I’m going to talk about a couple of Western movies, but in case any of you don’t like Westerns, I’ll get the plug in first – my short story collection, Music in the Bone (Alchemy Press), has had very good reviews, such as these –
– as well as on Amazon. It’s available in paper and kindle versions. There is a Western in it, but only one, so you can ignore that.
So anyway, recently with a friend I watched a double bill of Zane Grey Westerns from the 1940s, both starring a very young “Bob” Mitchum. “Nevada” has Mitchum as a young man involved in dirty doings over mineral rights; the villain’s girlfriend falls for him, she being innocent of villainy, but she runs the saloon and (implied) brothel, so she has to die heroically saving the hero’s life. So far so standard, except there is a small plot twist easily guessed by those with a little knowledge of history. The hero has a couple of sidekicks, one of them half Irish and half Mexican, who sings to a guitar given half a chance.
The other film, “West of the Pecos” (where there is notoriously no law), I remember seeing many hundreds of years ago when I was quite small. Mitchum is again a young cowboy, with a sidekick. Mitchum’s character is quite a different person from the character in Nevada, and the setting is Texas – but the Mexican / Irish sidekick is the same character – same name, same actor, same back story, same guitar. OK, bit confusing, but hey, why abandon a perfectly good sidekick just because you’re somebody else. The plot features a banker whose doctor advises a long break away from the city, and he and his daughter go to a property he owns but has never visited in Texas (daughter played by Barbara Hale, who if I mistake not played Della Street to Raymond Burr’s Perry Mason. However, I digress).
The daughter is engaged to the old man’s lawyer, and they seem quite cheerful about the idea and are planning the wedding, but he happily waves her off to Texas with Pa. She discovers that women get no respect west of the Pecos, and disguises herself as a boy. Oh, and she’s brought her French maid with her.
In the middle of the desert, the hired wagon loses a wheel and the horses. Enter Mitchum and sidekick to the rescue; sidekick starts romancing the maid; Mitchum is entirely fooled by the disguise, but Hale clearly likes the look of him. Now here’s where it starts, in my view, to get a bit odd – Pa, though apparently happy back in Chicago to give his daughter in marriage to the respectable and no doubt wealthy lawyer, here in Texas seems almost straightaway to start eyeing the penniless cowboy as a potential son-in-law. There is a period during which Hale has to conceal her gender from Mitchum while clearly fancying the socks off him, which I personally found remarkably erotic, culminating in a scene where Mitchum starts getting his kit off to go for a swim; he gets naked to the waist before she panics and slaps his face – yes, well, that’s clearly why I remembered the film fondly for fifty years. Phew. Quck rub down with a damp copy of the Radio Times…
Soon after this, Mitchum discovers she’s a woman, and they start falling for each other in earnest – with enthusiastic encouragement from Pa. The party reaches the ranch, the two cowboys stay and work for them – and the lawyer arrives. The fiancé, you recall. Mitchum accepts defeat and prepares to leave the ranch – but Pa persuades him to stay and persevere. He does so, and Hale happily changes her allegiance – and the jilted suitor not only stays on, with no demur, but nobly exerts himself to defend his replacement against a trumped up charge of robbery and murder.
And I think – what? Isn’t he even upset? Was it to be a marriage of business convenience, with neither party’s heart engaged? Was he marrying her for her father’s money, and has he got a richer prize in sight? Is he in fact gay, and was she simply his beard? And what’s Father’s role? It’s all very odd. I don’t know if Zane Grey often did this sort of thing – I may have to read the book….