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Saturday, September 19, 2015

ROCK ISLAND TRAIL (1950) and CALIFORNIA PASSAGE (1950): Tuck Becomes a Hero

This post is The Horn Section's contribution to the Republic Pictures Blogathon hosted by two great bloggers: The Hannibal 8 and our longtime friend Toby Roan at Fifty Westerns From the 1950's. Follow Mr. Roan on twitter and keep up with all the great posts on classics from arguably the Western's greatest decade, the 1950's.

ROCK ISLAND TRAIL (1950 Republic) Starring Forrest Tucker, Adele Mara, Bruce Cabot, Chill Wills, Adrian Booth, Grant Withers, Jeff Corey. Written by James Edward Grant.  Directed by Joseph Kane.

ROCK ISLAND TRAIL (based on Frank Nebins' novel Yankee Dare) was announced as one of Republic Studio's upcoming A-listers for the following year in August 1949.  Quite a cast had already been assembled at the time of that initial press release: Adele Mara, Bruce Cabot, Chill Wills and Grant Withers were among the actors announced, and each played a substantial role in the resulting feature.

Adele Mara
Six-foot-five Rod Cameron was considered the initial favorite to play Reed Loomis, but when filming of James Edward Grant's script actually began in Oklahoma, the hero was played by another tall young Republic actor who had made a significant impression in two of the studio's biggest 1949 successes.

After mostly playing bullies and villains his first two years with the studio, Forrest Tucker had the sympathetic supporting role of Marshall Bucky McLean in the Wild Bill Elliott starrer HELLFIRE, then made an even bigger splash butting heads with John Wayne in the Marine tribute SANDS OF IWO JIMA.  With Elliott's expiring contract creating a void near the top of Republic's stable, the thirty-one year old actor nicknamed "Tuck" graduated to top billing by headlining Joseph Kane's Trucolor adventure.

Forrest Tucker
Reed Loomis (Tucker) is President of the Rock Island Trail Railroad Company.  He draws the ire of steamboat operator Kirby Morrow (Cabot), first by winning the stage line's lucrative mail contract, then by wooing away Morrow's intended, Constance Strong (Mara).  Morrow tries to stop Loomis by hook or crook, sensing that the handsome railroader will be taking a lot of business away from his boats.  First Kirby tries bribing Loomis' subordinates, but Loomis' loyal sidekick Hogger McCoy (Wills) thwarts the effort.  After Reed is able to convince Strong's wealthy father (Winters) to invest in his railroad, Morrow turns to direct sabotage.  Meanwhile, exotic French-educated Keokuk Princess Aleeta (Adrian Booth) tries to woo Mr. Loomis away from the banker's daughter.

Wills and Tucker

The role of Loomis was a real breakthrough for Forrest Tucker.  He mostly played snarling, tight lipped villains throughout the 1940's, but ROCK ISLAND TRAIL gave the husky actor a chance to play not only an extrovert, but an unreserved hero.  Tucker's Reed Loomis is persuasive enough to sway investors, quick-witted and skilled at any weapon of choice (more on than in a bit).  Loomis' magnetism attracts both the banker's daughter and the Indian princess, with sufficient charm to keep the latter's loyal friendship even after he sidesteps her pass in favor of the former.  Tucker is forceful and convincing throughout, clearly relishing the opportunity to play a protagonist in an "A" feature (he did receive a few leads in poverty row productions such as Monogram's EMERGENCY LANDING (1941) before achieving more substantial stardom at Republic).  Tuck's image would eventually change dramatically with similarly brash roles as Professor Harold Hill in THE MUSIC MAN and, of course, Sergeant O'Rourke on F TROOP.  But ROCK ISLAND TRAIL was the first real display of his affability on the big screen.

Oh, and that comment about his aptitude with weapons: Loomis puts on an impressive display with his fists (several times) and his firearm, but when Morrow challenges him, he chooses an unconventional weapon: mops dipped in boiling soup.  The resulting duel provides the one truly unconventional moment in this kitchen-sink actioneer, with Loomis proving his point by the end of the conflict: "Dueling is stupid!"

