Jocko down under
The Kangaroo Kid is an example of the films I was waffling on about the other day, a non-American Western (click the link for that). It is a Western, no doubt about that. It starred Jock Mahoney, was directed by Lesley Selander and has a straight B-Western plot of the hero unmasking a crooked lawyer who is masterminding robberies. It’s the type of black & white 72-minuter programmer that we’ve seen a thousand times (at a conservative estimate) though of course it is none the worse for that.
It is set in Australia, though. Some purists would therefore rule it out as a Western but I reckon they’d be wrong to.
It was an Eagle-Lion picture. You probably know this outfit. British movie mogul J Arthur Rank founded a company to distribute his films in the US and in 1945, Pathé, which had already absorbed PRC (Producers Releasing Corporation, often known as Poverty Row Corp) merged with it to make Eagle-Lion (the American eagle and the British lion, you see), led by American entertainment lawyer Arthur B Krim. Brian Foy, former head of B-movies at Warners, moved over to be in charge of production. It wasn’t a two-cent operation. Some of the producers working at Eagle-Lion included Aubrey Schenck, Jack Schwarz and, briefly, Walter Wanger. Directors included Anthony Mann. Cinematographer John Alton also worked on its productions. Still, the budgets of the movies they made were definitely on the modest side.
The Kangaroo Kid was filmed in New South Wales and the six-times-Oscar-nominated Russell Harlan was credited as DP, the man who had made Red River with Howard Hawks, though Australian Harry Malcolm was too, and it isn’t clear who shot which scenes. There’s a lot of phony driving the stage with back-projection. I blame Harry for those parts.
We have often had occasion to mention director Selander on this blog. Click for our Lesography. He worked on no fewer than 114 feature Westerns, so respect, even if they weren’t all exactly, ahem, huge-budget A-pictures. But he knew his trade inside out, and he was especially good at action scenes. He later said that shooting The Kangaroo Kid in Australia had been fun, but the financing was not up to Hollywood standard. He also said that Jock Mahoney was the most athletic actor he ever met. Too right.
Jock (click the link for our Jockorama), who was still billed as O’Mahoney in this one, had doubled for Charles Starrett in those Durango Kid oaters in the 1940s and was a sought-after stuntman (working a lot with Randolph Scott, for example) but this and a serial for Sam Katzman at Columbia Cody of the Pony Express were his first Western leads. The Range Rider wouldn’t start on TV till 1951, so he wasn’t all that well known at this time. But he does appear very confident and relaxed in the role of the hero, Tex Kinnane.
Tex works for the Remington Detective Agency. Many movies called the Pinkertons (click for our our Pinkertonscape) by some such moniker, perhaps because Pinkertons were still going – and still are, as far as I know – and movie producers wanted to avoid lawsuits. For example, in Rage at Dawn Randolph Scott was working undercover for the ‘Peterson’ Detective Agency. In San Francisco Tex’s boss sends him to Australia to solve a string of gold robberies that have been occurring.
Tex’s cover once there is as a stage driver, though it isn’t exactly a Concord he gets to drive. It looks more like a carriage in Regency England but never mind. He pals up with fellow driver Baldy Muldoon (Alec Kellaway, a South African who moved to Australia) who might just as well have had the name Comik Releef. The language barrier is overcome as it is explained that a cobber is a pard.
Baldy has a harridan of a wife, Ma Muldoon (Haydee Seldon, an Australian whose only film this was) who runs the local saloon, I mean pub. Presumably so that the Western could have a saloon brawl, I mean pub brawl. So there’s much ‘comedy’ of the hen-pecking kind.
Riding with Baldy on the way to the pub, Tex is fascinated by the kangaroos, and in order to earn his soubriquet of the film’s title, he adopts a joey (kangaroo junior). The little critter is rather sweet. It’s one of those films with wildlife footage very obviously from other pictures intercut.
Now we meet policeman Sergeant Penrose, played by Guy Doleman, actually from New Zealand though very English sounding. He says in a very superior way “You know how these aboriginals are.” I remember him as Harry Palmer’s tough boss in The Ipcress File and he was also in Dial M for Murder.
But anyway, he is enamored of the fair Mary (Martha Hyer, a proper American whom you will certainly recall, again as Mary, in The Sons of Katie Elder, who was leading lady in Night of the Grizzly, Red Sundown and also with Jocko Showdown at Abilene, among other Westerns – she did 21 in all). And the sergeant feels immediately threatened by this tall, handsome American Tex – a definite rival – so he is rather snooty and stand-offish, at first.
He needn’t have worried because Tex has found his own belle, the also American Stella (Veda Ann Borg), who works in the pub. Well, I say belle. I don’t want to appear ungallant here but well, ugh. Sorry. I know I’m being sexist here, shame on me, because I’m not saying how ugly any of the male actors were (although now that I think about it, plug ugly does sum up a couple). Ms Borg was Mrs AV McLaglen at the time. She passed away in the 1970s and I apologize to any remaining family but let’s just say the make-up department got it wrong, big time. Jocko has a line in which he calls her “the most beautiful girl I’ve seen in Australia” but that doesn’t say much for other female Australians, I fear.
Back to the story. Douglas Dumbrille plays the smarmy crooked lawyer who is behind all the robberies. Douglas was the villain in quite a few Westerns, going back to The Rustler’s Roundup with Tom Mix in 1933. He has henchmen, naturally, for that was de rigueur, led by English actor Grant Taylor. Doug gets Tex falsely locked up in jail, blaming the robberies on him, the skunk.
The screenplay was by Scot Anthony Scott Veitch and yank Sherman L Lowe. It must have been Lowe responsible for line about how it would be better to lay low, because Brits can handle the difference between the verbs lay and lie, but Americans can’t.
I thought for a moment in the dénouement that the villain had a derringer but disappointingly it was only a short-barrel Saturday night special or something. Anyway it does him no good for he is vanquished, Mary weds the policeman, Jocko smiles and mounts up to return Stateside, leaving Stella, as, sorry (again) to say it, who can blame him?
To be brutally frank, The Kangaroo Kid is not great art. Still, as an example of a non-American Western and as an early Jocko lead, it would certainly repay at least one watch.