Two Canadian stars of the classic era that I enjoy–especially together–are Yvonne De Carlo and Rod Cameron. They were in Salome, Where she Danced (1945) and River Lady (1948), a great western I briefly covered here, and for this blogathon I wanted to revisit their rocky relationship in Frontier Gal, a fluffy, farcical western romantic comedy twist on The Taming of the Shrew.
Jonathan Hart (Cameron) wanders into town looking for a certain man, and lusts after fiery saloon owner Lorena (De Carlo) the moment he lays eyes on her. Their chemistry is hot and their attraction mutual, but they’re so stubborn and independent they clash like rams. They get to know each other in an extended and passionate slap-kiss-slap routine that sets the pattern for the rest of their tumultuous relationship, in which “I hate you” means the opposite, and spanking means really caring. Johnny plays rough but Lorena gives as good as she gets, braining him with a bottle of whisky (she started it all with that, actually), chucking logs at him, and slapping him so hard the whole busy saloon stops and stares.
During their first meeting, Johnny toys with Lorena’s emotions, and she understandably misinterprets his advances, her reaction, and the ring he gives her, as a proposal. The next morning she’s outraged to learn she’s only a “colt” for a good time, and Johnny would only marry a real “Lady.” Lorena’s form of impulsive revenge and face-saving is forcing the wedding anyway, then exposing his criminal past and watching him go to prison for 6 years. When he returns seeking divorce so he can marry his Lady love, schoolteacher Sheila (Jan Wiley), he’s shocked to meet Mary Ann (very cute and funny Beverly Simmons), his daughter with Lorena. Things get complicated thanks to Lorena’s jealous suitor Blackie (Sheldon Leonard), a custody dispute and Sheila’s spinster aunt (Clara Blandick). The cast also includes Andy Devine (who drinks beers as big as his head), Andrew Tombes and Fuzzy Knight (count the ways Fuzzy can rhyme Lorena in song: “why are you so mean-a?” “married and treated like a Queen-a.”)
Johnny starts out as a he-man woman-hater, Lorena as the last woman you should judge or scorn, and this is the story of how they break each other and admit their love. Lorena closes down her beloved saloon (not before we get some songs, dubbed) to prove she can be a proper wife and mother, but it turns out the real “taming” here is of Johnny, who eventually adjusts his idea of what a Lady is, and what a Woman he already has in Lorena. A big part of that taming is done by feisty, inquisitive Mary Ann, who follows Johnny around, pestering him with endless questions and generally cramping his style as a big scary gunman.
A lot of the story’s twists and challenges come from Johnny and Blackie presuming to decide what’s best for Lorena or Mary Ann, but the men also get throughly educated about the capabilities and strength of women and the pitfalls of underestimating them. In one fun example, Mary Ann shouts from her bedroom–daddy there’s a rattlesnake–to which Johnny predictably shouts back it must all be in her imagination and why doesn’t she shoot it, ha ha. The ensuing gunshot has him running to her side and marvelling at the girl’s deadly aim against the very real rattler.
The whole crazy romance ends happily, after a thrilling finale involving a kidnapping, a chase where the wheels literally come off, and Mary Ann in jeopardy high above a raging river. In real life this would be one exhausting couple but De Carlo and Cameron make this stormy affair fun to watch.