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When it’s on: Wednesday, 15 July (12.55 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Only 800 miles more to go
Only 800 miles more to go
And if we can just get lucky
We will end up in Kentucky
Only 800 miles more to go

It’s been some time since I last covered a John Wayne picture on these pages. Back in FOTB’s formative weeks, when I was writing an entry per day – my goodness, how?!? – the Duke was kind of its leading man, figuring heavily, and it isn’t difficult to see why. Whilst there remains a tendency to knock him for his conservative politics and the countless films he starred in where he played by and large the same character, the fact remains he was one of the biggest stars of his age, and a very long ‘age’ at that. Millions loved his films, the ‘constancy’ of the characters he played turning them into reliable entertainments that gave the public what they wanted, and it seems that’s just as true now as it was then. Wayne was more than capable of subverting his on-screen image in films like The Searchers and Red River, but more often than the psychological complexities tapped into by the likes of Ford and Hawks were the hundreds of Oaters he churned out, offerings that may not be as well remembered or as critically admired but all the same live up to what the people would have expected when going to see a John Wayne picture.

Wayne produced his own starring role in Republic’s 1949 entry, The Fighting Kentuckian, a fun film that played up to its lead actor’s on screen persona as an easy going and romantic man of action. He plays John Breen, part of a Kentucky militia unit that is marching across the country. Making its way through Alabama, the soldiers find themselves in ‘French’ country, a part of land given to veterans from the Napoleonic Empire after its fall in 1815. Breen quickly finds himself in love with a General’s daughter, Fleurette De Marchand (Vera Ralston) and resolves to stay near her, but she’s promised to another man, wealthy landowner Blake Randolph (John Howard). The wedding is part of a deal to guarantee the Bonapartists’ security. Whilst there however, Breen uncovers a plot to steal land from the French exiles and decides to thwart it, along with stopping the arranged marriage as the feelings between Fleurette and him blossom.

And that would be about it, a far from notable footnote in the lengthy Wayne catalogue, if it wasn’t for the presence of co-star Oliver Hardy, here without his usual sparring partner, Stan Laurel, and playing fellow Kentuckian Willie Paine. It’s a rare non-Lauren and Hardy appearance for the corpulent comedian, casting Ollie in the ‘Walter Brennan’ sidekick role, and he appears to relish the opportunity of climbing out from his regular partner’s shadow. By all accounts, he refused the job of work initially, fearing it signaled a death knell to his famous yet declining double act, before Laurel himself persuaded him to accept it. Hardy brings a delicate sense of comic timing to the part, showing that he most definitely had ‘it’ in his own right. He and Wayne had appeared on the stage together beforehand, to fine effect, and clearly seem to enjoy reprising their double act, the latter trying to avoid corpsing into laughter as Paine uses his sausage fingers to carefully remove a speck of dust from his best hat. A scrap over the prize of a jug of rum provides one of the film’s highlights. To win it, the contender has to floor a champion wrestler. Hardy hauls himself forward as though up for the fight, only to run away with the rum and leave the resultant tussle to Wayne, which he decides with a number of trademark punches; at one moment, he pulls his fist back almost into the camera lens, a wonderful bit of perspective filming.

This is an unusual flourish for director George Waggner, who otherwise puts in a pedestrian body of work. Too many scenes are of the sort you’ve seen in endless Westerns, particularly during the chase scenes, reminiscent of a thousand episodes of Gunsmoke. The presence of Ralston is a further detriment. She’s certainly striking enough, yet there’s little chemistry between her and Wayne and the part she plays demands her to do no more than look pretty. In a much smaller role, Marie Windsor is instantly more commanding. The reality was that Ralston got the part, as she did in many Republic releases, thanks to her being married to studio head Herbert Yates, who then shoehorned her into many of the films he bankrolled. An Olympic Czech figure skater who moved to America in 1943, her thick accent ensured she almost always played exotic foreigners and in The Fighting Kentuckian, other Czechs were given parts as Frenchmen to make her vocals fit in better.

Republic was famous for its outpouring of B movies, but this one, like numerous others released during this period, had more money behind it and the presence of a decent budget becomes clear with the lavish sets and costumes. There’s a nice contrast between the rough and ready but essentially good hearted Kentuckians, and the fine dressing landowning classes. It’s no one’s idea of a great film, but it is entertaining and for fans of Oliver Hardy, or even those curious to see what he was like outside his normal environment, there’s good value to be had from it. George Antheil’s music is also to be recommended. As well as arranging the Kentucky marching song, the lyrics of which are repeated above (it goes to the tune of ‘Comin’ Round the Mountain’), he also worked samples of Le Marseillaise into some of the action scenes, to fine effect.

The Fighting Kentuckian: ***

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