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The western was at the peak of its popularity when Warner Bros. released Two Guys from Texas (1948), a musical spoof of the genre from a charming screenplay by I.A.L. Diamond. Though lacking the glamour, grandeur, and star power of an MGM musical, this forgotten treat brims with pleasant performances by Dennis Morgan and Jack Carson, entertaining production numbers, and clever references to familiar western characters and conventions.
Morgan and Carson star as Steve Carroll and Danny Foster, a struggling song-and-dance team on their way to California. Car trouble forces them to stop in Texas, where they find themselves lending a helping hand on a dude ranch run by Joan Winston, played by a young, brunette Dorothy Malone. While Steve woos Joan, Danny steps lightly around the ranch, hoping to spend time with Joan, too. Danny is unable to compete with Steve, partly because of his pal's way with women and partly because of his fear of animals - even the ducks and geese. During their visit, the city boys experience many of the clichs of westerns, including rodeos, barbeques, and posses, before the obligatory happy ending.
The film's good-natured spoofing of the genre can be found in lines of dialogue, characters that skirt the line between stereotype and archetype, and clichd situations turned inside out. In a running joke throughout Two Guys from Texas, various characters continually remark on the size of the Lone Star State - a familiar refrain from natives. But, in the storyline, the characters are purposefully exaggerating and exploiting the trappings of Texas in order to attract tourists. When Forrest Tucker as Sheriff Tex Bennett repeatedly drawls, "Texas is a mighty big state," or "A Texan is happy to stay in Texas," he's intentionally spouting clichs that tourists expect to hear, which exposes them as clichs from other movies. His identity as an "authentic" western sheriff is telegraphed not only by his aphorisms about Texas but also by his name-Tex-and his conspicuous costume consisting of bright blue pants with a matching blue shirt, complete with western-style piping and white tie. It looks like the exaggerated western stage attire made by Nudie's of Hollywood, a clothier famous for designing gaudy, customized stage clothing for country-western stars.
Andrew Tombes plays a character dubbed "the Texan," who greets Steve and Danny in the opening sequence. Dressed in exaggerated western gear, the gun-totin' Texan tells them all about the size of his great state: "Everything's big in Texas. We got big women. Big men. Everything's big about it. Texas is just too big." Later, the Texan complains to Joan that he's tired of wearing such loud shirts, and he "wishes these tourists would get out of town so I could shave again."
The biggest in-jokes about westerns are reserved for the song "I Want to Be a Cowboy in the Movies" performed by Morgan and Carson, with a gentle poke at Hollywood's fantasy-driven depiction of the Wild West. Viewers of the era and fans of classic westerns could easily understand the humor when Carson sang, "50 bullets I shoot and never once have to reload," or Morgan sums up the plot to many a singing-cowboy movie when he croons, "I know the gal thinks I'm a liar, cause with the bad guys I conspire, but I'm a loyal FBI'er in the end." The song concludes by listing all the studios that had made westerns over the years, from Paramount to the independents to Republic, reflecting on the ubiquitous presence of the genre in the post-WWII era. In retrospect, the song's conclusion is a sad reminder of the absence of the genre in today's Hollywood.
Two Guys from Texas also spoofs other Hollywood conventions, not unlike the Bob Hope-Bing Crosby Road films. However, the humor is much less caustic than Hope and Crosby's, and the characters never break the fourth wall by engaging in direct address to the camera. While not as astonishingly self-reflexive, the humor in Two Guys from Texas is just as sharp. In one scene, the star images of Dennis Morgan and Jack Carson are spoofed in a cartoon created by Friz Freleng. The cartoon features Dennis Morgan as an amiable wolf, reflecting his character's penchant for captivating the ladies, who are rendered here as swooning sheep. Carson is the sheepherder who keeps losing members of his flock to the handsome, charming Morgan. Carson and Morgan teamed up for several films together, and Carson loses the girl to his buddy in almost all of them so the cartoon reflects audience expectations of the actors' character types. Carson finally seeks advice from Bugs Bunny, Warner Bros.'s top animated star, but to no avail.
