The pleasant but undistinguished western The King and Four Queens was partly produced by "The King of Hollywood" himself, Clark Gable. His second outing with veteran director Raoul Walsh has a clever concept but a weak finish, and relies on an interesting cast to keep our attention.
Gambler-drifter Dan Kehoe (Clark Gable) learns of five women living by themselves at a lonely ranch called Wagon Mound. Ma McDade (Jo Van Fleet) shoots trespassers; everyone knows that her absent sons are bank robbers. The sons' four young brides have been awaiting their return for two years: Sabina, Ruby, Birdie and Oralie (Eleanor Parker, Jean Willes, Barbara Nichols & Sara Shane). The girls are convinced that none of the husbands are coming home. The part of the story that interests Dan Kehoe is the McDade treasure -- Ma McDade is said to be guarding $100,000 dollars in stolen money.
Pretending to be on the run from the law, Dan enters the ranch. Ma hits him with a rifle shot, and the girls insist that he become a visitor while his wound heals. The sultry Ruby appeals directly to the handsome stranger, while the ex- dance hall entertainer Birdie tries to attract his attention with revealing costumes. Oralie is shy but interested, and Sabina is the most patient. Ma insists that the girls remain faithful to their missing husbands, but they're more interested in getting the stubborn matriarch to reveal where the treasure is buried.
Being the wives of desperate outlaws, more than one of the women has a sneaky plan to steal away with both the loot and the man. The irony is that the self-confident Dan has little choice but to play along with his hostesses' games. Barbara Nichols (Sweet Smell of Success) plays her standard bird-brained floozie character; and is even given the name Birdie. Sara Shane's Oralie possesses an utterly beguiling smile but has difficulty asserting herself. Busy actress Jean Willes (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) pours herself into a red dress to seduce the rogue male. Dan, of course, chooses the one woman who doesn't throw herself at him. Higher-billed Eleanor Parker plays the calculating Sabina, the McDade bride most willing to level with him about the mysterious treasure.
Stealing the show outright is Jo Van Fleet, the great stage actress who made her film career playing crusty older women in pictures like East of Eden and Wild River. The remarkable Ms. Van Fleet is only 41 in this film, fifteen years younger than Clark Gable and not that much older than the other actresses.
The King and Four Queens wants to be a full-on farce, but the script instead takes its "fox in the henhouse" situation at face value. As this is 1956 and the Production Code is in full force, Clark Gable's handsome stranger engages in little more than kissing with each of the four wives (depending on how we interpret one scene fade-out). What could have been a sexy romp is simply too restrained. Dan Kehoe allows each of the four babes to dally with him according to their personal styles, while the sour-faced Ma sits with an itchy trigger finger on her rifle. Director Raoul Walsh plays this challenge to male supremacy mostly straight, revealing few surprises about his characters. The amusing The King and Four Queens doesn't fully exploit its potential.
We wonder what Billy Wilder might have done with the situation of four sex-starved beauties confronted with the desirable Clark Gable; it sounds like a setup for one of the director's famous dirty jokes. The script already makes use of telling role reversals. Dan Kehoe is caught bathing naked in a pond, a ritual usually reserved for the leading lady. Birdie arrives, and instead of hiding Dan's clothing, hurries to undress and join him! Good taste, the Production Code and the unwillingness to make The King and Four Queens an outright comedy prevail. The film instead settles for conventional character twists and a subdued, non-violent conclusion. The plain fact is that it needed either a more compelling dramatic finale, or bigger laughs.
MGM-Fox's DVD of The King and Four Queens is a good enhanced transfer given a bare bones presentation. The disc has no extras and no menus; the feature film plays directly upon loading the disc. There are no scene selections either, only chapter stops at ten-minute intervals. The relaxing, amusing western features beautiful color cinematography by Lucien Ballard and attractive sets by the interesting designer Wiard Ihnen -- Ma McDade's desert "shack" is actually very spacious and accommodating. It looks as though one or more of Ballard's CinemaScope lenses weren't properly adjusted, as many shots feature vertical lines that lean to the left or the right -- doorways, support posts, etc.
The design of the cover art is not bad, but only Clark Gable is identifiable -- it's difficult to match up the likenesses of the "four queens" with the film's four actresses.
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