Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Stingaree (1934)


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.

7 comments:

  1. How are you picking your movies?

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    1. I am happy to tell you that.

      For my own entertainment could I ask why you ask now? Here on Stingaree?

      I'm not trying to be vague or anything. I am just finding it amusing that you might have asked here. Or is it a rhetorical question? Shoot me a response and I'll try to best describe what sort of "system" I try and have when I make my film journey.

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  2. I did a similar exercise that I'm going through again, so I only watch those of your movies that I haven't already seen. Then when I think you've picked a stinker I don't bother to comment because I want to keep things positive. But Stingaree was so bizarre and off-the-mark I read your review, and saw that you thought it was a "dud" a "letdown" and "boring" so I felt free to chime in.

    I was assuming that your inclusion of a film on your blog was something of an endorsement, so now that I'm on my what-did-I-miss second run of chronological film watching I sort of combine your choices with films I noted but did not watch the first time, and films from the book 1001 Movies to Watch Before You Die that I've also not already seen.

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  3. Thanks for chiming back in on this. Yeah, Stingaree was not good, and one of the few duds I am sure I will see over my vast amount of films I am going to view in time.

    Ok, as for my way of finding films to watch and list:

    First off having them on my blog is never really an endorsement, but rather a recording of what I have viewed. I can't unsee what I have seen, therefore I have thoughts and notes to make, just as if you or I saw a bad film today. So I am not necessarily going to exclude it because it was bad. It is fun just to record them anyways, just for the sake of it.

    In entering every year in film I start out with certain lists of information:
    -Top grossing lists of the years- If most of the people went to see it I think so should I.
    -AFI Top lists, including top 100 (1997 and 2007), comedies, etc. Excluding lesser important of the lists, i.e. top songs (though I do end up seeing most of them)- History says it is worth seeing, then I observe it.
    -National Film Registry- What the Libarary of Congress had deamed signifigant enough to preserve in our history. An interesting list not neccessarily made by Hollywood buffs.
    -Awards and critics lists. This includes Oscars, Golden Globes (when they will start, later on), New York Film Critics- To see what people of that time thought was the best of the best, plus the politics of the industry at in those years. I don't see all nominees for all categories, but it definitely helps lead the why to what I should take note of.
    -I survey many top foreign film lists and find similarities and trends as well as foreknowledge and determine the few foreign features that seem to transcend the most.- It is important to know what is going on outside the US, but I don't bog down too much, keeping the view from a standard "American" viewpoint, that being one that would see only what was most powerful from across the markets. (it is kind of like see things that were "viral" back then. That is how I try to look at it.)
    -There are what I see as significant films. This category of choosing films goes all over the place. It can be for the history of an actor, director, a studio, a genre, or technology. For instance an artist's premiere, or significant step forward in the business. Steps in color, 3D, widescreen, stereo, or other steps in technology. Also to consider are cult features. I think you get the idea of where this section of choosing is going.

    -Then there are my wild cards. (What we see here in Stingaree) Here I simply came across the film and for simple face value and added it to the list. Trying to keep myself in the mind of person from the era, I saw it as a film that one might have gone to see for various reasons, despite the movie ended up to be very poor. For Stingaree it happened like so: Irene Dunne was a huge star for acting and singing (this being a musical [kinda]), Richard Dix was still a bit signifigant draw at the time, and it was directs by William A. Wellman. So with this little knowledge it was thrown in there for "just because." A poor term, I know, but not all movies are good. So what? Some people saw it, and some liked it. Just not you or I.

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    1. Anyways from all that thrown together criteria I put together a list of films for the year. It then comes to the mercy of what I am able to get my hands on. The internet is a wonderful tool that aids me on this. Netflix is a marvelous resource that has a wide selection that 15 years ago you would not find anywhere. Then in last resort is television, mainly TCM, who still plays a vast library of old movies, but has the stinkers too.

      In a given year of film study I might miss a small number of features due to not finding a copy to view. Usually it can be between 2-5 films in a given year of history. From time to time I would come across it later and then try to revert myself mentally to put it in context and view it, later blogging about it. Thus posts for 1932 in the middle of many 1935 features.

      So that is it. It is not magic, or an exact science, but it is a method on which I draw up a map for where I will go. I actually try to go into each film with limited knowledge on the picture, that I may be surprised and discover what each film has as I watch it.

      I enjoy the process, and will continue to do so, so much as time allows. My passion for film and history continues to grow with each viewing I see.

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  4. My method was similar to yours, except I capped it off at ten per year, disregarded the awards as not really being based on any good information, and gave way more credence to the total votes/ratings on IMDB, figuring it was a good source for consensus, and a measure of what movies people still are interested in. The top 100 lists tend to duplicate what was already found anyway, and when I get into the 21st century I stop worrying so much about box office since it brings in so many tedious sequels and comic book movies.

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    1. I am trying to put myself many times in a mindset of a person living in those times, so I attempt to put in as many factors of what was said then in mind to help find those few pictures that do not hold merit today, but were significant initially and imagine what was it like to see these films for the first time.

      I tend to actually stay away from IMDB for the fact that too many people overrate or underrate certain works, as well as it being a outlook for today, from people that watch modern television and play video games and influenced by a far more over-saturated culture. Not to say that I don't use it at all, but it does not hold high regards in the overall outlook of what I like to try and look at.

      I attempt to have a happy medium between then and now in my outlook in the overall scheme. Its nothing I consider perfect, but I think it is fair and well rounded. It is ever evolving as years go by. I am far from 21th century, so that is a bridge far from crossing to think about now, 65 years before I get there.

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Out of the Past (1947)

RKO Pictures Director: Jacques Touneur Starring: Robert Mitchum , Jane Greer , Kirk Douglas Honors: National Film Registry ...