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The career of long-forgotten Western star "Smoky" Callaway gets an unexpected shot in the arm when a television patchwork of his old films sparks a new interest among young viewers hungry for magnetic personalities and men of action. Unfortunately, Callaway's been MIA for years. Desperate, the network assigns the promotional team of Mike Frye (Fred MacMurray) and Deborah Patterson (Dorothy McGuire), who enlist the aid of his old agent (skilled comic actor Jesse White) to track down this newly popular American hero, who's actually a bitter alcoholic recluse.
A visit to a genuine cowboy ranch in Colorado unearths a surprising find: "Stretch" Barnes (Howard Keel), a dead ringer for Callaway who's willing - after much protest and check writing - to relocate to sunny California. Soon the money and fame go to Barnes' head, resulting in another Hollywood-bred beast. Even worse, the real Smoky resurfaces from his south of the border hideaway, none too pleased about an impersonator swiping his newfound fame and income.
By the 1950s, Hollywood had progressed from occasionally poking fun at itself (The Stand-In) to full-blown postmodern studies of the cinema mythos. Although Singin' in the Rain (1952) and Sunset Boulevard (1950) remain the most famous examples, there were other worthy self-parodies throughout the decade. The studios' anxiety brought on by the advent of television created an even stranger situation as cinema and cathode fought it out on the nation's screens both large and small. Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957) was famously turned into an attack on television during its transition from stage to screen, and a gentler but similar tack is taken by Callaway Went Thataway (1951). Though Hollywood is shown to be a corruptive influence for a weak personality, TV here is, by implication, something even more dangerous: all the gloss and ego of the big screen without the hard work and substance.
The entire caste system of Hollywood is represented here, with top MGM stars famously appearing as themselves (Clark Gable, Elizabeth Taylor, and Esther Williams); however, movie cultists will also delight in spotting the "Venezuelan Volcano" Acquanetta, Mae Clarke (1931's Frankenstein), and future TV stars Hugh Beaumont (Leave It to Beaver) and Natalie Schafer (Gilligan's Island).
Western fans can have a field day trying to decipher which elements of Callaway and his imitator are based on real life personalities, with household names like Roy Rogers, William Boyd, and Gene Autry cited as the most obvious choices. Muddying the waters further, the film features some real-life Western actors including Don Haggerty (Rustlers, 1949), Gene Alsace (Wanderers of the West, 1941), Douglas Kennedy (Ranger of Cherokee Strip, 1949), Billy Dix (Red Rock Outlaw, 1950), and Harry Cody (Mark of the Lash, 1948).
Since the concept of singing cowboys in the Gene Autry mold was already considered outdated, savvy casting resulted in the casting of a musical star rather than a screen cowboy in the dual roles of Callaway and Barnes. The choice of Howard Keel, an untrained "natural talent" who first struck it big one year earlier in Annie Get Your Gun (1950), proved a savvy one almost immediately. His refrain of "(I'll Be Waiting For You) Where the Tumbleweed Is Blue" shows off his unique brand of musical machismo that came to define his later work in hits like Calamity Jane, Kiss Me Kate (both 1953), and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954). When the demand for musical roles dried up, he ironically became a genuine cowboy actor in such late-hour Hollywood Westerns as Red Tomahawk, The War Wagon (both 1967), and Arizona Bushwhackers (1968).
Looking back, Keel regarded Callaway Went Thataway as one of his favorites and lamented its less-than-stellar box office fate: "The reaction at the sneak preview was excellent, but in theatres it laid a bomb. Television Westerns were too popular...the public wouldn't accept satirizing them." (Films in Review, November 1970). Interestingly, he and Elizabeth Taylor worked together a second time in 1951, in a manner of speaking, when he stood in for her screen test for MGM's Quo Vadis - a part she lost to Deborah Kerr.
Though the positive critical reception of Callaway Went Thataway did not translate to big money from the public, the film earned enough goodwill to become something of a cult favorite and, of course, turned into a television staple. Much of the film's praise centered on the pairing of charismatic reliables MacMurray and McGuire; both went on to become beloved parental figures in a string of popular Walt Disney films (The Shaggy Dog (1959), Swiss Family Robinson (1960), The Absent-Minded Professor (1961)) during the late fifties and early sixties. Strangely enough, they were never paired together in any of the Disney films despite their inspired pairing in Callaway Went Thataway.
Producer: Melvin Frank, Norman Panama
Director: Melvin Frank, Norman Panama
Screenplay: Melvin Frank, Norman Panama
Cinematography: Ray June
Film Editing: Cotton Warburton
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Eddie Imazu
Music: Marlin Skiles, Charles Wolcott
Cast: Fred MacMurray (Mike Frye), Dorothy McGuire (Deborah Patterson), Howard Keel (Stretch Barnes/Smoky Callaway), Jess White (George Markham), Fay Roope (Tom Lorrison), Natalie Schafer (Martha Lorrison).
BW-82m. Closed captioning.
by Nathaniel Thompson