but think of that movie while watching The King and Four Queens. Both films feature an decidedly rugged, adult man (Eastwood as a Confederate soldier, Gable as an outlaw) who ends up being cared for a group of young women, led by an older one. The Beguiled, made in 1971, was able to take advantage of loosened content restrictions by playing up the sexual tension unleashed when a capital-M Man is dropped into such a controlled setting. In this film, things get barely more heated than your average episode of Gunsmoke.
And that's too bad; it's a handsome film, with some gorgeous, widescreen vistas, it's a shame that the filmmakers couldn't find a more interesting story taking place in front of them.
One final note: The title, The King and Four Queens, really makes no sense, other than being related to the fact that Gable for many years was called "The King of Hollywood" (as he is referred to on the poster, which should have won an award for Biggest Hyperbole). By 1955 Gable's star was still bright but significantly dimmed; calling him King reminded me of how some partisans insisted on referring to Michael Jackson as The King of Pop long, long after he began his sad descent.
This was the first film Gable ever produced; apparently just getting it made was so tortured and stressful(?) to the star that he never bothered trying to create his own material again, going back to being an actor for hire.