Jul 23, 2015

On DVD: Howard Keel is a TV Cowboy Times Two in Callaway Went Thataway (1951)

I went into the raucously enjoyable Callaway Went Thataway (1951) with no previous knowledge of the film, and found it to be a nice surprise. The witty, entertaining and original comedy features sharp performances from Fred MacMurray, Dorothy McGuire and Howard Keel. Perhaps this fun flick, which lost money upon its original release, will find a wider audience now that it is available on DVD from the Warner Archive.

McGuire and MacMurray are Deborah Patterson and Mike Frye, a pair of promoters who have successfully repackaged a series of B-cowboy flicks for television. Kids across the country glue themselves to the set to watch Smoky Callaway (Keel) heroically ride the range. The only problem: the real life Callaway has been missing for ten years and network bigwigs want him to promote tie-in products and make new films.

In danger of destroying their careers, Patterson and Frye hire the actor's agent (Jesse White) to find Callaway. In the meantime, they receive a letter and a photo from Stretch Barnes, an angry Colorado cowpoke who is a dead ringer for the star. He doesn't like the notoriety his appearance gives him, but when the promotional pair descend upon his ranch and tempt him with a lucrative contract, telling him the real Smoky is dead, he agrees to stand in for the missing cowpoke.

It turns out there's a big difference between a screen cowboy and the real ranchman. Sure he can ride, but he's also soft spoken, polite and barely able to manage the swagger of a movie cowboy. Eventually though, with help from Deborah and Mike, he gets the hang of it and he becomes an even bigger star than the real Callaway.

Things get complicated when the agent finds the drunken, womanizing Smoky in Mexico and tricks him back to the US. Though Patterson and Frye are much happier with their clean-cut replacement, they send the star to a spa to dry out, which he avoids by stashing alcohol all over the facilities. Of course the identical cowboys eventually meet, and it isn't peaceful

While I wouldn't go so far as to call this a lost classic, Callaway is consistently enjoyable and its three stars dive into their roles with enthusiasm. MacMurray is suitably self-centered as a guy completely clueless about his bad behavior. Dorothy McGuire has a rare chance to be funny, reacting to her partner with the sly awareness of a woman who has seen it all. It was refreshing to see her cut loose after watching her suffer through so many dramas.

It is Keel who is the real revelation though. He dials down the booming manliness from his musical roles and creates a pair of interesting characters. Stretch may be the most sensitive the actor has been on the screen, and he is hilarious as he nails Smoky's boozy sleaziness.

As an interesting bonus, there's also a trio of cameos by some of MGM's biggest stars. I wouldn't dream of spoiling the surprise by saying who, but it was great to see these topline performers pop up in a fairly modest production.

Callaway is good, light-hearted fun, offset nicely by the acidity of its views on fame and the entertainment industry.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

For another perspective on the film, take a look at Laura's review from Laura's Miscellaneous Musings.

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