Thursday, January 12, 2012

California Conquest - 1952

“California Conquest” (1952) features Teresa Wright as a pants-wearing, deadeye shot in the days before California’s annexation to the U.S. This may be the movie’s chief delight as the delicately feminine heroine of 1940s Hollywood took that precarious turn into 1950s longsuffering wife/neurotic spinster roles. Here, as an interlude between those eras in her career, she rides, shoots, and saves Cornel Wilde from whipping by shooting dead the bad guy.

This is nothing if not refreshing.

Most of the movie, however, belongs to Cornel Wilde as the dashing nobleman of Mexican heritage who runs guns and organizes a movement for California to become part of the U.S. The people of Mexican ancestry are all called Californians here, to distinguish them from Mexicans who live below the Rio Grande, the part of Mexico we didn’t snatch in the Mexican War. Teresa Wright is called an American here. She is not a Californian, though she lives here with her gunsmith father, who sells guns to Cornel Wilde’s political movement.

The “good” Californians want to be Americans. The “bad” ones want to stay part of Mexico, or, failing that, to become part of the territorial designs of Imperial Russia, which also has settlements here. Got that, class?

John Dehner plays the head bad guy, a bad Californian who wants his brother to be Governor. Graft is so much easier when you’ve got a relative in power.

The two lead “Californians” then are played by Wilde and Dehner, neither of which in real life are of Spanish/Mexican heritage. A large cast of Spanish-speaking actors play minor, mostly nameless characters, with the exception of Alfonso Bedoya, who plays Jose Martinez, the head goon of John Dehner.

Hollywood casted movies by its own caste system. We’ve seen it before. In one scene, Teresa Wright watches a street fight, standing behind two stoic Indians, also watching. Were they Modocs or Washoes? Shoshonis or Yokuts? Who knows, they are not considered Californians, either.

The movie attempts to be a lot of things: a swashbuckling adventure, an historical picture, and to be sure, gets off on the right foot with the title exposed by a man’s hand swiping a glittering blanket of gold coins off the table. A vivid storybook-ish image. In parts, the movie has all the panache of a Saturday kiddie matinee adventure flick.

But we’ve got a lead actress of Teresa Wright’s caliber, so she can’t just sit around twisting a hanky in her hands. This film, to its credit, give her lots of action, too. When her gunsmith father is murdered, she joins Wilde to go after the killer. Wilde is distressed at her men’s attire, which he calls “horrible”, but seems to be unruffled by her gun fighting skills, which seem to be better than his.

The villains are one-dimensional, and the interesting story of the rivalry of three powers - US, Russian, and Mexican all converging in this rich land is pretty much lost in characters spitting out simplistic facts as plot exposition at convenient moments. Maybe the movie attempts too much, or maybe not enough.

Teresa Wright says to Wilde, “I wonder if we Americans will ever understand you people.” To which Wilde replies, “You don’t have to. It’s more important that we understand you.”

Placards of official dogma make for an easy, and lazy, explanation of why the characters are going from point A to point B, but they do nothing to flesh out even the characters’ motivations, let alone the complexities of political reality.

It is easier to focus on the beautiful rugged terrain, which we see much of behind swarms of hard-riding Californians chasing each other on horseback. We see the elaborate Spanish dress of the nobles at the ball, where a specialty act performs a beautiful, passionate dance.

Mantillas and ruffled shirts, and sword fighting out on the red-tiled patio among the potted yucca plants. The guy in tight burgundy pants slays the guy in tight purple pants. No blood. Basil Rathbone and Errol Flynn did it better.

The ball brings Mr. Wilde and Miss Wright together again, and he marvels with relief that she looks more like a girl in her virginal white ball dress. There’s no romance yet; that doesn’t happen until they’ve been on the trail a few days, looking for the bad guys, and stop to rest in a hayloft. She’s back to a skirt for this scene, and well, there’s just something about haylofts. Instantly they are in love and planning a future life together.

But first, they trick the gang of bandits into leading them to the stolen guns, and John Dehner, and a Russian Count and Princess who are agents of the Czar. When the Princess balks at this pants-wearing female pointing a gun at her, Miss Wright, with absolutely no vestige of Peggy Stephenson left in her, remarks: “Lady, this gun will shoot anybody. It’s not particular.”

I love that line and her world-weary delivery.

Wilde is an almost too-cheerful hero, as if he is Robin Hood instead of a revolutionary, but since this movie drifts along on the mood of a kiddie matinee, his happy bravado is suitable, and the stereotype villains are serviceable, and the action is all we need to kill time.