A particularly clever scene seems to purposefully dance around the Motion Picture Production Code, which would be in keeping with I.A.L. Diamond's interests and style. At the end of a long day, Steve and Danny settle in to their room at the dude ranch next to the room of Joan and her friend Maggie, played by Penny Edwards. In a long shot, the rooms are depicted side by side, with a wall separating them, creating a sort-of split-screen effect. Viewers can see the action in both rooms simultaneously. As the occupants of the two rooms prepare for bed, their two conversations are integrated so that the men unknowingly finish the sentences of the women, or vice versa. Joan asks, "How do you like Steve?" and Maggie answers, "I think he's. . .," and then Steve finishes the sentence to his conversation with "very cute." As the conversations progress, the action and dialogue move closer to bedroom talk. Danny says, "I might wake up and find a bear in my bed," to which Joan responds, "Not with me." Danny asks Steve, "How about some pajamas for me," and Joan answers, "I have some extra ones." At the end of the scene, the camera cuts to a medium shot of Joan in her bed next to Steve in his bed. It creates the illusion they are in bed together, though they are separated by that thin wall. The scene stays within the confines of the Production Code, yet reminds viewers what the Code does not allow them to see. In doing so, it softly jabs at the Code's idealistic and unrealistic guidelines for the depiction of courtship, romance, and love.
The star personas of Morgan and Carson meshed so well that they costarred in ten films together during the 1940s. In 1946, they appeared in Two Guys from Milwaukee. The title was something of an in-joke because both Morgan and Carson called Milwaukee their home town. The box office success of the film led to Two Guys from Texas, suggesting that Warner Bros. may have wanted to launch their own series along the lines of the Hope-Crosby Road comedies. Based on his tenor voice, boyish good looks, and mild-mannered personality, Warner Bros. constructed a star image for Morgan as the small-town boy next door, who was adored by women for his sweet face and relaxed manner. Carson was a natural-born ham, and his blustering, high-energy personality and expressive mugging balanced Morgan's mellow persona. The teaming of actors based on the characteristics of their star images was an art mastered by the studios during the Golden Age, an era defined by its complex exploitation of the star system.
Carson had debuted in Fritz Lang's crime drama You Only Live Once (1937) for United Artists, and he also appeared in character roles at RKO. Yet, it was his stint as a contract actor at Warner Bros. that cemented his star image as the big blowhard buffoon who generally loses the girl to the handsome lead. At times, his character was the leading man's kindly buddy, a clown with the heart of gold; other times, he played the high-strung, big-mouthed boor pumped up with self-importance. Toward the end of the cycle of films he made with Morgan, he was paired with Doris Day in a brief series of romantic musicals that exploited this same star image, much to his frustration. When allowed to stretch, Carson tinkered with his star image to startling effect, as in Mildred Pierce (1945), where he played the coolly cynical rejected suitor, and in his favorite film, Roughly Speaking (1945), where he played a husband full of wild, money-making schemes. Like many actors in search of more diverse roles, Carson free-lanced during the 1950s, which allowed him more control over his screen projects.
Despite Carson's eventual disenchantment with Warner Bros., Two Guys from Texas is a testament to the strengths of the studio system. The pairing of Carson with Morgan complemented the talents and personalities of each actor, the craftsmanship of director David Butler and photography of Arthur Edeson elevated a small film into a Technicolor delight, and the script by I.A.L. Diamond offered a smart spoof of Hollywood westerns.
Producer: Alex Gottlieb
Director: David Butler
Screenplay: I.A.L. Diamond and Allen Boretz based on the play Howdy Stranger by Louis Pelletier, Jr. and Robert Sloane.
Cinematography: Arthur Edeson, William V. Skall
Editor: Irene Morra
Art Director: Edward Carrere
Music Director: Leo F. Forbstein
Cast: Steve Carroll (Dennis Morgan), Danny Foster (Jack Carson), Joan Winston (Dorothy Malone), Maggie Reed (Penny Edwards), Tex Bennett (Forrest Tucker), Dr. Straeger (Fred Clark), Link Jessup (Gerald Mohr), The Texan (Andrew Tombes), Jim Crocker (John Alvin), Pete Nash (Monte Blue).
C-86m. Closed Captioning.
by Susan Doll