Broadly entertaining, In Old California (1942) is one of the better early films star John Wayne made at Republic Studios in the wake of John Ford's Stagecoach (1939). The studio, by this time a veritable sausage factory specializing in serials, singing cowboy B-Westerns, and kiddie programmers like the eight "Three Mesquiteers" movies Wayne made immediately before and after Stagecoach, struggled to capitalize on Wayne's newfound fame. They loaned him out to other studios, while his early in-house films were often ill-fitting affairs, frequently bland historical melodramas with Wayne sometimes playing second fiddle to a more established female lead.
But In Old California is Wayne's film all the way, and there's a good balance among the broad, at times slapstick humor, standard Western action, historical spectacle, and romance. The picture also has an especially good cast, particularly on the comedy side of things. Fans of comedies emanating from Hal Roach Studios will find something to like; at times In Old California almost plays like a Roach feature.
An Olive Films release, In Old California is another mostly dazzling high-def presentation, especially compared to all previous home video versions. No extras.
The picture amusingly casts Wayne as an articulate, Boston-bred pharmacist, Tom Craig, who plans to open a pharmacy in Sacramento. A clever opening set at a saloon introduces Craig dressed as a dandy among hardened San Franciscans. Craig steps up to the bar, orders a glass of milk, and everyone roars with laughter - until Craig casually bends a $1 coin using only the fingers of one hand.
Also at the bar, Craig encounters Kegs McKeever (Edgar Kennedy), a normally mild-mannered lug driven to violent fits because of a painful toothache. Craig, like Androcles, provides Kegs with a little relief and thus provides himself with an instant sidekick.
Craig's East Coast-gentlemanly manners toward vivacious showgirl and saloon keeper Lacey Miller (Binnie Barnes, wearing false eyelashes a mile long) annoy jealous, wealthy land-grabber Britt Dawson (Albert Dekker), who has Craig dumped into the Sacramento River.
But Craig, accompanied by Kegs, eventually makes it to Sacramento. Dawson, who virtually owns the town, sees to it that no one will rent Craig retail space, so the ballsy druggist gamely approaches Britt's girl, who happens to own the empty store next door to her saloon. He offers her a 50-50 split of the business in lieu of rent, while Lacey, clearly turned on by Craig's gutsiness, readily agrees.
The movie has its share of surprises. Fans of the movies of producer Hal Roach will enjoy the plum role given Edgar Kennedy, an unlikely but very effective Western sidekick for Wayne. (Wayne's later The Fighting Kentuckian cast yet another Roach veteran as his sidekick: comedian Oliver Hardy.) In such films, there's often a subplot concerning the sidekick's burgeoning romance (or attempts to avoid same) with the maid or traveling companion of the ingÃ©nue. In this case, Lacey's wisecracking maid, played by Patsy Kelly (another Roach veteran), woos Kegs. Their scenes together have real charm and a type of humor akin to the Roach style. Amazingly, their paths never crossed, at least not on film, when they were on the Roach lot.
Finally, character comedian James C. Morton, forever losing his toupee in endless comedies (often for Roach's Our Gang and Columbia's The Three Stooges), appears as Red, the barkeep at Lacey's saloon. Morton played an almost identical role in Laurel & Hardy's classic Way Out West (1937).
Casting Wayne as a Boston-born pharmacist sounds like a terrible idea, but Wayne not only makes it work, he seems to be relishing the part, a break from his usual uneducated but noble cowpoke roles. Ostentatiously mannered, immaculately dressed, and well spoken ("Ah, cut the palaver!" complains Dawson), Craig is a part Wayne clearly enjoys. (Wayne's father was druggist.)
Another pleasant surprise is the slight twist given the relationship between hero Craig and showgirl Lacey, whose attraction to Craig is, at first, based primarily on his willingness to stand up against Dawson, her lover. About midway through the film a romantic love triangle forms when virginal Ellen Sanford (Helen Parrish) is introduced. Craig immediately falls for her, while Lacey grows increasingly jealous and desperate. In nearly all such films the "bad girl" dies at the hands of the villain, typically taking a bullet for the hero so that he can save the day and, for the fadeout, allow him to ride off into the sunset with the ingÃ©nue. That's not what happens here, and what does unfold is a real crowd-pleaser.
Video & Audio
Olive's video transfer of In Old California is very good, if not quite at the level of the label's revelatory Republic releases of the 1930s. The transfer sources re-release title elements, which are pretty worn, and dissolves and other opticals are on the soft side, though straight cuts look great. Interestingly, at the end the film goes to black for brief exit music before fading back in for some end credits (Republic was unusual in that they typically listed technicians and department heads after the film.) The packaging lists an 82-minute running time but this is a typo as the film is complete, running 88 minutes. The Region A disc has decent audio, English only with no subtitle options, and no Extra Features.
A rousing Western and definitely one of John Wayne's better â€˜40s Republic movies, In Old California still holds up, with the comedy of Edgar Kennedy and Patsy Kelly an added attraction. Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.