The Fighting Kentuckian (1949)
Today is the birthday of John Wayne (1907-1979). What better way to bridge our preoccupation with classic comedy with an increasing interest in westerns than with Wayne’s 1949 film The Fighting Kentuckian, in which his sidekick is played by none another than Oliver Hardy?
The film is Wayne’s second self-producing effort for Republic (after Angel and the Badman). Surprisingly, a love story is at the heart of this one, too. This is less a western than a “southern”. A very strange milieu. A small colony of post-Napoleonic French live in Alabama as refugees. A regiment of Kentucky soldiers marching back from New Orleans battles with General Jackson (War of 1812) passes through. Wayne falls in love with a French girl (Vera Ralston) who is engaged to marry a businessman with a moustache (tell-tale earmarks of villainy in a western). Lots of shenanigans about land swindles. A bunch of sharks have moved the stakes marking out the land that was granted to the Frenchmen by the U.S .Government, invalidating their claims. Wayne straightens it all out and wins over the girl’s parents (he’d already won over the girl in the first 15 seconds).
Hardy is predictably terrific as the sidekick, a job he took reluctantly while Stan Laurel was laid up with an injury. (There was actually a kind tradition of casting former silent comedians as western sidekicks in the studio era: Al St. John and Slim Summerville among them) It’s plain from his performance that Hardy was always above all what he considered himself — an actor (as opposed to a clown). And there’s a difference. Groucho Marx, for example, was a terrible actor. Hardy is so great, it’s a pity he didn’t do much more stuff like this. To make it doubly interesting, Wayne is the dominant partner here. Hardy is the Sancho Panza part, the fool, the Laurel. It’s surreal, and most rewarding, to see Hardy out of his usual context. And the other plus is that it had been a decade since Hardy’s last good movie, and five years since his last picture with Laurel…just one last gasp (not including the egregious Utopia). And does he fall off his horse? What do you think? Everyone ought to see this.
Fore more on comedy film history don’t miss my book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc