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Singing Guns

Kino // Unrated // April 17, 2018
List Price: $24.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted April 27, 2018 | E-mail the Author
Singing Guns (1950) is an interesting anomaly from Republic Pictures, at the time known primarily for their B-movies, particularly their well-made B-Westerns headlined by singing cowboy Roy Rogers, and for their occasional, tonier productions, often starring John Wayne, like director John Ford's Rio Grande, released that same year.

Singing Guns seems to have been an effort by the studio to fashion a kind of hybrid, an A-level singing cowboy film, but one with more general audience appeal than the Roy Rogers series, by this time patronized mainly by kids, and a bit more like the earlier Republic star Gene Autry films Republic produced in the late 1930s, films popular with audiences of all ages. Singing Guns tries to be more adult, and cautiously limits the singing to just three songs over its 91 minutes. The length, the use of Trucolor, and the supporting cast of Ella Raines, Ward Bond, and two-time Oscar winner Walter Brennan gave it additional class.

It was based on the same-named 1938 novel by Frederick Faust, using the pen name Max Brand, one of nearly a dozen pseudonyms he wrote under. Brand was known for his Western novels but also as the creator of Dr. Kildare, until recently a long running series at MGM (and later a long-running television series).

To star as their new singing cowboy Republic chose Vaughn Monroe, a singer, trumpeter and bandleader. Monroe and his band had made a couple of guest shots in ‘40s musicals, but this was his first leading role. The studio may have been influenced by the emerging stardom of MGM's Howard Keel, who resembled Monroe and had a similarly rich baritone singing voice.

Monroe plays Rhiannon, a notorious stagecoach bandit, and known to be hoarding a fortune in stolen gold in a mountain hideout. Sheriff Jim Caradac (Ward Bond) tries tracking the bearded outlaw, but Rhiannon shoots him during a struggle. Nonetheless, through a fierce rainstorm the bandit carries big Jim Caradac all the way back to town, to the office of Dr. Jonathan Mark (Walter Brennan). The sheriff, Doc explains, needs a blood transfusion, but Rhiannon wants to beat a hasty retreat before he's captured. Sensing the Good Samaritan is Rhiannon, Doc slips the outlaw a mickey, performs the transfusion, changes Rhiannon into the duds of a deceased patient, and even gives him a shave.

When he comes to, Rhiannon is understandably confused by Doc's action, especially after he introduces him to the sickbed sheriff and suggests "John Gwyn" temporarily take over as the local lawman until Caradac recovers. "Gwyn" doesn't like the idea, but plays along.

In the weeks that follow, Gwyn proves his mettle as a crack sheriff, at one point selflessly rescuing two miners from a seemingly inescapable mine fire, making him an instant hero.

The story revolves around the three people in Gwyn's orbit: the Doc, who recognizes him as Rhiannon from the beginning but wants to save his soul; Sheriff Caradac, who's impressed by Gwyn until he realizes that he's Rhiannon and feels obliged to arrest him; and Nan Morgan (Ella Raines), a saloon girl and Caradac's fiancée, who also recognizes Gwyn and becomes obsessed with collecting the reward for information leading to the hideout, even as she may be falling in love with him.

Singing Guns is well made, and the script is interesting if clumsy. Decidedly politically incorrect by today's standards is the running flirtation between Gwyn and Nan, he comparing winning a woman's heart to breaking a horse, hardly flattering. Had the film's script and leading man been a little better, the results might have resembled the underrated Joel McCrea Western Four Faces West (1948), which has a similar plot.

Vaughn Monroe has a great singing voice but is awfully stiff. Even when he's singing he barely moves a muscle and his facial expression rarely changes. He's ruggedly handsome and not a bad actor, but he's clearly uncomfortable and lacks screen presence. However, the screenplay deliberately contributes to this somewhat: In trying to set Monroe apart from the impossibly wholesome singing cowboys epitomized by Roy Rogers, they've made Gwyn cynical (he's an outlaw because his claims were jumped and others got rich off his labors), circumspect, and hardened, if morally conflicted.

The main villain of the piece is Richards, a corrupt mining company head, played by the great character actor Jeff Corey. He's terrific in several scenes, such a poker game where he loses a huge pot to Nan; Corey's subtly outraged reaction is priceless. But his great moment comes in the movie's most audacious scene, funny and effective at once. Angry over his losses, Richards shoots at piano player Smitty (George Chandler) as he performs "Singing My Way Back Home." Gwyn, further down the bar, takes over the song, forcing Richards to listen stone-faced to statue-like Gwyn. It's a unique standoff: six-shooter vs. six bars in the key of G.

Ward and Brennan are fine in larger than usual parts, while the terrific supporting cast includes Harry Shannon, Barry Kelley as Irishman Mike Murphy, Billy Gray, future Mouseketeer Jimmy Dodd, John Doucette as a miner, and Denver Pyle as a gunman. Twelve-year-old Elinor Donahue is instantly recognizable in the unbilled part of a miner's frightened daughter.

Video & Audio

Singing Guns was photographed in Republic's color process, Trucolor, which began as a 2-color process that used red and green as primary colors (as on Singing Guns before expanding to a 2-color process with red and blue as primary colors (Thank you, Phil Smoot!). While lacking the full-range of three-strip Technicolor, the first incarnation of Trucolor, at its best in this 4K scan of the original nitrate negatives, is still awfully impressive. It looks and sounds great (2.0 HD Master Audio mono). No subtitle options on this Region "A" disc.

Extra Features

The lone supplement is an audio commentary by Toby Roan, the voice also heard on Kino concurrent Trigger, Jr. supplements.

Parting Thoughts

Not for all tastes but certainly interesting, Singing Guns is Recommended.

Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian largely absent from reviewing these days while he restores a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.

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