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The jazz age met the Wild West in Montana Moon (1930), a film that, quite by accident, introduced the singing cowboy to the screen. Originally, another film, Dangerous Nan McGrew, had been slated as the screen's first musical Western, but it got held up in post-production. Ironically, both films were directed by silent-screen veteran Malcolm St. Clair, who went to MGM for Montana Moon after completing the earlier film only to see the later picture hit the screen first.
Of course, making history was far from anybody's mind at MGM when they put Montana Moon into production. They were simply capitalizing on the growing popularity of starlet Joan Crawford, who had established herself as the ultimate jazz baby with her sizzling Charleston in the 1928 silent Our Dancing Daughters. This time out, she plays a Western lass schooled in the East. When daddy calls her home, she chickens out at the last minute, leaving her train as soon as it hits Montana in hopes of catching another line back to the big city. Instead, she falls in love with a small-town cowboy (Johnny Mack Brown), only to jeopardize their relationship when her city friends show up for the wedding, and she shares a torrid tango with old flame Ricardo Cortez.
Crawford had made a successful transition to talking films and her throaty voice added a new dimension to her screen image that made her stand out from the other movie hopefuls who had arrived in Hollywood during the '20s. With the singing and dancing skills she'd developed as a Broadway chorus girl, she was a natural for early talkies, which often added musical numbers as a novelty. She had shown her stuff in MGM's early sound showcase, The Hollywood Revue of 1929, and got to sing again in Montana Moon, though none of the songs made it to the hit parade. At the same time, the film gave her some glamorous gowns from Adrian, beautifully shot by Greta Garbo's favorite cinematographer, William Daniels, to please her growing legions of female fans.
In an unusual move for the period, the studio sent St. Clair and his cast to Montana for location shooting (usually Westerns were shot much closer to home in California). Beyond giving the film some spectacular scenery, the move also helped create a strong sense of cohesion among the cast and crew, who spent most of their off hours together playing games and rehearsing scenes.
But the location shoot also caused problems. Because of delays in getting the script through the Production Code Administration, Hollywood's self-censorship organization, the film was completed before the PCA's head, Col. Jason Joy, could get back to them with the changes necessary to get the film past local censors. By the time St. Clair got the lengthy list of cuts, it was too late to go back to Montana and re-shoot the offending scenes, so the film was literally cut to pieces. Some of the censors' demands make little sense today. In a joke about a miracle medicine that cured "bronchitis, falling hair, dandruff, eczema, earache, baggy knees, chilblains and pains in the patio," Joy considered the word patio obscene. More understandable, though no less damaging, were jokes about the cowhands' reactions to Brown and Crawford's developing romance. Various quips and reaction shots as the newlyweds prepared for their wedding night had to go. Most damaging, however, was Joy's demand that all shots of drinking be eliminated since the country was still under Prohibition. Not only did this mean cutting perfectly innocent scenes from the wedding celebration in which people were shown drinking in the background, but St. Clair had to cut the scenes in which Crawford gets tipsy at her own wedding. Unfortunately, those scenes explained her flirtatious behavior, so instead of seeming foolish, the character comes off as downright promiscuous.
When Montana Moon finally made it into theaters, it faced another problem. By 1930 the early vogue for musicals had passed. Audiences were avoiding films with musical numbers, and some films were even advertised with the line "Not a musical." As a result, the screen's first singing cowboy experienced less-than-enthusiastic response at the box office. Fortunately, that didn't hurt either star. Crawford would go on to one of her biggest early hits when she replaced Norma Shearer in the romance Paid later that year, while Brown would reach stardom briefly a few months later as the star of MGM's Billy the Kid. As for the singing cowboy, he would become a staple of low-budget Westerns, which delighted rural audiences through the end of the '40s thanks to such stars as Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and even the young (and dubbed) John Wayne.
Producer/Director: Malcolm St. Clair
Screenplay: Sylvia Thalberg, Frank Butler, Joe Farnham
Based on a story by Thalberg and Butler
Cinematography: William Daniels
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: Nacio Herb Brown, Clifford Gray, Herbert Stothart
Principal Cast: Joan Crawford (Joan), Johnny Mack Brown (Larry), Dorothy Sebastian (Elizabeth), Ricardo Cortez (Jeff), Benny Rubin (The Doctor), Cliff Edwards (Froggy), Karl Dane (Hank).
By Frank Miller