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Monday, October 27, 2008

Film Review: CALIFORNIA PASSAGE (1950)

"Why the Hell isn't THIS on DVD yet?" -- Number 27

CALIFORNIA PASSAGE (1950 Republic) Starring Forrest Tucker, Adele Mara, Jim Davis, Estelita Rodriguez, Paul Fix, Iron Eyes Cody, Bob Williams, Charles Kemper. Directed by Joseph Kane.

Forrest Tucker and Jim Davis are uneasy partners in a Maricosa saloon.  Davis is also secretly in cahoots with Williams, masterminding stagecoach robberies and plotting to take over the legitimate business for himself.  (Larry Storch, he ain't.) After Tucker wins their weekly ritual (a high card draw for the week's profits per agreement) for the 16th Saturday in a row, resentment overcomes Williams and he attacks Tuck, who kills Williams in self defense. A short time later Williams' sister Adele Mara arrives. Both Tucker and Davis are attracted to the new girl in town, giving them a second reason to undermine each other. After it appears Tuck has gained the upper hand for Mara's affections Davis frames Tucker for the stagecoach robberies, eliminating Tuck from both contests. Then Mara uncovers evidence of Davis' guilt.

Tucker's second opportunity as a leading man after his SANDS OF IWO JIMA breakthrough and his second pairing with the lovely Mara isn't the all-out action fest that the first (ROCK ISLAND TRAIL) was. After a very politically incorrect opening with Tuck saving Mara from an Indian attack (he takes Cody's scalp, explaining "he'd have taken yours!"), we settle into a front row seat for the mutually wary Tucker/Davis partnership.  The two veterans worked together in eight westerns (including 1957's taut, terrific THE QUIET GUN) and make for fine antagonists, with the truculent, anti-social Tucker only a shade more likable than the blatantly corrupt Davis. Davis' double dealing is almost understandable given his incredible run of bad luck with the saloon profits--I'd have asked for a renegotiation, myself! It's hard at first to buy the continued survival of this 'partnership', but scriptwriter James Edward Grant offers a credible enough explanation halfway through, along with some sharp one-liners for both western stalwarts.

Mara gets a chance to really shine here as an Eastern transplant who arrives to the doubly bad news of her brother's death and his lies to her about his work. The film also offers an opportunity to enjoy a meatier-than-usual part for the stunning Estelita Rodriguez, as Williams' girlfriend and the saloon's singer (she gets two songs, "Goin' Round in Circles" and "Second Hand Romance"). Rodriguez, only 22 at the time, would lead a sadly troubled adult life. She was married four times, and passed away at age 37 from influenza in 1966.

Estelita Rodriguez

Also on hand in his penultimate film is Charles Kemper, amusing as Maricosa's "irregular, not incompetent" sheriff. One month after filming wrapped Kemper was killed in an automobile accident at age 49. Lee Tung Foo plays about his 90th stereotypical Chinese cook who keeps insisting everything is 'kosher'.

CALIFORNIA PASSAGE is a darker film than ROCK ISLAND TRAIL and Tucker is far less affable this time around, almost an anti-hero. While he proves his worth as a leading man and actor again, the almost surly Mike Prescott character offers a glimpse into his immediate future at Republic. After the disappointing box office returns for CALIFORNIA PASSAGE, it was back to second billing for Tuck in 1951's THE WILD BLUE YONDER (Wendell Corey) and FIGHTING COAST GUARD (Brian Donlevy).

It isn't a great film--some important plot points, such as Mara's realization regarding her brother, are rushed--but CALIFORNIA PASSAGE is still slightly offbeat and entertaining. Especially suspenseful is the final quarter set in the foggy mountains. This staple of Encore's Western Channel is worth a look, with the battle of wits between Tucker and Davis being reason enough to watch.

So....why isn't this on DVD yet?

It's an old western, it's in black and white, and it lacks a John Wayne or a Gary Cooper as the star. Yes, for some reason there are still people out there who doubt the greatness of the one and only Sergeant O'Rourke. That said, among Tucker's western starring roles, this one isn't on a par with THE QUIET GUN (his best IMO) and isn't as sprawling, nor quite as action-packed as ROCK ISLAND TRAIL.

Charles Kemper

Why it should be on DVD:

We didn't get many opportunities to see Estelita Rodriguez, and this is one of her better showcases. Gorgeous Mara, who was one of the top pin-up girls of the 1940's and the future wife of MAVERICK creator Roy Huggins, is always welcome as well. (Side note: she's still with us today at age 85.)  Matter of fact, Tucker and Davis are very effective as well, and Kemper is terrific as the Sheriff.

Republic's action-packed Westerns are sorely underrepresented on DVD. Certainly we should get a boxed set or two. In addition to Tuck's starrers, there's action-packed Republic westerns from other stars such as Wild Bill Elliott (his HELLFIRE might well be Republic's best B-western, period) and Rod Cameron that have yet to make it to DVD--in some cases, never even released on VHS.

Check out CALIFORNIA PASSAGE for yourself on Encore's Westerns Channel on November 4th (12 PM CT) or November 11th (2:40 AM CT).

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