Thursday, October 13, 2016

Don't Fist Fight the Pharmacist!

John Wayne doesn't normally play the well-mannered dude from the East in a Western, but in 1942's In Old California, this is just what he does. He's Tom Craig, a druggist from Boston who plans to set up shop in the untamed town of Sacramento.

We actually meet him while he's passing through San Francisco, waiting for the steamboat for Sacramento to leave. He stops in a saloon wearing a top hat and fancy duds--the orders a glass of milk. We get a few hints early on, though, that he's not a man you want to intimidate.  He's strong as a mule, knows how to use a six-gun (how a druggist learned to be a skilled gunman is never explained) and has more than his share of guts.

In other words, he's a John Wayne character, but given enough of a unique personality to make him stand out from other John Wayne characters from that era. Wayne handles the role quite well, adding some humor to his demeanor while still allowing us to take Tom Craig seriously as the hero.

He soon finds himself at odds with Britt Dawson (Albert Dekker), a crook who is using threats and violence to grab ranches and businesses away from their legitimate owners. Britt's gal is saloon-singer Lacey Miller (Binnie Barnes), who herself is distracted from her gold-digging ways by Tom.

Tom's a natural leader. He manages to organize the ranchers to fight back when Britt makes another land grab. Britt wants to simply kill Tom in revenge, but Lacey's got him wrapped tightly enough around her finger to make him back off. Instead, he'll be sneaky about it, poisoning some of the medicine that Tom sells and nearly getting Tom lynched by angry townspeople.

Then gold is discovered nearby. This is enough of a distraction to spare Tom from a lynching, but his drug store is pretty much out of business unless he can prove he wasn't responsible for the poisoned medicine.

When a typhoid epidemic strikes the gold camps, Tom takes charge of a wagon train bringing in medicine and supplies to treat the sick. But Britt figures if he gains control of the wagon train, he can make a fortune selling the medicine to the typhoid victims.

This is a fun movie, rambling in an easy-going but logical manner from one plot point to the next while giving us several well-choreographed gun battles and a nifty saloon brawl. Albert Dekker is very good as Britt.

Tom Craig's sidekick is Kegs McKeever,who joins Craig in San Francisco after the druggist cures his toothache. Edgar Kennedy plays Kegs and has several hilarious scenes with Lacey's maid (played by the "Queen of Wisecracks" Patsy Kelly). Getting two of the most skilled comedians of that era to play the comic reliefs is one of the film's strengths.

I also appreciate the final fate of Britt Dawson, allowing Dekker to give what would have been a standard villain role some depth of character.

The Westerns John Wayne made with Republic Pictures in the early 1940s aren't usually listed among his classics--and they don't compare to films like The Searchers or True Grit. But they were fun movies in their own right, telling entertaining stories and giving their plots and/or setting unusual twists to set them apart from the gazillion other Westerns being produced at that time.


  1. Thanks for sharing! I've heard of this movie before, but never knew anything about it. Looks like a real winner. I love the old black and white westerns. This one has some good production values--decent camera angles, good costumes, etc.

    1. The Republic westerns of the 40s really did have their own unique personalities that make them particularly fun to watch.


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