“South of St. Louis” (1949) displays an almost startling lack of moral righteousness. Set in the comfortable Western venue, the good guys, instead of seeking justice, are looking for a profit. Against the backdrop of the American Civil War, what sides are taken are easily abandoned. Its moral ambiguity could make it film noir, except it’s shot in Technicolor and a burst of final sentiment makes over ninety minutes of vendetta crumble away. Still, there are no lessons, no morals, except to let go of one’s hatred because it kills everything around you.
On this Memorial Day, we once again turn our attention to Hollywood’s treatment of the Civil War, the war that gave us Memorial Day.
The prologue narration describes a “wall of hate between North and South,” but if we are expecting a story of torn loyalties, we get fooled. There is precious little loyalty to either North or South going on in this movie.
One of which is Dorothy Malone, who here is a couple years after her intriguing book shop proprietress from “The Big Sleep” (1946), and several years away from her Oscar-winning mambo in “Written on the Wind” (1956). You might not recognize her in her long brown curls and gingham. She’s as pretty -- and as static -- as a daisy. Not her fault, though. She clearly got the leftovers on this gig.
She elaborated her delight on shifting from icy clotheshorse to lusty babe for the Dayton Beach Morning Journal (June 15, 1948): “For seven years I’ve played society dame parts and begged for a role with guts. Now I’ve got my wish and I’ll probably spend the next seven years wishing to get back into clothes.”
Not likely. The seven-year contract days were ending for the Hollywood studios, and she would soon be, along with hundreds of others, cast into the freelance lagoon to sink or swim.
The movie is kind of "a tale of two cities" -- Brownsville and Matamoros.
Zachary Scott and McCrea have to scrounge up some money to replace their herd and fix their ranch. This is where Alexis Smith comes in. She sets them up in the gunrunning business. They will take weapons from Matamoros into Texas and sell them to the Confederate Army.
Their self-preservation is not unique. Everybody in Brownsville is afflicted with it. When Joel makes his first gunrunning attempt and gets caught by the Union Army, he is sent to the stockade, possibly to be shot -- Alexis bribes the marshals to get him out.
She explains, “They’re southerners -- for $100 gold.”
The gunrunning trade shows us a complex economy. They pick up the guns in Matamoros, and sell them to the Confederates in Texas, but are paid in Texas cotton. Then they must take the cotton back to Matamoros where they sell it to a British agent for pounds. Remember, the Union blockade of southern ports hit the British textile industry. The cotton mills of Manchester were waiting for Joel McCrea to get them some more raw material.
Hale is happy, too, for after all, he stresses he was born in Missouri. Alexis is from Baton Rouge (her nickname Rouge is from her birthplace and not her fancy gal cosmetics). Both southerners, each blows with the wind. (All the main characters in this movie are southern, and none have appropriate accents.)
Her song and dance number, “It Must Be Fun to Have a Soldier” comes with other consequences. You can see as she sings that the dark beauty spot located just to the right side of her mouth has slipped off her face and landed conspicuously on her right breast. Blooper? Joke?
So many true-life senseless killings happened in that war, but rarely has old Hollywood acknowledged it, let alone treated it with such a blasé shrug of the shoulders. Douglas Kennedy finds out and is of course outraged, but no pangs of conscience hit his buddies.
“Defend the wagons, you mean,” Kennedy answers, “You were willing to fight us, kill our men, anything just to make sure you got your money.”
Vendettas continue between Jory, who is no longer working for the Union Army, but is selling guns to the Confederates in competition with McCrea and Scott. Scott takes it up a notch by looking the other way when Bob Steele attempts to assassinate McCrea so they could have a greater share of the wealth.
The only two people with a sense of commitment are Dorothy Malone and Douglas Kennedy, who finally commit to each other and intend to marry, and McCrea is disgusted at one buddy who tries to kill him and one who steals his girl. It is from disgust, more than any moral epiphany, that he resigns from the gunrunning business and tells Scott he can have all the money.
“He ain’t got nothing but the clothes on his back.”
“It’s how you wear them, Charlie,” she responds, “It’s all in how you wear ‘em.”
There is no sense of redemption for anyone, but a lesson nevertheless as Alexis slams Joel, who is caught it a morass of anger, self-pity and vengeance, “What are you going to do, spend the rest of your life getting even?”
With malice toward none, with charity to all.
A peaceful day of solemn remembrance to everyone this Memorial Day.