Wednesday, January 4, 2012
A western that is also a musical set in Australia, a funny sounding mix of ideas all put together in RKO’s 1934 picture Stingaree. Reunited are the stars of 1931’s Academy Award winning film Cimarron in Irene Dunne and Richard Dix under the direction of William A. Wellman, whose credits to this point included the likes of 1927 best picture winner Wings, as well as the popular gangster flick The Public Enemy. The film felt as if it was dueling its own identity, not necessarily needing all the details that were laid out in the picture’s plot, not to mention the puzzling idea for a story in the first place. This western/musical/love story would for decades be locked up in its producer’s personal archives after a battle for ownership, until cable television would once again unearth the picture for movie enthusiasts to take in this old picture.
Stingaree is a western of sudden and passionate relationship born between two very unlikely individuals, an infamous gentleman bandit and a servant girl in the setting of late nineteenth century Australia. Irene Dunne plays Hilda, a poor servant girl to Mrs. Clarkson (Mary Boland) an old, aspiring yet talentless singer, who represses Hilda from expressing her own vocal talents until Stingaree (Richard Dix), a highwayman posing as a great English composer, discovers Hilda’s true ability. Stingaree quickly is so taken by Hilda’s talent and beauty that he helps win her the chance at operatic fame, a rags-to-riches story for Hilda, by simply having her singing voice heard by trained musical ears, but at the cost of his own incarceration. Hilda becomes a world renowned opera star, but pines for the day to be reunited with the man who won her a new life as well as her heart. When Stingaree escapes prison he desperately goes to see his loved Hilda sing while she tours Australia, all the while he being chased as a fugitive. When Hilda once again united with her love,like Stingaree did before, she sacrifices her life to be with him, leaving her career behind as they ride off together into the unknown future.
The plot is troubled with the idea that these two characters falling in love with each other so quickly abd forcefully, with matters that are frankly unbelievable. Stingaree, a smart and charming outlaw, is wooed by a servant girl whose inner beauty is far greater than any piece of art seen within the house of the wealthy people she serves. With that previous sentence being so poetic, she is frankly kidnapped by this man only so that he may get away, and from what should be a frightening event she too falls for him. He does aid her into becoming a great star, but leaves her and she is left pinning for him as she travels the world. All this has the making of a sappy, uninspiring soup opera type or romance novel type of story, but seeing it play out on screen makes it almost unbearable to watch. With acting that is weak and forced by the story from two actors that were fairly popular at the time is rather sad. The most a viewer may get out the picture is the singing voice of Dunne, which she performed herself, manifesting her well-rounded skill set.
William A. Wellman had many feature film credits to his name by this time in his career, but it has seemed to have only gone downhill after the huge successes of his hits Wings and The Public Enemy. The picture feels as if made on the cheap and was not as well thought out as his previous works. This western lacks great moments of action, a cornerstone to any western, but even when the story lends to moments of possible moments of action it is quick and lacks any punch. To further cheapen the western are the shots of Dix riding his horse which are shot on a faux horse in front of a projected moving background. Perhaps this would be a trick better that would have played off well in those years, but it simply lacked the greatness seen in the aerial shots of Wings, the car action of The Public Enemy, even the football sequences in College Coach. It is as if Wellman phoned it in. For heaven sake, the movie was set in Australia and not one actor even had or attempted an accent. In my opinion this was a lacking effort.
Once again teamed are stars Irene Dunne and Richard Dix, who had dramatically been linked in the award winning western Cimarron. This time Dunne was billed above Dix, showing how the studio was shifting efforts towards its female lead and how Dix was not the star bring in the audiences despite he played the title character. Dunne was slowly becoming the bigger lead actress worth noting. Dix, a long time leading man, was not quite the draw as other men in Hollywood. In this role he would be given an appearance very similar to Clark Gable, seen with the same mustache and similar hair style that the great MGM star typically sported. Also Dix attempted a similar charm that Gable portrayed on screen. These are all personal perspectives of mine, but I find it interesting to note how the big picture of the year for RKO was a Gable starring film, It Happened One Night. Was this a coincidence or a planned strategy for the RKO looking for a similar star actor to that of Gable, but already in their midst? I can’t say, Dix was far from the box office draw he may have once been, and did not compete with the actors of this time.
Worth quickly noting are the supporting cast which were anchored by Mary Boland and Conway Tearle. Both were veteran actors of stage and screen, who by this point had developed into character actors. Boland once again plays a somewhat silly, ignorant older lady that believes the world revolves around her, similar to her role in Three-Cornered Moon, but with more dislikable qualities. Tearle plays the great composer who visits Boland’s character, but ends up discovering Hilda with the help of Stingaree. His role would not be as memorable as the story was made so very weak.
The most interesting story of Stingaree is the ownership of the movie itself. Producer Merian C. Cooper, best known for producing and directing King Kong, years after the release of the film, would have a legal battle over the ownership of the works he produced for RKO Pictures. In the legal matter Cooper won the ownership of Stingaree as well as a handful of other pictures of about equal fame (I use the term loosely ) he produced while under contract. The film would not see much light after its initial release with a the exception of a very short stint in the mid 50s displaying Cooper’s collection. It was in 2007 that the films which included Stingaree would be acquired by cable network Turner Classic Movies (TCM), who once again brought the films back for public viewing.
The film provided interesting attempts at creative production by stenciling color for a small number of shots, but was quickly removed due the overall cheapness of the look, harkening to how filmmakers crudely colored cells by hand in some versions of the famous early, bygone era western The Great Train Robbery. Also worth noting is how the production tried to cut costs by not building the opera house set for the film. Rather RKO rented out the famous stage 28 at Universal’s lot, which still contains the opera set from the Lon Chaney silent Phantom of the Opera. Parts of the opera set still stand to this day in superstition that the stage is in fact haunted. (A story shared in Phantom of the Opera’s movie review.)
Overall the film is far more interesting with its back-story of production rather than what is on screen. In watching movies you find some duds and here I found one. You would think with names like Dunne, Dix (of that era at least), and Wellman you would find some interest, but then I found a western, mixed in with a musical, and set in a setting that was unnecessary and poorly attempted, Australia. The movie is a letdown unless you were looking for an earlier Irene Dunne picture that showcased her singing talent. Other than that, like the movie itself, she is rather boring too. It is sad, but this picture lacking in many areas.
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