Thursday, October 2, 2008


The lavish 1945 Warner Brothers western release "San Antonio" (***1/2 out of ****) with Errol Flynn, Alexis Smith, Paul Kelly, and S.Z. "Cuddles" Sakall qualifies as an above average frontier fracas, probably the last really top-notch oater that Flynn made before his career dried up in the late 1950s. Mind you, Flynn, Smith, and Sakall reassembled for Ray Enright's "Montana" in 1950. The chief asset of war-time western is Bert Glennon's glorious Technicolor photography. Check out the shots near the beginning as a horseman is silhouetted against a burnished gold sky and the night-time long shot inside the Alamo, these shots look dazzling even on my ancient 20 inch color TV. The action in this World War II era sagebrusher is fairly ordinary on cursory inspection until you've seen it a few times and you think about how anarchic things are in Texas that the hero is forced into exile in Mexico while the villains live things up in the lap of luxury in San Antonio. Flynn never made a movie where his heroic character was in such a bad way that he had to voluntarily leave America and conceal himself. Of course, in his incomparable "Captain Blood," he was wrongly imprisoned, but he didn't imprison himself. Flynn fans will enjoy his cheerful banter with co-star Alex Smith. Many feel that she was not as compatible with him the way that dainty little Olivia De Havilland was in their five films together. Actually, I think that the Smith & Flynn relationship is more even, because she projects a greater physical presence than De Havilland. In other words, Smith could go toe to toe with Flynn better than the diminutive Ms. De Havilland. The other outstanding thing about "San Antonio" is its Oscar nominated theme song "One Sunday Morning." This knock-out tune bolsters the movie and it improves with each viewing. The other Oscar nomination went to the art direction which the beautiful Technicolor lensing brings in fabulous detail. "San Antonio" ranks at the very least as an all around good looking western with a superb song, spectacular color photography, and Max Steiner's lively contribution to the orchestral score is unmistakable.

The action opens with Texas cattleman Charlie Bell (the ever reliable John Litel) crossing the Tex-Mex border to root Clay Hardin (Errol Flynn) out of exile. As it turns out, Clay has been biding his time before he returns to Texas for a showdown with lead heavy Roy Stuart (Paul Kelly of "The Springfield Rifle") who is the chief architect behind a massive cattle rustling ring that has robbed and stolen thousands of dollars from Texas cattlemen. It seems that Clay liberated a tally book from one of Stuart's henchmen has all the dirty details. Charlie Bell warns Clay that the opposition is expecting him and wants to kill him, but threats of death and violence do not deter Clay Hardin. He tells Charlie to get him a ticket on the next stage to San Antonio. Of course, Charlie regards this as a brazen and unwise thing to do, but Clay goes ahead with it anyway. Meanwhile, two Stuart henchmen are waiting for our hero who stops off along the way to catch a ride on a different stagecoach, one chartered for a New Orleans entertainer Jeanne Star (Alexis Smith of "The Doughgirls") who is supposed to sing in Roy Stuart's saloon. Jeanne's likable but befuddled business manager Sacha Bozic (lovable flabby jowled S.Z. "Cuddles" Sakall of "Casablanca") lined up the engagement through an old acquaintance of her Jeanne's Legare (shifty-eyed Victor Francen of "The Desert Song") who is partners with Roy Stuart. Along the way, Clay tangles with Stuart-sent gunman Lafe Williams (Tom Tyler of "The Adventures of Captain Marvel") and guns him down in a memorable shoot-out. The rest of "San Antonio" consists of Clay Hardin and Roy Stuart circling each other warily like a mongoose and a cobra in an arena that only one can exit alive. The action really gathers momentum after an exciting scene where Legare guns down Charlie Bell in a back ally and the shadow of Sacha looms over both. Legare threatens to kill Sacha if the funny little fat man utters a word. Meanwhile, Clay gets the mistaken notion that Jeanne set him up for Roy Stuart. Later, we get to see a massive saloon shoot-out on the scale of the saloon brawl in Michael Curtiz's "Dodge City." The eventful, hard-as-nails frontier action in an above-average script by "Little Caesar" scenarist W.R. Burnett and Alan Le May—best known for his novel "The Searchers" that became a John Wayne classic—offsets the antics of Cuddles. Anybody who knows anything about Warner Brothers movies from that age knows that a lot of Cuddles' dialogue sounds like something that Michael Curtiz would have said. When Cuddles spots a rider less horse, he turns to the stagecoach driver and proclaims, "There goes an empty horse." This line immortalized first in David Niven's autobiography about the time that he made "The Charge of the Light Brigade" with Flynn and Curtiz referred to bare-backed horses as "empty" horses. The dialogue turns out to be filled in loads of quotable dialogue. Cuddles' comic dialogue sounds almost as good as the Marx Brothers with lines like: "If you can't say nothing, don't speak." Kelly and Francen make excellent villains as does Tom Tyler at the beginning of the film. Let's not overlook those sexy costumes that Alexis flaunts her oh-so-hottie body in.

You can't go wrong with "San Antonio."

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