This article was written by James Brannan, the president of PEPS for the Singing Sweethearts Blogathon.
The silver screen magic created by Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy was so real, it was palpable. Thanks to the careful guidance of the Production Code Administration, these two remarkably talented performers were showcased in films suitable for all audiences. For the Singing Sweethearts Blogathon, I will write about an unusual picture set in the mid 19th century, in California, of all places! Released in 1938, after Maytime and before Sweethearts, The Girl of the Golden West was truly a departure for the singing pair. Originally an opera written by Giacomo Puccini, this story underwent important changes which made it not only morally acceptable but a more compelling romance. Careful examination of these changes will show why they caused this positive outcome. The hero, who actually grows up in a life of crime, transforms into a respectable citizen due to Code-driven life events. The love of a good woman and the influence of a clergyman cause him to ultimately choose good over evil, allowing him and his bride to ride off into the sunset.
Although the opera written by Puccini was a fine work, major plot changes were needed for it to be a good Code film. In the opera, Ramerez is introduced as a mature man and hardened criminal. On the other hand, the film contains a “prologue” to the story which shows Ramerez as a young boy named Gringo (Bill Cody Jr.). He is living with Mexican bandits led by his adoptive father, General Ramerez (Noah Beery). Sensitivity is seen in the boy when Father Sienna (H.B. Warner), a missionary loosely based on Father Junipero Serra, encourages the boy to pursue a life of peace, rather than one of crime; Gringo responds to the kind missionary’s plea. However, when Ramerez is mortally wounded in a gun battle, Gringo rejects religion, at least for the time being. We next see Gringo as a young man, returning to camp on horseback with his banditos; he has now taken the name Ramerez. As in many of his other pictures, Nelson Eddy enters the film leading a group of men in song with his impressive baritone voice. The song is “Soldiers of Fortune,” which he sang for the older Ramerez as a boy. As the film progresses, Ramerez the bandit behaves more like Robin Hood than a hardened criminal, giving the impression that perhaps Father Sienna’s influence still exists deep in his heart.
I spoke of the love of a good woman as being influential in Ramerez’s leaving his criminal life. The bandit first meets Mary Robbins (Jeanette MacDonald) as he and his gang are holding up a stage coach headed from the town of Cloudee to Monterey. Mary owns a saloon in Cloudee known as “The Polka;” she is going to Monterey to visit her dear friend Father Sienna, who has known her since she first came to California. In fact, Ramerez first saw and heard Mary singing a lovely song around a campfire when he was a lad, which was a moment he would never forget. Ramerez is immediately smitten by Mary’s beauty and her feisty personality as he is robbing the stage. He lets her keep a necklace which belonged to her mother and treats her respectfully, in spite of the slap in the face she gives in response to his flirtations. Later, Ramerez comes to the Polka dressed in plain clothes with plans to steal the gold stashed there. He is shocked to see that the proprietor is the lovely Mary, whom he followed and wooed in Monterey disguised as a lieutenant. Ramerez again shows decency when he refrains from robbing the Polka after Mary tells him about the men who have mined so hard for their families; this implies that his transformation from criminal to respectable citizen is truly taking place.
Regarding Father Sienna’s influence on Nelson Eddy’s character, the following facts play a big part in his transformation. Early in the film, a confrontation takes place between Father Sienna, General Ramerez, and Gringo after the boy shoots a lamb with his bow and arrow. Ramerez gives Gringo a medal for killing the animal, but Father Sienna offers Gringo a different medal, which is not for bravery but for peace. Ramerez combatively argues that the white men aren’t coming for peace but to take the Indians’ land, trying to show hypocrisy in the priest’s belief that the settlers mean no harm. In response, Father Sienna says that men don’t have to rob and mistrust each other like animals. When the General tells his boy to translate his statement to the Indians, Gringo refuses, saying, “I believe the Padre.” Unfortunately, Gringo’s new found faith is shattered when Ramerez is fatally wounded in a gun battle with some white homesteaders. Gringo angrily yanks the religious pin off his tunic and throws it away. Earlier I mentioned that Nelson Eddy’s Ramerez is more like Robin Hood than a vicious villain. Another proof of this is seen when he slips a bag of gold into the mission offering box while in Monterey, showing that he is the mysterious giver who regularly gives Father Sienna money to help the Indians. Thus, although he is hardly a Christian at this point, it is obvious that he still remembers what Father Sienna told him as a boy.
Before concluding this “cause and effect” analysis of The Girl of the Golden West, I should mention the strong performances given by the supporting actors in this film. Jack Rance, Cloudee’s poker-playing sheriff, is played with forceful personality by the handsome Walter Pidgeon. Buddy Epsen is excellent as the shy blacksmith named Alabama who has a crush on Mary. Mosquito, the loyal Mexican bandit who accompanies Ramerez on all his escapades, is played with charming humor by Leo Carillo. The rest of the cast is filled with supporting actors who round out the character list with accuracy and charm.
During the years the Production Code was enforced in Hollywood by Joseph Breen, many books and plays were carefully made into films, often a difficult and painstaking task. In the case of The Girl of the Golden West, great effort was made to create compensating moral values for Ramerez and Mary, which the opera lacked. The end was anticlimactic as Mary (actually Minnie in the opera) secures Ramerez’s escape from the hangman’s noose by demanding his release at gunpoint. They then ride off into the sunset, both fugitives from justice. In the movie, the audience is relieved of this burden, thanks to the caring guidance of Joseph Breen and his staff at the PCA. In the climax of this great film, Mary secures Ramerez’s freedom by winning a poker game with Sheriff Rance, but at a great price. She agrees to marry Rance in exchange for the criminal’s freedom. Mary and Sheriff Rance go to Monterey to be married by Father Sienna. We find that Ramerez is already at the mission asking forgiveness from the padre; he tells the priest that he is Gringo from many years back. Even after he reveals himself to be the notorious bandit Ramerez, Father Sienna welcomes and graciously forgives him. As Jack and Mary greet the padre in the mission and prepare to sign the marriage documents, Mary hears humming from the courtyard. She wanders toward the sound and finds Ramerez at the fountain. Jack hears her tell the other man how much she loves him. He wants to kill the outlaw, but his love for Mary shows him that vengeance won’t win him her love. He tells Father Sienna, “Padre, I think you’ve got the wrong name in your book.” Admitting his defeat, Jack Rance does the proper thing and goes back to Cloudee, leaving Ramerez and Mary to be joined in matrimony by Father Sienna. This was not only a satisfying romantic ending; it was also a necessary Code element of the story. If the sheriff had not released Ramerez, our hero, at this point, he, the representation of the law, would have become the villain. This would have turned the movie into a pre-Code style gangster film of the old West instead of the beautiful Code film it is!
Thanks to the careful guidance of the PCA, this grand film of the Golden Era ends with our reformed singing bandit riding off into the sunset with his Girl of the Golden West!
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