Saturday, February 14, 2009

Bells of San Angelo

Bells of San Angelo posterOn one level, Bells of San Angelo (1947) tells a straightforward story about B-movie cowboy Roy Rogers uncovering a silver smuggling racket on the Mexico-U.S. border. On another level, however, the movie has a humorous, self-referential motif that draws attention to the clichés of the Western genre, causing the viewer to wonder where the reality of the movie stops and self-conscious parody begins.

The film opens with a high-speed chase on horseback that ends with a man being shot, and one of his pursuers planting a hunk of silver ore in his pocket. When the male lead Roy Rogers and sidekick Cookie arrive on the scene, they learn that the men were carrying out orders from their boss to shoot trespassers and thieves found on his Monarch mine, which is on the U.S. side of a large property straddling the Mexico-U.S. border. However, the small size of the silver ore makes Rogers suspicious; its value is not worth killing a man, but perhaps this man had to be silenced. Later, the town receives word that celebrity author Lee Madison is coming to research his latest Western novel; Rogers groans because he thinks that this writer grossly misconstrues the West and gives cowboys a bad name.

Lee Madison turns out to be a woman, and upon hearing the men badmouth her novels she introduces herself under another name, so that she can anonymously observe and take notes on the Western milieu. While she is riding in the welcome carriage for Madison, Rogers stages a hold-up disguised as a bandit. When he sees the woman, he graciously explains that his goal was to rob Madison and redistribute his wealth, thereby enacting the cowboy stereotype he so hates in her novels. When night falls, henchmen for the boss Rex Gridley execute a Mexican border sentry down in the San Angelo mine, which is on the Mexican side of the property. Their conversation reveals the details of the racket: Gridley is smuggling silver, which is cheaper in Mexico, into the Monarch mine through the connected San Angelo mine, and making a profit by selling it as if it were mined on American soil.

In between brawling with the Gridley gang, Roger has a rock sample from the Monarch mine analyzed. This confirms his suspicions that Gridley is running an illegitimate business; the Monarch mine is worthless, its rock merely has silver traces whereas the ore found on the shot man was almost pure, implying that it has been smuggled in. Tensions are heightened when a British official named Lionel Bates comes to renegotiate the property where the mines are located. Madison and Rogers, who discover each other’s true identities, maintain a playful banter between them and sing songs poking fun at Westerns. Eventually, Rogers and his men mobilize against Gridley and his men, entailing a lengthy and theatrical pursuit and shoot-out. The film is generous to its protagonists in the end: Rogers is victorious over the Gridley gang, Cookie makes it rich from the property renegotiations, and Madison has first-hand material for the best Western novel she will ever write.

Bells of San Angelo is a Western in which the characters express their love for and their opinions about the genre, and even consciously let its conventions guide their actions. Madison, familiar with common Western scenarios in novels, enthusiastically helps Rogers and Cookie to bring the scam to light and hunt down its mastermind. At one point during the final shoot-out, Madison and Rogers out-wit Gridley with the same tactic she used in her novel “Murder on the Border.” The characters and settings are all archetypes, from the tough yet suave singing cowboy, to the dim-witted and lovable side-kick, to the mean-spirited and greed-driven nemesis. Like cartoon characters come to life and playing with the pen that drew them, the characters of Bells of San Angelo contemplate, parody and manipulate the Western.

In Bells of San Angelo Mexico assumes its typical Western movie role; a land of opportunity for American adventurers, criminals or fortune-seekers, the kind of people that the morally upstanding characters have to go to Mexico to keep in check. In this case, Gridley has one foot in Mexico to profit on its silver resources up north. What the law is and who enforces it is often ambiguous in Western border-crossing stories. Cookie and Rogers represent two sides of the law; Cookie is the overweight sheriff always twisting his hands in worry about getting search permits and Rogers is the independent lawman with rough-and-ready, immediate solutions. Though Rogers says to Gridley “You have no right to take the law into your own hands” when he orders trespassers and thieves to be shot, Rogers has no qualms about busting jaws and breaking property in the name of justice, that is just what heroes do.

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