Saturday, May 15, 2021

Clarence G. Badger | Rangle River

quick, quick!

by Douglas Messerli

Charles Chauvel and Elsa Chauvel (screenplay, based on a story by Zane Grey), Clarence G. Badger (director) Rangle River / 1936, USA 1939

The 1936 Australian and US co-produced 1936 Aussie western Rangle River was produced in connection with the Australian film quota that demanded that a percent of US films had to include scenes filmed in Australia with that country’s cast members.

      Based on a Zane Grey story he wrote on a visit to that country, the writing team of Charles and Elsa Chauvel added some refinements that turned most of Grey’s tired cowboy saga about land rights in Coombs, New South Wales into a rather charming and somewhat wicked tale that questions and satirizes the supposedly suave British visitors of that country and their own laconic, macho, female-shy cattlemen, putting between them an Australian woman Marion Hastings (Margaret Dare) who had been living and spending her father’s meagre funds lavishly in England.

       When the two opposing cultures come together, along with the fact that the film was directed by imported American Clarence Badger and starred US bad boy actor Victor Jory (he went on a hunting expedition while in Australia and was later arrested for speeding in Sydney)  as the work’s hero Dick Drake, the result was that the original genre was transformed into a combination of a cowboy-detective-gay oriented-heterosexual love story like nothing that we’ve seen since.

        The owner of the Hasting ranch, the elderly Dan Hastings (George Bryant) is a good man who unfortunately never met a man (or woman for that matter) who he didn’t like. He spends far too much of his dwindling funds on his spoiled British living daughter Marion and has no idea that his traditionally handsome friendly neighbor Donald Lawton (Cecil Parry), also a beef rancher, is not all that he appears to be. More importantly, the life-blood of a ranch which has long been producing some of the best meat in the country, Rangle River is inexplicably drying up. He’s about to lose his lucrative contract to provide meat to one of the biggest producers in Brisbane and too give up what’s left of his finances for his daughter’s “education,” with no funds left to dig for a desperately needed new well.

       His foreman, Drake, tries to explain the situation, but the tired rancher simply wants his daughter to be happy and to keep his neighbor’s friendship. What to do? The rough-hewn Drake takes matters into his own hands writing a diatribe against her lifestyle to the errant Marion, demanding she return home to Australia and contribute something to the ranch instead of siphoning off what’s left for its support for her “ornamental” existence.

       Marion rightfully is offended by his cruel letter, but it does bring her home along with her seemingly stuffy Aunt Abbie (Rita Pauncefort). On a stop in Singapore for a change of planes the couple run into a cinematic stereotype of the sissified British manhood in the form of Reggie Mannister, who like his name performs as a kind of man “minister” (one who attends to the needs of other men) acted by the later master of that character role, Robert Coote. Coote played similar figures in over 50 movies and stage plays, the most famous of which was his role of live-in companion or and symbolic lover to Henry Higgins in the stage version of My Fair Lady, Colonel Pickering.* 

       Reggie, evidently about to trot off to India in search of another adventure, spots Marion during her Singapore stop, setting his pretended heterosexual heart all aflutter, requiring he make a change of plans and book a seat on the flight to Australia instead. Reggie, like so many wealthy British eccentrics, is a master of game-playing and immediately pleases Aunt Abbie by suggesting the Solitaire moves she apparently can’t figure out for herself, and within no time has been invited by Marion to join them at the ranch for “a few months” while he intends to “prospect” in the neighborhood.

       Even on their way to the ranch they encounter the mounting tension between the two ranches as they catch Drake and Lawton punching it out at a local stock sale, Drake winning only after Reggie stops one of Lawton’s men from hitting him over the head with a wooden club. The properly brought up Marion is even more outranged by Drake in person than she was by his honest assessment of her in his letter, and determines to bring things back in proper order once she reaches her father’s ranch.

      Delighted to see his daughter and sister once more, Hastings plans a little dinner party, with Lawton in attendance where both the men, Reggie and Lawton, both of whom she momentarily perceives as appropriate companions, flank her as she displays her proper upbringing in a piano recital. 

