Sure-footed B oater, with Romero in good form (natch) as The Cisco Kid. 20th Century-Fox's Cinema Archives line of hard-to-find cult and library titles has released The Gay Caballero, the 1940 B Western directed by Otto Brower and starring devilishly-handsome Cesar Romero, Sheila Ryan, Robert Sterling, Chris-Pin Martin, Janet Beecher, Edmund MacDonald, C. Montague Shaw, and Jacqueline Dalya. Lightning-fast at a super-trim 57 minutes, The Gay Caballero simply doesn't have time for the interesting layers of characterization and motivation I found in The Cisco Kid and the Lady, Romero's first turn as Cisco. No...straightforward, A-B-C plotting, horse-and-pistols action, and of course, plenty of laughs, courtesy of rakes Romero and Martin, are this B oater's bread and butter. No extras for this remarkably crisp, clean black and white transfer.
The Arizona Territory, 1889. Amused by the sight of his own gravestone, the very much alive The Cisco Kid (Cesar Romero), accompanied by his rotund sidekick, Gordito (Chris-Pin Martin), asks the pretty mourner Carmelita (Jacqueline Dalya) why she weeps at the notorious outlaw's desert grave. Carmelita, who works for ranch owner Kate Brewster (Janet Beecher), states that her dead fiance, Manuel, is buried there; he was falsely accused of being The Kid, and shot by Brewster's foreman, Joe Turner (Edmund MacDonald). Just then, a stagecoach passes below on the desert floor, pursued by three gunmen. Cisco and Gordito, deciding to steal from whomever survives, change plans when they meet Britisher George Wetherby (C. Montague Shaw) and his daughter, Susan (Sheila Ryan). It seems that Wetherby is buying a plot of land from Kate Brewster, giving Cisco the perfect excuse to accompany them to the ranch, where The Kid is curious to meet the man who "killed" him. Back at the ranch, The Kid soon discovers that Kate may not be all that she seems, while making love to Susan is complicated by her friendship with Kate's naive son, Billy (Robert Sterling), a newly-minted deputy sheriff.
Unlike the previous Cisco Kid movie I reviewed, The Cisco Kid and the Lady, there isn't too terribly much to write about here...because there isn't too terribly much "here" here. Anything considered extraneous to the whipsaw plotting, anything deemed unnecessary to delivering the Western goods in the quickest, most economical manner possible--more fully-rounded characters, intriguing throwaway bits, added "color" (like The Kid's tango in the previous movie), or even a bare minimum of 2-dimensional motivation--has been discarded. The Gay Caballero is a B, through and through; the "art" of it, if you will, is in its unpretentiousness, in its single-minded desire to tell a story as cleanly as possible, and to rigorously eschew any vague strivings for..."something more." The Gay Caballero is sausage-making, really, where the proficiency of the machinery creates a product that's largely foolproof, time and again, with almost monotonous regularity. Now of course, there were more than many Bs, from both the major and minor studios at that time, that were out-right terrible: a sausage made with spoiled ingredients is going to taste bad no matter how efficiently it's been produced. Luckily, The Gay Caballero was manufactured at 20th Century-Fox, noted at the time for having one of, if not the, best B unit production systems (perhaps because studio head Darryl Zanuck had cut his teeth early on at Warners, writing and producing them). With those premiere resources, even for a low-budget outing (the Lone Pine, California cinematography by master Edward Cronjager is exceptional), along with generally tidy direction and scripting, and a sense of humor about itself, The Gay Caballero comes over as a light, tasty treat.
If you weren't sure in The Cisco Kid and the Lady whether or not The Kid is an outlaw or hero, he makes no bones about it here: he tells Susan he robs from the rich to help the poor. Even if Cisco and Gordito make noise about waiting to rob that stagecoach at the movie's opening, the scripters never let us doubt The Kid's inherent goodness: he is the "gentleman knight" definition of caballero, committed to helping others, rather than himself (and certainly by this point 180 degrees away from creator O. Henry's intentions). Scripted by Albert Duffy (The Lone Wolf Strikes, Blondie Has Servant Trouble) and John Larkin (Charlie Chan at Treasure Island, The Lone Wolf Meets a Lady, Cloak and Dagger), from a story by Duffy and Walter Bullock (Springtime in the Rockies, The Gang's All Here), and directed by Otto Brower (The Phantom Empire, Stanley and Livingstone), The Gay Caballero may be tightly constructed (perhaps too tightly constructed at times...explain again why Kate's selling off a piece of her land...when she doesn't really want to?), but its tone is indeed gay (no, not that way....). As expected, Martin supplies the big guffaws here (falling on his ass again, or grotesquely mimicking his friend when attempting lovemaking), while Romero--perhaps not quite so effortless here...considering he broke his leg during the middle of production--is charming, as always, as he further morphs The Cisco Kid into an approximation of The Scarlet Pimpernel: dandyish Latin lover, leery of any serious commitment, sometimes playing the innocent to fool his adversaries, but underneath it all--cool, smooth master of both men and women. The rest of the good cast comes to very little, but that's because there isn't time to give them anything to do: just get in, do your little scene well, and get out...which, come to think of it, isn't a bad way to sum up The Gay Caballero.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.