Tag Archives: Clark Gable

The King and Four Queens

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 19, 2015

The King and Four Queens—Clark Gable, Eleanor Parker, Jo Van Fleet, Jean Willes, Barbara Nichols, Sara Shane (1956; Dir: Raoul Walsh)


In 1956, Clark Gable was 55 and his career was fading after 25 lustrous years in Hollywood.  MGM had not renewed his contract, and he was scrambling for work.  This was the second of three westerns he made with director Raoul Walsh, between The Tall Men and Band of Angels (a Civil War movie set in and around New Orleans).  He had long been known as the King in Hollywood, but that was becoming less true.

At the start of the movie, gambler Dan Kehoe (Clark Gable) is on the run from a posse and gets away only by riding down steep hills where they won’t go.  He finds himself in the town of Touchstone in the southwest, where he hears about the McDade family of outlaw brothers, based at a nearby ranch called Wagon Mound.  After pulling off a bank robbery for $100,000, the four brothers had been trapped in a barn.  In the following melée and fire, three of the brothers were burned to death, but one escaped with the loot.  Nobody knows who the surviving brother was.  Since then, the remaining inhabitants of Wagon Mound shoot anybody who approaches the ranch.


Ma McDade (Jo Van Fleet) lays down the law to a wounded Dan Kehoe (Clark Gable).

More than a bit of a con man, Kehoe smells a situation he can play to his advantage.  He rides up to Wagon Mound, ignoring the signs telling him to stay away, and is promptly shot by Ma McDade (Jo Van Fleet)—just a shoulder wound, though.  He awakens in a ranch house, tended by Sabina McDade (Eleanor Parker), wife of Boone, and quickly meets Ruby (Jean Willes), wife of Roy, Oralie (Sara Shane), wife of Matt, and Birdie (Barbara Nichols), wife of Prince McDade. They’ve been at the ranch for two years, waiting to find out whose husband survives and to split up the loot when the survivor returns.  The local sheriff is keeping watch for the wanted survivor, too.  There’s a reward of $5000 for him, and $5,000 for the return of the stolen gold.

Strong-willed Ma wants to get rid of Kehoe as quickly as possible, but he helps them by backing off the sheriff and a posse when they come to Wagon Mound.  He tells the sheriff he’ll find the gold and ring a mission bell when the surviving McDade shows up.  Then he tells Ma what he’d told the sheriff, and she agrees to let him stay until the rains come, as they will shortly.  He spends the time getting to know all four of the daughters-in-law, who are intrigued/attracted by the new man in their midst.  The none-too-bright Birdie has a stage background in Chicago.  The dark Ruby (she wears red) has always used a sexual combustibility to control men. The prim and repressed Oralie has her own quieter attractions.  And the intelligent, red-haired Sabina is biding her time and is more careful with Kehoe.  They all want to get out of there and get on with their lives, and three of them do their best to seduce Kehoe.  Ma doesn’t trust him at all, nor does Sabina.


The Queens: Birdie (Barbara Nicholls), Oralie (Sara Shane), Ruby (Jean Willes) and Sabina (Eleanor Parker).

[Spoilers follow]  Ma is right not to trust Kehoe.  He watches until he thinks he has identified where the gold is hidden in a grave.  As the rain comes and he must leave, Kehoe makes a run for it with Sabina and the gold in a wagon.  But before they’re out of sight of the ranch, Ma rings the bell, bringing the sheriff (unreasonably quickly, it seems).  Kehoe sends Sabina on with $5000 and stays behind to give the rest of the gold to the sheriff, telling them he’s keeping $5000 as the promised reward.

As Kehoe looks to meet Sabina at their rendezvous point, the priest who had been keeping Kehoe’s money says he gave it to Sabina, who had told him she was going south.  But her wagon went in another direction, and Kehoe follows that.  He finds Sabina waiting for him on the trail.  She tells him Boone was the surviving brother, and she met him (and did not marry him) the night before he was killed.  Pretending to be Boone’s wife, she’s been waiting for a split of the loot.  None of the outlaw McDade brothers survive.  She and Kehoe ride off together into the sunset.