      Lawton is the more handsome, so Reggie quickly bows out to attend to the cuts and bruises of the foreman Drake, the ministering role he plays so very well. If Reggie may be a kind a flop when it comes to the women, Drake meets him with an unlikely but appreciate friendliness. And the scene in which they come together is about as gay as a cowboy yarn dare be if you want the boy to walk off into the sunset with the girl on his arm by film’s end. A video of the scene would be the best evidence, but you’ll have to take my written observations as something approximating this almost comically homo-insinuating scene about which the censors of the day evidently didn’t have a clue.

     Upon Reggie presenting himself to Drake, the more than friendly foreman beams and immediately shaking hands thanks him for “saving me from that knock on the head this morning.”

     Reggie compliments him on his good fight, to which Drake thanks him but adds it’s not the sort of thing they teach in the smart finishing schools of England. Reggie suggests that it’s “something they rather lack.” A second later, as Drake picks up a small bottle of medicinal liquid to rub on his wounds, Reggie, grabbing up the small bottle takes over, “Let me give you a hand.” Smiling widely the “two-fisted man’s man,” as Marion has called him, appreciatively offers up his arm.

      Rubbing in the liquid on his lower arm, Reggie asks, “How on earth did you get that?” presumably meaning the wounds and not the muscles to which he is now applying the liquid.

       “Oh lack of good manners and intelligence I suppose.”

    “O not a bit of it,” Reggie responds, tapping Drake’s forearm, “Your fist is worth its weight in intelligence.”       Smiling the entire time, Drake finally thanks him with the words: “Fine. You have...rather a professional touch.” Still standing closely face to face, Drake thanks him again.

        Reggie hems, “Well, a.....”

        “Well...” Drake also responds, the two acting very much like awkward lovers upon their first date.

       They both attempt to start up conversation yet again with “I....” laughing at the shy tenderness they obviously feel for one other, Reggie finally breaking it off with a “well a....goodnight,” Drake mimicking him but both remaining in position without the broad grin ever leaving Drake’s face, as Reggie looks briefly down, faces him again, and once more leans down before taking his regretful leave.

        The two quite obviously have quickly bonded, and in fact, Drake almost always lights up when Reggie enters his space throughout the rest of the movie.

        Marion, meanwhile, intends to prove she can be “useful,” riding a horse out to where the cowmen are herding their cattle, jumping fences for the horse has been trained for it, as she has probably learned in riding school. The horse trips and she falls, Drake and others coming to her rescue.

        A scene or two later she attempts to extract a calf from a deep mud pool, but not only is she unable to help the calf scramble to safety but must herself be retrieved, again by Drake.

        Drake argues that she might be of more use if she stay at home, but the willful girl insists upon attempting to demonstrate her abilities. Of course, in his clearly misogynistic cowboy narrative, she demonstrates a great deal of cleverness in gradually converting the foreman from a woman-hating man’s man into someone with whom she might fall in love and him with her, the necessary requirements of this basically normative story.

        Meanwhile, however, things for the herd go from bad to worse. The company with whom Hastings has a contract is ready to cut ties with them and turn to Lawton for their meat. For the first time in history the river has almost completely dried up. They have no choice but to take the herd a long distance to find a better watering spot, but in the process assuring the cows will grow even leaner and worn out. Even when they finally discover water near the Hastings home, the well suddenly grow dry—due to the treachery of the Lawton gang.

         Although Reggie seems to be a natural bungler, in truth he has become a kind of detective—perhaps because of his attraction to Drake and his newfound commitment to the ranch—finding queer goings-on about the place, including the behavior of the family servant Minna (Georgie Stirling), a odd horseshoe near where their well went dry, and finally the suspicion that something is going on in the closed-off Lawton land which the Hastings dare not enter, particularly after Drake, attempting to steer a few stray Lawton cows back to their side of the fence, is suddenly shot and nearly killed.

        With Drake recuperating, Marion suddenly has the man where she wants him, in bed where she can serve him and demonstrate her love. When he is on the mend and sitting with her on the porch she attempts finally to illicit the words of love he is  still too bashful to spit out. She demands he be direct and ask her something, hoping that he might at least ask for a kiss. Finally, he begins to stutter out his sentence...”Do you think you might,” she leans ready to pounce. “...Make me some tea?” And at that very moment Reggie, flying an airplane suddenly out of nowhere lands in the front yard, demanding the Drake join him to check out his suspicions.

