Back at Warner Bros., during Hollywood’s golden days, top director Raoul Walsh was acting severely forlorn. Walsh, at the time, was a major asset to the studio, so when Jack Warner noticed his employee’s less-than-energetic behavior, the concerned mogul logically inquired as to what was wrong. Apparently, a big-time tragic romance was set to go into production, and Walsh thought he was a shoo-in for the director’s gig. He was passed over.
“But, Raoul, your idea of a tragic romance is when the local cathouse burns down.”
Walsh gazed solemnly at Warner with his one good eye, before soberly replying, “So, what’s your point?”
Well, folks, there’s a hot time in the old town tonight, so fire up your Blu-Ray player to spin the underrated delights of Walsh’s 1956 slam-bang western-mystery-comedy THE KING AND FOUR QUEENS, now available from Olive Films/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios.
Based on a novel by Margaret Fitts (who also adapted and cowrote the immensely witty script with Richard Alan Simmons), KING was tailor-made for star Clark Gable, whose Gabco Production company coproduced the pic with Walsh for United Artists. It was the second of three terrific pics the pair made together. While deservedly, the lion’s share of the big-time rep goes to the first, the bona fide 1955 epic The Tall Men, and accolades continue to pile up on the rediscovered third, 1957’s Band of Angels, KING, the sickly middle child, usually gets left at the gate. For years that was for good reason. The magnificently shot CinemaScope picture relies on much risque dialog between Gable and his stunning female costars, so, with all that blown-up TV pan-and-scanning (with lousy, grainy, washed-out color to boot), it was a movie one generally switched the channels on. When I finally DID see a scope print, it was beet-red, and, thus, thoroughly dull to look at (unfortunately, the movie was shot in DeLuxe Color). Hold on to your Stetsons, pards, the new Olive Blu-Ray will knock yer friggin’ socks off! For the first time since its original release, THE KING AND FOUR QUEENS does justice to the spectacular, gorgeous color photography of master d.p. Lucien Ballard (shot on-location in Utah and Arizona). The pristine 35mm transfer is one of the best I’ve seen in recent memory and the 2.35:1 CinemaScope imagery bursts with ebullient hues and tones unlike none I’ve ever imagined this oater could even muster. In short, my friends, it will take your breath away. Remember, a great print will make just about any movie watchable; if the picture turns out to be a keeper, all the better. The Olive Blu-Ray of THE KING AND FOUR QUEENS is a keeper.
The plot is a honey, circling around Dan Kehoe (accent on the hoe), a black-sheep bastard cousin to Gable’s characters in Boom Town, and, natch, GWTW. Kehoe, not surprisingly, is wanted by the law, as evidenced by a wild, action chase opening sequence, often cut from the 1960s-70s TV broadcasts. I mean, you ain’t seen ridin’ like that since they put the “B” in B-western (the awesome stunt work was achieved and/or supervised by the great Chuck Roberson, who also appears in a supporting role). Escaping the posse, Kehoe uses his formidable ears to catch word that three of the notorious four McDade brothers have been killed during a robbery. This proves a dilemma to their grieving widows, who control the virtual neighboring ghost town of Wagon Mount along with the McDade’s cantankerous ma. You see, no one knows which brother (if any) has survived, and therefore, who will collect the biggest share of a 100K haul, reportedly buried on the McDade homestead.
That’s a lot to process, but slickster Kehoe does just that and plans to pose as an independently hired member of the otherwise fraternal outlaw gang. He enters Wagon Mount at his own risk, getting shot by one of the sharpshooting females; but this was a price he had knowingly paid in return for the larger reward of the 100 grand he plans to seduce the hell out the ladies four/for. And WHAT ladies.
The widows (who actually may or may not have been wed to the scumbag McDades) comprise Oralie and Ruby, a madonna and whore combo (Sara Shane, Jean Willes), dance-hall floozie Birdie (the wonderful Barbara Nichols) and snarky Sabrina (Eleanor Parker), the brains of the bunch – essentially a female version of Kehoe, and hence, his greatest challenger/foe. Or is she? There’s the wizened ma, the wily Jo Van Fleet, who sees right through Kehoe, but admittedly can’t resist his considerable masculine abilities.
As Gable, how can I say it, effortlessly plucks his way through the volatile hen house, many barbs (and wires) are thrown and strung. And these scenes alternate from the incredibly sexy to the hilariously funny. Fact of the matter is that the McDade men have been absent for so long (two years) that the hoarded cash has taken a back seat to the womanly yearnings of each horny lass. Gable’s fortuitous arrival smites the adage, “lucky in cards, unlucky in love” into the dust. Gable’s lucky in everything.
Of course, what makes THE KING AND FOUR QUEENS such a blast is the rollicking direction by Walsh (he couldn’t stop raving about the bliss of working with Clark Gable, as if the veteran star was an up-and-coming newbie), and the unabashed, evident fun that Gable is enjoying at the expense of his own screen persona (where even the movie’s title is a nod to his cinema royalty); ditto the five ladies who seem to be having the time of their lives. It’s totally contagious. The lines flow fast and easy, perilously taunting the then-still present Censorship Code (“The hens aren’t laying,” Kehoe is told while surveying the McDade barnyard. “Maybe they need a new rooster,” is his reply, accompanied by the trademark Gable smirk). Kehoe isn’t beyond “romancing” any female on the premises. Ma gets the compliment of being “a tough…cougar,” and, yeah, Kehoe means it in that way. Tempted Ma later admits that she’s “more woman than” her fetching/kvetching daughters-in-law.
While all the ladies are worthy screen sharers with the King (specifically the mean-queen Willes, hard as she is beautiful), my favorite in the quintet is the always welcome Nichols.
Duchess of the Dirty, she has naughty limericks at her constant disposal, and ain’t afraid to use ’em (lasciviously rhyming “boys” with “toys”). Her finest moment, however, comes when she tracks Gable to the nearby swimming hole, where he is bathing in the altogether. His warning that he’s totally unclothed immediately has the randy Babs begin shedding her togs. She tells him she can’t help it, he reminds her so much of her husband, Prince. “It must be the mustache.” “Oh,” replies the ultimate straight-man (in every sense of the word) Gable, “Prince have a mustache?”
“No,” answers the brilliant Nichols with poifect delivery, and precision Swiss-watch timing. “[But] I always wondered what he’d be like to kiss if he did have.” The cut back to Gable’s reaction is a double-take that would have made Jimmy Finlayson proud.
The briefly on view sparse supporting cast is equally fine, including Arthur Shields, Jay C. Flippen and, interestingly enough, Roy Roberts, playing against type as a particularly thick sheriff (“Your sheriff can’t handle more than one idea at a time,” accurately concludes Kehoe).
As indicated earlier, the Olive B-D of THE KING AND FOUR QUEENS is a stunner, but not only in the visual sense, but in the audio as well. The dynamic mono tracks pack quite a wallop when played through a decent system (most prominently with one containing a subwoofer), ideal for savoring the nifty score by Alex North.
When I screened this for some dubious viewers at Casa-Neuhaus, the end result was an eruption of applause. Not a common response from these hard-asses. I kinda knew it was coming because of their raucous laugher throughout the entire picture (and for all the right reasons). “Damn, that was good!” was the general assessment. And, yep, it was. It’s a steamy, funny morality tale about players getting played, reverse played and double-played and a platter that I guarantee you’ll be replaying often.
THE KING AND FOUR QUEENS. Color. Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Olive Films/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios. CAT # OF1202. SRP: $29.95.