Today we reminisce about
The King and Four Queens (1956)
Directed by Raoul Walsh
Starring: Clark Gable, Eleanor Parker, Jo Van Fleet
* Published specifically for Dear Mr. Gable: A Celebration of the King of Hollywood hosted by Michaela at Love Letters to Old Hollywood *
Being an iconic actor or actress has its advantages and disadvantages for the thespian(s) in question but also for audiences. Most of the positives and negatives have to do with expectations. Once someone becomes very popular and has a string of hit films, it is hard to fall out of that image by being cast into lesser roles and underperforming box office features. Moreover, it is tough on moviegoers who want to be fulfilled by seeing their favourite performer(s) in the types of roles and films in which they grew to adore them. This is referred to as the inevitable career decline.
Clark Gable was one of the lucky ones in that he never suffered from being labelled a box-office bomb, always remaining a very popular actor throughout his career. In fact, in the infamous 1938 Independent Film Journal article “Box Office Poison” written by Harry Brandt, Gable was one of the few to be considered as deserving of his high salary*. Nearly 15 years later, however, MGM would feel quite the opposite about Gable and the other remaining active actors on Brandt’s complimentary list. The studio was losing money due to changes in audience tastes and rising, stiff competition from television and they no longer believed that any of these players were worth their hefty price tags. “Since Gable was so identified with the studio, Dore Schary didn’t want to lose him, but the most he could offer was a two-year extension of Gable’s current contract, but with no profit participation as (his agent) Chasin had been demanding.”1 The choice was easy for Gable who refused to renew his contract and left MGM in March 1954 never again to return. There were no adieus or demonstrations of affection for the former King of MGM, something which hurt him deep down. “It is not that Clark expected a party, but he felt bad that the studio whose reputation he helped building in the thirties treated him so shabbily because of economic difficulties.”2
The next year in 1955, Gable would go to work on two films, one of which was Raoul Walsh’s The Tall Men for 20th Century Fox co-starring Jane Russell and Robert Ryan. It was around the same time that he started up his own production company which was called Gabco Productions, a name thought up by Chasin. Gable’s first joint venture would be with Russ-Field Productions which was owned by Russell and her husband Bob Waterfield for a project titled The Last Man in Wagon Mound. It would be Gable’s first time acting as a producer with no experience under his belt although at the time he signed-up for the project, he was more interested in earning percentage benefits than anything else. As a result, the experience of behind-the-scenes filmmaking came crashing down on him, making Gable awfully miserable and fatigued with the whole process. He would never produce another film.
The Last Man in Wagon Mound would be entirely filmed under this name but when it came time for distribution, United Artists decided on changing the title to The King and Four Queens. Released right after Christmas Day in 1956, “it flopped at the box office and received unfavorable reviews.”3 Despite having a strong cast with veteran Broadway actress Jo Van Fleet and notable supporting actress Eleanor Parker, the story itself largely went nowhere. Even celebrated director Raoul Walsh could not help the situation, initially coming to the project as a favour to Gable. Ironically, he would come to Gable’s rescue once more for his next film, 1957’s Band of Angels for Warner Bros. These three films in a row would mark the only occasions that the two men worked together. Unfortunately, The King and Four Queens would be their least successful project.
In the film, Gable plays Dan Kehoe, a man whose background and intentions are never quite initially explained. According to the AFI entry for The King and Four Queens, Kehoe is referred to as a confidence man, a term that originated from an 1849 legal case in New York City involving Samuel Thompson. Thompson’s “gambit was to engage strangers in conversation, often pretending a prior acquaintanceship”* which allowed him to exploit a strangers’ confidence. While Thompson used this tactic to commit petty theft, Kehoe used it to gain inside information and pass himself off as someone close to a situation.
