The King and Four Queens (1956)
“THE KING TANGLES WITH FLESH AND FLAME IN THE HOTTEST WESTERN EVER MADE!”
Director: Raoul Walsh
Cast: Clark Gable, Eleanor Parker, Jean Willes
Synopsis: Opportunistic con man Dan Kehoe ingratiates himself with the cantankerous mother of four outlaws and their beautiful widows in order to find their hidden gold.
The way that Raoul Walsh’s The King and Four Queens begins with Clark Gable’s con man Dan Kehoe being pursued across rugged terrain by a trio of horsemen, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this is a movie that’s going to be jam-packed full of action. In fact, that couldn’t be further from the truth. The King and Four Queens is a turgid melodrama that goes nowhere for most of its running time before coming up with an unexpectedly cynical ending.
Kehoe evades his pursuers and pitches up in some nothing little town where he learns of old Ma McDade (Jo Van Fleet — East of Eden, Cool Hand Luke — who was actually only forty-two when she made this movie), and her four daughters-in-law who live on a ranch a little way out of town. This old woman is the mother of the McDade boys, a notorious gang of villains, all but one of whom have recently been slaughtered. The identity of the surviving brother is unknown, although he’s rumoured to be hiding out in the hills surrounding the ranch, just waiting for the opportunity to come down and claim the small fortune his Ma is guarding for him. Naturally, an incorrigible rogue like Kehoe is incapable of resisting the lure of all that loot just waiting to be stolen.
Even though he announces his arrival on the ranch by firing his gun into the air, Kehoe still earns a gun wound to the arm for his troubles from the rifle of Ma McDade but, after some toing-and-froing between Ma and her four daughters-in-law, Kehoe is taken under their roof for one night only while he recovers. Naturally, Kehoe manages to extend that stay and wastes no time playing each of the four women off one another in his attempt to learn the whereabouts of the McDades’ ill-gotten gains.
And what women they are! There’s no doubting the McDade boys sure can pick them. Not only are they each beautiful, they also haven’t known a man’s touch for a couple of years, so the sexual tension in the air is as thick as fog on a riverbank. The McDade women run the entire spectrum of womanhood: there’s the predatory Ruby (Jean Willes — 5 Against the House, Invasion of the Body Snatchers), a hard-boiled femme-fatale type, the playful Birdie (Barbara Nichols — River of No Return, Sweet Smell of Success), a sexually coquettish woman-child, the comparatively prim Oralie (Sara Shane), whose primness conceals a burning sexual frustration, and Sabina (Eleanor Parker — Escape from Fort Bravo), easily the most self-assured of the four women.
With Gable outnumbered by these women five-to-one, it doesn’t take long to realise that The King and Four Queens is a Western written for women, which means it’s big on seething emotions and not so keen on gunfights or brawls. Trying to make a Western that will appeal to women makes about as much sense as making a romantic comedy designed to appeal primarily to men, but the idea adds to the faint whiff of desperation about the project. Gable was fifty-five when he made this movie, and although he looks better here than in other movies he made in the fifties, he still isn’t exactly a youthful fifty-five. His box-office appeal was fading fast in a year that saw the explosion of rock ‘n’ roll and youth culture, and he must have been seen as something of a throwback to a bygone era. The movie’s title plays on his former reign as the King of Hollywood back in the 1930s, but he’s far too old for the role — and not roguish enough — and scenes in which he seduces attractive women twenty and thirty years his junior simply don’t work (Gable was even thirteen years older than Van Fleet!).
All this combines to make The King and Four Queens a dull plod of a movie. To its credit, it does manage to come up with an ending that defies our expectations — and which would have never got past the censors just a few years before — but it’s far too late to salvage much from the wreckage which has preceded it.
(Reviewed 27th February 2014)