Friday, February 8, 2008

Movie Review: Texas Lady (1955)... John Brown loves westerns...

Texas Lady (1955)

In 1885, Prudence Webb of New Orleans beats a riverboat gambler out of $50,000, repays her father's debt, and heads off to Texas to run a newspaper. The paper and the town are under the control of a big cattle operation until Prudence and a previously disillusioned drunk of an attorney combine forces with the gambler (smitten by her, he chases her west to Texas) to fight the power. A few people die, everyone pretends that Prudence (played by an aging Claudette Colbert) is hotter than a prairie fire, and the bigwig ranchers finally realize you can't stand in the way progress. The End.

Quite frankly, Texas Lady is not a good movie. There are painful soliloquies, romantic interests that defy even the strained logic of the heart, gowns better suited for formal balls than the operation of a newspaper, and a slew of other irritants. It feels as if director Tim Whelan was more interested in finishing the movie on time and under budget than he was in making an interesting movie. The cobbled-together cast lacks charisma, believability and (in many cases) sufficient talent.

Texas Lady is a disaster, but it's interesting. I don't mean that in a Plan 9 from Outer Space way, either (even though one the evil henchman of the cattle bosses does appear in that notorious film, too). Texas Lady is interesting for at least three other reasons.

Claudette Colbert rides off into the sunset.

This was Colbert's second-to-last movie and her last starring role. She made Texas Lady while in her 50s. Although she retained a great deal of her good looks and screen charm into middle age, she certainly isn't the head-turner the otherwise male cast pretends she is. It's almost painful to watch one of the top film stars in history go out this way--miscast and unable to carry the movie through no fault of her own.

They say it was hard to watch Willie Mays play baseball in his final seasons. Dressed up in the unfamiliar uniform of the Mets, stumbling toward fly balls he would've caught gracefully and easily only a few years before, trying to catch up with fastballs he could once rocket from the Polo Grounds with a flip of the wrist... They say it was sad. He had once been so great that watching him reduced to mediocrity seemed shameful and dirty somehow. Watching Claudette Colbert in Texas Lady is a similar experience.

Les Paul plays.

The RKO production starts with a cameo pendant of Prudence Webb against a deep red backdrop. The music is a not-so-catchy western ballad that summarizes the flick. "Texas Lady" is performed by Les Paul and Mary Ford. They only do the intro/outro music--the rest of the film is scored with what feels like stock western instrumentals.

I've always felt as though the brilliant Les Paul built his own gallows. The solid-bodied electric guitar he pioneered and the myriad of effects and recording techniques with which he experimented powered the rock 'n' roll revolution that would largely crush his own career as a top-draw performer.

Paul fought, tinkered, obsessed and fretted over his guitar and its sound. He did hard work in basements, soldering, listening, adjusting and innovating. He made portable recording devices. He originated multi-tracking. He experimented with sound like no one else.

He worked his ass off to create techniques and instruments that eventually short-circuited his ride on the top. Others ran with Paul's work and buried him in the process. Then, they forgot him. He made peace with it all in the end, but...

Texas Lady's sympathy for its devils.

The two cattle barons who've long oppressed the tiny Texas town in which Prudence Webb takes a stand are portrayed as mean-spirited fascists who use bribery, force and corruption to maintain their positions of authority. They're bad guys.

Somehow, though, this otherwise lame movie adds some depth to the bastards. They're not just mean--they're protective. They're out to defend what they believe to be their rightful legacy. The evil cattlemen of Texas Lady were once the hard-working men who tamed a wild country. They fought the hardscrabble earth, they fended off Indian attacks, they created the market that gave birth to the town. They did it alone. The cattle barons may be cruel cheats, but they feel they have a legitimate claim to their power and cannot believe that johnny-come-lately townsfolk and newspaper women have the audacity to challenge that claim.

In the end, they relent. They realize that they're fighting a losing battle with progress and change. They won't hold off the railroad. They can't stifle freedoms. They finally surrender their "hard earned" power to representatives of a new government and back to the people. That decision isn't based on a change of heart, it's based purely on the certainty of failure.

Swallowed by success.

Tim Whelan may have thought he was making a movie about a plucky woman in the old west. That story, however, never interested me. What did hold my attention was a movie that both intentionally and unintentionally, explored the concept of change under a certain set of circumstances. What happens when one's talents and hard work create a situation that undermines his or her success?

Claudette Colbert changed. She started young, talented and sexy. She ended up in silly gowns pretending to be young in a second-rate western.

Les Paul changed. "Texas Lady" reached #91 on the "top 100" chart for a few seconds, even though it was a throwaway. A few years after the film's release, Les Paul wouldn't be able to crack the charts with a masterpiece. His hard work set up others to run him out of the recording star business.

The villains changed. Their story parallels my version of Les Paul's tale. They busted their ass and built something that grew so large they could no longer control it. The efforts that created their power set the stage for others to take it away.

We know that Colbert disappeared for awhile after Texas Lady. She showed up in another movie a few years later and then busied herself with stage work. Years later, she took a dramatic turn in television and won a 1988 Golden Globe. Claudette Colbert found a way to handle the change she seems to be resisting in Texas Lady.

Les Paul handled change well, too. He lost his recording stardom but built a reputation as a guitar guru and a masterful technician. He became an elder statesman for his instrument and developed a strong following amongst those who used his instrument to reach heights he never did. Les Paul found a way to handle change masterfully.

We don't know what happened to the cattlemen. They had an epiphany that resistance to change was futile (fueled, in part, by a strange-to-find-in-a-western monologue from the judge character--how often do you get references to Caesar and Charlemagne in preparation for a showdown?). They facilitate the return of $6,000 to Prudence Webb only minutes after one of their hired guns kill her friend. They ride away into the sunset.


(2.5/5 Singing Cowboys)


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  1. Hey thanks for making such a nice blog and presenting these old movies again to us. They are truly the charm in those days but nowadays people are just feeling bored when they watch such old movies.