The King and Four Queens Review
Disingenuous drifter Clark Gable rides into Wagon Mound with the intention of finding thousands of dollars worth of gold coins, stolen and hidden by the brothers McDade before three of the four met their untimely death in an explosion. The brothers' bodies couldn't be identified so the lone survivor's identity is unknown. When Gable's Dan Kehoe learns the story in town he slyly heads to the dwelling place of the McDade clan, now reduced to just the matriarch (Jo Van Fleet) and four husbandless wives. The Van Fleet character doesn't take much to strangers and shoots Kehoe off his horse. Now wounded with a nasty hole in his arm, Kehoe is somewhat reluctantly allowed to heal there by Mrs. McDade as the wives prepare to circle the first man they've been around in two years like dogs in heat.
The King and Four Queens is a sometimes plodding, too often slick and actionless western directed by Raoul Walsh in the early twilight of his career. Gable would've been about 55 at the time of filming, four years and six more movies from death. It shows. Kehoe possesses little vitality, even less vigor. He's barely interested in the wives and only plays the part in the hope of locating the gold. While it's not a terrible detriment to have an aged protagonist, the lack of any real action slows the pace to a crawl. The substitute is one of interaction - between Gable and the ladies. Van Fleet is hardened and ferocious as Ma, and never once backs down from anything. In contrast to Gable's advanced age, she was only around 40 and had just broken into movies the year before with East of Eden. What an actress though. She has full grey hair and the drive of a mother who's lost all four grown sons at the same time but still certain one will return. Her intensity alone makes the film worth watching. Gable's pussyfooting around and Van Fleet looks ready to destroy something with her eyes at any moment.
The downtime at Wagon Mound, which takes up nearly the whole of the picture, is made more bearable by Eleanor Parker, playing the smartest and most cunning of the wives. I found myself overthinking the expected double cross, which probably gives the simple screenplay too much credit. It at least passed the time. Otherwise, too much story is spent on the (hopefully intentionally) ridiculous wives and their attempts to impress Gable. The three besides Parker consist of a beautiful, innocent blonde (Sara Shane), a sultry, raven-haired beauty (Jean Willes), and a buxom ditz (Barbara Nichols). It's a movie, but in what alternate universe would these ladies be married to four criminal siblings? Nichols especially is lost on me. She's nice enough to look at but any possibility of realism vanishes. They actually make Van Fleet look like she's the one in the wrong film.
Walsh's strong direction and some warm western landscapes framed by Lucien Ballard in CinemaScope hold things together well enough to make the viewer temporarily forget nothing much is going on most of the time. The idea that we don't exactly know Kehoe's plan or how much knowledge the women have about the stolen gold also works in the film's favor. A little suspense is, perhaps unexpectedly, built from this. The short run time (just over 80 minutes on this disc) never lets things go completely stagnant either. The surprise then comes when something of interest does finally occur, right as Kehoe readies his exit, and it's rushed through like the audience has a collective curfew. The end of the plot fits as it should, but the handling disappoints.
As things would have it, The King and Four Queens is making its R2 debut just a couple of weeks prior to MGM's edition coming out in R1. Both are fairly cheap and bare.
The Optimum PAL release is on a single-layered disc and has been transferred progressively. The aspect ratio is about 2.30:1, enhanced for widescreen displays. The film was shot in CinemaScope with DeLuxe color. The opening shots show obvious grain but levels tend to settle down as the film goes on, with occasional noise still visible quite often. Colors generally seem bright and fairly vivid when necessary. Some general softness is also an issue, hindering the level of detail. This isn't a terrifically film-like transfer, even appearing on the blotchy side, but the print used at least looks impressive and clean, with no damage to report.
The English mono audio track is our only option. It's highly competent, yet still unremarkable. Dialogue and the western-y score can be heard clearly and at a consistent level of volume. Nothing exerts itself too much. Early on, there's a scene where the audio does seem to go out of sync with the picture. It's corrected soon and doesn't happen again. Optimum again fails to rise to normal levels of expectation by withholding a subtitle track. It's difficult to imagine this would be so difficult a task at this point in the game.
Not an extra in sight here.