Sabina (Eleanor Parker) and Kehoe (Clark Gable) negotiate.

The King and Four Queens was the first (and last) project from Gable’s own production company, GABCO.  Gable has the kind of presence to pull off this role, even if he was getting long in the tooth and had to crash diet to get in shape for it.  Eleanor Parker was the biggest other name in the cast, and she’s good.  During a brief heyday of several years in the 1950s, she appeared in three westerns:  Escape from Fort Bravo with William Holden (1953, the best of them), Many Rivers to Cross with Robert Taylor (1955) and this one.  The other “queens” in the cast are not particularly memorable, although they do well enough.  Jo Van Fleet, who is persuasive as Ma McDade, was actually 14 years younger than Gable.  She also turned in a good performance the same year as Doc Holliday’s girl friend Kate Fisher in Gunfight at the OK Corral.  The film as a whole is watchable but not terribly memorable.

The principal writer was Margaret Fitts, who also wrote the very good Stars in My Crown (1950); unfortunately the writing is not strong here.  Excellent cinematography in color by Lucien Ballard; shot on location in southern Utah.  86 minutes long.


The posters showing Gable in a gunfighter’s stance are inaccurate; he doesn’t use guns much in this movie.  A version of this story, with multiple parties trying to find the loot of three deceased outlaw brothers by following and otherwise harassing their attractive young widows was made in 2006 with more of a feminist twist as The Far Side of Jericho.  This original was better.

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The Tall Men

Nicholas Chennault ~ May 28, 2014

The Tall Men—Clark Gable, Jane Russell, Robert Ryan, Cameron Mitchell, Juan Garcia, Emile Meyer (1955; Dir:  Raoul Walsh)


Title card:  “Montana Territory – 1866.  They came from the South, headed for the goldfields…  Ben and Clint Allison, lonely and desperate men. Riding away from a heartbreak memory of Gettysburg.  Looking for a new life.  A story of tall men – and long shadows.”

Brothers Ben (Clark Gable) and Clint Allison (Cameron Mitchell), Texans and Confederate veterans, find themselves in Mineral City, Montana, in 1866 during a blizzard.  Ben, who is often referred to as “Colonel” throughout the movie, rode with Quantrill during the war, and the brothers have not found their way home, nor have they found a purpose or much money.  They see Nathan Stark (Robert Ryan) with $20,000 and try to rob him.  In return, he makes a counter-proposal.  He wants to buy cattle in Texas at $3 to $4 a head and drive them to Mineral City, where he can get $50 a head for them.  They decide to join Stark in that enterprise.

The three ride south toward Texas and find themselves in Colorado Territory during another blizzard.  They encounter a starving migrant group including Nella Turner (Jane Russell), share a meal and keep moving.  They find Sioux sign a bit later; Stark and Clint keep moving toward Bent’s trading post; Ben goes back to warn the migrants.  The Sioux find them first, and the only survivor is Nella.  Ben and Nella wait out the storm in a cabin and trade stories.  Ben’s dream is to start his own ranch on “Prairie Dog Creek” in Texas.  Nella has grown up on a hardscrabble ranch and wants no more of that life, although the two are attracted to each other.  Eventually they make it to San Antonio, Texas, where they are reunited with Stake and Clint.


Ben (Clark Gable) and Nella (Jane Russell) waiting out the blizzard.

Ben as the trail boss hires former Confederates and mostly vaqueros headed by Luis (Juan Garcia) to drive 5000 cattle the 1500 miles to Montana.  Nella hooks up with Stark, who promises her half of the Montana Territory.  Stark brings her along on the trail drive over Ben’s objections, so she’s a continuing source of tension between the two.  As they approach Kansas, Jayhawkers demand $1 per head to allow the herd to pass, and Stark is inclined to pay it.  Ben isn’t, and the drovers shoot it out with the Jayhawkers with no casualties to themselves.


Clint (Cameron Mitchell), Ben (Clark Gable) and Stark (Robert Ryan) face Jayhawkers at the Kansas border.

