Friday, December 19, 2008


Everybody mistakes a fumble-fingered, song-warbling, saddle tramp for a dastardly desperado in director Stuart Heisler’s satirical horse opera “Along Came Jones” (*** out of ****), toplining “Virginian” star Gary Cooper as the eponymous protagonist, Loretta Young as his sharp-shooting love interest, and Dan Duryea as the notorious bandit. “Jesse James” scenarist Nunnally Johnson derived this splendid send-up of sagebrushers from “The Searchers” author Alan Le May’s novel, and “Along Came Jones” represents Cooper’s first and only independent production. This easy-going, sentimental oater features several low-key but heartfelt performances, especially from Cooper as the incompetent cowpoke who couldn’t hit the side of a barn with his six-shooter even if he threw it at it. William Demarest plays his comical sidekick who has more sense than the hero. Dan Duryea is appropriately malicious as the real Monty.

The production values of this modest Independent Pictures production reflect the restrictions imposed by the U.S. Government on Hollywood during World War II. No movie could boast more than $5-thousand dollars worth of new production materials. Consequently, everything appears just as plain and generic as you can imagine. Nobody has more than a couple of costume changes, and the performers often act in front of back projected landscapes when they hit the trail. This is one of those westerns where you never see a train, the U.S. Calvary, a nation of war whooping Native Americans, or scenic Monument Valley landscapes. In other words, white Anglo-Saxon American Protestants swap bullets with each other over the course of its unhurried 90 minutes, but nothing happens that you haven't seen before in any other western. Nevertheless, Cooper’s amiable performance and Heisler’s restrained helming make “Along Came Jones” a pleasure to watch. Remember, "Along Came Jones" came along before the Bob Hope western comedies "The Paleface" (1958) and "Son of Paleface" (1952), but both "Paleface" farces surpassed "Along Came Jones." Interesting, “Along Came Jones” anticipated John Ford’s last great western “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (1962). Loretta Young does for Cooper in “Along Came Jones” what John Wayne did for James Stewart in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.”

“Along Came Jones” opens with a one-of-its-kind stagecoach hold-up. Monty Jarrad (Dan Duryea of “Ball of Fire”) lays in ambush with his Winchester rifle as a six-horse stagecoach trundles along a remote river road and shoots the coach tongue that holds the horses in harness. The coachman loses control of the vehicle and its rear wheel smashes into the rocks on the side of the trail. Monty wounds the guard, armed with a Winchester instead of a shotgun, and the guy plunges off the swiftly moving vehicle and falls into a tree. The Wells Fargo coach careens to a halt into the side of the mountain, and Monty rides up to it, snatches the money bag from the driver, Ira Waggoner (Walter Sand of "To Have & Have Not"), and hightails it off down the trail. The guard recovers sufficiently enough to wound the fleeing outlaw and Monty incriminates himself when he drops his rifle on the trail. In a close-up, we can see his name etched onto the long gun: Monty Jarrad. The next shot shows a lawman posting a $1-thousand dollar reward dodger for Jarrad.

Song warbling Melody Jones (Gary Cooper of “Sergeant York”) and his sidekick George Fury (William Demarest of “All Through the Night”) are riding along when they spot the town of Payneville in the distance (bogus looking back projection again) and Melody realizes that they took a wrong turn at the fork in the road some 400 to 500 miles back. George shakes his head. “Well, it don’t surprise me none, I can you tell you that a cowhand that goes in for breaking horses by the times he’s your size, he’s been hit in the seat of the pants so many times he ain’t got any brains anymore—just a kind of yellow oatmeal in his head.” Our heroes mosey into Payneville and the First Chance Saloon barkeeper notices the initials MJ on Melody’s chaps and assumes Melody is Monty Jarrad. Melody spots pretty looking Cherry de Longpre (Loretta Young of “Ladies Courageous”) prancing down the boardwalk. He follows her while George enters a saloon. George doesn’t understand why everybody refers to him as Uncle Roscoe. According to the wanted poster, Monty rides with a fellow called Uncle Roscoe. Meanwhile, Melody eavesdrops on Ira who observes how “very nice” Cherry walks, and Melody slugs him so hard that Ira wallows in the dust. Before Ira can pull his six-gun, another citizen points to the chaps on Melody’s horse with the initials MJ. Everybody thinks Melody is actually Monty. Melody has never commanded such respect from anybody. All the time this is happening, Melody has no clue why the citizenry are treating him with such latitude. George is infuriated his reception in the saloon. He hates being called Uncle Roscoe, Monty’s sidekick. When he rejoins Melody, he complains about this rude treatment. Melody explains how to cast a big shadow. “You got to look like you’re somebody and act like you’re somebody, like you can take care of yourself no matter what happens, and then pretty soon you’re somebody.” George gives Melody a dubious look at this advice.

Eventually, Cherry saves Melody from getting ambushed in town and they ride out to her ranch. The real Monty Jarrad isn’t so sure about Cherry’s plan to make everybody believe that Melody is him. Nobody could be that stupid, he assures her, but he doesn't know Melody. Cherry explains that she has fixed Melody and George up so that the posse will be riding south after them while Monty can ride north. Melody smells a rat and doubles back to the ranch. In the course of events, Cherry changes her mind about Monty. She complains to her brother Avery that she liked Monty originally because he was "wild," but Monty has grown "mean" and she doesn't approve of his rancor. She turns on Monty and she helps Melody out of several tight scrapes. Cherry takes Melody to the shack where Monty has stashed the stolen loot but they find themselves up to their necks in one predicament after another. Director Stuart Heisler keeps the action moving along fast enough so that this hokum never stalls out. “Along Came Jones” turned out to be a genuine crowd pleaser when it came out in 1945. Everybody who made it seems like they were having a ball. Nunnally Johnson provides some memorable lines of dialogue and the final shoot-out is a hoot. There are enough twists and turns to make “Along Came Jones” more than just an ordinary western.

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