Tuesday, April 19, 2016


                “The Sunrise Trail” opens oddly, with the camera’s eye peering - at an off- kilter angle - through a barred window; a man and woman are carousing; she’s wearing a sombrero, probably the man’s, because he’s bare-headed.  These are characters we’ll never see again. They simply provide our visual starting point and we quickly pan downstairs to the - what to call it -  saloon?  beer joint?  dive?  Once inside, we’re right in the middle of a gambling table altercation between loudmouth Kansas (Jack Clifford) and crooked dealer Joe. Doing some noncommittal hovering around the table is bargirl Goldie (Blanche Mehaffey). This is an actress who’d had a skimpy career in silents, taken a year or two off for voice lessons to face the mike, then finally took the talkie plunge with this one –a pretty low level point of entry.
                Here’s where we meet Bob. He’s in a wet black slicker and looks intense as he comes in from the rain. Our boy gets involved in the card game, winds up saving Kansas from the crooked dealer’s machinations ( and showing off his fast draw in the process). Result: one of those instant western movie bondings;  suddenly Bob and Kansas are best buddies. A  bit hard to fathom, this. Nothing wrong with Bob, but Clifford’s Kansas is pretty off-putting.  He’s got that aggressive simpleton vibe Wallace Beery used to project, but even cruder and generally louder.  Apparently Jack Clifford had a long vaudeville career, his signature character a hard-of-hearing yokel called Rube. Some sources claim his shtick was the original inspiration for cartoon character Foghorn Leghorn. Love Leghorn – but there’s little evidence of that kind of appeal here. No compelling acting talent. Certainly no nuance. Mostly just loud posturing. If Kansas doesn’t like you, you’ll probably get yelled at, pummeled or shot. If he does, he’ll stick to you like industrial strength glue. Tough to say which option’s worse.
                 Head hostess at the bar is French Sadie, a cartoon Frenchwoman engaged in some kind of high-decibel hookup with Kansas. The two shout their lines at one another. It’s meant to be good-natured banter, but  - between his braying and her ooh-la-la-ing  - it’s pretty much just noise. Sadie also functions as a sort of crude mother figure to Goldie, whom she labels “ a good kid’.  Frenchie serves Bob and Kansas some of her signature hot tamales . Which they devour, all the while making mildly suggestive but deeply unfunny cracks about them (by the way, shouldn’t French Sadie be pushing crepe Suzette?). Bob takes a shine to Goldie, glowing like a Christmas candle every time he looks at her. As for Blanche Mehaffey, who inspires this adoration -well, imagine Bette Davis’ Mildred from “Of Human Bondage’ – minus the mean streak and most of the energy.  As an actress, Mehaffey’s not all that bad.  Someone just needs to shake her by the shoulders and yell “come on, put some pep into it!”  Her Goldie comes off as a wraith-like figure, technically alive - but barely. Rigor mortis would at least put a little suggestion of starch into her. At her liveliest, she’s a kind of Jean Harlow with the batteries removed. Reactions to her from the movie’s male characters generally boil down to some variation of “what’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?”  At which point, she just kind of ectoplasmically changes the subject.
                There’s a rather artistically realized sequence outside the bar in the rain that night. Bob and Kansas have been tipped off that the vengeful gambler’s set to ambush them in the dark. They move forward out of camera range; we hear two shots – then the screen cuts to a tombstone that reads, “Here Lies Fancy Joe – He Called the Wrong Hand”. Neat.
                Enter B western vet Eddie Dunn, who here looks like William S. Hart. He’s Rand, a cattle rustler with a yen for Goldie. And, oh yes, Emilio Fernandez is on board again; this time he’s just extraneous atmosphere - one of the rustlers, unimaginatively named Pancho.  About now we, Rand and Bob all discover that Goldie’s actually wanted for murder; she’s fled to Mexico (so we are in Mexico; that semi-explains those tamales - and makes French Sadie a kind of precursor to Marlene Dietrich’s European transplant Tanya {from “Touch of Evil”}, but with no Orson Welles to feed her chili to). Anyway, for various reasons,  neither Rand nor Bob tell Goldie when they find out from a sideline character that she’s been exonerated and could go back Stateside anytime. We can’t tell her because she’s in the movie and we’re not. So Goldie’s left to continue vacantly sweating it out south of the border. 
                There are a few entertaining bits and bobs of dialogue. Rand  finishes one of his longer speeches with the words “That’s all she wrote  -as Shakespeare says – there ain’t no more”. When Bob presents Goldie with a gift (a demure good-girl dress) she gives the oddest pronunciation I’ve ever heard of the word “beautiful’. I can’t even describe it.  When Rand – jealous but still droll – sees the frock, he says, “Ain’t ya gonna put it on? We can go to a prayer meetin’  ".
                Motivations are very cloudy in this movie – the actors definitely look as if they could use some help that’s never forthcoming. Anyway, Goldie agrees to run off with Rand – but she’s actually doing it to protect Bob from him. There’s a very murky cattle rustling segment which clarifies little – except for confirming that Bob’s actually an undercover lawman. He and Rand have a perfunctory shoot-out (this movie’s not big on action). Rand doesn’t survive.  Apparently Kansas walked into a stray bullet during that confused cattle rustling section. So he gets a death scene, wishing his bosom friend Bob good luck in his new life with Goldie. It’s supposed to be sad but since Kansas has acted all along like the kind of nosy alcoholic uncle you just can’t get away from, the audience feels no pangs. Now that Bob’s finally told Goldie she’s no longer wanted for murder, she can revert to her north of the border good girl identity (name: Beth). And hopefully Beth can summon up a little more energy than Goldie.