Bruce Cabot (R)

Kane provides a surfeit of action as expected.  In addition to that mop duel, ROCK ISLAND TRAIL gives us train/stage race, an exploding bridge, several fist fights, the inevitable attack from a hostile tribe (instigated by Cabot, of course)....there's even a courtroom trial with Abraham Lincoln (Jeff Corey) representing Loomis' railroad (and winning the case, of course).

Corey, he of the deep, smooth voice (his career would hit an unfortunate roadblock with HUAC a year later) is a fine choice to play the future President.  The offbeat casting of Booth doesn't quite come off without a hitch, though I can't think of anyone else under contract who could have played the role of a French-Indian princess more effectively.  (And yes, that certainly includes Mrs. Yates, Vera Ralston.) Booth's multicultured Aleeta refreshingly takes the high road romantically and has several intriguing character traits, such as enjoying a good cigar. 

Adrian Booth (L)
Surprisingly, the film's major weakness is a mediocre script by the usually reliable James Edward Grant (SANDS OF IWO JIMA).  Dialogue is frequently stilted, and it's simply impossible to believe that Morrow got to the engagement stage with Constance given that neither she nor her father seem to have the slightest warmth for him, even in the beginning.  Another drawback is distractingly obvious use of rear screen projection in a few key scenes, cheapening an otherwise impressive-looking Trucolor production.

These problems notwithstanding, ROCK ISLAND TRAIL is consistently fun, a quintessential example of old school action and a good showcase for its leads with beautiful Mara matching Tucker's work.  Republic had high hopes for the film, providing an ambitious all-out promotion that included its stars (joined by Roy Rogers) traveling by train to the premiere in Rock Island, Illinois on April 27, 1950.  Despite the heavy publicity, ROCK ISLAND TRAIL was something of a box office disappointment, though the chemistry between its stars was undeniable, and Mara was cast as Tucker's leading lady in his next stab at top billing for Republic, CALIFORNIA PASSAGE.

CALIFORNIA PASSAGE (1950 Republic) Starring Forrest Tucker, Adele Mara, Jim Davis, Estelita Rodriguez, Peter Miles, Paul Fix, Iron Eyes Cody, Bob Williams, Charles Kemper, Lee Tung Foo.  Written by James Edward Grant.  Directed by Joseph Kane.

Mike Prescott (Tucker) and Linc Corey (Jim Davis) are uneasy partners in the Golden Bear, a Maricosa saloon circa 1850.  Unbeknownst to Prescott, Corey is involved in another partnership: he's been masterminding stagecoach robberies in cahoots with Bob Martin (Bill Williams).  After Prescott wins the saloon's profits via their business agreement (cutting cards, with winner taking all) for the 17th week in a row, resentment overcomes Martin.  Despite Corey's warning, hotheaded Bob is spoiling for a fight, and Prescott kills him in self-defense in the ensuing skirmish.  A short time later Bob's sister Beth (Mara) arrives from the East with youngest brother Tommy (Peter Miles) in tow.  Mike and Linc are both attracted to the new girl in town, deepening the antagonism between the shaky business partners.  After Prescott gains the upper hand for Beth's affections, Corey frames Mike for the stagecoach robberies, eliminating him from both that contest and the business partnership by forcing him on the lam.  Then Beth Martin uncovers evidence of Corey's guilt.

In contrast to the publicity blitz that accompanied the Trucolor ROCK ISLAND TRAIL, black and white CALIFORNIA PASSAGE was issued quietly in December 1950.  Still, it's the better film for my money.  The key is that screenwriter Grant is in much better form, providing dialogue that is much snappier and funnier, with Tucker and Davis puncturing one another with sharp one-liners frequently enough to require a scorecard.

Grant also throws us more curveballs this time around (that memorable mop duel notwithstanding).  Self-described "irregular, not incompetent" Sheriff Willy Clair (a terrific Kemper) shocks Beth with his passive reaction to a lynch mob.  But he's no coward, nor corrupt--he simply realizes he must pick his fights wisely while "civilizing" Maricosa, one resolved conflict at a time.  After an Indian attack is repelled in the opening scene, hero Prescott is the one who takes a scalp (from uncredited Iron Eyes Cody)!  His explanation to young Tommy?  "He'd have taken yours!"

