Smooth-talking cowboy Dan Kehoe (Clark Gable) arrives at a remote ranch looking to learn where the McDade gang buried the gold from their last property. Dan immediately works his charm on the McDade's four widows: spicy Ruby (Jean Willes), meek religious Oralie (Sara Shane), airheaded dancehall girl Birdie (Barbara Nichols) and shrewd Sabina (Eleanor Parker), but runs afoul of formidable matriarch Ma McDade (Jo Van Fleet) who doesn’t trust him at all and is determined to keep him far away from the beautiful, man-hungry widows.
The King and Four Queens was the first film produced by star Clark Gable who found the experience so taxing he never did so again. He produced the film in partnership with fellow Hollywood superstar Jane Russell and her husband Bob Waterfield. Russell, who previously played opposite Gable in the excellent western The Tall Men (1955) also directed by Raoul Walsh, was meant to star here too but for whatever reason that did not pan out. Jaunty and for the most part light-hearted, despite a few jarring tonal shifts here and there, the film has the benefit of Walsh's typically strident direction, sumptuous photography by the great Lucien Ballard (the opening horse chase across spectacular wild west vistas proves a highlight), a score by Alex North that is fittingly both robust and playful and naturally Gable's amiable, easygoing machismo.
The latter sparks nicely off the film's five contrasted leading ladies. Yes, despite that title, Jo Van Fleet's embittered, domineering Ma McDade is as crucial to the story as any of her fetching co-stars. If not more so. Ma keeps her daughter-in-laws on the tightest of leashes, using emotional and sometimes physical abuse. In order to preserve the memory of her dead sons she tries to snuff out the life from these vivacious young women. As far as Ma is concerned they are nothing more than her boys' "property" and she aims to keep it that way. It says something about the quality of Van Fleet's sensitive performance and the script penned by Richard Alan Simmons and Margaret Fitts (based on Fitts' novel) that this potentially reprehensible, hateful character emerges at least partly sympathetic. The film clarifies that in her heart of hearts, Ma realizes her sons were no good yet clings defiantly to their memory because that is all the old woman has. Coupled with this is a pervading sense of desperation exuded by young widows, each of whom latch onto Gable as their possible escape route, The King and Four Queens exudes an unsettling melancholy that undercuts its attempt at bawdy comedy.
Another problem is that each woman seems to inhabit a different movie that never truly coalesce into a whole. Birdie is in a screwball farce, Ruby a steamy noir thriller, Oralie a heart-wrenching drama. None of these subplots are truly resolved. The third act gives them short shrift to instead pay off Gable's relationship with Eleanor Parker as the smartest and most cynical of the group. To the film’s credit there is some pleasure in watching them circle each other like a couple of jungle cats sizing each other up. Edge this plot just an inch in a darker direction and you wind up with The Beguiled (1970). However Gable's Dan Kehoe is, at least for the majority of the film, not painted as quite that cold-hearted and manipulative. He values these women as people rather than simply a means to an end. Or so we think. Having spent two thirds of its run-time blazing a path to a warmer, more humanistic direction the third act suddenly does an abrupt back-flip. Upon abandoning everything built up to this point it settles into a cynical, but also much more conventional conclusion leaving viewers with a slight case of whiplash and a deeper sense of dissatisfaction.
American director with a talent for crime thrillers. Originally an actor (he played John Wilkes Booth in Birth of a Nation) his biggest silent movie successes were The Thief of Bagdad and What Price Glory? He lost an eye while directing In Old Arizona, but went on to steady work helming a variety of films throughout the thirties, including The Bowery and Artists and Models.
After directing The Roaring Twenties, Walsh really hit his stride in the forties: They Drive By Night, High Sierra, Gentleman Jim, The Strawberry Blonde, Desperate Journey, Objective Burma!, Colorado Territory and the gangster classic White Heat were all highlights. Come the fifties, films included A Lion is in the Streets and The Naked and the Dead, but the quality dipped, although he continued working into the sixties. He also directed the infamous Jack Benny film The Horn Blows at Midnight (which isn't that bad!).