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A heart-warmer in the tradition of Old Yeller (1957), My Friend Flicka (1943), and any number of kid-and-animal tearjerkers, Gallant Bess (1946) tells the story of an orphan farm boy who dreams of building a ranch with his horse. But World War II breaks out, and young Tex enlists, leaving his beloved Bess behind in the care of someone else. The horse dies, and Tex falls into a deep funk until he comes across a wounded horse in the jungle, a dead ringer for the late Bess. He takes the horse in and soon it becomes not only the company mascot but a lifesaver as well.
Gallant Bess was a respectable hit thanks to its family-friendly story (based on a real-life Seabee incident told by Lt. Marvin Park, USNR) and appealing color photography in the new Cinecolor process, which tended to add a softer blue tone than the dominant Technicolor process. In fact, the look of the film was singled out for praise in Variety, whose reviewer noted that the "ace lensing" of John W. Boyle was "easy on the eyes with perfectly natural hues. There's none of the artificial brilliance of most color films."
After a few years on screen in mostly perfunctory walk-ons and supporting roles, young MGM contract player Marshall Thompson finally got his chance at a lead with this picture. The role failed to catapult him into stardom, and the film was overshadowed by another metro kid-and-pet release with a bigger name cast, The Yearling (1946), starring Gregory Peck and Jane Wyman. Gallant Bess did, however, launch Thompson on a career that was closely tied to animal co-stars up to the end of his life.
His known compatibility with animals got him the part as the orphan farm boy. That same affinity led, years later, to his joining the staff of Ivan Tors productions as producer and director of several short films on animal life. When Tors decided to make the feature-length comedy Clarence, the Cross-Eyed Lion (1965), he cast Thompson as the head of an animal studies center in Africa. The characters and setting were carried over into the hit TV series Daktari, in which Marshall reprised his role as Dr. Marsh Tracy. In 1970, he was the host-narrator of the nature series Jambo, and during this time he directed many episodes of Daktari and the successful Tors-produced TV series Flipper. His other animal-themed work included Zebra in the Kitchen (1965) and George (1971, a comedy about a huge dog, which also became a short-lived TV show). His last feature film appearance was in Sam Fuller's controversial White Dog (1982), about an animal trainer reprogramming a dog trained solely to attack black people.
When he wasn't playing with his furry friends, Thompson also spent considerable time in uniform on screen. His career included such notable war and military-themed films as John Ford's They Were Expendable (1945), Homecoming (1948) with Clark Gable, William Wellman's Battleground (1949), and the biopic of war hero Audie Murphy, To Hell and Back (1955). Thompson also has the distinction of being the director and star of one of the few pro-Vietnam War films, A Yank in Viet-Nam (1964).
Marshall Thompson wasn't the only one on this project with connections to the animal kingdom. Director Andrew Marton eventually went to work for Tors, too, directing episodes of Daktari and Sea Hunt and the feature-length Africa - Texas Style! (1967) and Clarence, the Cross-Eyed Lion. Co-star Chill Wills lent his voice to the lead animal in the popular Francis the Talking Mule film series (beginning in 1950), and he and fellow cast member Clem Bevans also appeared in The Yearling (1946).
Viewers will also recognize veteran comic character actor George Tobias from the TV series Bewitched. But before he was so identified as the long-suffering Abner Kravitz, his career extended all the way back to the 1920s New York stage and included more than 60 film appearances in just about every genre, often as a foil for James Cagney (in seven pictures together).
Director: Andrew Marton
Producer: Harry Rapf
Editing: Harry Komer
Art Direction: Howard Campbell, Cedric Gibbons
Original Music: Rudolph G. Kopp
Cast: Marshall Thompson (Tex), George Tobias (Lug), Clem Bevans (Smitty), Chill Wills (Chief Petty Officer), Jim Davis (Harry).
C-100m. Closed captioning. Descriptive Video.
by Rob Nixon