Monday, April 25, 2011

Movie Review: Stingaree

 Stingaree (1934)
directed by William Wellman, starring Irene Dunne, Richard Dix

Back in 1876, the Australian gentility lived in fear of the dashing criminal rogue known as Stingaree (Richard Dix). Stingaree and his sidekick Howie (Andy Devine) cause mayhem wherever they go. One day, they encounter Sir Julian Kent (Conway Tearle), a famous composer on his way to hear the singing talents of Mrs. Clarkson (Mary Boland), the richest woman around. Stingaree briefly takes on Julian's identity and when he goes to the Clarksons, he discovers that the real singer is not Mrs. Clarkson, but her lovely servant Hilda Bouverie (Irene Dunne). Hilda dreams of being a famous opera singer, but the jealousy of her employer threatens that dream. Charmed by Hilda's voice, Stingaree abducts the girl and vows to make her dream come true, no matter what. It doesn't take long before Hilda and Stingaree are kissing in the moonlight, vowing eternal love. But Hilda will have to choose between her love for the outlaw and her opera career.

Stingaree is one of those movies that promises wackiness. You don't go into a story about the forbidden love of an outlaw and an opera singer expecting restraint or taste. The problem, however, is that Stingaree never seems to be having any fun. It doesn't take itself seriously enough to be unintentionally funny, but the actors and director never cut loose enough to make it intentionally funny either. The only one that seems to be enjoying himself is Walter Plunkett, whose dress designs for Mary Boland defy any laws of beauty, style, or sanity.

In spite of its thunderous title song during the opening credits, it's debatable whether Stingaree is really about Stingaree at all. The movie starts out as an outlaw story, swings into Cinderella territory, lurches into romance, veers in and out of being an Irene Dunne musical, before a climactic dilemma that seems straight out of a traditional "women's picture." It's like a swashbuckler that borrows a little from everything except other swashbucklers.  The messiness of this film is one of its more endearing qualities, but it isn't enough to recommend it.

Part of the problem must rest on the shoulders of Richard Dix, an actor whose dubious fame rests on the 1931 Best Picture winner Cimarron. Whenever critics try to sum up Dix's appeal, the adjectives "sturdy," "masculine," and "dependable" crop up at an alarming rate. Give him credit for being a leading man who survived the crossover from silents to talkies, but there was a heaviness to his acting that never goes away. Here, he telegraphs everything. In a scene where Stingaree waltzes into the local bar disguised as a humble music box salesman, his eyes dart to the side whenever someone questions him. When he tries a disarming grin, it's like a man trying to forget how constipated he is. This is the kind of performance that makes you realize the necessity of an Errol Flynn (and he was Australian dammit, he would have been perfect for this material if he'd been around at the time).  It isn't all Dix's fault since the screenplay shows an astonishing lack of interest in its titular character, letting him cool his heels in prison for a good part of the movie so it can focus on Irene Dunne's opera career.

This movie could also stand as a demonstration of why Irene Dunne's popularity has survived and Dix's hasn't. Her role is ridiculous, a servant who never seems to provide much service and has the voice of a trained opera singer, a woman who spends the first half of the movie pining for a career and the second half pining for Richard Dix. Yet, Dunne does convey a kind of sparkle and intelligence in Hilda's earlier scenes that make it plausible (movie-plausible at any rate) why Stingaree would elect himself her manager. There's a nice, short scene where Dunne, fed up with Mary Boland's bad singing, vents her frustration in private by singing a mocking rendition of Boland's song and throwing the sheet music at the wall. Her character might be a Cinderella, but Dunne conveys the weariness of someone who knows she's smarter than her competition and doesn't want to be coy about it. 

However, once Dunne has to make the switch into Stingaree's lady love, her performance and the film, turn into a soggy mess. Because the movie doesn't make any attempt to involve us in Stingaree and Hilda's passion (there have been parking tickets more passionate than their mid-movie clinch), Hilda's mooning over her lost love feels pointless. To make matters worse, the movie keeps throwing up misty flashbacks every few minutes to make sure we understand that Hilda misses her beau. 

Stingaree is one of the RKO Six, one of the famously lost films of the RKO studios, the rights of which went to King Kong producer Merian C. Cooper. After a legal battle far more exciting than anything that happens in this movie, TCM acquired the films and they are currently available in a DVD collection. If for no other reason, Stingaree has value as a piece of movie history and the loving attention given to it and the five other films in the Lost and Found RKO Collection is enough to warm the most jaded old-movie lover's heart.

In the end, this film is less than the sum of its parts. Those who go into it without any expectations can take some pleasure in its more deranged aspects. If you ever had a burning desire to hear Andy Devine attempt a Scottish accent, if you ever wanted to see a Movie Outlaw whose true passion was songwriting, if you ever wanted to see Walter Plunkett dress up Mary Boland in costumes that look like an overexcited first-grade arts and crafts lesson, then Stingaree is the movie for you. But be warned. This is the kind of film you clean the house to, rather than the kind for which you stay up an extra hour.

Favorite Quote:

"Well after all, my dear, you can't expect a man to be always risking his neck for you."

Favorite Scene:

Mary Boland's "audition" scene for Sir Julian Kent. She goes to such Herculean efforts to make her dubbed singing look as bad as possible, in order to contrast with Dunne's, that you have to love the actress for being the only one to provide some much needed fun. In fact all of her scenes stand out as the best parts of the film.

Final Six Words:

Confused, half-hearted swashbuckler musical mess

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