Monday, November 23, 2015

Movies with Alabama Connections (3): The Fighting Kentuckian

This post might have been called "That Time John Wayne Saved Alabama" or at least the followers of Napolean who settled in the state early in the 19th century. The film can be described as one of Wayne's comedy westerns; after all, in 1818 the Alabama Territory was part of the young nation's wild west, now known as the Old Southwest

Before we get to this story of Wayne and the Bonapartists who came to the Alabama Territory, let's review a little real history. The myth of the "Vine and Olive Colony" was born in Albert Pickett's 1851 book, History of Alabama, and Incidentally of Georgia and Mississippi, from the Earliest Period. According to that telling, military noblemen were forced to leave France after the fall of Napolean and were offered land grants by Congress in the Alabama Territory near what is now Demopolis if they would grow grapes and olives. Soon broken by the effort in the wilderness, they and their families returned to France.

In his article on the topic in the Encyclopedia of Alabama, Rafe Blaufarb of Florida State University demonstrates most of that story to be somewhat less than accurate. None of the French settlers were noble and few were military; most were whites who had fled Haiti after the 1791 rebellion and settled in New Orleans and Philadelphia. Congress did grant some 92,000 acres and in August 1817 about 40 of the Philadelphia group left for Mobile. There were some 347 original grantees; only 150 or so ended up in Alabama. By the early 1830's most of those had left the state. Blaufarb's article [and the book he's written on the topic] gives great detail about the fascinating true story.

The site of these true and mythical tales, Marengo County, does have a Napoleonic legacy. The county name is taken from the site where Napolean's army defeated the Austrians in Italy in 1800. The name for the county seat, Linden, originated with Hohenlinden in Bavaria, where Napolean also defeated the Austrians.

The romanticized version of this story continued to be told and expanded by historians, novelists and Hollywood well into the 20th century. The Fighting Kentuckian, released in 1949, was thus a part of the traditional mythology and what Blaufarb terms "the lowest point of historical accuracy".

The film opens with a narration that outlines the romantic history of the French in the Alabama Territory in 1818. A year later, our hero, John Breen [John Wayne], is seen in downtown Mobile, where his unit of Kentucky militia are departing as they make their way home after the War of 1812. Since the Treaty of Ghent ending the war had been signed in December 1814, the Kentuckians were obviously taking their time marching back.

Also in Mobile on that day is the beautiful Fleurette DeMarchand [Vera Ralston], daughter of General Paul DeMarchand, one of the leaders of the French settlers. She has come from Demopolis to Mobile for a day of shopping in the big city. Judging from her outfit, certain merchants will no doubt be glad to see her.

Well, our hero John Breen wastes no time making time with the beautiful Fleurette. Members of Breen's unit are trying to find him to make sure he joins them, but he quickly commandeers the beautiful Fleurette's wagon and leads his comrades on a merry chase around Mobile. 

Our hero John Breen pursues the reluctant but beautiful Fleurette and in the process is caught up in the efforts of evil Americans to steal the land granted to the French settlers. After various adventures and struggles, Breen saves the day and marries the beautiful Fleurette. A full synopsis of this fascinating tale can be found on the Turner Classic Movies web site

I do want to comment on a few specifics. The film runs about 100 minutes and according to the Internet Movie Database was released on September 15, 1949. George Waggner wrote and directed the movie, which was filmed at Republic Pictures in Hollywood. Much of the film is set in Demopolis. 

Waggner directed a number of films in the 1930's and 1940's, including another Wayne film, Operation Pacific (1951). In the 1950's and 1960's he directed many episodes of numerous television series, including The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Batman. Why Waggner was interested in a pretty obscure aspect of early Alabama history is unknown.

Wayne's co-star Vera Ralston made this film in the middle of her acting career. A native of Prague, Czechoslovakia, she first came to prominence as a figure skater in the 1930's. Her meeting with Adolf Hitler at the 1936 Winter Olympics makes for an interesting story. She made 26 films between 1944 and 1958.

The set for downtown Mobile looks realistic enough for the period, but was probably used in Republic westerns as well. In scenes outside the city the landscape looks more like southern California than southern Alabama. 

Several well-known actors besides Wayne and Ralston appear in the film. Oliver Hardy makes a rare appearance without Stan Laurel and provides comic relief as the character Willie Payne.. A scene where Wayne and Hardy discuss surveying and attempt to do it in a field on the French land grant is pretty amusing. Another funny scene has Wayne and Oliver as part of a dance band pretending to play fiddles. Late in the film Wayne, Hardy and others are riding in the countryside and pass a sign that says "Catawba", the town that became the first state capital. And the film is worth watching just for the scene where Hardy explains to a French lady how to make corn pone

Film noir icon Marie Windsor appears as Ann Logan, mistress of one of the evil Americans. She gets to sing a song in one scene, or at least lip sync it. I've been unable to determine if that was really Marie singing. Later in the film Wayne declares, "You sing nice." Windsor tells Oliver Hardy at one point that "You're talking to a girl who learned to drink Alabama rum out of a jug." Before you die be sure and see a film Windsor made in 1952, The Narrow Margin

Character actor Paul Fix also has a significant role in this film. He appeared in over 100 movies and numerous television programs. He may be best remembered as the marshal in Chuck Connors' show The Rifleman. 

One character in The Fighting Kentuckian declares that "In another few months Alabama will become a state." Since that happened in December 1819, this film's events are ostensibly taking place in the summer and/or fall of 1819. They are really taking place in some fantasy land constructed by Albert Pickett, with help from the Great American Dream Factory. 

You can watch a trailer for the movie at Turner Classic Movies.

The Fighting Kentuckian cinema poster.jpg.

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Showmen's Trade Review April-June 1949

John Wayne-Vera Ralston in Dakota.jpg

Wayne and Ralston in Dakota in 1945

Source: Wikipedia

No comments:

Post a Comment