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HONKY TONK(director: Jack Conway; screenwriters: Marguerite Roberts/John Sanford/Annalee Whitmore; cinematographer: Harold Rosson; editor: Blanche Sewell; music: Franz Waxman; cast: Clark Gable (Candy Johnson), Lana Turner (Elizabeth Cotton), Chill Wills (Sniper), Frank Morgan (Judge Cotton), Claire Trevor (‘Gold Dust’ Nelson), Marjorie Main (Mrs. Varner), Albert Dekker (Brazos Hearn), Henry O’Neill (Daniel Wells), Veda Ann Borg (Pearl), Russell Hicks (Dr.Otis), Lew Harvey (Blackie); Runtime: 105; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Pandro S. Berman; MGM; 1941)
“Way too sudsy for a Western.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Honky Tonk becomes way too sudsy for a Western. It’s all talk and hardly any action. Jack Conway directs in a workmanlike manner, making it frothy like a soap opera romance. But for awhile it was fun watching Clark Gable as a confidence man pulling cards from behind his ear, as he talked his way out of being tarred and feathered by a town of enraged citizens. It’s only when Lana Turner as the straight-arrow romantic interest of Gable reforms him, that Gable turns into a bore and the film falls apart from a lack of any substance. Honky Tonk is helped by fine support from the veteran character actors: Chill Wills as Gable’s loyal confidence partner, Frank Morgan as the dishonest judge and Lana’s father, and Marjorie Main as the good citizen who calls for law and order.

Candy Johnson (Gable) and Sniper (Wills) escape by rail after fleecing a town and soon arrive in Yellow Creek, Nevada, a gold strike boom town. Candy declares to his partner no more small time hustles, that he’s tired of being run out of towns “It’s about time he owns one and instead kicks others out.” On the train he meets the attractive Elizabeth Cotton (Turner), who is coming from Boston to meet her widowed father (Morgan). She doesn’t know pop’s a drunk and a petty con man. He’s the town’s justice of the peace, but he’s in trouble because he stole all the fine money and can’t pay it back. Candy makes a deal with him that he’ll help pay back the town and not squeal to his daughter, if the judge will work for him.

When a cheated gambler complains in Brazos’s Placer saloon, Candy takes his side and forces the crooked saloon owner and sheriff of this lawless town, Brazos (Dekker), into a game of Russian roulette. By a sleigh of the hand, Candy removed the bullet from the chamber and fooled Brazos into chickening out. As a result Candy wins a bundle from the one-dimensional villain and buys his own saloon, The Square-Deal, which puts a dent in Brazos’ business. Candy sweet talks Elizabeth’s landlady, the widow Mrs. Varner (Main), whose late husband was a reverend, by giving her a tidy sum to open up a church mission. He also starts courting Elizabeth, who is warned by Candy’s old friend and flame, the dance-hall gal with a golden heart, ‘Gold Dust’ Nelson (Trevor), that Candy is a con man who can never change and he’ll never marry her after offering her romance. This stirs Elizabeth into tricking Candy into marriage by getting him drunk, even though he’s on the wagon because when he drinks he makes bad decisions. When Elizabeth’s father finds out she married his fellow con man, the judge confesses he’s also a con man and even though her mother tried to change him she couldn’t. He believes all con man are alike and can’t change, and believes this to be a bad marriage for his daughter. As Candy rises in power and wealth through crooked schemes and owns the town, the judge tells everyone that his son-in-law is a crook and he can prove it. Things build up to a head when the judge refuses to leave town and attends a meeting of the town’s law abiding citizens, offering to provide them with a list of names and a rundown on all the schemes to give to a grand jury.

The melodramatics reaches an unfulfilling climax as Elizabeth has a miscarriage while taking a spill after her father is shot by the out-of-control Brazos, now one of Candy’s hired hands. Elizabeth goes through a life or death operation as Candy agonizes over her, meanwhile the irate citizens want to run Candy out of town and his gang wants to shoot it out with the citizens.

It all finally resolves as the Gable character again talks his way out of a bad situation and flees with Sniper for Cheyenne after leaving Lana a bundle of loot. But he secretly pines for her and sort of reforms. It ends in a deliriously mindless happy way as Lana receives a postcard from Sniper and joins her hubby in Cheyenne, and they embrace. The muddled message seems to be corruption and violence is not so bad if you love a woman and give some of your booty to charity. The film is mainly interesting because it couples for the first time the stunning Lana with the charismatic Gable, and they kept me interested in this less than ordinary film more than I should have been.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”