22 July 2011 | gpachovsky
Deserves another Curtain Call
CURTAIN CALL AT CACTUS CREEK is a western-comedy-musical, typical of those highly entertaining, if not too cerebral, family oriented programmers that Universal International routinely churned out in the late 40s, early 50s. It was directed in workmanlike fashion by Charles Lamont who had originally manned some of the early Mack Sennett comedy shorts and helmed many of the low-brow but highly popular and profitable Ma and Pa Kettle and Abbott and Costello series. The studio did not delude itself into believing it was creating art, but its product could always be depended on to provide fast-pacing, zany situations, and a youthful exuberance from its stars that would satisfy audiences. This movie does exactly that.
The plot here concerns Edward Timmins (Donald O'Connor), a mild-mannered, eager-to-please stage hand of a travelling troupe of thespians who gets himself involved with notorious bank robber, Rimrock Thomas (Walter Brennan), after the latter discovers that his outlaw gang can conduct its business more effectively if the town's citizenry are distracted by simultaneous theatrical performances. Complications arise when Rimrock takes a surrogate fatherly interest in the young man and what follows is a spoof of the old west with its posse chases, shoot-'em-ups, and climactic showdowns.
The genial O'Connor, once again, showcases his vast kit-bag of comedic, musical, and terpsichorean talents, which makes one wonder why his versatility did not translate into more roles of importance (Check out, if you can, the Donald O'Connor Biography on YouTube), such as Singin' in the Rain and There's No Business Like Show Business. Here he plays the loyal company employee, doing anything – and everything – to make good. His eagerness during an early theatrical performance is hilarious as he scrambles to provide piano accompaniment, arranges the sets, operates the props (from both the stage and the rafters) and supplies the sound effects while the remaining troupe members do little more than mouth their lines. Yet this is nothing compared with the frenzied tap-dance routine he performs for fellow troupe member Tracy Holland in a vain attempt to convince the egoistic ham actor that he has some talent.
The supporting cast fills its roles well. Vincent Price is at once charming and revolting as Tracy Holland, an actor who continually quotes Shakespeare and makes no effort to hide disdain for his perceived inferiors who, in this case, include everyone (the character may have been based on John Barrymore). His comeuppance at the end is truly poetic justice. Eve Arden (most noted for Our Miss Brooks) offers her usual dry wit as the fading actress who has been in the business long enough see through the greasepaint and the glamour. Her song, Waiting at the Church, is perhaps the highlight of the film. And Walter Brennan certainly has the look and credibility of a western old timer. His implied meanness, though, is a stretch except for the scene in which he intends to gun down O'Connor. There, he is so chillingly believable that you have to remind yourself you are watching a comedy.
Of the main leads, it is Gale Storm, O'Connor's love interest, who is shortchanged by the script. Other than a couple of sing-and-dance numbers with O'Connor, the role calls for her to be little else but sweet and nice as, apparently, she was in real life (She once telephoned long distance to express condolences to a fan whose mother had just passed away.). But we needn't feel too sorry for her. Feature films were not her métier. She made it big on television with two series, My Little Margie and Oh Susannah!, and scored on the nation's Hit Parade with I Hear You Knockin' and Dark Moon.
Overall, CURTAIN CALL AT CACTUS CREEK is a fun romp, a good way to pass a rainy afternoon. Sadly, Universal has not gotten around to releasing it yet on DVD. I was able to purchase a copy online and, while not too bad (about 7.5 to 8 rating, as are most of the available transfers I've checked), it's hardly the pristine product you expect from studio editions. Maybe the powers that be aren't aware of the little Donald O'Connor gems they are sitting on.
SPOILER ALERT: The movie includes a Dixieland number performed in blackface that, while such an act was a staple of minstrel shows of the day, may offend some of today's viewers. The good news is that it follows the denouement, so you can safety switch it off without missing much.