January Blus: The Beautiful Blonde From Bashful Bend (1949)
Did you take advantage of Kino's Winter Wonderland sale? We certainly did, so we decided to give our takes on the disks we bought in common. This month is a grab bag of blu-rays to help you chase away the January blues. Today Rodney and Samantha discuss The Beautiful Blonde From Bashful Bend.
RODNEY BOWCOCK: As our film opens, we meet Winifred ‘Freddie’ Jones, in a most unorthodox way. She’s a child of about five or six, I’d guess, shooting bottles with a six shooter. From this opening scene, we can tell that this Preston Sturges comedy is not to be taken too seriously. This early scene, which would rightfully cause pause in our modern society, is treated as a satiric comedy, a tone that never really lets up as the plot and music kick in with this Fox musical.
SAMANTHA GLASSER: Mary Monica MacDonald is presented in her only screen role, a sweet squinty-eyed blonde who you like immediately for being reluctant to do her shooting homework in favor of playing with her rag doll.
RB: We learn more about Freddie as an adult, as played by Betty Grable. She’s an uneducated, but street-smart saloon singer, as lovely as she is brash. After a gunshot intended for her cheating lover (played mostly straight by Cesar Romero) winds up shooting the town judge in the rear, she lays it on the lam, eventually settling on the small hamlet of Bashful Bend, where she and her traveling companion Conchita (Olga St John) are mistaken for the new school teacher and assistant. Freddie endears herself to the townspeople, especially Charles Hingelman (again, played mostly straight by Rudy Vallee) a wealthy goldmine owner. There are some complications and hijinks as she settles into her role as teacher, but all is mostly well, at least until her jilted lover, Blackie (Romero) tracks her down.
SG: And all hell breaks loose in a wildly ridiculous shootout. Helen Hendricks for Screenland liked it, calling the climax, "one of the goofiest gun-battles you've ever seen. Until the last shot is fired, this is a typical Sturges production-- wacky and unpredictable." I wasn't sure what to make of the gun battle at first, as someone who isn't interested in action scenes in general, and tends to tune them out. However, the guy on the roof who gets shot over and over and just keeps returning to his post proclaimed loud and clear that this was no ordinary gunfight and I should pay attention for rapid-fire jokes. I was not disappointed. Audiences of the time were likely confused because the tone of the movie shifts midway through from a standard movie to a wild slapstick extravaganza. For those who couldn't roll with the abrupt change, it could understandably be off-putting.
Grable was reportedly afraid of guns, so her confidence here is a sign of good acting, especially the scene where she feigns ignorance and points one at her own face. She was married to Harry James at the time, who was on tour while she made this movie.
To generate interest in the film prior to the premiere at the Roxy Theater in New York, the theater conducted a nationwide search for the most beautiful blonde. First prize was a trip to Havana, Cuba. This shows you how long ago this movie came out.
RB: The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend isn’t held in the highest regard among classic film buffs. It was the final US film of Preston Sturges, someone who IS held in the highest regard among classic film buffs, and compared to his earlier work, this film certainly does suffer. His second and final FOX effort had a lot of money poured into it via casting and the decision by Darryl Zanuck to have the film shot in Technicolor (at the insistence of Sturges). This was very much an attempt to bolster the career of both Sturges who had been hampered by a string of misfires and Betty Grable, who still while doubtlessly popular, had slipped a bit since the war. There were concerns right off the bat though, with Screenland assuring exhibitors that this was decidedly NOT a B film, because Betty Grable was in it. It doesn’t seem like anyone knew exactly what to do with this quirky little film.
Watching it today, it’s not hard to see why it was a flop, the last flop in a lengthy string of them since Preston Sturges left Paramount. This is a loud, obnoxious film that lost an astounding 1.2 million dollars upon release. Betty Grable is said to have hated it, so at odds with Sturges that she refused to attend the wrap party, and while she is pleasant enough, she’s no great shakes in this, never quite seeming as charming in spite of her rough edges as we’re supposed to think she is. Sturges had reportedly wanted June Haver for the lead, and it’s interesting to think about how she would’ve done in this role.
SG: Grable had more star power than Haver, and I think she carried this movie nicely, though her character was absolutely nuts, presumably for comedic purposes. A reviewer for Focus Film Review was decidedly critical. "It seems to me that a film actress who--to a large extent--depends upon the exposition of her legs for success has no great ability. I may be colour-blind or just plain stupid but my reactions were mostly negative."
Preston Sturges said in his autobiography, "The critics didn't care for it any more than I did, and the picture served only to prove that Betty Grable is a splendid actress, capable of any role. I wish the story, an unfortunate hodgepodge, were one-tenth as good as she is." The director was used to using his own material for his films, so it is no wonder he chafed under Zanuck's demand that he direct someone else's story. After this film flopped, he couldn't get financial advances to make another movie so he went back to writing, at MGM.
Arlene Haynes of Los Angeles wrote to Photoplay magazine, "Where did Twentieth ever find such a corny story as The Beautiful Blonde From Bashful Bend for Betty Grable? Another picture such as that will just about finish her. To me she has always been the epitome of glamour, but I couldn't take The Beautiful Blonde." At first this comment flummoxed me, because I thought Grable looks gorgeous in Technicolor. That fiery-red dancehall gown held my attention no matter who else was on screen with her, and the softer pink and white striped dress she wore when playing the schoolmarm was lovely. Maybe those fashions, which were hopelessly outdated by the 40s when this was made, hadn't regained the charm they have upon reflection now. What to my eyes looks like beautifully tailored costumes (by Charles LeMaire) seemed to contemporary viewers like a bombshell dressed in her grandma's wardrobe.
RB: Ultimately, though, I enjoyed this film more than I expected to. Wait, didn’t I call it loud and obnoxious? Yeah, I did and I stand by that statement. The fun for me is in the sheer over-the-top parody. It basically plays like a Mad Magazine style spoof of western films, taking on all of the cliches and tropes of the time. Did this go over the heads of reviewers and film goers at the time? Perhaps, or perhaps it just wasn’t what they expected when they went into a Betty Grable Fox musical. There’s also the added fun of TONS of character actors, both billed and uncredited that pop up.
SG: I was happy to see Sterling Holloway, although I was completely confused as to whether his playing a schoolboy was meant as a joke or was just an unfortunate casting-choice. His sagging face betrayed that he was decades too old to be running around playing "Indian" with his redhaired brother (Danny Jackson).
Casting Hugh Herbert as a doctor is such a great gag if you know who he is, and fortunately, we do.
RB: Hugh Herbert is VERY funny, and even El Brendel has a pretty good turn.
SG: Even El Brendel? Especially El Brendel! He is so sweet in this film as the mild-mannered deputy who wants to give Grable the benefit of the doubt.
RB: Chester Conklin, Snub Pollard, Margaret Hamilton and probably a dozen other notable names show up from time to time as well. Beautiful Blonde may be a misfire, but it’s a fun time and worth seeing at least once. Three and a half stars.
SG: One gripe I had was with the color of the film. Someone fiddled with it for the blu-ray and lightened it up too much so that the backgrounds are washed out. Grable's red gown and the blue one with the feather hat she wears in the final courtroom scene look off compared to the rest of the action.
Modern Screen reviewer Christopher Kane said, "Go see this hilarious epic yourself. Words can't describe it, anyway." Those are bold words for a person who makes a living writing them, but I agree with the sentiment. This is a fun and well-made movie. Three and a half stars. Not quite four stars, but better than average.