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Lucille Ball in a Western!?! Well, Hollywood has done stranger things, and sometimes they've even worked. In the case of Valley of the Sun (1942), however, casting Ball as a restaurateur in Arizona back when it was still Indian territory and putting her into a triangle involving corrupt Indian agent Dean Jagger and government agent James Craig was more of a desperation move than anything else.
RKO had fallen on hard times by the early '40s. The studio that had brought Katharine Hepburn and Orson Welles to Hollywood and had given the world such classics as King Kong (1933) and the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movies was in financial difficulties, partly because of the losses generated by Welles' first two films, Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). Artistically inclined studio head George Schaeffer, the man who had brought Welles to Hollywood, was out. In his place was Peter Rathvon, whose bottom-line approach to production dictated a schedule of mostly genre programmers.
The studio's management had never been that well-disposed toward Ball, but they had kept her on, largely through the urging of acting coach Lela Rogers (mother of Ginger) and a few influential producers and directors. After a raft of public opinion polls, management decided that the expensive star ($3,500 a week) had little public image. She even made the short list in a poll of film personalities deemed least likely to become stars (among the names were such future stars as Ann Miller, Victor Mature and William Holden!). The one plus she had was popularity with younger fans.
That may have inspired the powers that be to try her out in a Western, a genre that had made a lot of money for the studio in the past and with proven popularity among younger moviegoers. For material they turned to a Saturday Evening Post serial by Clarence Budington Kelland, best known as author of the story "Opera Hat," on which Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) had been based. The studio also gave her a promising leading man, James Craig, who had just scored hits in the Ginger Rogers romance Kitty Foyle (1940) and the fantasy All That Money Can Buy (1941). They also brought in Western expert George Marshall to direct. He had recently helped Marlene Dietrich make a comeback as a saloon singer in Destry Rides Again (1939), though he wouldn't quite work the same magic with Ball.
The biggest problem was meager production values. RKO advertised the film as a Western epic in the tradition of Cimarron (1931), the studio's only film to win a Best Picture Oscar®, but then didn't supply the epic qualities. Critics mostly complained of trite situations and hackneyed lines, while also suggesting that Ball and Craig lacked marquee value.
On the plus side, location shooting in Taos, New Mexico, gave Ball a second honeymoon with husband Desi Arnaz, even though it meant shooting in blistering heat. On her off days, they explored the nearby reservations. The location also gave the production access to a large contingent of authentic Native American extras from the pueblos in Taos, Santa Clara, Jemes, San Juan and Tesuque. Fans also have pointed to outstanding supporting performances by the screen's Captain Marvel, Tom Tyler, and silent star Antonio Moreno as Geronimo and Cochise, respectively.
The film's poor critical showing did little to help Ball's career, particularly when follow-up polls indicated that it had only brought her popularity and recognition up a few points. Craig, however, profited from his exposure in the male lead. He had come to Hollywood hoping to exploit his resemblance to Clark Gable and had even tested with some of the actresses considered for the role of Scarlett in Gone with the Wind (1939). But it had taken many fruitless years at Paramount and a few decent roles at RKO to bring him to the attention of Gable's home studio, MGM. After his work in Valley of the Sun, MGM put him under contract as a threat to the bigger star and a useful leading man while stars like Gable were off fighting World War II.
Ball maintained a friendly relationship with Marshall, who would later cast her in the Western comedy Fancy Pants (1950), opposite Bob Hope. Years later she would hire him to direct for her TV series Here's Lucy, though he would only get through a dozen episodes before her temperament, aggravated by poor reviews and a lack of network support, led him to leave. Before his departure, he even took to wearing a hard hat on the set, quipping that he needed it for protection from the star.
Producer: Graham Baker
Director: George Marshall
Screenplay: Horace McCoy
Based on the story by Clarence Budington Kelland
Cinematography: Harry Wild
Art Direction: Albert S. D'Agostino, Walter E. Keller
Music: Peter Sawtell
Cast: Lucille Ball (Christine Larson), James Craig (Jonathan Ware), Cedric Hardwicke (Warrick), Dean Jagger (Jim Sawyer), Billy Gilbert (Justice of the Peace), Tom Tyler (Geronimo), Antonio Moreno (Chief Cochise), George Cleveland (Bill Yard), Al St. John, Chester Conklin (Men in the Street).
by Frank Miller