Scarlet River (1933) Review, with Tom Keene

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Tom Baxter
Tom Keene
Judy Blake
Dorothy Wilson
Jeff Todd
Lon Chaney Jr.
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Ulysses
Roscoe Ates
Sam Gilroy
Edgar Kennedy
Babe Jewel
Betty Furness
Released by RKO | Directed by Otto Brower
Run time: 54 minutes

Scarlet River: Movie Stars Save the Day

“Isn’t there any place we can go to get away from civilization?”

“Sure, but who wants to go there?”

Even by 1933, there had been plenty of Westerns that turned around and spoofed themselves with the good looking B-movie lead winking at fans as he plays himself. Scarlet River is one of the better ones, with a healthy budget, some impressive stunts, and a couple of nice cameos added in.

Here we have RKO’s Tom Keene whose latest film, a tale of pioneers, is constantly being sabotaged by the fact that Los Angeles is getting too big for the Western. As the shoot is interrupted by wildcatters, land developers, and even a cross country meet, Keene, costar Babe (Furness), director Gilroy (Kennedy) grumble until an awful script by ranch hand Ulysses (Ates) points them towards the lush lands of Scarlet River Ranch and the lush looks of owner Judy (Wilson). There’s a wrench in all of this, and that’s boss Jeff Todd (Chaney) secretly trying to sabotage the ranch so Judy will sell to a greedy banker, as is to be expected in this sort of tale. It’s up to Tom and his movie crew to ride in and save the day from the mustache twirlers before it’s too late.

This is one of the more interesting moments in the movie, a lesson in vicarious pleasure that's just a little naughty.
This is one of the more interesting moments in the movie, a lesson in vicarious pleasure that’s just a little naughty.

The comic relief in the movie is spot on, most of it coming from either the juxtaposition between the filmmakers and their modern sensibilities or from the able supporting cast. Roscoe Ates is non-annoying, and personal favorite Betty Furness brings a hip deadpan to the proceedings. Edgar Kennedy even throws a grenade at one point. What more could you want?

The romance here is surprising, too. It’s obvious Furness’ Babe has the hots for Tom, something he never acknowledges and she never acts on. But Judy, a rural girl who is easily bowled over by the Hollywood glamor, instantly gets the hots for Tom, too. She watches him do a kissing scene with Babe early on and clearly gets aroused as their shadows dance on the wall. Later, after the two fall out over Tom’s treatment of her younger brother (he spanks the impudent lad for smoking), Judy watches Babe and Tom kiss again and this time feels jealous and sad.  Her story carefully reflects the love and lust that the audience feels for someone like Tom, a tinge of excitement that, in reality, would need a bit more to make it work.

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The stunts in the film are handled by acclaimed stuntman Yakima Canutt, who jumps horses on this stagecoach like it ain’t no thing.

Keene wears the literal white hat, while Chaney Jr.– here still working under his real name of Creighton Chaney– is an interesting villain. He’s wholly incompetent, with Keene showing him up at everything. Chaney’s developed a relationship with Judy’s precocious younger brother, and Keene almost immediately supplants him with good manners and clean living. Chaney even tries to save the girl when he sees things are going south and gets shot for his troubles. It makes him surprisingly vulnerable, a villain so pathetic you can’t help but feel bad for him.

But, hey, that’s what happens when you fight the movies.

Gallery

Click to enlarge. All of my images are taken by me– please feel free to reuse with credit!

Trivia & Links

  • Early in the film Tom Keene wanders through the RKO commissary. He has a brief talk with Joel McCrea and says hello to Myrna Loy and Bruce Cabbott, among others. Good work if you can get it…
  • Mondo 70 likes it well enough, but points out that both stars, Keene and Chaney, are better remembered for some pretty bad pictures, and uses that to grapple with their legacies:

Historically this is one of those historical-footnote pictures in a trivial way. It’s not quite on the level of Clark Gable playing the heavy in a William Boyd movie, but Lon Chaney Jr. definitely looms much larger in the collective moviegoing consciousness than Tom Keene does, and the retroactive disproportion of their roles gives Scarlet River a slight psychotronic pathos, as does our knowledge of their respective fates. Plan 9 is one thing, Dracula vs. Frankenstein another. Who did fare better in the end?

  • Speaking again of Keene, there’s a fun note on him from the WKE Film Notes:

Although Tom Keene always tried a little too hard as an actor, and never fully overcame his dislike of horses, he makes a virile hero here, and it’s always a pleasure to see the graceful, charming and much underused Dorothy Wilson, even in a conventional role.

Awards, Accolades & Availability

  • This film is a rare one. Caught it on TCM; hopefully it gets a DVD release soon!

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