So I also watched The Light of the Western Stars from 1940, a Zane Grey adaptation that stars absolutely no one you’ve heard of except possibly Victor Jory, who was in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and yes okay fine, also The Shadow serial from 1937 and no I haven’t watched that yet, I’m saving it. This movie couldn’t have done his career any favors, though, because it’s pretty terrible. (It also has a pre-stardom Alan Ladd in a bit part, but you won’t notice him unless you’re looking pretty darned close.)
Now, I’ve also started the book. The book is basically a romance, and it’s correspondingly scanty on plot, but what there is so far (I’m at about the 1/3 mark) goeth thusly: Madeline Hammond, an independently and inheritedly-wealthy celebrated socialite, goes west to visit her wastrel brother, who has been disinherited for his weird and unfashionable ideas such as “earning money,” “doing hard work,” and “associating with commoners like cowboys, how droll.”
Madeline promptly smacks into one such cowboy, the basically good-natured but also completely drunk and notably hell-raising Gene Stewart, who has made a bet to marry the first girl who comes into town. Madeline and the local padre both get strong-armed as far as the “Si,” before Stewart gets to the business of asking her name–and stops dead in his tracks at the reply. Alfred Hammond, you see, is highly regarded by his men, and report of Alfred’s beautiful, accomplished, and athletic sister “Majesty” Hammond has particularly reached to Gene Stewart. The duo agree to say nothing of what happened, ever, and it seems to be resolved when Stewart promptly gets into a fight with the corrupt local sheriff and heads over the border to join the Mexican rebels.
Madeline, who in the book at least is a heroine that excels in brains as well as in beauty and virtue, not only finds that Western life agrees with her, but decides to invest her money into expanding, modernizing, and improving her brother’s failing ranch operation. Things go splendidly for a while, especially with such improvements as less wanton cruelty to animals. Gene Stewart eventually reappears, having won fame in the fighting but also having started to drink himself seriously to death. Madeline persuades him to straighten himself out and work as her foreman. The sexual tension thus remains high but the plot remains low, mostly provided by the suspicious Mexican rancher Don Carlos and his revealed aims to smuggle arms to whatever side is currently buying…and so on and so forth, plus or minus random outlaw raids on the ranch because by golly if you have a heroine she needs to get rescued. Simple facts of life.
The book is pretty purple, but remains easy reading for two simple facts: one, I skim-read any paragraphs of dialogue that could be summarized to the first or last sentence; and two, the characters are compelling. Madeline (in the book) is as close to the ideal heroine as a writer could sit down and plan out point by point: incredibly beautiful and a great rider (trusted with Gene Simmons’ own beloved horse), intelligent enough to own and run her own business, tactful enough to manage “twenty-seven incomprehensible cowboys,” twenty-six of which are in love with her and the last of which proceeds to elope with her maid; and, also, needing to be rescued but suitably calm during the process and grateful to her rescuer afterwards. The slice-of-life sections of the book–Madeline adjusting to the Western life and dealing with the cowboys, sometimes with the sly guidance of old-timer Stillwell–are actually the highlights thus far.
Now, the movie: the movie is quite short (just over an hour, it seems), and even this effort was beyond the capabilities of the writers. With the exception of a few bits taken directly from the book and thus built on a much better framework than the scriptwriters were capable of producing, the movie lurches from scene to scene in a manner that can’t really be dignified with the term “plot,” because there’s no coherence or continuity between each aside from the names of the characters or the actors playing them. More distractingly yet, the script lurches from line to line within each scene, and some of the lines are rather good, and the rest of them aren’t.
Back to Victor Jory. He plays Gene Stewart, who in the books is a rather distant and mysterious figure as befits the male love interest. Since the movie shifts protagonists from Madeline to Gene, he’s on screen most of the time, and he’s electric. He’s really great. He’s the reason any of the scenes work by themselves. Now, credit where credit is due: Madeline is played by someone named Jo Ann Sayers, and when she has even the slightest semblance of material to work with, she goes for it, too, and she’s watchable. Everyone else is just…there.
Oh, and there’s a fistfight that to my eye was actually pretty exciting and realistic, as it as it’s mostly two really angry guys grappling and trying to get the distance to swing a punch. Alas, it is also just about the only action scene in the movie, with the exception of a horse chase filmed at a very, very long distance. (Was that Trigger? It might have been Trigger. It was definitely a palomino.)
Anyhow. I definitely am going to finish the book, even if I have to skim-read it.
Rated: Well, it was an hour of my life that I would have also spent unproductively if I had done otherwise, so….