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The setting is a small town in 1870s Pennsylvania. Sally Waterson and her father have stopped in town with their traveling medicine show, but when their wagon catches fire, they find themselves stranded. They're taken in by Mrs. Cortlandt and her grandson, Peter, who is trying to set up a pipeline that will supply oil throughout the state. Sally and Peter soon fall in love and marry. Neither their marriage nor Peter's pipe dreams flow too smoothly. Written by
Daniel Bubbeo <email@example.com>
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HIGH, WIDE AND HANDSOME (Paramount, 1937), directed by Rouben Mamoulian, is an underrated musical-drama set in the great outdoors of old Pennsylvania, circa the 1850s. Done in elaborate style, it stars Irene Dunne, following her recent success to the 1936 screen version of SHOW BOAT (Universal). Currently riding high and wide with her brief cinematic period in movie musicals (1935-1938) before focusing more on comedy and dramas, Dunne is cast opposite the tall and rugged Randolph Scott for the second time, the first being ROBERTA (RKO Radio, 1935) opposite Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. With a handful of contemporary song and dance, college, and backstage musicals hitting the theaters during this period, HIGH, WIDE AND HANDSOME (is the title pertaining to Randolph Scott or the scenery of old Pennsylvania?) takes a different turn in locale, combining outdoorsy western scenery with songs that has been said to have been an inspiration to the highly popular Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway 1943 musical, OKLAHOMA, and others like it.
The story begins with Sally Watterson (Irene Dunne), a young girl traveling with her medicine sideshow father named "Doc" (Raymond Walburn), singing the title song as they settle in a western Pennsylvania town. As "Doc" tries selling some medicine bottles to his patrons, which proves to be a fraud by spectator Peter Cortlandt (Randolph Scott), a fight ensues amongst the crowd, damaging their wagon. Being given the hospitality of her home by Peter's grandmother (Elizabeth Patterson), the stranded Sally earns her keep by helping with the farm animals, and soon gets to know and love Peter, a rugged oil prospector, whom she eventually marries. Their marriage, at first, is a happy union, until Peter neglects his wife in favor of keeping his promise with the neighboring farmers by banding together in laying oil pipelines in order to prevent Red Scanlon (Charles Bickford), a corrupt railroad president, from monopolizing the industry. After Sally is found entertaining on top of the table in the barroom with Molly (Dorothy Lamour), a saloon girl she and Peter had earlier rescued from a lynch mob, the couple find themselves in an argument which sends Sally to leave her husband and return to life entertaining in the passing circus show and to her father, while Peter tries to fulfill his pipeline dream, which, at the present time, proves to be more important than trying to find Sally and resolve matters. The elaborate and well staged sequence with thousands of prospectors racing against time to get the gigantic oil pipeline finished on schedule is almost similar to King Vidor's conclusion of OUR DAILY BREAD (1934) where the farmhands are seen rushing to ditch a waterway in order to save their dying crops, but with this production, an added bonus of rugged fighting scenes and one near miss scene adding to the suspense in which the unconscious Scott is nearly crushed by a falling pipe that lands inches from his head. Whew!
Almost forgotten today and rarely seen in recent years, HIGH, WIDE AND HANDSOME has its share of good tunes, with music and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern, including: "High, Wide and Handsome," "The Simple Maiden," "Can I Forget You?" (all sung by Irene Dunne); "Will You Marry Me Tomorrow, Maria?" (sung by William Frawley); "The Folks Who Live on the Hill" (sung by Irene Dunne); "The Things I Want" (sung by Dorothy Lamour); "Allegheny Al" (sung by Dunne and Lamour) and "Can I Forget You?" (reprise by Dunne). Of the songs, "The Folks Who Live on the Hill," sung by Irene Dunne wearing her old-fashioned wedding gown, comes off best and memorably, as she sings it to her new husband, Peter (Scott) after showing her the dwelling they are to live. Another memorable moment is seeing William Frawley (years before his "I Love Lucy" TV series days in the 1950s) in full voice singing "Will You Marry Me Tomorrow" during a ceremony. While Irene Dunne is no Jeanette MacDonald or Grace Moore when it comes to vocalizing, many forget how well she singing delivery is, and she does it quite well, but unfortunately, on the whole, the songs did not become as immortal as the other Hammerstein and Kern scores.
In the supporting cast are Alan Hale as Walt Brennan, the head of the transportation syndicate; Akim Tamiroff as the foreign gambler, Joe Varese; Irving Pichel as Mr. Stark; Lucien Littlefield, Purnell B. Pratt, and some light "comedy relief" supplied by Ben Blue playing Zeke, a hired hand. Raymond Walburn, a fine character actor appearing here as Irene Dunne's father, performs his task well, almost as if this role were intended with W.C. Fields in mind, especially with similarities in his medicine show man who tries to defraud his public with phony medicine bottles, etc.
Running ten minutes short of two hours, HIGH, WIDE AND HANDSOME is entertaining, quite original for its time, but sadly, a neglected item. A lot of effort went into this nostalgic production, and it shows. The only thing missing, and a real oversight, is Technicolor. Around this time, Paramount produced some fine Technicolor outdoors films, notably THE TRAIL OF THE LONESOME PINE (1936) with Sylvia Sidney, and EBB TIDE (1937) with Frances Farmer. How cinematic this handsome film would have looked in color. But overlooking this minor flaw, it's a movie worth seeing through once, and after its THE END title and list of actors and their roles (and underscoring to "The Folks Who Live on the Hill") before the final fadeout, it may make one wonder why this is among the rarely-seen western-type musicals gems of the "golden age of Hollywood" period. (***1/2)
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