Thursday, January 15, 2009

Mexicali Rose

Mexicali Rose posterThe opening scene of this classic Western explodes with Gene Autry and his sidekick Frog (Smiley Burnette) racing their steeds through the desert landscape of old Mexico in order to be on time for the one thing all singers-turned-cowboys can’t miss: a live-radio broadcast of Gene Autry and his Caballeros. As you may have guessed, Mexicali Rose is neither your typical Western movie, nor your run-of-the-mill musical.

Originally released in 1939 on the brink of World War 2 spilling over the globe, the film capitalizes on America's need for a wholesome tale filled with kindhearted cowboys and a leading lady in need of assistance against a crooked corporation. The story jumps into action from the get-go in order to clock in just under an hour at 59 minutes. Within the first minute we encounter Anita Laredo (Luana Walters) who becomes tangled (literally) with Gene Autry when, in his haste to the radio station, his cufflink catches on the lace around her wrist, developing into a classic meet-cute situation when he rushes her up the stairs to stand embarrassingly next to him as he sings Mexicali Rose on live-radio. We realize that this is undoubtedly our leading lady when, after being released from her snare and casting a scowl at Gene, she walks hurriedly to the door, only to turn around with a sly smile.

Gene sings regularly on the radio program to promote the Alta Vista Oil Company managed by the dishonest Carruthers (William Royles), who has falsified his claim of striking oil and is earnestly cashing in on eager investors (a plot most likely brought about by the nationalization of Mexico’s oil a year before the film’s release in 1938). Anita is coincidentally at the radio station to represent the orphanage residing on Carruthers’ land and to confront him about not supplying her mission with the royalties promised in their lease agreement. Sent away like a minor annoyance, Anita runs into Gene whom she berates for supporting such a company in their greed and power. Immediately Gene becomes more cowboy than crooner and sets out to investigate.

Things go from bad to worse for Gene and Frog when after examining the oil well and feeling suspicious about the operation, they are set up by Alta Vista’s henchmen to encounter Mexican bandits on their road into town. They flee to the orphanage where Gene relates his suspicions of foul play to Anita, only to then be captured by the bandits when they ‘steal’ Autry’s horse from outside; and by ‘steal’ I mean ‘trade one of their own horses’, which one might say is a curious habit of Mexican bandits, only adding to the wholesomeness of the film. From here it seems as though Gene and Frog are lost for good, until it is discovered that the leader of the bandits, Valdes (Noah Beery, Sr.), is a die-hard Gene Autry fan, who turns over a new leaf when Gene begins to serenade the hardened Mexicans around the campfire and then compares Valdes to Robin Hood. Valdes agrees to help aid the orphanage against Carruthers, even to the point of bringing the orphans stolen food and bullying the rich to donate to their cause.

The story climaxes quickly with a few ruses on Gene’s part, including filling a hole with a barrel of oil to fake that the land is rich in the resource. Carruthers proceeds to set up a real oil drill, and then sells all of his stock after realizing that Autry planted the oil. The police then investigate the well only to find that there really are oil deposits; and who did Carruthers just sell all of his stock to? Gene Autry, of course. The film ends on an expected high note with Gene’s arm around Anita and happy orphans all around.

Apart from its predictable story-line, Mexicali Rose offers a deluge of ‘Mexico meets US’ play on culture, a fact not lost on the title itself. The two principal orphans just happen to be named Chalita and Tommy Romero, while the Mexican bandits are referenced to Robin Hood and his band of merry men. Valdes, through heavy character development, sheds his bandit ways and embodies his Robin Hood persona to save Tommy and Chalita from the clutches of Carruthers, only to die a cowboy death minutes later in the arms of Gene. Perhaps the most intriguing line of the movie, which deftly shows this tangle of cultures, is when Carruthers warns his henchman that he had "better make it to the states while there’s still time." Mexico, usually envisioned as a magical destination of escape for criminals, has now become the land of justice. Once again, this isn’t your typical western.

See Also: South of the Border, Down Mexico Way.

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