Friday, August 5, 2011

Mary Castle (Texans Never Cry & Prairie Roundup)

How in tarnation, you may ask, did that frightful-looking Minerva Urecal ever manage to beget a cutie like Gail Davis? Well, this bizarre mother and daughter duo appears in Gene Autry's Texans Never Cry (1951), a better-than-average entry with a better than average heroine in the redoubtable Miss Davis who, in the style of her Annie Oakley of television fame, mistakenly decks poor Pat Buttram in the opening scene in a misguided effort to demonstrate how Gene Autry had just incapacitated villainous Richard Powers (aka Tom Keene). Alas, this time Autry regular Davis isn't the top-billed female. That distinction, courtesy, no doubt, of the powers at be at Columbia, belongs to one Mary Castle, whose resemblance to the studio's reigning queen bee, Rita Hayworth, is hardly coincidental. And to make sure you get the point, the screenplay actually names Miss Castle's tough-talking character Rita. Mary, or rather Rita, makes eyes at Gene (why these dames make fools of themselves over someone as, well, homely as Gene Autry is one of those inexplicable Hollywood mysteries) despite the fact that she is the girlfriend of Richard Powers and that her father, the town's newspaper publisher, is also in Powers' employ. The girls are front and center in this Western, unusual, to be sure, but much appreciated when played by the likes of Castle, Davis, and Urecal all three of whom had a way with a line.

Mary Castle didn't have to share the screen with other dames in her second Columbia Western, the Durango Kid effort Prairie Roundup (1951), but that did not mean more screen time. She plays a fiery lady trail boss who's being swindled by nefarious Frank Fenton. To the rescue comes Charles Starrett, alias the Durango Kid, who is wanted for murder in the killing of a Durango impersonator (don't ask) and the inevitable Smiley Burnette who, at this late stage in his career has rid himself of some of his most annoying comedic habits and is almost watchable. This is a typical Durango Western, short on logic and long on riding and shooting. It does, however, come with a nifty little scene where a bartender blithely pours an unused drink back in the bottle while its owner is passed out.

Mary Castle's face, they claimed, had been surgically altered by Columbia Pictures to make her look like the studio's biggest box-office draw, Rita Hayworth, who kept threatening to leave Hollywood for good. Mary did indeed resemble Hayworth, albeit in a rather toughened version, but it was Universal-International and not Columbia that offered her the best opportunities, Texans Never Cry and Prairie Roundup notwithstanding. Those, however, were mostly secondary roles and Mary Castle probably gladly accepted an offer from Republic Pictures to co-star as railroad detective Frankie Adams on the television Western Stories of the Century (1954). Off-screen, she dated a host of Hollywood bachelors, including an Orbach department store heir and screenwriter Cy Bartlett, but her name was increasingly mentioned on police blotters for behaving drunken and disorderly, and she was eventually replaced by a more sober Kristine Miller on Stories. At one point in 1957 she was arrested and charged with biting a couple of Hollywood deputies and the following year ended up in a Malibu emergency room after taking a nude dip in the ocean while drunk. Castle's dipsomania seemed to have culminated with an attempted suicide by hanging while in the Beverly Hills drunk tank in 1959. The following year, she was discovered sleeping it off in a Hollywood parking lot. By then, sadly, her career had come to an end. She died age 67 in Palm Springs, CA, in 1998.

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