Australian Outback Western… With Opera!



According to William Wellman Jr., son of director William Wellman and author of 2015’s acclaimed biography Wild Bill Wellman: Hollywood Rebel, 1934’s RKO production Stingaree was his father’s second film as a freelance independent, which he would remain for the rest of his Hollywood career, after completing a contract with Warner Brothers [1]. I sincerely hope that the elder Wellman either spotted the eye-catching title at random during his moment of career transition or, like me, was simply inspired by the romantic-sounding dimensions of an intriguing though oddly unfamiliar word. An hour and 17 minutes of screen derring-do, operatic musical stylings, and off-Hollywood location ranch photography – meant to stand in for 1874 Australia – may ultimately give one the vague idea that Stingaree means “Outback Outlaw”, but the Pre-Code film, based on Raffles author Ernest William Hornung’s 1905 adventure tale, is more a vigorous excuse for pure movie entertainment. Starring Irene Dunne and with Richard Dix in the title role, co-stars of RKO’s 1931 Academy Award-winning Cimarron, Stingaree is Classic Hollywood’s first (and possibly only) Australian Outback Western… with opera!

The setting is indeed Australia of 1874, with the rural Mexican-seeming cantina that opens the film nicely informing us of the Robin Hood-like gentleman thief stalking the Outback through the lyrical content of its resident guitar-strumming, sombrero-type-hatted minstrel. Like a marsupial phantom on the British Colonial range, the local law enforcement (George Barraud as Inspector Radford) proves barely equal to the outlaw of 1000 disguises, whose flat, 20th century American accent (actor Dix’s own) can apparently stand in for everyone from a musical aesthete (Conway Tearle as Sir Julian Kent) to, at the movie’s conclusion, the Colony’s Governor-General (Reginald Owen). In between, Stingaree of song, legend, and horse-galloping acumen indulges his patronage of and noble romantic interest in talented servant-girl Hilda Bouverie (Dunne), who, through the desperado’s ingenious machinations escapes the drudgery of her wealthy employers, the Clarksons (Henry Stephenson and Mary Boland) – notably at a high-class parlor gathering, where Stingaree and his frog-swallow-voiced partner Howie (Andy Devine) hold a captive audience of their betters at gunpoint to Hilda’s singing performance – and subsequently makes a grand operatic tour of Europe.

As ridiculously fun as it might all sound, director Wellman is refreshingly aware of the story’s compelling absurdities, injecting the scaled-back production with comic business and performances that enrich the otherwise preposterous main storyline. Shrieking Una O’Connor and droopy-mustache silent comedian Snub Pollard liven the dreary Clarkson estate as bustling servants, while Mary Boland as Mrs. Clarkson proves a strangely endearing portrait of musical self-delusion, her off-key caterwaulings providing equal or better entertainment value to the more musical strains of Miss Dunne’s more polished vocal inflections. And nothing can beat Andy Devine’s entrance to the tavern in a disguised clerical collar; which he reverently turns inwards to properly inform the patrons, in his best-accented hoarse-whisper, to stand-and-deliver.

Stingaree was among a collection of RKO films whose rights were sold to producer Merian C. Cooper (King Kong [1933]) in the late ‘40s as compensation for unpaid salary during his stint at the studio during the 1930s. As aforementioned William Wellman Jr.’s feature-length commentary accompanying Kino Lorber’s 2018 Blu-ray informs us, the film went unseen for decades, beyond a one-time television showing in the late 1950s, and was among the films whose making he knew least about when preparing his father’s biographies. Restored to public view, thanks to Turner Classic Movies’ Lost & Found RKO DVD collection from a decade ago, and now further restored to pristine high-definition, thanks to Kino Lorber’s present 2K release on Blu-ray, Stingaree can now be fully appreciated for its story-subversive savvy and pleasurably bizarre mixture of seemingly unmixable Classic Hollywood genres. In other words, if you see only one historical Australian Outback Western Comedy Musical this year, make it Stingaree.

[1] William Wellman Jr.’s feature-length commentary for Kino Lorber’s recent Blu-ray release of Stingaree, recorded in 2018.

The images used in this review are credited to DVDBeaver and are taken directly from Kino Lorber’s March 2018 Blu-ray release of 1934’s Stingaree.