Irene Dunne and Randolph Scott try to Strike cinematic oil in Rouben Mamoulian’s mixed-up Musical 



High, Wide and Handsome”- no, it’s not a Robert Mitchum biopic.  The title belongs to the long-overlooked Paramount 1937 event picture starring Irene Dunne and Randolph Scott.  The film, directed by the great and respected Rouben Mamoulian, is a generally effective hodgepodge of strained romance, period drama, light comedy, big action, and musical performances.  The title makes little sense, yet somehow compliments its overall ambitious tone-shifting nature.

Designed as a musical from its fertile ground on up, High, Wide and Handsome boasts the considerable creative contributions of songwriters Oscar Hammerstein II and George O’Neil, and music by Jerome Kern.  Hammerstein II and Kern had collaborated on the game-changing megahit stage musical Show Boat and were still flying high a decade later.  With O’Neil, they’d create a batch of new songs for the fully original film High, Wideand Handsome, including “The Folks Who Live on the Hill” and “Can I Forget You?”.  The songs are fine; the problem is that they are so spaced out throughout the 110-minute run time that it’s easy to forget that this is supposed to be a musical.  Perhaps its musical sparseness is one reason why the movie struck a sour note at the box office, and subsequently fell into the register of obscurity.

The film’s story begins in the rural town of Titusville in western Pennsylvania in 1859.  One of those bombastic traveling medicine shows rolled into town and launched into a lively dance number just before Mamoulian’s opening fade in.  The first shot is a big pull-out from an attention-grabbing close-up of a singing Dunne, mid-title song.  “High! Wide! And Handsome…!”  Dunne is Sally Watterson, a joyous, clownish performer by nature.  She catches the eye of oil prospector and eligible bachelor Peter Cortlandt (Randolph Scott), who’s been so busy chasing his dream of striking oil to benefit the masses that he hasn’t gotten married.  After a fire leaves Sally stuck in town and living temporarily with Peter’s charitable grandmother (Elizabeth Patterson), the two are soon united in holy matrimony.  And just then, SHHHPOOOOSH!!!!!!  The well strikes oil!”

It’s around this point that it becomes difficult to gauge which of them the movie is supposed to be about.  Peter loves Sally but has no problem containing her to the boring house while he stays out obsessing over his booming oil well.  (For those impartial to theories that married life to a woman was never in Randolph Scott’s true nature, I give you the oft-phallically-symbolled High, Wide and Handsome).  He’s got powerful greedy capitalists (led by a conniving fat-cat named Walt Brennan, played with evil-laughing gusto by Alan Hale, Sr.) breathing down his neck and manipulating the playing board in efforts to overtake his business.  

If Peter can’t get his oil to a refinery, it’s useless… so the bad guys scheme to make train transportation impossible.  The solution?  Peter dreams up the first-ever oil pipeline.  (Kids, don’t use this as a reference for your oil pipeline history papers).  If he goes forward with such a major endeavor, it’ll likely destroy his marriage once and for all.  But imagine… oil for the masses!  We’re supposed to be rooting for him, at least to some degree.  But really… Oil for the masses?  What does that even mean??  What idealistic alternate universe is this movie happening in??  Hindsight being 20/20 and climate issues being what they are make this a far stickier wicket than anyone thought in 1937.  Meanwhile, just how will Sally- top-billed Irene Dunne- factor back into the story?  It all builds to an impressive climax (or do we go with “crescendo?”), that much is for sure.

Classic film buffs will want to check out KL Studio Classics’ new Blu-ray edition of High, Wide and Handsome, as it features a fantastic new HD master taken from a 4K scan courtesy of Universal Pictures (the corporate owner of the Paramount’s pre-1948 film catalog).  The Blu-ray has a new audio commentary by film historian Eddy Von Mueller.  Von Mueller does a solid job with this track, giving continuous scene specific disbursement of facts, observations, and even sharp opinions.  It’s also surprisingly funny, as his occasional dryly humorous asides serve to pep thing up.  The fact that this movie is asking us to root for a guy who’s trying to build the O.G. oil pipelineisn’t lost on him, that’s for sure.  The Blu-ray also features the film’s trailer newly mastered in 2K and optional English subtitles.

Mamoulian’s swinging, swooping camera perfectly captures the sprawling massive cliff-side brawl between Peter’s motley crew of proletarian pipe layers, Brennan’s legion of hired muscle, and the unexpected cavalry that rides in.  The songs aren’t all that memorable and Dunne, though radiant, has little to no chemistry with Scott.  Both, however, are satisfactory on their own, which is most of the film.  High, Wide and Handsome lands as a most curious odd duck… albeit one soaked in bubbling crude.