It’s Teresa Wright who doesn’t quite fit, and not because she wears pants and a gun holster (which was probably a selling point for her to take this role). She’s too troubled for these shallow types around her, on a higher plane (and not the hayloft), where the deeper issues of California’s annexation await her consideration, figuring out what all this really means for her. She’s far too intelligent an actress to be stuck in this pop-up book.

Explorer John Fremont, the only real historical figure, shows up at the ball, despite the bandits that overturn his stagecoach, and tells the “good” Californians that the US will not annex California because Mexico is a neighbor and friend.

The Mexican War, from which we snagged a good chunk of Mexico, including California, would seem to contradict his assertion. Did anybody at the kiddie matinee catch that? Or did the kids in their red felt cowboy hats just knock back another handful of jujubes and cheer for the hard riding “good” Californians who, like they in school, pledged allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and dreamed of cementing their heroism by pointing a gun in a haughty Russian’s face? Ah, 1952. Gotta love it.


KimWilson said...

Loved your hayloft comment! And, you're right, Wright's line about her gun is memorable. This was a big departure from some of Wright's earlier roles.

The Russians are always bad--didn't you know that!

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Hi, Kim. And yet, how did Boris and Natasha, our cartoon Russians at the height of the Cold War, get to be so fun and, in their disarming way, so lovable?

I suppose it's hard to hate somebody who's always saying, "Where is Moose and Squirrel?" Even if they have the H-Bomb.

The 1950s would give Teresa Wright much better roles on television than in the movies. She played photographer Margaret Bourke-White, she was the original Annie Sullivan in "The Miracle Worker" on Playhouse 90. Recently saw her in a 1964 Alfred Hitchock Hour that I think was some of her best work. Fine, fine actress.

Yvette said...

"She's far too intelligent an actress to be stuck in this pop-up book."

Great line, Jacqueline. :)

I always liked Theresa Wright (What's not to like?) but I confess I'd never heard of this movie.

I liked Cornell Wilde to, usually. I always remember him though in the I LOVE LUCY episode. SO funny.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks, Yvette. I think my favorite part of the movie was the Spanish dancing. And watching Teresa Wright shoot people like she'd been doing it all her life.

I thought I'd seen all the Lucy episodes, but I can't remember the Cornel Wilde one. Probably when they were in Hollywood, right? I like the one where they ran into William Holden and Eve Arden in the Brown Derby.

Kevin Deany said...

Despite your misgivings about this movie, it still sounds like something I wouldn't mind seeing some day. I like the cast, and the story sounds colorful enough.

I share your enthusiasm about Teresa Wright. Earlier in the month, TCM showed "The Steel Trap" starring her and Joseph Cotten. Since "Shadow of a Doubt" is one of my favorite Hitchcock films, their pairing in it was especially interesting.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Hi, Kevin. I hope you get to see it soon. I also saw "The Steel Trap" when it aired on TCM, and I hope to blog about that one some time or other.

panavia999 said...

I really wanted to like this movie because I like Wright so much, but I couldn't stick it. I think Cornel Wilde was too unique for Hollywod films. He always seems a bit misplaced in movies. A Californio? A gypsy? Chopin for goodness sake?! Love your line about sitting "around twisting a hanky in her hands"
Incidentally, I live California in a place that was formerly a 17,000 acre land grant. (One of the smaller ones.) It was a VERY feudal society. After the USA took over, the land grant was honored but the grandee lost a lot of power over his tenants and eventually the land was parcelled out.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Hi, panavia. I think you've hit the nail on the head when you say Cornel Wilde was "too unique for Hollywood films." I don't think they really knew what to do with this intelligent, really accomplished man, who seemed just exotic enough to them to be the go-to guy for gypsies and Chopin.

I did not dislike the film, but it leaves anyone with a serious interest in history a little empty. Movies are a great gateway to the study of history, but Hollywood seemed to appreciate only the showmanship side of that. So, we get the sword fights and the boy-meets-girl. That's not a bad thing, but in this case, it leaves a watered down impression of what California must have experienced at this time period.

The Lady Eve said...

This is another one I didn't know about at all. Love Teresa Wright, Cornel Wilde not so much. Being a California native, some of the attitudes noted aren't alien to me. Today the 'bad Californians' are real estate developers (the many descendents of Noah Cross?). make an interesting comment at the very beginning about Teresa Wright transitioning (precariously) from a delicate feminine heroine in the '40s to long suffering wife/neurotic spinster roles in the '50s. How true. There's serious blog potential in that observation.

(Still loving your blog music, by the way)

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

"There's serious blog potential in that observation."

My gosh, I think you're right. That might be an element of 1950s film we take for granted and don't explore enough.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

I'm glad you still like the music, by the way. Thanks.

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