May 7, 2018
$19.95 DVD, $24.95 Blu-ray;
Stars Vaughn Monroe, Ella Raines, Walter Brennan, Ward Bond.
If Frankie Laine could show up for a guest shot on TV’s “Rawhide,” albeit much later, then why not Vaughn Monroe in a Republic Western called Singing Guns? Or, for that matter, even a Vaughn/Republic follow-up called The Toughest Man in Arizona, which the singer/bandleader did a couple years later for the same studio, even though the title portended a far more severe content stretch. Hell, even Bobby Darin managed to make a Western: Gunfight at Abilene, opposite Leslie Nielsen (I’ll just let that one sit there).
As the studio chief who was also doubled as executive in charge of red-inked actress/spouse Vera Ralston’s romper room, Republic’s Herbert Yates was never one to ignore pop culture exploitation. And there are stories of how fast his staff got a movie (any movie) called Pistol Packin’ Mama into 1943 theaters after the Bing Crosby/Andrews Sisters Decca version of that song gave new life to one of the biggest pop hits of the wartime years once sales finally flagged some on Al Dexter’s initial version for Okeh Records. (Both are still great recordings.) For Yates, who apparently could work fast enough to make Sam Katzman look like David Lean when there were pennies on the line, Singing Guns would give Monroe the chance to sing “Mule Train” on screen for a February 1950 release after the tune’s smash jukebox reception toward the end of ’49.
Trouble is, it was Frankie Laine who had the No. 1 hit of the tune with a couple million in sales, and a Crosby version — think of Bing cracking whips on a mule train — did substantially better than Monroe’s as well. What’s more, Gene Autry, who knew a bit about song-to-screen exploitation himself, did one of his own quickie Westerns that was actually called Mule Train, and according to IMDb.com, it beat Guns into theaters by six days. This was such a competitive business that Spike Jones even did a recording called “Chinese Mule Train” — which, like the Laine version, I have on my iPod — but we will not go there in these more culturally sensitive times, even if Spike did.
Fortunately, Guns has a few things going with it, few of which have to with a plot that asks us to believe that a wanted outlaw (just by virtue of having shaved his beard) could be hired in dim bulb fashion as lawman by the same community that’s pursuing him. This would be Monroe, who reached me as a kid via his Billboard No. 7 hit “They Were Doin’ the Mambo (But I Just Stood Around)” and his TV spokesperson gigs for RCA Victor. He even has a second place in my heart because a decade later, in my hometown, my best friend was lifeguarding at the same golf course where Jack Nicklaus had learned to play on a night when Monroe royally blew a number in entertainment room. After a dramatic orchestral overture, he fumbled on the two-yard line with an “I Left My Love … er, Heart … in San Francisco” as he launched his Tony Bennett cover. On screen here, he’s no acting disaster but his scrape-through is nonetheless dependent on assists from Walter Brennan (“I’ve got three Oscars, and I’m subordinate to Vaughn Monroe at Republic?”) and, as the outside Law pursuing Monroe, Ward Bond in what is unexpectedly one of the better-to-best performances of his career.
Spiffily adorned Ella Raines is Bond’s mistress — the picture is fairly upfront about this — and she has always been a favored ’40s actress of mine by virtue of Hail the Conquering Hero, Phantom Lady and Tall in the Saddle (where, after stand-alone Maureen O’Hara, I’d have to say that she ties with Gail Russell as my second favorite John Wayne leading lady). Also around is Jeff Corey, who was a little less than two years but a dozen movies (he, uh, worked a lot) from a decade of political blacklisting. This must have made for some colorful jawboning in the commissary (in which famously stingy Yates no doubt stocked with all the beef jerky you could eat) given notorious reactionaries Bond and Brennan on the set.
Kino has brought back Republic encyclopedia Toby Roan back for another commentary, and he substantially helps out with location primers and backgrounders on the technical specs — the latter helping to explain why so many of the studio’s higher profile releases looked a lot more polished than their budgets would suggest. Compounding a lesson I learned with Kino’s previous release of Roy Rogers’ Sunset in the West, I will never again take any cheap shots at Republic’s in-house process Trucolor, now that I’ve seen it in intended ideal fashion (Roan says Guns’ source was from 35mm nitrate material). For the first time, I noticed how blue Raines’s eyes really were — a quality that Roan says was hard to photograph. The entire palate here is most soothing, even though in this case, we don’t even have one of Roy’s thousand-decibel shirts to serve as a test pattern.
Yet coincidentally, Kino also has a new release of the Roy’s Trucolor Trigger Jr. (also 1950), which played the Museum of Modern Art in February as part of MoMA’s two-part Republic series that carries the imprimatur of Martin Scorsese and Dave Kehr (could there be one any better?) I intend to look at TJ ASAP, particularly given that Roan is back for the commentary, but if memory serves from a mid-’80s showing on TBS, it’s the one where Roy goes skinny-dipping. This would presumably make it his one and only nude scene — but I won’t go there any more than I would for “Chinese Mule Train.”