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Set in the 1890s, The First Traveling Saleslady (1956) tells the story of Rose Gillray (Ginger Rogers), who strikes a deal with a steel manufacturer to peddle barbed wire when her corset business comes undone. The film marked Rogers' return to RKO after a 10-year absence and was also the last film produced by that studio.
As Rose and her showbiz sidekick Molly (Carol Channing) head west to sell their contentious product, they discover they are less than popular with the local cowboys, headed by Joe Kingdom (James Arness of the TV series Gunsmoke). The two women are hobbled at every turn, as the angry cowpokes try to run them out of town, certain that the new-fangled wire will injure the cattle. The women's only friend is horseless carriage inventor Charles Masters (Barry Nelson of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining ) who has a habit of arriving at the height of their distress.
At the time, much ado was made of Rogers' return to RKO, which had fallen on hard times by the mid-50s. She put a good face on things: "It was good to be home again...They gave me the same dressing room. It was a little dusty, but that was taken care of in a hurry," she said in several publications. Later, in the wake of the film's bad reviews, followed by the closing of the studio, Rogers would wryly take credit for having single-handedly shut down RKO.
The script for The First Traveling Saleslady was initially offered to Mae West, who declined, and according to many of the film's reviewers, Rogers might have been wiser to do the same. "Lame, offbeat, an interesting but failed experiment, The First Traveling Saleslady only underlined the emptiness of such backward-looking fare in changing times," wrote Patrick McGilligan, author of Ginger Rogers (Pyramid Publications, 1975).
The First Traveling Saleslady didn't do much for its co-stars either. Carol Channing reportedly stayed away from films for years in the wake of its box-office belly-flop. For Clint Eastwood, who plays her beau, the film offered him his first substantial speaking part in a movie. Director Arthur Lubin, who had directed Eastwood in uncredited roles in Lady Godiva of Coventry (1955) and the "Francis the Talking Mule" spin-off Francis in the Navy (1955), even gave Eastwood "introducing" billing in this film. But though he was described as "very attractive" by the Hollywood Reporter, any positive benefit was quickly lost in the picture's less-than-spectacular reviews.
Rogers was undaunted though by the poor reception of The First Traveling Saleslady. The RKO portion of her career permanently closed, she went on to do Teenage Rebel (1956), for Twentieth Century-Fox. Despite the title, that film was actually a thoughtful coming-of-age drama and a worthy showcase for Rogers' acting skills.
Producer: Arthur Lubin
Director: Arthur Lubin
Screenplay: Devery Freeman, Stephen Longstreet
Cinematography: William E. Snyder
Art Direction: Albert S. D'Agostino
Music: Irving Gertz
Film Editing: Otto Ludwig
Cast: Ginger Rogers (Miss Rose Gillray, Gillray Corset Co.), Barry Nelson (Charles Masters), Carol Channing (Molly Wade), David Brian (James Carter, president, Carter Steel), James Arness (Joel Kingdom), Clint Eastwood (Lt. Jack Rice, Roughrider), Robert F. Simon (Cal, Texas Rancher), Frank Wilcox (U.S. Marshal Duncan), Daniel M. White (Sheriff).
C-92m. Closed Captioning.
by Emily Soares