Thursday, December 1, 2016

Calamity Jane Can Sure Carry a Tune!

It's difficult to think of Roy Rogers without Dale Evans, but Roy did make a number of B-movies before Dale joined him. My favorite of his pre-Dale films is perhaps 1940's Young Bill Hickok.

The movie is towards the end of the Civil War. A villain representing a never-named foreign country wants to cause chaos and violence in hopes of destabilizing the West and eventually snatching up gold-rich California.

The villain is played by John Miljan, who was particularly good at playing oily, smooth-talking bad guys. He hits all the right notes here--you can believe he is smooth enough to fool everyone into thinking he's an honest businessman, but he still makes you want to punch him in the mouth every time he talks. He gives us a villain you love to hate--which is always a lot of fun.

Roy plays young Bill Hickok. Calamity Jane (played by pretty and personable Sally Payne) is also in the film. Neither Hickok or Calamity bear any resemblance at all to their real life counterpoints (a picture of the real Calamity next to Sally-as-Calamity is below), either in appearance or personality. Young Bill Hickok may borrow a few historical persons for characters, but this is done purely for name recognition. The story itself is complete fiction.

But that's okay, because it's a good story. And besides, if Calamity Jane wasn't anything like Sally Payne, she by golly SHOULD have been! I'll bet the real Calamity couldn't have distracted a saloon full of thugs with an entertaining song as effectively as Sally does.

In the movie, Bill is an agent for Wells Fargo. When a gang of raiders working for the villain begin to rob and burn, Bill earns his nickname "Wild Bill" by defending a stagecoach station against ten outlaws.

So when a large shipment of gold needs to be taken East to fund the war effort, Bill is given the job. His plan is to lead a heavily-guarded fake shipment east to draw out the raiders. In the meantime, Calamity and her uncle (played by the ubiquitous Gabby Hayes) sneak east with the real gold shipment.

But Bill's girlfriend inadvertently gives the plan away to the bad guys. The gold is stolen and the
villain manages to frame Bill for the crime. Naturally, this forces Bill to go on the run until he can find the gold and prove his innocence.

It's amazing how often B-movie cowboys are framed for crimes or mistaken for criminals. Just about all of them have the worst luck in this regard.

Young Bill Hickok has a strong plot, a great villain, the typically beautiful location photography found in most B-westerns and several strong action scenes. Gabby and Calamity provide some fun comic relief and prove to be resourceful allies as well. The versions of Hickok and Calamity Jane here are so far from reality that it's amazing the real-life versions don't rise from their graves in response to this just to start drinking heavily again. But for those of us who enjoy good storytelling, the fictional Bill and Jane we find here will suit us just fine.

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