Swashbuckling in old California
We were saying the other day, in our review of one such picture, that there was a little sub-genre of Westerns with Deep South settings, which we might call ‘Southerns’. They often had antebellum New Orleans settings and featured swordfights and duels rather than gunfights. Well, there was a similar kind of sub-genre in the shape of the ‘California Western’, and not only Zorro movies. They too were usually set in the 1820s, 30s or 40s.
These pictures were often plotted in the context of California’s struggle for independence from Mexico or its desire for annexation by the United States. Kit Carson in 1940 was such a one, and we might think too of Paramount’s California in 1947. They usually featured American actors trying hard with Spanish accents.
Cornel Wilde was a former fencer for the US Olympic team – and of course he gets a chance to use those skills in California Conquest. He had leapt to fame and an Oscar nomination as Fred Chopin in A Song to Remember in 1945 but though he had a fairly good line in noirs, he didn’t do Westerns. He was a fourth-billed Army captain in Two Flags West but other than that he only did two ‘California Westerns’, this one and the rather unWesternly-titled Passion, a torrid RKO picture of 1954 with Yvonne De Carlo. He was a good actor, though.
The producer of California Conquest was our old friend Sam Katzman, noted for turning out economical films, not always classy A-movies, for Columbia boss Harry Cohn.
Katzman often used directors with a similar lack of interest in high art but a propensity for bringing in their pictures on time and on budget or preferably under. This time it was Lew Landers.
Landers was a prolific director and had been helming low-budget movies in all genres since the 1930s. Probably his most famous film was The Raven with Boris Karloff in 1935. His first Western in the chair was a Buck Jones oater of 1934 and he went on to do 22 more, mostly one-hour second features, with the likes of Gene Autry, Charles Starrett and Tim Holt. California Conquest, a Technicolor picture of 78 minutes, was probably the glitziest of Lew’s Western efforts.
California Conquest was written by another fellow we’ve often mentioned, Robert E Kent. He contributed to the scripts of no fewer than 91 movies and produced 44, and 29 of these films were Westerns. He worked a lot with George Montgomery and the oaters he wrote and/or produced weren’t exactly stellar but many of them weren’t bad. This one was, though.
A lot was done on soundstages, of course, and there are many painted backdrops and other money-saving devices, including those very silly scenes of actors riding fake horses in the studio with back-projection, but there are enough nice California location shots, by DP Ellis W Carter (24 feature Westerns) to make the picture reasonably enjoyable from that point of view.
They cast Teresa Wright as leading lady opposite Wilde. The beautiful Ms Wright, a Samuel Goldwyn discovery, was then Mrs Niven Busch (though they would soon divorce) and in fact Busch had written Duel in the Sun with her in mind but pregnancy put a stop to that. She was Oscar-nominated twice in the same year, 1942, and the only actor ever to be nominated for an Academy Award for her first three films. She only did four Westerns, two of them, Raoul Walsh’s Pursued and William A Wellman’s Track of the Cat, with Robert Mitchum, but she did as well as she could on California Conquest, within the limits of the clunky script.
The best actor on the set, though, was John Dehner. I was saying in our review of Duel on the Mississippi how good he was with a French accent as a Louisiana sugar planter, and this time he does an excellent job with a Spanish accent as Don Alfredo, the villain of the piece, in league with sneaky Russians to take over California and be appointed Governor.
A few of Hollywood’s usual-suspect tame Mexicans (or ‘Mexicans’) were wheeled out to recite the lines, notably third-billed Alfonso Bedoya as the bandit chief. Toothy Bedoya, a sympathetic type, was always a bad deliverer of English dialogue but he combined this with overacting. He was an overbadactor. Eugene Iglesias is Dehner’s villainous brother, who perishes in a duel with Cornel. Alex Montoya is Cornel’s sidekick Juan.
Romanian-born Lisa Ferraday is the Russian princess in Fort Ross scheming on behalf of the Tsar to make a protectorate in California.
They all have very modern revolvers for the 1820s or 30s.
John Frémont (George Eldredge) has quite a prominent part. He makes clear to the pro-annexation types that the US Government can’t supply them with arms and thus offend its friend Mexico. They’ll have to manage their revolution on their own. This plot thread rather skews the chronology. I mean, as far as I know Frémont didn’t even get to California until 1844, but hey, we’re not looking for historical accuracy here.
Teresa wears pants and is rather a feisty type, and she’s durn handy with one of those modern revolvers. Her pa is a gunsmith, you see, and taught her, until, that is, he was shot dead by the dastardly bandido Bedoya. Cornel is put off by her tomboyism at first, but of course it will be wedded bliss at the end.
The town of Monterey is Columbia’s Western lot all Mexed up.
There’s a great deal of skullduggery and galloping about. People get whipped. It’s all rather picaresque. In a showdown in a wine cellar Dehner and Wilde biff each other the head with bottles of wine. What a waste. Cornel and Teresa then do in the pesky Russians by running a wagon loaded with a barrel of gunpowder down onto them. It’s not often that the Russkies are the bad guys in Westerns. But it was 1952 when Reds weren’t exactly flavor of the month.
The New York Times reviewer didn’t care for it. “The grim, helter-skelter [film], from a leaden scenario written by Robert E Kent, succeeds in being even duller and more preposterous than the majority of Mr Katzman’s predecessors.” He added, “For all the scrambling, the inane dialogue and Lew Landers’ heavy-handed direction allow small leeway for any authentic vigor or pacing. The random fencing scenes fall as flat as do Mr Wilde’s victims. Alfonso Bedoya, Eugene Iglesias, Lisa Ferraday and John Dehner wrestle with some mighty bleak supporting roles. Mr Wilde and the dainty Miss Wright, in two of their silliest assignments, do their muscular most. But Mr Katzman’s contribution to the Palace screen remains a hysterical and historical horse act.”
He did have a point, I guess. It’s all rather cheaply staged and the screenplay is definitely a plodder but the picture has its occasional moments. You probably won’t fall asleep anyway.