Sunday, 2 December 2012

Carry on cowboy… The Lady of the Dugout (1918)

Alphonso J. "Al" Jennings
Ah, when is a story ever actually based on real events…

Al Jennings was a notorious character who emerged from the “wild” west to make his mark on popular culture and on early cinema. A former attorney he had turned to crime following the fatal shooting of one of his brothers by another lawyer. He enjoyed a largely unsuccessful criminal career in late 1897 along with his elder brother Frank and was sent down for life after being found guilty of train robbery and assault with intent to kill an officer of the law... Frank got five years.

Al and Frank Jennings
Following legal activity from another brother, both had their sentences reduced on a technicality and, bizarrely, Al received a full pardon from President Roosevelt in 1907; Teddy being convinced he had fought against the Spanish as a Rough Rider.

In prison he had befriended writer William Sydney Porter (“O. Henry”, later to write The Cisco Kid) and picked up tips on narrative techniques. But when it came to story-telling it seems that Al was a natural and he started to spin new and ever more elaborate versions of his life of crime. Naturally he began to become involved in cinema and the re-invention of the West in general and himself in particular.

Gentleman Jennings
The Lady of The Dug-Out was produced by Jenning’s own company and purported to be based on actuality. It starred Al and his brother Frank as themselves: two heroic figures who robbed from the rich only to give to the poor (and themselves). Their hearts of gold are touched when they encounter the Lady of the dug-out (Corrine Grant) living in poverty with her young son (Ben Alexander) and all but deserted by her soak of a husband (Joseph Singleton). They resolve to use their ill-gotten gains for good…

Al and Frank meet the Lady at the dug-out
Directed by W.S. “One-shot” Van Dyke, who was also credited as co-writer with Al, the film is well made entertainment. The boys are not the greatest actors but there’s no denying that Al has magnetism – even at 55 he looked a more than capable outlaw.

The story stars with the boys staging an opportunist robbery as Al overhears of $5,000 being deposited in the town bank. They make their escape and head out over the plains where they encounter the Lady living in a home literally dug-out of the desert: a startling construct that reflects the grim life awaiting those who failed to prosper in the "new" territories.

Corrine Grant and Ben Alexander
She hasn’t eaten for two days and so Al heads off on a 24 miles round trip to fetch some vittles, leaving Frank to get acquainted and to hear how the Lady came to live in poverty. She is the daughter of a wealthy plantation owner who threw her out when she wanted to marry one his hands.

The two bought a house with what money she had but ended up defaulting on their mortgage as her husband descended into alcoholic inactivity and they ended up scratching a living in the middle of nowhere... she spends her life watching and waiting that he will return sober and with food...

Corrine Grant
The story within a story (within a whopper!) works well and is an unusual narrative turn for the time. Corrine Grant is excellent and she has to be to carry so much of the dramatic force. She’s ably supported by young Ben Alexander who later featured in the Dragnet TV series.

The Jennings boys leave all of the food for the mother and son and head off. Frank has been touched by her plight and they decide to exact revenge on the banker who took the Lady’s money.

Al makes a withdrawal

After a successful robbery they return to find the Lady being abused by her drunken husband who is less than impressed with their attempts to help his wife. He heads off to the saloon but returns with a posse to arrest the boys. There’s a gun-fight in which the boys dig their way to freedom and the husband gets shot… the Lady is all alone but not help-less.

Al and Frank return her and the boy to her parents who welcome her with open arms: all forgiven. They ride off into the sunset for more altruistic adventures…

OK, it’s easy to make light of Al Jennings’ way with the truth but you have to be impressed with his energy and his chutzpah! He lived well into his 90’s and advised on many a B-movie western. There’s a fascinating interview with him on the DVD commentary – still weaving outlandish tales even at 94, he says that he fought in the Civil War even though he was only born in 1863!

The overwhelming impression is that The Lady of the Dug-Out is a genuine display of the spirit of the 1890s when a man’s force of personality could take him anywhere, beyond the law as well as believability. Good enough for Teddy Roosevelt, we should cut Al some slack, whilst not condoning his crimes. After all… in all the trains and banks he (tried) to rob he never shot no-one… and, as Alias Smith and Jones, Butch and Sundance and others have shown, we like some outlaws we can forgive.

Ben Alexander and Corrine Grant
The Lady of the Dug-Out is part of the superb three-disc Treasures from the American Film Archives 5: The West, 1898-1938 from the National Film Preservation Foundation. There’s over 10 hours of material including a pristine print of Clara Bow’s favourite film Mantrap (I briefly covered it here but this new print is so much better).

It’s available from all good online retailers and is exceptional value - I would have been happy with Clara alone but The Lady of the Dug-Out is one of many superb surprises. The Western wasn't just a genre but a way of life...

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