Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Tastefully Exploitative: Fighting Hero

Imagine a Tom Tyler western that is pure fun to watch – that could be any one of those that he made for Reliable, Victory, or even Monogram. Now imagine a Tom Tyler western with a tastefully exploitative edge to it: “Fighting Hero” (1934). What is it about “Fighting Hero” that takes Tom and places him in multiple heroic situations in this movie while at the same time using his maximum potential as a major stud? What “Fighting Hero” does is leave the viewer hearing dialogue that does not appear in the script between Tom Tyler and some of his co-stars, notably the leading lady Renee Borden as Conchita Alvarez.

“Fighting Hero” opens with a $2500.00 reward wanted poster of Tom tacked to a tree just outside a small western town, displaying his handsome face, the same image used in other movies like “The Silver Bullet”, and Tom with his horse standing by the tree. Tom laughingly tells his horse, “I'm getting all the publicity and you're doing all the work”, assuming an undercover pose. As an  undercover agent for Express Company, Tom's assignment is to prevent the holdup of a gold shipment coming through town – and finds himself playing the hero at a poker game, rescuing a young Mexican girl from being convicted for murder which she is being framed for, and taking down two different groups of bandits hot on the trail of the gold shipment.

Tom enters the small western town and enters Bonanza Saloon where he sits in on an open poker game, but only after he ovehears that one of the players – a young man – is using his father's payroll to gamble with. The main card player, Bert Hawley (Edward Hearn), wears special glasses that permit him to view the marked card deck being used in the game. Tom catches on soon enough and  manages to win the boy's father's payroll back – and tells him not to gamble with that kind of money ever again. Bert seems surprised at the entire ordeal, wondering exactly who this guy is, a stranger who seems to come out of nowhere and play the hero. The poker game is simply a precursor to the main event though, which involves a young Mexican girl named Conchita who is being framed for murder in the town's courthouse. As usual, Tom steps in, observes the trial for a few minutes before approaching the bench and speaking up before the judge. He is granted time in the back room of the courthouse to speak with Conchita and find out what the entire case is about. She explains to him that she is being framed, simply because she is Mexican. Conchita even says to Tom, “Heaven himself has sent you” while he casually brushes off the comment, although  the viewer can almost hear him reply with “I'm here”. It is only when they are back in the courtroom that Tom decides to recreate the murder scene and uses it as an attempt to rescue Conchita from the trial. Positioning himself behind her, he tells Conchita “Now, resist me”, his hands gently on her arms. The entire passing moment could be filled her saying, “I'll try to but I don't think I can.” At that point Hawley is standing in the doorway of the courthouse, after seeing the poster of Tom circulating in the saloon, and ready to shoot him. But as Tom turns around he catches sight of Hawley and drawing his gun, sharp shoots Hawley's gun from his hand and pushes Conchita out the window where the couple escapes on horseback. A number of men in the courtroom, along with Hawley and his partner Dick (Dick Bottiler) go after Tom and Conchita but lose track of them through the hills.

Once Tom and Conchita are in a safe spot, a grateful yet humorous exchange takes place between the two, an event which looks like it could have sprung from one of Tom's early silent films. Conchita's 1920's hairstyle and manner of dress are authentic enough, but what is even more notable is Tom's manner of dress in the movie, which is all too similar to what he wore during the early part of his silent film career: a dark cotton shirt with white buttons (which looks identical to the one he wore in 1928's “Phantom of the Range”), a scarf, and jeans. In previous films like “War of the Range” and “Ridin' Thru”, Tom wears a light colored button down shirt minus a scarf although in the latter he also wear a small tie, quite different from his early cowboy costume. Conchita falls in love with Tom and tells him so, even though he thinks it is a lot of nonsense, simply by telling her his name. Jokingly, he adds that his middle name is Trouble – and that Conchita does not want to be around him because of that. In Conchita's eyes, Tom is “a beautiful name”, and before she knows it, starts telling Tom that she loves him. Of corse, Tom thinks it is a lot of nonsense, a woman falling in love with him just because he bailed her out of trouble. But Tom's wide eyes and dazzling smile only makes Conchita do a double take, and as Tom's strong hands on her arms draw them closer, she soon finds herself disappearing in him, much the same way a viewer of the movie might experience. Conchita only wants to be with Tom, and discovering he is unattached, tries her best to keep him interested in her. Yet Tom's expressions says otherwise, suggesting his feelings for her might be more of a sisterly nature. By the time Tom gets Conchita safely to her aunt's house, she is still all over him with the “I love you Tom Trouble” usually followed by her native Spanish “much mucho mucho”.  Tom's dazzling smile suggests he is amused by her crush on him, thinking it impossible for her to be in love with a man she barely knows.

Gang ringleader Morales (J. P. McGowan) soon gets word of the reward for Tom, and keeps an eye out for him until he mysteriously shows up – after seeing his poster tacked by a tree next to one of Morales' tent. When Tom does show up at the entrance of the largest tent with the entire gang seated inside, Tom has his gun in hand, wearing a big smile, catching Morales off guard. Tom finagles his way into the gang, since they know he is a wanted man, and proposes a better plan compared to that of Morales in gaining access to the gold shipment. Impressed with Tom's demonstration of quick shooting – Tom takes perfect aim at a cigarette Morales is holding in the air – they agree to meet when the wagon comes through. Yet it leaves Tom with plenty of time to visit his girl who lives “down in the valley”, as he tells Morales.

When Tom returns to Conchita's house to return the horse she borrowed during their initial escape, she is happily arranging flowers in vases, humming a Mexican song. He knocks on the door and she opens it after he identifies himself as Tom Trouble on the other side, only too glad to see him again. What Tom does not know is that prior to his arrival, Hawley and Dick came to see Conchita to encourage her to disarm Tom and hand him over to them. Once Tom and Conchita share an embrace on the sofa in the living room, she asks him if his gun is a good one – meaning, is it good for self defense. Tom responds “...the gun is much better than the man”, although Conchita most likely thinks she would rather be protected by Tom himself. As meek as Conchita tries to portray herself before Tom – telling him she wants to learn how to shoot a gun in order to protect herself from the “big, bad wolf”, he finally consents. But when he hands his gun to Conchita, she suddenly fakes being scared and drops it onto the floor – right at that moment, Hawley and Dick come out from behind the drapes and proceed to subdue Tom. Disappointed in Conchita selling him out, Tom fistfights the two men and knocks them out before haranguing Conchita. Tom leaves her and proceeds to get the sheriff to help protect the gold shipment, but not before he is mistakenly accused of being part of the robbery gang – having to clear himself while fighting against Hawley, Dick, and the Morales gang – all at the same time. Once the sheriff arrests the gang members, Tom and Conchita reconcile – and he gets the murder charges against her dropped.

“Fighting Hero” certainly capitalizes on Tom's dazzling smile, his tough but likable personality – even Morales takes to him quite easily (J. P. McGowan directed a handful of Tom Tyler westerns for his own silent film production company between 1929 and 1930) during the scene in the tent. Directed by Harry S. Webb, Tom Tyler is at his very best in “Fighting Hero” as a hero inviting the viewer to dream about having him as a personal hero.


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