Thursday, October 18, 2012

Review - Hell Town

October 18, 2012

Hell Town – US, 1937

Charles Barton’s Hell Town is a short, silly film that gives audiences a peak at another aspect to John Wayne. Simply put, the man could be funny. In Hell Town, we see him prancing around the wild frontier in a cooking apron, ducking behind chairs to avoid a villain, and exchanging comedic gems with his travel companion, Dinkey Dooley, who never met a man he didn’t try to sell a lightning rod to. In Hell Town, Wayne plays Dare Rudd. It’s a name only a screenwriter trying to be too clever for his own good would come up with. You can just hear his thought process: His life is a series of chances. I know! I’ll call him Dare! That’s nothing, though. In an earlier film, Wayne played a character named Dusty Rhodes. Get it?

But I digress. You’ll have to forgive me for this, though. Hell Town is only 59 minutes long, and for the first five minutes nothing seems to happen. If I don’t add little sidebars, I’m liable to give too much away. As for those first five minutes, they are a jumbled mess of stock footage of cowboys and cows, in addition to some fairly incoherent cuts involving two groups engaging in a gun fight. Who they are is a mystery, why they are fighting is a mystery, and because of the editing, exactly which group we’re looking at is a mystery. To make matters worse, the film cuts back and forth between a virtual war zone and a group of cowboys peacefully leading a cattle herd, which creates a odd mix of contradictory emotions, calm and panic. Just which one the director intended viewers to feel is unclear.

Thankfully, Dare and his good buddy Dinkey arrive on the scene to add clarity to the scene and give the audience something to focus on. So just what do two strangers do when they accidentally stumble upon a shoot out? Why, join the battle of course. The “right side”, Dare speculates, will surely offer them a reward for helping them out. So they offer their assistance – help from Montana, they call it – and the smile on the face of the man they offer it to is more than enough evidence that their help is appreciated. Suddenly, the fight is joined, and a puzzling cry goes out. It’s the law. Run. Leave it to Dinky to sum it all up perfectly. I think we’re on the wrong side. Luck is with them, however. The law turns out to be Dare’s cousin, Tom Fillmore (John Mack Brown), who has not only power, money, and respect but also a beautiful girlfriend he intends to marry. Viewers familiar with Westerns from this period will know right away just how unlikely that is to happen now that Dare Rudd is in town.

Hell Town doesn’t set any standards for westerns in the sound era, yet if you compare it to some of Wayne’s other early B-westerns, you notice progression in the genre. The plot moves along at a brisker pace, the dialogue is more realistic, and characters are more developed. I appreciated the way the relationship between Dare and Judy (Marsha Hunt) progresses at a somewhat believable pace. Earlier Wayne films ended with a rather abrupt announcement of marriage to a woman he’d often only met weeks hours earlier. Here we clearly see Judy’s feeling grow from mild amusement to genuine concern. Is it realistic, though, that Tom would just sit back and watch as the woman he loves slips away? Maybe not. I doubt I would be as cordial as Tom if a relative had designs on the one I loved. However, the nobility with which he steps aside is surprisingly in keeping with the kind of man he is, and Brown’s handling of the scene makes it downright touching.

It is doubtful anyone will ever call Hell Town one of John Wayne’s better films. However, having seen a few of his films that preceded it, it is clear that this film is significant. Watch Wayne’s performance during an unwise card game to understand what I mean. In the scene, his facial expression realistically reveals his weakness and his shame. He knows he’s licked, yet he just can’t bring himself to walk away. His expression doesn’t reveal hope that his fortunes will turn around, just a deep-seated despair that it is happening again and he is powerless to stop it. It is in this scene that we see the seeds of so many of the Wayne’s most memorable performances, and I was reminded of just how good Wayne can be in these kinds of scenes.

Hell Town is adequately directed. True, it relies too much on stock footage to extend its length and has several moments of clumsy, almost lazy, editing. However, the script is fun, its banter is clever, and its characters are well crafted. Plus it has the Duke. With this combination, how can you go wrong? (on DVD and Blu-ray)

3 stars

*A side note about Syd Saylor, who plays Dinkey Dooley. His filmography on IMDB spans almost four decades and includes 418 roles. Quite impressive indeed. 

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