12 December 2007 | bkoganbing
Our Jerome Kern Girl
Irene Dunne had the good fortune in her singing films to have one of the greatest of American composers writing for her. In her career she did the lead roles in such Jerome Kern classics as Showboat, Roberta, and Sweet Adeline. And also she Kern write songs for the screen for her in Joy of Living and this film High Wide and Handsome. She was for a while known as the Jerome Kern girl of the screen.
For reasons I don't understand, except for Showboat she was not given a singing leading man. The story lines were rewritten to give her all the good songs and the leading man none. Not that Donald Woods in Sweet Adeline or Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. in Joy of Living or Randolph Scott in Roberta and High Wide and Handsome had any ambitions to sing, but it might have been nice to have her teamed with someone like Allan Jones again as she was in Showboat.
High Wide and Handsome is set in western Pennsylvania just after Edwin L. Drake invented the first practical oil derrick to drill for the stuff. Up to that time oil was considered a nuisance at best, a positive calamity at worst for some poor farmer who had the stuff oozing through to his soil. Randolph Scott is such a farmer who has the idea of marketing for heating fuel.
Others agree with him including Alan Hale who is in a part normally reserved for Edward Arnold. He's the boss of the railroad and who would be shipping the stuff and at the rate he determines, but him only.
Not beaten Scott conceives the idea of the first oil pipeline and then its a fight to the finish with the Hale and the railroad. By the way in real life this is how John D. Rockefeller cornered the oil market and gave the Rockefeller family the wealth it enjoys today.
Irene Dunne is in a medicine show that breaks down and she, Raymond Walburn and William Frawley are given shelter by Scott and his grandmother Elizabeth Patterson. Of course the usual boy/girl stuff happens.
Scott's an earnest of guy, but a bit of a prude as well. Later on when Dunne aids another entertainer in trouble, Dorothy Lamour, Scott and she break up when he finds the two of them trying to put over an act in a saloon to get her hired.
Two very big songs for Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein, II came out of High Wide and Handsome both sung by Dunne, Can I Forget You and The Folks Who Live On The Hill. Again this was a case of one hand washing the other as Paramount no doubt convinced the leading singer in America who by no coincidence was a Paramount contact player to record them and plug them on his radio show. Bing Crosby's records of them are classic and they sold a few platters back in the day. In fact why didn't they have Bing in this film? It certainly had more of a budget than the musicals Paramount was giving him.
Other villains in High Wide and Handsome are Charles Bickford and Irving Pichel. Bickford is just a plug ugly who does Hale's dirty work and probably would pay Hale to do it for him as he and Scott hate each other and that's made clear right at the beginning of the film. Irving Pichel plays a strange Puritan type individual, self appointed keeper of the community morals. His was a strangely underdeveloped character in the script that Oscar Hammerstein, II wrote.
Rouben Mamoulian who directed his fair share of musicals on screen and on the stage did a good job with his cast. And you can never go wrong listening and singing Jerome Kern's wonderful songs.