As they move on toward Wyoming, there are increasing signs of Indian trouble.  It is the middle of Red Cloud’s War, and the army in Wyoming Territory won’t let the herd keep going up the Bozeman Trail to the Montana mining towns.  Stark is inclined to turn the herd back to Abilene and sell it there; Ben wants to push ahead notwithstanding Red Cloud’s Sioux.  As usual, Ben wins.  Meanwhile, Clint is drinking more and there is bad blood between Clint and Stark.  During one confrontation, Stark demonstrates that he is better with a gun than Clint.  While riding point, Clint is killed by Indians, and Ben finds his arrow-filled body tied to a tree.

Ben and Stark find their way blocked by the hostile Sioux.  In a stirring sequence, Ben and his men stampede the herd through the Indians, and they soon find themselves outside of Mineral City.  Stark goes in to sell the cattle, and Ben follows with the herd.  At Stark’s office in the back room of a saloon, Stark divides up the money and then invites the local vigilance committee to take and hang Ben.  Ben reciprocates with the support of his more numerous vaqueros, and makes good his exit with his share of the money and Stark’s reluctant admiration.  Obviously the two never trusted each other, although they worked together on the long ride from Montana to Texas and the drive back north.


Ben finds himself in a stand-off with Stark’s vigilantes in Mineral City.

Nathan Stark to the vigilantes:  “There goes the only man I ever respected.  He’s what every boy thinks he’s going to be when he grows up and wishes he had been when he’s an old man.”

As Ben arrives back at the camp preparing to head back to Texas, he finds Nella there.  She has decided Texas ranching with Ben is more to her taste than half of Montana Territory with Stark.

Clark Gable turns in a strong performance as trail boss Ben Allison.  Robert Ryan’s Nathan Stark is written to be stiff and not very sympathetic, although he is presumably one of the tall men of the title.  His final comment on Ben Allison (above) seems heavy-handed and unnecessary.  Jane Russell is not a very good actress, and the time given to development of her character during the movie slows things down.  Her recurrent singing quickly becomes tiresome.  The part needed either to be smaller or to have a better actress.  Russell does not manage to be interesting even during the obligatory bathing-in-the-river scene.


This is not one of director Raoul Walsh’s better westerns, but there are some good touches.  For example, the lowering of wagons down cliffs reminds us of a similar scene from Walsh’s The Big Trail twenty-five years earlier.  The stampede-through-the-Indians scene is stirring.  This cattle drive western is obviously reminiscent of Howard HawksRed River, and interestingly Hawks’ younger brother William is a producer on this film.  The screenwriters are Sidney Boehm and the veteran Frank Nugent (who often worked with John Ford), and the writing is mostly unremarkable.  The excellent music is by Victor Young (Wells Fargo [1937], North West Mounted Police [1940], Rio Grande [1950], Johnny Guitar [1954] and most memorably Shane [1953]), who died the next year at the age of 56.  It was shot in color around Durango, Mexico, which is why some of the trail drive scenes look more like desert than they should for the northern plains.

Although Gable is quite watchable in this, none of his westerns turn out to be all that memorable.  He didn’t appear in westerns until the 1950s, when they were more respectable than they had been earlier in his career.  He was a mountain man in the poorly edited Across the Wide Missouri (1951), and Lone Star (1952) was better.  A King and Four Queens (1957), also directed by Walsh toward the end of his career, is at best undistinguished and not much seen these days.

Based on a novel by Clay Fisher, this is obviously also based on the real-life trail drive of Nelson Story from Texas to Montana in 1866, during Red Cloud’s War.  The real Nelson Story seems to have been more admirable than Nathan Stark, although he had his hard edges, too.  There are some historical anomalies.  If Ben and Clint Allison rode with Quantrill, for example, they never came anywhere close to Gettysburg during the war, although they refer to it.  Presumably the town of Mineral City is standing in for the western Montana mining towns of Virginia City and Bannack, which were about the only parts of Montana inhabited in 1866.  Those towns had memorable vigilantes, too.  The story of a trail drive from Texas to Montana has been depicted much better and with much more complexity in Lonesome Dove, of course.H

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