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William Wellman's Stingaree (1934), a sublimely outrageous hybrid of musical and Western adventure (although set in the Australian outback), is one of six RKO films of the 1930s previously thought "lost" but rediscovered and restored by TCM. The films were sold out of the RKO library to producer Merian C. Cooper in 1946 and until now have not been part of the Turner collection. Extensive legal negotiations and a thorough search of the world's film archives allowed TCM to claim the films and create new, fine-grain 35mm prints in association with the Library of Congress and the BYU Motion Picture Archive. Before that, the last authorized screening of Stingaree was in brief television exposure during the late 1950s.
The film, made three years after Dunne had become a major star opposite Richard Dix in RKO's hugely successful Cimarron (1931), again casts her opposite that studio's most dashing leading man of the day. Stingaree was Dunne's first film showcase as a singer, to be followed by Sweet Adeline (1934), Roberta (1935), Show Boat (1936), High, Wide and Handsome (1937) and Joy of Living (1938). Although now remembered chiefly for her comedies and domestic melodramas, she was a singer of some note at this stage in her career. Closely associated with the songs of Jerome Kern, she was said to be his favorite soprano.
In Stingaree, based on the novel by E.W. Hornung, author of Raffles, Dunne plays Hilda Bouverie, a Down Under opera singer of the 1800s whose career is given a boost by the mysterious Stingaree (Dix), a bandit in the Robin Hood/Scaramouche tradition who also happens to be a songwriter. Hilda is languishing at the home of her super-rich guardian, Mrs. Clarkson (the hilarious Mary Boland), a would-be diva who fancies herself a terrific singer even though her voice is enough to sour the milk. Impersonating the composer Sir Julian Kent (Conway Tearle) and inspired by Hilda's lovely voice, Stingaree gifts her with one of his own compositions, "Tonight Is Mine," which eventually will help her win international fame. Later, during a homecoming concert in Melbourne, a very willing Hilda is kidnapped by Stingaree, who by now has won her heart.
On hand in the supporting cast are Andy Devine, then in his twenties but already in raspy-voiced sidekick mode; dependable character actors Henry Stephenson and Reginald Owen, both of whom also appear in Double Harness (1933), another of the "lost" RKO films; and the delightful Una O'Connor, who specialized in playing impudent maids and housekeepers.
Certainly one of the more unusual items in director Wellman's filmography, the boisterous Stingaree won a largely favorable notice in The New York Times by Mordaunt Hall, who commented that the movie's "impossible happenings are highly entertaining. Miss Dunne gives a charming performance and sings several songs very agreeably." The soundtrack includes two songs by Gus Kahn and W. Franke Harling, "Stingaree Ballad" and the ubiquitous "Tonight Is Mine"; two by Edward Eliscu and Max Steiner, "I Wish I Were a Fisherman" and "Once You're Mine"; and excerpts from Charles Gounod's "Faust" and Friedrich von Flotow's "Martha."
Before Dunne was cast, RKO held discussions with Jeanette MacDonald and MGM about loaning MacDonald for the role of Hilda. The Melbourne and Covent Garden opera house sequences were shot at Universal on the Phantom of the Opera stage at a rental cost of $1,500. Stingaree was first filmed in 1915 by the Kalem Company as a 12-part silent serial starring True Boardman and Marin Sais and directed by James W. Horne.
Producer: Pandro S. Berman, David Lewis
Director: William A. Wellman
Screenplay: Becky Gardiner, Lynn Riggs, Leonard Spigelgass, from novel by E.W. Hornung
Cinematography: James Van Trees
Film Editing: James B. Morley
Art Direction: Van Nest Polglase, Alfred Herman
Original Music: Edward Eliscu, W. Franke Harling, Gus Kahn, Max Steiner
Costume Design: Walter Plunkett
Principal Cast: Irene Dunne (Hilda Bouverie), Richard Dix (Stingaree, aka Mr. Smithson), Mary Boland (Mrs. Clarkson), Conway Tearle (Sir Julian Kent), Andy Devine (Howie), Henry Stephenson (Mr. Hugh Clarkson), Una O'Connor (Annie), George Barraud (Inspector Radford), Reginald Owen (Governor-General), "Snub" Pollard (Victor).
BW-77m. Closed captioning.
by Roger Fristoe