The King and Four Queens (Blu-ray Review)23 May, 2016 By: Mike Clark
Stars Clark Gable, Eleanor Parker, Jo Van Fleet, Barbara Nichols.
Looking a little weary on the range (though, in actuality, he’s not on the range here all that much), Clark Gable took his one stab at producing a movie with this easy-to-tolerate Raoul Walsh trifle that became United Artists’ year-end holiday picture in ’56 when a lot of blockbusters were platforming and thus available only in the very largest cities. The King and Four Queens is no blockbuster — and, in fact, runs only 86 minutes, which helps keep this rainy-afternoon amuser from wearing out its welcome. And given the story principals, the story’s con artist theme and Gable’s long-running industry nickname as “The King,” the title elicits a smile.
This was a joint effort between the superstar’s production company and another set up by former L.A. Rams star Bob Waterfield and then wife Jane Russell, who had recently co-starred with Gable in Fox’s The Tall Men, the second film Gable did after his career-long MGM contract finally expired. Even during his quarterbacking/kicking days, Waterfield’s career was somewhat entwined with Russell’s, and I still recall a newspaper headline my father told me about on multiple occasions — when, after a big day on the field, the publication in question trumpeted, “The Outlaw Busts Out.” Three of the four movies on which Waterfield later served as producer or executive producer starred Russell, though best of the bunch was the one that didn’t: the Richard Widmark-Jane Greer Run for the Sun, a more than respectable riff on Richard Connell’s The Most Dangerous Game. This said, credit must be given to a jaw-dropping production number in 1955’s Gentlemen Marry Brunettes where Russell and Jeanne Crain are about to be roasted by cannibals in a pot that reads (if I recall right), “Menu: Chicks.”
It was a different era.
Getting back to this CinemaScope/color showcase of Western queens, we have Eleanor Parker, Barbara Nichols, Jean Willes and Sara Shane all shacked up in a secluded home that’s nestled in a secluded burg (Wagon Mound) waiting for one of their men to show up after two long years. Each of the women was married to a brother, of whom three are dead — wiped out in a barn explosion after the lads reaped a hundred grand from a stagecoach robbery. And presumably, they were blown to bits beyond all recognition because no one knows the identity of the sole brother who escaped, which is enough to keep all four acting like widows while awaiting the survivor’s return to claim the stash buried somewhere on the premises. After all this time, the women are more sexually itchy than grieving, but keeping them in place is the clan’s old lady (Jo Van Fleet), who, if not a queen, is certainly a matriarch with clout and the only one who knows where the money is. Even though she was only in her 40s at the time, Van Fleet had no equals in the era when it came to playing strong-willed oldsters, and, in fact, had just won the Oscar for playing James Dean’s madam of a mother in East of Eden. The Gable character exhibits a certain fondness for this ruler of the roost, even though she shoots him in the arm when he first enters the women’s de facto fortress.
All four (but not Van Fleet) take a crack at seducing the visitor, who’s as mercenary as anyone when it comes to the mysterious loot. Thus, he’s only marginally interested, despite the fact that some of the women begin dressing like dancehall girls (as Van Fleet notes) for some visuals that got played up heavily in the print ads. Still, he’s Gable and nobody’s eunuch — even getting off a good wisecrack here about a rooster. If anyone has the Gable inside track, it would seem to be Parker, both because she shares top billing and because their scenes are the movie’s best. Parker is very good here, and so is the star repartee during what came to be the actress’s relatively brief “outdoor” period (as a kid, I liked her opposite Robert Taylor in the frontier romance Many Rivers to Cross). Depending on who’s talking, Parker was either in need of two hours on the Tilt-a-Whirl to loosen her up — or was one of Hollywood’s prime practitioners of smoldering sexuality. She’s definitely in the latter category here, though like everyone else, is likely to be more turned on by the buried cash.
This lark’s key set piece, nicely designed for Scope, is a barebones production number (background music miraculously appears) where Gable gets to dance with each of the younger hostesses. The actor also sings to his own organ accompaniment — or at least to that of a stunt-double specialist in tickled ivories. This means that 1939’s Idiot’s Delight isn’t the only movie where Gable more or less carried a tune — and this in a competitive moonlighting era when Jeff Chandler recorded LPs, Robert Mitchum was about to go Calypso, Gary Cooper covered the Everly Brothers’ “Bird Dog” on “The Jack Benny Program” and even Rory Calhoun waxed at least one MGM single to promote UA’s Flight to Hong Kong (a Rorvick production). King’s musical interluding was all a little misleading as a sales tool, but the dancing made for a good coming attraction trailer for a mildly agreeable entertainment that’s neither funny nor dramatic enough but something of a pleasure to eyeball via Olive’s Blu-ray.
Credits-wise, this film was no toss-off: future Peckinpah regular Lucien Ballard shot it, and the score was by Alex North, who was hot in the era spanning A Streetcar Named Desire through Cleopatra. One big mistake was thinking that a movie this short and this modest could make it as a first-run single feature; one of my local 2,700-seaters played it solo, which (with the abbreviated running time) probably came out to six or seven shows a day. That’s a lot of queens for a 56-year-old actor (back when 56 meant that you looked 56) to entice. Gable, who only had six more films ago, never tried to produce again.