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It is 1892 in Death Valley and the yields from the Borax ore are getting so small that refining it is a losing proposition. The only thing that will save the company is a new deposit of high grade Borax, and Bill has a pouch of it that he got from a dead prospector that he buried on the road. Roper knows the value of the strike could be worth millions, but he needs Bill to find the prospectors' claim so they can record it and become rich partners. While Roper has no intention of cutting Bill in on the millions, he also has his eye on young Jean. Josie sees Roper for the scalawag that his is and it means trouble in Furnace Flat.Written by
Tony Fontana <email@example.com>
Early in the movie when Bill goes into the Saloon and orders a beer its three-quarters full when he starts to drink, but, Josie grabs it and in the next shot of the three of them and the bartender the glass is three-quarters empty. See more »
Skinner Bill Bragg:
Let's scratch some sand over him and keep the buzzards from picking him to pieces.
Pretty soon wind comes some more, blow sand off and coyotes dig him up just the same.
Skinner Bill Bragg:
Ain't you got no respect? It's the idea of the thing. Now get to scratching.
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I am not usually a fan of Wallace Beery movies. Instead of playing a variety of characters, he usually plays the same phony sort of image MGM created for him....basically a gruff but lovable teddy bear. What makes it worse is that in real life, he was one of the nastiest celebrities of his day...and many actors and actresses who knew him couldn't stand him. Now I can watch one of his films and distance myself from who Beery was off screen...but the image MGM created of him was awfully predictable and saccharine. Because of this, I was THRILLED to see "20 Mule Team"...a film where he didn't just play the same sort of guy...and where I got an excellent history lesson.
First, about the history lesson, I had no idea that in the late 19th century Death Valley was being exploited for the borax industry. With new detergents and chemicals and cosmetics needing borax, enterprising folks were willing to enter this inhospitable region in search of the salt. And, I also had no idea that there were different grades of borax. You never hear about any of this in old westerns...other than this one. And, considering how most western movies are derived from perhaps 4 or 5 different plots, it's nice to see something original.
The story begins with Skinner Bill Bragg (Beery) and his partner, Piute Pete (Leo Carillo), returning from another run to Death Valley for borax. Surprisingly, however, the company now refuses to buy any more, as there are apparently higher quality borax producers around the world. So, unless something happens soon, there will be no work.
A bit later Bill and Pete discover a dead old prospector when they go back into Death Valley. They think nothing of it, but the dead man has borax on him...and of the highest quality. When an old, and evil, acquaintance of Bill's sees the stuff, he knows it will make whoever finds the stuff rich. Bill does not trust Stag Roper, but he cannot say anything because Stag knew Bill long ago...when he was a wanted man named Ambrose. And, because of this, Bill is helpless to warn the folks around him that Stag is a bad egg. Where does all this go next? See the film.
Unlike most Beery films, this one is not sentimental nor syrupy. Instead, it's tough, very well written and the perfect vehicle for the guy. Because it was so different and unusual, I also give the film high marks. Well worth seeing.
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