Tuesday, February 25, 2020


From the 30’s through the 50’s, JUDY CANOVA was the queen of country entertainment. Radio, films, records, TV, nightclub appearances, Broadway (she was in Ziegfeld Follies of 1936!), she conquered them all with her brash and outrageous over-the-top cornpone comedy (and her novelty singing, including first-rate yodeling). Her comedy persona was the kind of thing that would later have fit well in something like HEE HAW, and I’m surprised that she never did a guest shot on THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES (though according to the IMDB, she did play Mammy Yokum in a 1967 unsold TV pilot of LI’L ABNER, something that would have been right up her alley). She could probably be described as a country version of Martha Raye or Vera Vague, though she looked like neither, being dark-haired, almond-eyed, with sharp features, and sporting the downhome pig-tails and calico look. Look at her picture and imagine the exaggerated “howwww-DEE” greeting, as said by Minnie Pearl.

LAY THAT RIFLE DOWN was the final starring vehicle for her at Republic Pictures, with a run that lasted for 13 films over 15 years. As with her fellow Republic stars Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, after an initial period playing characters with other names, she finally played herself (or her public persona) in the last few vehicles, such as this one.

Republic’s distribution in its waning days was especially strong in moderate-sized towns in the Midwest and the South, and I’d imagine that this film would have gone over well with those audiences. Canova was a known quantity, and she was teamed up with director Charles Lamont, who started off in the silent era doing Big Boy comedy shorts at Educational Pictures (that alone would get him in the BTC Hall Of Fame!), then in the sound era did the majority of Buster Keaton’s fine shorts at Educational, and wound up at Universal doing many comedy classics with Abbott & Costello and with Ma and Pa Kettle. Since Canova’s comedy is very similar to the Kettles, the pairing of star Canova and director Lamont was a match made in country-comedy heaven. Interestingly, the two films Lamont made after this were both entries in successful series that replaced one of the main stars with someone else: THE KETTLES IN THE OZARKS, where Percy Kilbride was replaced by Arthur Hunnicutt, and FRANCIS IN THE HAUNTED HOUSE, where longtime companion to Francis The Talking Mule Donald O’Connor was replaced by Mickey Rooney. Also, to add insult to injury, Francis The Mule was not even voiced by Chill Wills in this film—Paul Frees was “doing” a Chill Wills imitation. I remember seeing that film as a child on TV and enjoying it since Mickey Rooney’s hamminess can take over the screen and make you forget everything else that’s happening other than The Mick and his antics.

The plot here—which on some level doesn’t even matter, since the film is just a vehicle for Canova’s comedy—is a kind of cross between Cinderella and a mystery-crime story. In an early scene, Canova gets in the mail the newest lesson from a correspondence-course charm school, and we see the bumbling Canova character in her room trying to practice the “elegant” prancing and posing described in the lesson. I can hear the audience in, say, Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, howling at her antics, and I would have been hooting and stamping right along with them. This scene also reminds me of the late great Jim Varney in his Ernest persona----one wonders if Varney as a child watched some Canova films on the local Tennessee UHF station. And just in case your heart-strings have not already been pulled by Judy’s working for the mean people at the hotel in a menial position, we find out that she takes the little money she does earn and uses it to keep up an old farm where an older man who drives a beat-up country taxi helps raise some orphan children, and of course the kids provide some country-style Our Gang-ish hijinks themselves. And if that’s not enough, when the kids throw a surprise birthday party for her, on a day that isn’t her birthday, Judy warbles a cute song about how “my birthday is my favorite day of the year,” with glockenspiel as a lead instrument in the orchestral backing. The only thing missing was Captain Kangaroo himself!

The Cinderella aspect of the story kicks in when Judy, who has led the mean-spirited people she lives and works with at the hotel to believe that a “feller” has been writing her, has her bluff called, and she winds up asking the first adult male to get off the bus in downtown “Greebville” to pretend to know her and be her boyfriend so as to shut up the hotel people who don’t believe her. And that “feller” is none other than ROBERT LOWERY! Yes, Batman from the 1949 Batman and Robin serial (my favorite Batman), who was recently championed here at BTC in the review of the 1962 Craig Hill film DEADLY DUO. For Judy, Lowery (who has always been good at comedy—his stuffy and bored performance as Bruce Wayne in the Batman serial is a hoot) is the dream date. Posing as Poindexter March III (!!!!), he charms everyone in town and has the meanies at the hotel now treating Judy like a queen, so they can win the favor of March/Lowery.

As you might expect, Judy’s farm isn’t exactly what it’s believed to be, and Robert Lowery had a specific reason to come to Greebville on the bus that magical day, and these elements keep the wheels rolling until Judy manages to put the meanies in their place, get rewarded out of the blue, and in the film’s climax, be toting that rifle referred to in the title. Also, even though Robert Lowery is essentially a swindler, he’s a charming swindler with a heart of gold, or so he shows himself to be as he’s taken away by the police. In the film’s final seconds, when banker Richard Deacon (!!!!) returns the deed to the farm to Judy AND we discover it’s got oil, she passes out, reminding us once again what a fine physical comedian Judy Canova is. She was 42 when the film was made, and her pigtails and girlish “aw shucks” mannerisms remind me of the scenes in the later Bowery Boys movies where the 40 year old Huntz Hall is dressed in a Little Lord Fauntleroy outfit. This kind of thing exists in some alternate universe….a universe where I want to be!

Judy Canova’s radio show went off the air, after more than a decade, in 1955, the year she appeared in this, her last starring film vehicle. She then moved on to television guest appearances (she was even on an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents) and went back to live performances in Vegas and in nightclubs across North America. It’s a shame she’s not remembered that much today. She carved out her own niche in the entertainment world of the 1930’s-1960’s, and she is able to carry this feature film effortlessly. She’s in virtually every scene, and though her persona is brash, she’s also shy and a wallflower, so the audience is not just laughing at her antics, they are rooting for her as an underdog. 65 years after this film was released, and 85 years after she exploded onto popular culture, Judy Canova is still working her magic on viewers like me!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Judy Canova did nothing wrong.