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Jayhawkers, The (Blu-ray Review)

30 Apr, 2012 By: Mike Clark

$24.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Jeff Chandler, Fess Parker.

Though the print for The Jayhawkers! has a little more wear in spots and even the outdoor scenes are transparently set-bound, the release is in VistaVision around the time that Paramount was beginning to phase out the majestic but expensive process. Dealing with the anti-slavery guerillas who did a lot of burning and rampaging in pre-Civil War Kansas (see also Criterion’s much-improved edit of Ang Lee’s Ride with the Devil), it is another screen testimony to Jeff Chandler’s ability to get his in-place gray hair to obey — and a showcase for Fess Parker during that uncertain period between the Davy Crockett craze and his mid-‘60s resurgence with NBC’s “Daniel Boone.” Together, they helped Fess buy Santa Barbara — or a lot of it.

Recently widowed, Parker breaks out of prison to find his cabin bought and taken over by Nicole Maurey, a French single mom whose own mate has also met his maker. After drilling her young children in English usage (including the way to use “ain’t”), the pursued outlaw falls into a deal where he can land a pardon if he’ll work undercover to capture Jayhawker giant Chandler, an in some ways benign dictator (but certainly megalomaniac) who contributed to the straying Mrs. Parker’s demise. Trouble is, Chandler does have a vision for helping folks up by their bootstraps as long as it also benefits him, and Parker (not unmindful of his on-paper enemy’s flaws) finds he has a mixed-emotions problem.

This was an oddball project for the ampersand team of Norman Panama & Melvin Frank, predominantly comedy writers who only rarely went in for straight drama (though 1952’s A-bomb biopic Above and Beyond was another exception). Their movies were about as impersonal as you can get — though this said, any duo who could write Road to Utopia and The Court Jester (while co-directing the latter) merits some kind of curtsy if not a full-fledged fall to the knees. Carrying this deviation to some extent is a score by Jerome Moross one year after he immortalized himself with his music for The Big Country. Here, the composer even incorporates his theme for TV’s "Wagon Train," which must thrown people at the time (actually, the show had multiple themes over the years, but this one is really familiar).

Parker is stalwart, though I prefer the actor’s immediately preceding The Hangman from the same year (a Paramount black-and-whiter directed by an in-twilight Michael Curtiz that Olive has it slated for a June 26 release). Maurey was again fighting English in her on-and-off Hollywood career, though still to come were the cult sci-fi pic The Day of the Triffids and also her resume enhancer as the actress to whom Bing Crosby introduced that subsequent Sinatra hit "The Second Time Around" in Blake Edwards’ Fabian co-starrer High Time. (Bing & Fabe: a contrast in pipes.)

My favorite thing about The Jayhawkers! is the Chandler HQ, which you must go through a tunnel, Johnny Guitar-style, to reach. Built in a cave, the office where he thinks deep thoughts has a desk, state-of-the-art lamps, world-history hardbacks on shelves, a map of the world on the cave wall and a couple spiffily-dressed saloon girls on hand, at least one of whom is stepping out on her husband. This is definitely one case where Kansas equals Oz.

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