Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Virginia Belmont (Monogram westerns & Dangers of the Canadian Mounted)

Nee Virginia Schupp and originally from Boston (born 1921), San Diego-raised Virginia Belmont was a cigarette girl at famed Hollywood nitery The Mocambo before signing a starlet contract with RKO. She did little actual acting for that studio but decorated their patented crime series and performed the usual legwork. The 1948 Republic serial Dangers of the Canadian Mounted was a breakthrough of sorts (she had earlier, very briefly, graced the 1944 Columbia chapterplay Black Arrow) but she was going nowhere fast – and "nowhere" included co-starring in no less than three Monogram Jimmy Wakely oaters: Oklahoma Bullets , The Rangers Ride, and Courtin' Trouble (all 1948), and one each opposite Johnny Mack Brown and post-Harry Sherman William Boyd – when deciding to relocate to Italy with a new husband in tow. Adding the necessary vowel to her name and becoming Virginia Belmonte, she went on to appear in several Italian films until at least 1957.

Dangers of the Canadian Mounted (Republic, 1948)

In the Canadian Journal of Communication (volume 23. no. 4. 1998), University of Alberta professor Christopher Giddings writes: "The manifest destiny or cultural imperialism of [serials] such as Dangers of the Canadian Mounted and The Royal Mounted Rides Again [see earlier post]is apparent in the hybridized American/Canadian territories in which the films are set, Alcana and Canaska respectively." Warming up to his subject, the good professor continues:

“This annexing reinvention of the Canadian landscape, whether intentional or just the product of sloppy thinking, has political implications. A redrawing of the map harmonizes Canada with the U.S. Yet there is in this cinematic transformation an odd paradox. These U.S. producers and directors obviously thought of Canada as "other"; they recognize a Canadian difference to America by making a conscious choice to set their plots in a foreign location, a location of otherness which they then proceed to fill with American landscapes and the people and values of America's dominant white culture …”

Leave it to an academic to politicize action serials! But no one at Republic or Universal obviously thought of Canada as “other” but simply chose the location to frame stories around the colorful Canadian Mounties, always a popular subject for pulp fiction. And what could be more topical in 1947 than the building of the Alaska-Canadian Highway, a project that soon led to Alaska becoming the 49th state of the union? If anything, in Dangers it is American gangsters who are "other" and not Jim Bannon's heroic Canadian Mountie. It really is amazing what you can achieve with an expensive education if only you apply yourself! Yes, Dangers does reflect "the people and values of America's dominant white culture" – as though that in itself is somewhat suspect and as opposed to exactly what? – but America’s “dominant white culture” really doesn't do all that well considering Anthony Warde’s ultimate lack of success.

Academic theory aside, Dangers remains one of Republic's better post-war serials with some very interesting ideas in the original script. Including the character of Skagway Kate, an American mind you, although exactly how interesting we shall never know due to a bit of censorship trouble (see below). Another unusual touch that did make it through to the finished serial is the very physical use of the border between the territory of Alaska and Canada. With no jurisdiction on the Alaskan side, forceful Sgt. Royal picks a fight with Warde’s Mort Fowler at Skagway Kate's, beating the blackguard straight across the border and right into his own bailiwick. (Chapter 8.) While we get the usual amount of stock footage, including cliffhangers, it is well incorporated and Jim Bannon heads a game cast that includes such veteran stuntmen as Eddie Parker and Bud Wolfe. Nothing to get too excited about, Dangers of the Canadian Mounted is pure escapist entertainment, 1948 Republic style. Nothing more, nothing less.

Censorship troubles

The character of Skagway Kate was conceived by the writers as running a gambling hall complete with dancing girls but the censors objected to what could be misinterpreted as a brothel and Kate became a rather more sedate operator of a boarding house. Veteran comedienne Dorothy Granger (1914-1995), who plays Skagway Kate with a Mae Westian swagger, also lost he opportunity to sing in a late rewrite. Today, Granger is best remembered for having worked with such Hal Roach comedians as Laurel & Hardy and Charley Chase, not to mention co-starring in 2-reelers with Harry Langdon, The Three Stooges, W.C. Fields, and Edgar Kennedy. She eventually retired from the screen to run a Hollywood upholstery store with her husband.

All in the family:

In the opening chapter of Dangers of the Canadian Mounted little Dan Page surreptitiously listens to henchmen Dale and Scott plan their next move. The boy is played by young Bill Van Sickel, the son of stuntman Dale Van Sickel who, in this scene, portrays the villainous Scott. In chapter 4, the elder Van Sickel, now playing a henchman named Steele, actually knocks junior over in his attempt to flee the Mounties.

Uncredited appearance department I

In another example of cost-cutting, ubiquitous B-movie actor Marshall Reed (1917-1980) plays no less than four different Mounties: Dave (chapter 3), Douglas (5), Jim (7) and Williams (8). As handsome as the leading men he supported Reed later assumed the starring role in the 1954 Columbia serial, Riding with Buffalo Bill, but it was too little too late for an attempt at genre stardom. Off-screen, Reed ran into some trouble that no serial hero would encounter, including a December 1956 arrest for drunk driving. The actor was stopped on Pico Blvd. and Missouri St. in West Los Angeles but then refused to take a sobriety test. At the time of his arrest, Reed was appearing on the television crime show The Lineup.

Uncredited appearance department II

The voices of Don "Red" Barry and Roy Barcroft are heard in telephone conversations, in chapters 4 and 11 respectively. All in a day's work when under contract to a studio like Republic.

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