Trucolor ROCK ISLAND TRAIL presented its hero and villain in straightforward black and white--black and white CALIFORNIA PASSAGE filters its foes through subtler (and changing) shades.   Reed Loomis was gregarious and affable but PASSAGE's Mike Prescott bluntly states: "I don't like people."  As mentioned above, Prescott's barbs are mostly aimed at not-so-beloved partner Linc, but also find their way towards Beth (one of those immigrants who has no idea what she's in for) and wary Sheriff Clair, who is treated to a "short beer" after Mike offers him one "on the house" (Kemper's reaction is priceless).

Likewise, Cabot's Kirby Morrow was unlikable from the get-go, but it's hard not to have some sympathy for Jim Davis' Linc--at first, anyway.  We learn that he's 0 for his last 17 in the "winner take all" method of determining profit sharing--and the most recent loss came after his partner was away for several months.  But Linc proves as unworthy of any sympathy as he is of Mike's reluctant loyalty by the final reel.  Our first impressions of Prescott, Corey and Clair are proven erroneous by film's end, as is Prescott's initial take on those immigrants from back East.  The same fog that exposed the vulnerability faced by Beth and Tommy in the opening scene plays a prominent role in their survival on the mountain later, suggesting they just might be more adaptable than Prescott thinks.

Estelita Rodriguez
CALIFORNIA PASSAGE boasts a typically outstanding Republic supporting cast.  In addition to Kemper, the film also offers an opportunity to enjoy a meatier-than-usual part for starlet Estelita Rodriguez, playing 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. Married four times, she passed away at age 37 from influenza in 1966.  Lee Tung Foo plays his familiar stereotypical Chinese cook, this time insisting repeatedly to Davis that everything is 'kosher'.

Rodriguez, Kemper and Davis (L to R)

The film isn't perfect--Beth's realization about her brother is a bit rushed, and the otherwise sharp Sheriff's suspicion of Prescott in the robberies seems pretty questionable.  (What would Mike's motivation be?  He's been winning the weekly take!)  Still, CALIFORNIA PASSAGE is suspenseful and entertaining.

While neither project catapulted him to A-list stardom, ROCK ISLAND TRAIL and CALIFORNIA PASSAGE established Forrest Tucker as a viable choice for heroic roles, and his ability to seamlessly alternate between friend and foe would make him one of the decade's busiest stars.  Tuck became one of Republic's top male leads (THE WILD BLUE YONDER, JUBILEE TRAIL opposite Joan Leslie) while sprinkling in vehicles with other studios, such as Fox (THE QUIET GUN), UA (COUNTERPLOT) and Hammer (BREAK IN THE CIRCLE) among others.  He continued to play villains effectively as well, most notably in SAN ANTONE (1953, for Republic) and RAGE AT DAWN (1955).  Forrest Tucker's Republic swan song, 1958's GIRL IN THE WOODS, arrived just a year before the studio's demise after a quarter century and nearly 1,000 features.

CALIFORNIA PASSAGE is currently streaming at Epix HD.


Jerry E said...

Two terrific reviews, Hal!!
My records inform me that, amazingly, I have never seen either of these westerns but I'm not sure I believe me. Anyway I would dearly love to see both.
You are clearly an enormous Forrest Tucker fan. My favourite of his films is "THE QUIET GUN", a criminally-underrated western with a riveting performance from Tuck!
And...I just finished watching "THE VANISHING AMERICAN", yet another Joe Kane-directed Republic with Tucker, Davis etc. It just gets better....

Laura said...

Really enjoyed this post and the considered analysis of each, especially Tucker's performances. After being a bit uncertain about him -- due in part to all those villain roles I suspect -- I've just come to gain appreciation for Mr. Tucker this year, thanks to his fine work in films like FLIGHT NURSE and THE QUIET GUN. As my appreciation for him deepened I watched CALIFORNIA PASSAGE and liked it very much indeed.

You now have me anxious to see ROCK ISLAND TRAIL. I've been jotting down the titles of all the movies read about this weekend so I can put them in a special stack and start working on them!

Best wishes,

grandoldmovies said...

A duel with soup-soaked mops - different, to say the least! I always like how these smaller-scaled Westerns can come up with unusual bits (Lincoln as a trial lawyer). Oddly, I tend to associate Forrest Tucker with his later 1950s horror roles (eg, The Crawling Eye), though I realize that his rangy physique and craggy face made him perfect for Westerns. Enjoyed your post!