Abilene Town (Blu-ray Review)31 Oct, 2016 By: Mike Clark
Stars Randolph Scott, Ann Dvorak, Edgar Buchanan, Rhonda Fleming, Lloyd Bridges.
Everything about Abilene Town is on the high side of boilerplate, which presumably explains why so many people who take a flyer with this onetime United Artists indie have a better time than expected, assuming they have a tolerance for Westerns in the first place. Released in January 1946 (the month when my father and many others got home from World War II), Town’s timing factor wasn’t exactly hurt by the fact that it promoted and traded in on the then marketing currency afforded from setting its story in Dwight D. Eisenhower’s hometown — portraying shoot-’em-up events that would have occurred a mere two decades before the general and future president was born. This said, there aren’t a whole lot of people anywhere in the picture who’d ever be able to wangle an invitation to the White House, unless perhaps we were in the socially unbridled Andrew Jackson administration.
This is a rowdy affair, with the town marshal (Randolph Scott) enjoying a relationship with the local saloon singer (Ann Dvorak) that recalls some of the physical pyrotechnics between James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich in Destry Rides Again. Or at least, Scott enjoys it whenever she’s not kicking him in the shins for repeatedly interrupting her songs, which is something of a comic motif here. Also echoing Destry, there’s a “nice girl” on the sidelines (Rhonda Fleming), who looks mighty hot to be selling goods in what looks to be the dominant general store — when, that is, she’s not looking even more respectable in some church pew. The movie serves up a tone-setter right off the bat, as town leaders’ concentration on the preacher’s sermon is disturbed by loud mayhem going on at the Dvorak-employing watering hole where anti-chamber-of-commerce types downing shots at what must be 10-ish on a Sunday morning. In an interesting plot point that’s not particularly developed, Scott is a former cattleman who’s been appointed to his job after his business goes bust, an event that may have shaken up his psyche. Inwardly, he takes his new post seriously, but outwardly, he displays detached amusement about all the lowlifes he has to keep in line. His attitude drives Fleming crazy despite her potential availability for romance, and eventually, she begins to eye Lloyd Bridges — who, per usual for this period, sports some really serious hair.
Bridges often played hotheads in his early career, but this time, he basically a conscientious homesteader who will only turn combustible when pushed, which is what happens here. This is basically the familiar screen-Western story of cattle concerns who’ve had it with town invaders who want to spoil grazing land with their planted crops, setting off what come to seem like routine house torchings perpetrated against those lucky enough even to have a house (much of the cast seems to be living in covered wagons). Scott has go it alone much of the time because Edgar Buchanan plays the Abilene sheriff, casting that makes it a slam-dunk that this guy is as likely to be drinking at 10 in the morning as anyone else in the cast. As usual in these bread-and-butter Westerns, the attitude toward death is rather cavalier; reports of one altercation’s double death is met all the concern one might get from hearing someone say he’s about to visit Rhonda’s store because he needs a new truss and some hard-rock candy.
Town is the kind of ’40s indie that usually descends into public domain hell, so the selling point here is a utilized 35mm fine grain from the British Film Institute (the print carries the familiar Brit censor board logo at the beginning). There’s a little wear but not nearly as much as I might have expected, and the black-and-white contrast levels were surprisingly robust on my 75-inch Samsung. Panamint is a British distributor with a tiny repertoire whose owner must have something of a Fleming yen, given that one of the company’s other titles is 1953’s Inferno (one of the greatest-looking Technicolor Blu-rays I know), in which the murderous wife she plays is not spending much time in church pews. Fleming also supplies a remembrance of what was only her second major screen appearance in an accompanying 16-page booklet that further provides welcome bios of AT’s cast/crew principals — though either an editing error or downright mistakes wreak some havoc in the list of cinematographer Archie Stout’s subsequent credits. The director here was Edwin L. Marin, who did a lot of Scott Westerns that I’ve either never seen or haven’t seen in decades (a couple of them recently came out on Blu-ray). At the time, Marin had recently done Tall in the Saddle, in which Ella Raines became one of my two favorite John Wayne leading ladies (Gail Russell would be the other) who were not named Maureen O’Hara. In Saddle’s case, Raines was more like a leading tomboy — and combined with the knockabout interplay between Scott and Dvorak here, there’s heavy indication that Marin must have had a flair for portraying romantic tension.