San Antonio (1945)
Directed by David Butler and written by W.R. Burnett (Wake Island (1942)) & Alan Le May this film is a Technicolor feast (fiesta?) for one’s eyes! It received Oscar nominations for Art Direction and Musical Score. As a Western it delivers many of the required elements: skilled horseback riding singing poker playing a barroom shootout some humorous gags and an exciting chase.
The film begins by introducing us to Charlie Bell (John Litel who wears red & white checked pants!) the honest lawman in the area dedicated to solving the problem of rampant cattle rustling in the area. He crosses the border into Mexico to find Clay Hardin (Errol Flynn) who is recovering from injuries received presumably by some of the rustlers. Hardin also happens to have the goods on Roy Stuart (Paul Kelly) the richest man in Texas by obtaining bills of sale that show Stuart has sold cattle with brands which aren’t his in Mexico. His friend & mentor Charlie warns Clay that returning to Texas would be dangerous and getting through Stuart’s men to the cavalry in San Antonio would be impossible. But Clay will not be dissuaded and even asks Charlie to buy him a ticket on the stagecoach from Laredo to San Antonio.
Stuart’s men learn of Clay’s plans when Charlie purchases the ticket. Assuming that Hardin will try to board the stagecoach just outside of the town gunfighter Lafe McWilliams (Tom Tyler) puts another of Stuart’s men Pony Smith (John Alvin) on the coach while he rides shotgun. Seeing this Clay decides to board another coach that is trailing the well guarded one. Its passengers include singer Jeanne Starr (Alexis Smith) who’s on her way to performing in Stuart’s saloon and her entourage: manager Sacha Bozic (S.Z. Sakall) & servant Henrietta (Florence Bates). Though initially put off by his brashness Jeanne is won over by the charming confident Clay. At the stopover in Cotulla that evening to change horses the unafraid Clay dances with Jeanne openly even though Charlie warns him against it. Lafe sees Clay and asks him to come outside. With Charlie’s help the ambush Stuart’s men had planned turns against them and both Lafe and Pony are killed by Clay and his friend. However Clay then has Charlie send Stuart a telegram as if he was Lafe to tell him that the job was successful.
Shortly thereafter when Jeanne’s coach arrives in San Antonio she is given a special welcome by Legare (Victor Francen) Stuart’s partner in the club but not his rustling business. The crowd parts to reveal Hardin who had ridden in on the same coach standing boldly alone across the street facing Stuart. But this is just a precursor to a future showdown and Hardin with Charlie in tow visits the cavalry’s headquarters. Unfortunately Colonel Johnson (Robert Barrat) is not there and Captain Morgan (Robert Shayne) refuses to keep the bills of sale until he returns so Clay must hang on to them himself. Clay then organizes the few honest men in town (played by Monte Blue and Pedro de Cordoba) those who’ve had their cattle rustled by Stuart’s men to tell him his plan for them to testify against Stuart when Johnson gets back. He has some difficulty doing this as Sacha has arranged Miss Starr’s rehearsal in the next room. Legare who would very much like to be a partner in Stuart’s more lucrative business manipulates Stuart’s actions as he schemes to acquire (steal) the bills of sale Hardin has to blackmail his way in.
Of course the film has the requisite distractions mostly in the form of entertainment by Miss Starr and others as it leads to the inevitable showdown between Hardin and Stuart. Plus there are romantic forays by both men to Miss Starr. Clay’s leads him into giving the valuable papers to Charlie who is shot by Legare while Stuart is shooting at Clay. Though this was witnessed by Sacha Legare scares him into keeping it a secret before Colonel Johnson in court. Without the bills of sale Clay can’t get anywhere with the Colonel. Then the cavalry must leave town to head off an Indian uprising in another part of the state which makes Clay’s mission all the more challenging especially since Stuart then summons all his outlaws to town.
The film’s conclusion though predictable is less satisfying and probable than one would hope it could be. In fact the director and writers couldn’t seem to decide how much comedy vs. drama this movie should contain making the balance between the two tilt a little bit too much toward humor even bordering on camp. It’s as if they expected Flynn given his success in exactly this type of drama with comedic elements (e.g. The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)) to alone deliver all this film needed to be a classic. It isn’t not even close.