Western flick packs a comedic punch

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Recently, I came across an old movie on television I had not seen previously that turned out to be a true gem, although not for reasons a motion picture is usually judged.

The movie, titled “California Mail,” was a 1936 western feature starring Dick Foran, “The Singing Cowboy,” along with his trusty mount, “Smoke the Wonder Horse.”

The film might best be described as a low-budget project possessing little, if any, direction, editing, character development, script, continuity or any other qualities that most good movies possess.

Yet, despite all that, this offering was a comedy classic full of funny surprises.

While I am fairly certain the movie was not originally intended to be a comedy, the filmmakers were able to cram plenty of goof-ups, mistakes and editing errors into 55 minutes of action.

As the show began, I really wasn’t looking for flubs — but after they started, I was hooked.

My guess is the entire film was shot in a couple of hours with no retakes.

The movie opens simply enough with Foran, portraying a Pony Express rider during the 1860s, aboard Smoke somewhere between Missouri and California.

The fun begins when a group of Indian braves attacks Foran and Smoke along the trail.

To prepare the ambush scene, the production crew must have instructed the costume department to dress up a few extras to resemble Indians with no regard whatsoever for accuracy.

All the dozen or so attackers are fully clad in ceremonial headdress war bonnets, the kind that would only be worn by chiefs.

It was a case of too many chiefs and not enough Indians and made for a hilarious scene.

Throughout the film Foran and Smoke encounter gun battles, fistfights, stagecoach robberies, a leap off a cliff and various other chases all while both were wearing bulky, ceremonial costumes more like they would both have worn for an event like the Rose Bowl parade.

In the cliff-jump scene, Foran and Smoke leap together into a raging river, similar to the one as seen in the movie “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”

Amazingly, following the dive and after fighting the river for a few hundred yards, Foran exits the water with a totally dry outfit, hair neatly in place and still wearing a clean, new-looking 10-gallon hat.

Later on, a fistfight between Foran and the bad guy ends up totally harmless, more closely resembling a playful struggle between two kittens than a fight. The director must have instructed the actors to be extra careful and not get hurt.

As an unexpected bonus, the movie also includes a square dance scene that has nothing to do with the plot except the dance caller is a young Roy Rogers, future “King of The Cowboys,” in an uncredited film role several years before his movie career had begun.

Near the film’s conclusion and without any prior warning, Foran and a lady friend suddenly get married in a quickie church ceremony followed by him singing to her as they leave in a stagecoach.

Even with all the other good stuff, my favorite scene in the movie occurs when Foran and Smoke gallop along together on a dusty trail while Foran belts out a song.

As the camera gradually pans back, the viewer can clearly see the horse and rider are actually trotting right in the middle of a paved, two-lane blacktop asphalt highway complete with painted lines and markings.

It wouldn’t have been so bad except this was during the 1860s, which was just a wee bit before highways were built.

Keith Barnes, a Wilson storyteller and author, is news editor of the Kenly News, where this column originally appeared.