Kino Lorber has released “Singing Guns” (1950), a
Republic Pictures “singing cowboy” western filmed in Trucolor. The film is
based on a western novel by Max Brand, and is pretty unremarkable except for
the fact that the cowboy anti-hero, Rhiannon, an outlaw with a long bushy beard
who has been robbing stagecoaches to the tune of over a $1 million, isn’t
played by Roy, or Gene Autry, Rocky Lane Rex Allen, or any of the other western
stars in Republic’s stable. Rhiannon, is played by a popular singer from that
era named Vaughn Monroe.
I remember Vaughn Monroe when I was a kid. I used to hear
him singing “Racing with the Moon,” on the radio. He had a rich baritone voice
and my mother would turn up the radio every time it came on and sort of stare
out into space with a funny look in her eyes. Monroe also had another big hit
with “Mule Train,” with lyrics like “clippity clop, clippity clop, Muuuuuule
Traaaainn.” Whips cracking. Well, it appears “Singing Guns “was made so that
Vaughn could have a chance to sing “Mule Train” in a movie. The song has
nothing to do with the story, but fits in with a scene where Vaughn drives a
wagon pulled by two mules--- not exactly a train, but close enough, I guess.
Monroe sings three other tunes in the film as well.
The script by the screenwriting team of Dorrell and
Stuart McGowan concerns the attempts by Sheriff Jim Caradac (Ward Bond),
doctor/preacher Jonathan Mark (Walter Brennan), and lady gambler Nan Morgan
(Ella Raines) to catch, reform, and fall in love with the aforementioned stagecoach
robber, respectively. The movie has a real corkscrew of a plot, starting with
Rhiannon holding up the stage occupied by Nan and Sheriff Mark. When Rhiannon
finds out the sheriff outwitted him by making sure there was no gold on this
trip, he humiliates him making him march into town wearing a pair of Nan’s
bloomers and a hat that looks like a flower pot. The sheriff, furious, gets to
his office, grabs his other guns and chases Rhiannon out into the desert.
Rhiannon gets to his mountain hideout and shoots the sheriff off his horse. He
later goes down to bury him (he’s a decent sort of outlaw) but the sheriff was
faking it and gets the drop on him.
He’s about to take Rhiannon in, but in another twist,
Rhiannon jumps him and shoots him. In another weird turn, he decides to take
the sheriff to town so the doctor can patch him up (like I said he’s a real
decent sort of outlaw). Doc Caradac tells Rhiannon the sheriff needs a
transfusion. The outlaw rejects his call for help (he’s not that decent, he’s gotta get out of
town), forcing the doctor to slip him a mickey and perform the transfusion
while he’s unconscious. (Aren’t there ethics rules being violated here?) Even worse
than taking his blood, the doc also shaves off Rhiannon’s beard! When he wakes
up he’s not only a quart low, he’s clean shaven!! And here comes the most
unbelievable plot element. Without the beard, when he wakes up, nobody
recognizes him. He’s just some guy who saved the sheriff’s life!!!
The story goes on like that with the plot switching back
and forth, with the sheriff sometimes wanting to help Rhiannon and other time
wanting to jail him, and Nan sometimes hating Rhiannon and sometime loving him,
and Doc Caradac saying he’s just as interested in saving his patients’ souls as
he is healing their bodies, and just wants everything to be okay.
Ignoring the ridiculous plot, perhaps the best thing
about “Singing Guns” is the way it looks. It’s a brand new master by Paramount from
a 4K scan of the original 35mm Trucolor nitrate negative. It’s sensational
looking. And for the first time I’m aware of, “Singing Guns” shows how
beautiful Ella Raines’ eyes were. The film she’s remembered for most is
“Phantom Lady” (1944), the noir thriller based on Cornell Woolrich’s novel. It
was shot in black and white, so you couldn’t see what color her eyes were. Film
historian Toby Roan in his highly informative audio commentary said that
cinematographer Reggie Lanning had trouble getting the color right; sometimes her
eyes looked green, sometimes blue, sometimes yellow. Roan says he thinks
they’re turquoise. Whatever they are they’re fascinating to look at, so much so
I found myself having to reverse the disc in several places because I’d lost
track of what she was saying. Maybe I was hypnotized. Raines only made 20 films
in her lifetime. It’s a pity she didn’t make more..
“Singing Guns” is directed by R. G. Springsteen, who also
directed Monroe’s only other western, “Toughest Man in Arizona.” The film is
also notable for the number of familiar faces in the cast, including Jeff
Corey, Harry Shannon, Rex Lease, and Jimmy Dodd (as well as Eleanor Donahue,
and Billy Grey, who would later play Robert Young’s kids on “Father Knows Best”).
Bonus features include the aforementioned audio commentary and several trailers
for other KL Blu-rays. It’s another one of those discs that astonish you in
regard to how good an old movie can look and sound when it’s done right. They
can’t release enough of these to satisfy me.