South of St. Louis (Blu-ray Review)29 Sep, 2014 By: Mike Clark
$24.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray
Stars Joel McCrea, Alexis Smith, Zachary Scott, Dorothy Malone.
Though it’s never more than a satisfying time-killer on the high side of routine, this release really caught me by surprise because it’s a solid contender for the most dazzling print Olive Films has distributed to date. Perhaps in their library, there’s a shimmering black-and-white rendering of something that’s in this one’s class, but when it comes to showing what Technicolor really meant to the moviegoing experience most any old week at your ’40s and early ’50s neighborhood theater, this is the real deal. And certainly more real than beauty mark located south of saloon girl Alexis Smith’s cheekbone — a case of the Warner Bros. makeup crew giving a little extra.
Once again, we’re back in the Civil War when some guy whose last name is a variation on real-life vigilante William Quantrill is burning and looting a lot of people out of their homes (see Ang Lee’s masterful Ride With the Devil for a movie that deals straight-on with his story). In Raoul Walsh’s Dark Command over at Republic almost a decade before this particular take came out, Walter Pidgeon played a marauder named “Cantrell.” Here, it’s Victor Jory as a creep named “Cottrell” — and you have to say that Jory came by his Civil War villainy honestly here because he also played, after all, one of the key heavies in Gone With the Wind. Jory always had one a demeanor and even face that told us to expect a few bullet casings on the floor whenever he walked into a saloon. At a CBS affiliate, I used to work with a lovable sourpuss who displayed his dyspepsia day in and day out, and a lot of co-workers called him “Victor Jory” behind his back.
The story opens with a scene reminiscent of the one between John Wayne and Coleen Gary at the beginning of Red River: a tough guy in covered-wagon territory refusing to be tied down with a passionate woman who is offering him a lifetime of … well, passion. In this case, the duo is Joel McCrea and Dorothy Malone, and she looks so good (this is before Malone turned into a Douglas Sirk blonde) that you have to believe McCrea must have a few loose screws for preferring to hunt down Jory/Cottrell. On the other hand, the bum has burned down the Texas ranch McCrea had maintained with two partners (Zachary Scott and Douglas Kennedy), which has a way of sparking thoughts of revenge. So, it’s off to Brownsville in pursuit with additional thoughts of joining the Confederate Army.
A distraction is Smith, who warbles in a local watering hole and sports that semi-humungous beauty mark — one large enough to get at least a couple Austin suburbs stoned if it were a chunk of hashish. She has enough striking red hair to have gone one-on-one with Amanda Blake’s saloon regular “Kitty” on TV’s subsequent “Gunsmoke,” as well as some vulnerabilities that come out later in the movie. Needing work — after all, his ranch has been torched — McCrea takes Smith up on her offer to transport some so-called furniture by wagon for 50 bucks. Instead, after the Old West equivalent of a fender-bender, the contents get exposed and turn out to be firearms for the Confederacy. It bring to mind that wonderful Frank Nugent line in John Ford’s Fort Apache when cavalry officer Henry Fonda breaks open what is supposedly a crate of Bibles that in fact contains whiskey and says to an underling, “Pour me some Scriptures.”
At that point, the story gets complicated, and what Malone’s character predicts early on comes true: that the three onetime partners and buddies will go their separate ways — and sometimes acrimoniously so. Jory keeps causing trouble, and one of the gun hands that Scott eventually hires turns out to be a loose canon played by perennial screen Western troublemaker Bob Steele. There’s so much mayhem to spread around that both Yankees and Confederates get involved with the cast principals. Through it all, Smith finds time to sing three songs, though her voice is dubbed
Redheads had a field day with Technicolor, which did a lot for the screen fortunes of Maureen O’Hara and Rhonda Fleming, in addition to Smith. The film was one of several that Warner distributed by way of “United States Pictures” — which was an in-house production company run by Harry Warner’s son-in-law Milton Sperling. I remember when I was an adolescent and these pictures ended up in a separate television package and station than the other Warner Bros. releases — a source of confusion for me at the time. I have read, but do not recall, that for many years, St. Louis was only available for TV showings in a black-and-white print, which did occasionally used to happen for mystifying reasons. Someone must have been sitting a long time on the print or negative utilized here by Olive because it’s an almost dramatically clean and clear presentation that even Victor Jory’s crag can’t degrade.