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The jazz age met the Wild West in Montana Moon (1930), a film that, quite by accident,introduced the singing cowboy to the screen. Originally, another film, Dangerous Nan McGrew, had been slated as the screen's first musical Western, but it got held up in post-production. Ironically, both films were directed by silent-screen veteran Malcolm St. Clair, who went to MGM for Montana Moon after completing the earlier film only to see the later picture hit the screen first.
Of course, making history was far from anybody's mind at MGM when they putMontana Moon into production. They were simply capitalizing on thegrowing popularity of starlet Joan Crawford, who had established herself asthe ultimate jazz baby with her sizzling Charleston in the 1928 silentOur Dancing Daughters. This time out, she plays a Western lassschooled in the East. When daddy calls her home, she chickens out at thelast minute, leaving her train as soon as it hits Montana in hopes ofcatching another line back to the big city. Instead, she falls in lovewith a small-town cowboy (Johnny Mack Brown), only to jeopardize theirrelationship when her city friends show up for the wedding, and she sharesa torrid tango with old flame Ricardo Cortez.
Crawford had made a successful transition to talking films and herthroaty voice added a new dimension to her screen image that made herstand out from the other movie hopefuls who had arrived in Hollywood duringthe '20s. With the singing and dancing skills she'd developed as aBroadway chorus girl, she was a natural for early talkies, which oftenadded musical numbers as a novelty. She had shown her stuff in MGM's earlysound showcase, The Hollywood Revue of 1929, and got to sing againin Montana Moon, though none of the songs made it to the hit parade.At the same time, the film gave her some glamorous gowns from Adrian,beautifully shot by Greta Garbo's favorite cinematographer, WilliamDaniels, to please her growing legions of female fans.
In an unusual move for the period, the studio sent St. Clair and his castto Montana for location shooting (usually Westerns were shot much closer tohome in California). Beyond giving the film some spectacular scenery, themove also helped create a strong sense of cohesion among the cast and crew,who spent most of their off hours together playing games and rehearsingscenes.
But the location shoot also caused problems. Because of delays in gettingthe script through the Production Code Administration, Hollywood'sself-censorship organization, the film was completed before the PCA's head,Col. Jason Joy, could get back to them with the changes necessary to getthe film past local censors. By the time St. Clair got the lengthy list ofcuts, it was too late to go back to Montana and re-shoot the offendingscenes, so the film was literally cut to pieces. Some of the censors'demands make little sense today. In a joke about a miracle medicine thatcured "bronchitis, falling hair, dandruff, eczema, earache, baggy knees,chilblains and pains in the patio," Joy considered the word patio obscene.More understandable, though no less damaging, were jokes about thecowhands' reactions to Brown and Crawford's developing romance. Variousquips and reaction shots as the newlyweds prepared for their wedding nighthad to go. Most damaging, however, was Joy's demand that all shots ofdrinking be eliminated since the country was still under Prohibition. Notonly did this mean cutting perfectly innocent scenes from the weddingcelebration in which people were shown drinking in the background, but St.Clair had to cut the scenes in which Crawford gets tipsy at her ownwedding. Unfortunately, those scenes explained her flirtatious behavior,so instead of seeming foolish, the character comes off as downright promiscuous.
When Montana Moon finally made it into theaters, it faced anotherproblem. By 1930 the early vogue for musicals had passed. Audiences wereavoiding films with musical numbers, and some films were even advertisedwith the line "Not a musical." As a result, the screen's first singingcowboy experienced less-than-enthusiastic response at the box office.Fortunately, that didn't hurt either star. Crawford would go on to one ofher biggest early hits when she replaced Norma Shearer in the romancePaid later that year, while Brown would reach stardom briefly a fewmonths later as the star of MGM's Billy the Kid. As for the singingcowboy, he would become a staple of low-budget Westerns, which delightedrural audiences through the end of the '40s thanks to such stars as GeneAutry, Roy Rogers and even the young (and dubbed) John Wayne.
Producer/Director: Malcolm St. Clair
Screenplay: Sylvia Thalberg, Frank Butler, Joe Farnham
Based on a story by Thalberg and Butler
Cinematography: William Daniels
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: Nacio Herb Brown, Clifford Gray, Herbert Stothart
Principal Cast: Joan Crawford (Joan), Johnny Mack Brown (Larry), DorothySebastian (Elizabeth), Ricardo Cortez (Jeff), Benny Rubin (The Doctor),Cliff Edwards (Froggy), Karl Dane (Hank).
By Frank Miller