         That suspicion, which turns out to be true, is that Lawton has been damming up the river on his land, thus strangling off the flow to a trickle by the time it reaches the Hastings’ estate. But, we might argue, that he has another suspicion as well—or at least, by this time, the audience does. It may just be that Drake is only a “man’s man,” more at home in Reggie’s company than he might ever be in Marion’s drawing room drinking tea.

          Once they’ve got the evidence, Drake and Reggie head off by horseback into danger to confront Lawton and end his subterfuge. But meanwhile, Minna, Lawton’s in-house spy, has warned him of their discovery and Lawton orders the dam to be dynamited, which will cause such a rush of water into the Hastings ranch that it will surely drown their cattle and anyone following along the now riverbed such as Drake and Reggie, and suddenly Marion as well in her final attempt to be of some use.

          At the last minute, Drake and Reggie split up, the foreman taking the higher path to look over the lay of the land while Reggie follows along the riverbed. Marion is also following the river further behind. When the dam explodes the rush of water spills out from the lake behind it. Drake has time to rush to his fellow cowmen and demand they move the cattle immediately, and he finds Marion floating near death further on, scooping her up from the river water just in time to save her; but there is little hope for Reggie, too close to the dam before it let loose to save him.

         The minute things have died down, Drake rides into Lawton territory to teach his enemy a lesson even before the police arrive to arrest him. I might add that in Australia cowboys use whips  instead of ropes and pistols to herd their cattle, and Lawton, as we’ve observed throughout the  film, is a master of their use. After Drake gets in a few punches, Lawton grabs up a couple of whips and lashes out at Drake brutally, whipping him again and again as if he were playing out some terrible fantasy of a S&M flick. Like Christ being scourged, Drake is about to be flayed until his men and Marion ride up to distract Lawton just enough that Drake can grab up one of the whips, fight back Lawton and finally, after pulling away the second whip, hog-tie and drag him off.

       If they are all saddened by Reggie’s death, they hardly have time to show it, as Marion hunkers down with her hero staring into the sunset while she tries to coach him on finally acting out what a woman needs to occur before she can walk away with him. He leans into a possible kiss at the very moment that Reggie, after miraculously surviving the flood and having found a large piece of lumber which he has dubbed “the Queen Mary,” floats into view. Her final words are “Quick, quick,” as she nuzzles up to Drake for the closing kiss which allows all in the normative heterosexual realm to collectively let out a sigh of relief. The sun sets just as the credits begin their rise.

 *To save myself from devoting several pages to essays on both My Fair Lady and the play/motion picture Pygmalion upon which it was based—both of which are so much more that being films with basically homosexual characters—let me make clear at this opportune moment that linguistic scholar and voice teacher Henry Higgins is clearly a gay man perfectly happy to proceed in life with his live-in companion Coronel Pickering until his version of Galatea, the Greek statue brought to life that Eliza Doolittle represents, appears at his doorstep. In both films Higgins makes it clear through lectures and song that he very idea of “letting a woman in your life” is unthinkable and clearly something he does not desire. Yet he cannot resist doing that very thing, while treating her like a mere object, a “thing,” as he mother describes, like a kind of doll which he and the Coronel dress up, teach, and send out into the world to be representative of their great talents—certainly one of the most purposely misogynistic works George Bernard Shaw ever wrote. For that is, of course, precisely his point; these two gay men have no business imprisoning a woman on their premises without recognizing her as a sexual equal.

   Of course, they do get their comeuppance when Higgins realizes he can no longer live without her, the narrative at the heart of every story about a determined bachelor who discovers heterosexual love. At the end of both the musical and the original story there is not much evidence that he will ever truly come to see Eliza as an equal, but he has come to recognize that he cannot live without her, the first step, at least, to learning that she is a real being with whom he must deal if he is to emotionally survive. In a sense, both Pygmalion and My Fair Lady might be read as moral lessons aimed at gay men: women are necessary in order to live a full life, and their banishment can only lead to an empty death. And in that sense, both works are, in some respects, the antitheses of  LGBTQ-friendly works. After all, so warns Shaw and Lerner and Loewe, gay men are selfish beings who act like children without the edifying presence of a woman to grace their lives.

Los Angeles, May 15, 2021

Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (May 2021).

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