Kehoe arrives in the Old Western town of Touchstone and quickly becomes acquainted with a couple of the locals, an undertaker and a bartender. They recant the story of the four McDade brothers who robbed a stagecoach of $100,000 in gold pieces. During a shoot-out with the authorities, three of the brothers were killed in an explosion; the identity of the fourth surviving brother never being discovered. In the aftermath, matriarch Ma McDade (Jo Van Fleet) decides to move to Wagon Mound with her sons’ widows and wait for the return of her lone living son in order to share the stolen loot that has been secretly hidden. Only Ma knows where it is. Upon hearing the details, Kehoe decides to go to Wagon Mound on his own to seize the opportunity to reclaim the gold for himself. Inside of riding in calmly, he decides to pretend that he is being chased by fast approaching gunmen. When Ma sees this, she naturally feels threatened and shoots at Kehoe with a shotgun, injuring him in his shoulder. The women go to his aid and treat him, being far more welcoming after he insists that he was intentionally sent there, suggesting that it was surviving McDade brother who advised him to come.
For over two years, the women have been on their own without much – if any – contact with the outside world and not surprisingly, they immediately become drawn to the dark and handsome Kehoe. He is noticeably attracted to Sabina (Eleanor Parker), a standoffish beauty who was married to one of the brothers for only 2 hours time before his death. She rebuffs his attempts to seduce her although he does manage to steal a kiss. As a matter of fact, Kehoe manages to tangle the other three sisters around his finger, all of them thinking that they will have a future with them. All of them have pretty much given up hope that the remaining brother will come back but will not abandon Ma who is utterly disgusted at their harlot-like behaviour around Kehoe. He does not mind the extra female attention as it helps him pass the time while he tries to figure out Ma’s hiding place.
This is pretty much the extent of the plot. Aside from the last 10 minutes or so, the film is mostly focused on Kehoe acting as a Casanova and butting heads with Ma. As the time stamp comes close to the one hour mark, it becomes a bit worrisome to see that so little has been achieved in the story. The film itself is only 86 minutes long which is the average length for a fast paced romantic comedy, certainly not fitting for a Raoul Walsh-directed Western. It really makes me wonder what they were thinking when making this film. Even though Gable had limited experience behind the camera, he was well-seasoned in starring in them and also being an avid viewer of them. Sadly, The King and Four Queens just seems like a drawn out session of spin the bottle with Gable proving that even at 55, he could still command the affections of any and every woman around.
To their credit, the producers and Walsh did ensure that the film was visually enhanced by shooting it in CinemaScope and De Luxe Color. I have always enjoyed seeing certain Western states, especially the Arizona deserts and Monument Valley, photographed in motion pictures. Viewing the film in high definition is a real treat in that sense. The soundtrack is also quite nice and lively, reminding me somewhat of the theme from 1960’s The Magnificent Seven.
Long-time fans of Clark Gable will undoubtedly appreciate seeing this film if only to be able to complete the totality of his filmography. Since this is also a project in which he was very personally involved, it certainly stands out from the rest of his work. There is some quality involved in this production which should be appreciated in light of it overall falling short of everyone’s hopes. It is hard to believe that Gable would have only four years left to live after completing this film. His physique and still head-turning looks do not suggest this whatsoever. Despite not being impressed by the film, I am glad that I watched it and hope that, with time, my initial evaluation will grow into something more positive.
- Jo Van Fleet was an attractive woman who was often cast in roles that made her appear much older. In reality, she was only 6 ½ years older than Eleanor Parker and Jean Willes, who played her daughter-in-law Ruby. Fleet was nearly 15 years younger than Clark Gable!
- Rumour has it that Gable felt upstaged by Fleet’s performance and personally edited out several of her scenes, perhaps also explaining why the story lacks oomph and why it is decidedly short-running.
- Several endings were shot with the eventual winner being chosen by test audiences. Evidence of this is in the picture below, which is very different from the actual ending:
Clark Gable: A Biography by Warren G. Harris / 1 – pg. 334, 2 – pg. 336, 3 – pg. 348
The United Artists Story by Ronald Bergan