We’ve been looking at the Western career of Forrest Tucker (click the link for our Forrestscape). California Passage dates from his time at Republic when he was elevated to the lead in a Western or two and like many of the pictures Forrest appeared in, it was directed by solid professional Joseph Kane (click for our appreciation of Uncle Joe).
It was shot in black & white (though a colorized version is available) but it was no one-hour programmer. It had a 90-minute runtime and a decent cast (of Republic regulars). Forrest went to Republic for the bigger budgets that the studio allocated to its Westerns than Columbia had. We don’t necessarily associate studio boss Herb Yates with big budgets (he was said to fling his money around like a man with no arms) but they were substantial enough to make some decent pictures.
California Passage was written by James Edward Grant, then under contract at Republic. He started writing Westerns in the mid-1940s and began a long collaboration with John Wayne at that time by both writing the screenplay of and directing the charming Wayne Western Angel and the Badman. Later he worked on Hondo, The Alamo, The Comancheros and McLintock! He co-wrote another Forrest-starring oater earlier in 1950, Rock Island Trail.
The leading lady was Adele Mara, the future Mrs Roy Huggins and so often on Maverick, who had also moved from Columbia to Republic. A singer and dancer, of Spanish-speaking parents, she first played ‘exotic’ roles but the IMDb bio of her says, “she was transformed into a sexy platinum blonde pin-up after signing with Republic Studios and kept herself quite busy predominantly cast as senorita-types opposite cowboy stars.” In fact in California Passage she plays a rather demure and ‘proper’ woman, Beth Martin, not at all Hispanic, who is going out to California in a wagon with her young brother Tommy (Peter Miles, 12) but becomes separated from her wagon train and, in 1850 Missouri, is attacked by Indians. Luckily, there’s a bold buckskin-clad scout around, Mike Prescott, who shoots three Indians off their horses (at suspiciously long range) and drives the others away, saving the grateful woman and boy. Mike is played by Forrest, of course.
You might think it’d be lerve right away but Mike is rather forward and macho and decidedly offends the maidenly Beth, especially when he scalps a dead Indian, shocking the poor woman (even if impressing the lad). Still, we guess that it’ll be lerve alright. Just give it time.
Laura in her Musings (external link) quotes Thomas Burnett Swann, the author of the 1977 book on Republic Pictures actresses, The Heroine or the Horse, mentioning a letter Forrest Tucker wrote to him about working with Adele Mara, which reads in part, “It was joy. Adele is a LADY in capital letters and seemed to bring out the best in all of us…I think of her every time I see velvet. Adele is made of velvet…Those brief times bring happy memories because I like ladies and velvet.”
The scene shifts to California in the gold-rush. The town of Coarse Gold (beloved name of S Peckinpah) is the home of big and fancy saloon the Golden Bear, owned by, yup, that buckskin-clad scout back in Missouri, Mike Prescott, now in fancy frock coat and silk vest. He has a partner, whom he cordially dislikes, Linc Corey, and it’s our old pal, Republican alumnus Jim Davis. This was one of eight Westerns Forrest and Jim did together. Linc’s clearly a wrong ‘un, as is shortly proved.
Another wrong ‘un, obviously, is Bob, too ready to draw his gun and not averse to using it, and it’s another old pal, Bill Williams. He is so tiresome that Mike expels him from the saloon but in high dudgeon, Bob grabs the shotgun guard’s shotgun and tries to blast Mike with it. Mike is too fast for that and Bob lies on the saloon floor, deceased.
The thing is, it turns out that this Bob was Bob Martin, the older brother of the same Beth and Tommy we met in the first reel, and said bro and sis now come out to Coarse Gold to inherit Bob’s mine. So Mike and Beth have another chance at wedded bliss, you think, but unfortunately Linc muscles in and tries to romance her. Given that he is all smarmy and Mike a bit of a rough diamond, she is drawn to the smoothy.
Not only that, Bob had a girl, Maria, who sings in the saloon (two quite groovy 1940s-sounding songs, Goin’ Round in Circles and Second Hand Romance) and this Maria is Estelita Rodriguez – you remember her, she’d be Consuelo in Rio Bravo later in the decade. She’d also soon become Mrs Grant Withers. Maria is not at all pleased that her boss has shot her lover; indeed she vows revenge.
You see, the plot is sure thickening. It’s wonderful, really, how much plot they packed into these Westerns, and still left time for action scenes and the odd bit of character development – oh, and a couple of songs.
I also quite liked a few of the lines, such as when Mike kicks Bob out (shortly before the gunfight), saying, “Get going, before I have one of my smaller waiters throw you out.”
The demise of Bob brings the sheriff onto the scene, and it’s the excellent Charles Kemper. Mr Kemper was very good in Westerns, I always thought, especially as Walrus in Yellow Sky, Arkansas Jones in The Doolins of Oklahoma, the sheriff again in The Nevadan and Gunfighters and above all as Uncle Shiloh Clegg for John Ford in Wagonmaster, earlier the same year as California Passage, when he rivaled Walter Brennan as vicious father of lowlife white trash-sons. A great actor, and sad he died that year aged only 49 in an auto accident. He is amusingly cynical and wry as the lawman in California Passage, for instance perfectly ready to let a lynch mob into his jail to hang a prisoner. “My job is to stop crime happening,” he argues. “Once it’s happened, it’s up to them.”
Paul Fix is a saloon employee, Rhys Williams is the storekeeper, and Francis McDonald is the corrupt County Recorder, whose character is jokingly named Joe Kane. Eddy Waller is a comic waiter, Charles Stevens a Mexican, Walter Brennan’s daughter Ruth is Stella and Iron Eyes Cody the Indian who loses his scalp. ‘Below the line’, we note I Stanford Jolley, whose daughter Forrest had divorced earlier in the year, but Stanford didn’t seem to mind. Hal Taliaferro, Dabs Greer and Franklyn Farnum are all spotted in the saloon.
Well, there are stage hold-ups (one with blasting powder and a good stunt), gunfights, horse chases, and of course a great deal of skullduggery. There is rather literally a cliff-hanger ending, quite tense in the fog. Beth is frightfully brave and the lad is one of those usually described as “plucky”. So all comes right in the end.
The picture did disappointingly at the box-office and it was back to secondary roles for Forrest but I thought he was really good in this one. He’s more than the straight hero, almost an antihero in fact, tough and curmudgeonly (though of course with a heart of gold).
Indeed, I thought the whole picture was a great deal of fun.