Saturday, April 2, 2011

Great Scott: "Abilene Town" (1946)

Randolph Scott stars as a noble marshal trying to quell a feud between homesteaders and cattlemen in this inoffensive western.

Scott is Marshal Dan Mitchell, who runs Abilene with a kind but stern hand. All the saloons in town are on one side of the street, and the merchants are on the other. Cattle drivers, led by Ryker (Dick Curtis) ride in every few weeks or so, blow their money, and storm off.

A group of homesteaders arrive and are immediately relegated to the outskirts of town. The saloon keepers don't much like them out there, and hire Chet Younger (Jack Lambert) to burn a few of them out. While Mitchell wants to stop them, he needs the help of the ineffectual county sheriff, the wonderfully named Bravo Trimble (Edgar Buchanan). Trimble is more interested in playing cards and avoiding conflict. Despite Trimble's best efforts (like knocking him out), Mitchell nabs Younger and locks him up. Younger escapes, and Mitchell kills him.

Meanwhile, Ryker is headed back to Abilene with a herd of cattle. The homesteaders have put a barbed wire fence across the trail, so the cattle are stampeded, killing more settlers. Homesteader Henry (a very young Lloyd Bridges) goes to Mitchell for help, and the stage is set for the final showdown between the peaceful homesteaders and the wild cattlemen.

Based on famed western writer Ernest Haycox's novel, "Abilene Town" has a lot of unexpected plot and characterization for a B flick. Just as Mitchell is torn between the two sides of his town's streets, he is also torn between good merchant's daughter Sherry (Rhonda Fleming) and bad chorus girl Rita (Ann Dvorak).

One of the problems with the film is a distinct lack of subtlety on the characters' parts. Mitchell is so darned noble, you wish he would get mad and do some real damage. He just kind of shakes a finger at Trimble after the sheriff knocks him out. Rita is a bad girl trying to go good, but Dvorak sometimes plays her a little to shrill, making you wonder why Mitchell doesn't cross the street into Sherry's arms. Of course, he would have to adjust her halo before any kissing, as Sherry is an impossibly saintly good woman.

There are plenty of little touches here and there that lift the story from being a bad film. Sherry's father, Balder (Howard Freeman) is constantly calculating how much more money he will make off the farmers than the cattlemen. Trimble only stays when a crowd gathers depending on how many votes he can wring out of them in the next election. Scott, and his stuntman, have some pretty impressive fight scenes, back stage at the saloon show and with Younger in a cabin. The stampede special effects are pretty average.

If you find "Abilene Town," it wouldn't kill you to take it out if there's nothing else there. However, stay away from the Congress Video Company's copy. Like its namesake, it is incomprehensibly muddy, sounds bad, and is a waste of money. (* * *) out of five stars.