I’ve seen quite a lot of pre-Codes directed by William A Wellman, though there are many more I’d still like to track down. But this semi-musical starring Irene Dunne and Richard Dix has to be the oddest of his 1930s movies I’ve managed to see yet. It’s a strange cross between an operetta in the Nelson Eddy/Jeanette MacDonald vein and a 19th-century outlaw drama set in the Australian bush, though, with not so much as a kangaroo in sight, it’s pretty obvious that the “bush” is in fact a Hollywood backlot.
Surprisingly, this obscure title is one of the six films included in the RKO Lost and Found Collection via the TCM website – though this is an expensive set and the DVDs are DVD-Rs rather than pressings. All the films in the set were thought to be lost for many years until copies were rediscovered. The Movies Unlimited website also offers Stingaree as a single DVD. Anyway, I was lucky enough to see it at a very popular video streaming website, though I’m sure the quality on the DVD would be better.
The film is loosely based on the bestselling Stingaree stories by E W Hornung, who was also the creator of the gentleman thief Raffles. I had a look at an etext of Stingaree at Project Gutenberg and see that the script is based on the first and last stories in the collection, which both feature a young singer called Hilda Bouverie, played in the movie by Irene Dunne. Hilda is an orphan who has been taken in as the ward of wealthy sheep farmer Hugh Clarkson (Henry Stephenson) and his wife (a scene-stealing Mary Boland). Although Hilda is officially their ward, she is really treated as a servant – and banned from singing, gifted though she is, because the tone-deaf Mrs Clarkson fancies her own talents in that direction.
When famous London composer Sir Julian Kent (Conway Tearle) arrives in the area, Mrs Clarkson plots to get Hilda out of the way during the impresario’s visit, so that she herself can impress him with her out-of-tune warblings. However, her plans are foiled when highwayman Stingaree (Dix) kidnaps Sir Julian and takes on his identity, visiting the Clarkson home under false pretences. Stingaree hears Hilda sing and immediately falls for her voice and her charms.
Although he is exposed as a fraud, he manages to persuade (at gunpoint) the real Sir Julian to listen to Hilda – and ensures that she can have a successful career as an opera singer as a result. The highwayman also briefly abducts Hilda, and there is some pre-Code content at this point in the film, with suggestions that Hilda and Stingaree have a sexual relationship and a scene where she strips off in front of the camera (something that also crops up in other early Wellman films such as Wings and Night Nurse).
While she goes off to fame and fortune in Europe, Stingaree himself is shot and imprisoned, though there are more plot twists still to come. One comment at the imdb points out that this idea of sacrificing yourself for your beloved is something that recurs in Wellman’s films, most famously in A Star Is Born. There is also a very characteristic Wellman sequence early in the movie where the Australian bush is deluged with rain – one visitor to a pub even comments: “Lovely rain!”, surely echoing the thoughts of the director. James Van Trees, the cinematographer, also worked on a number of other Wellman pre-Codes, and gets the dark, sodden atmosphere perfectly here.
However, apart from these elements, most of the film really doesn’t feel very characteristic of Wellman to me. Given his sympathy for outsiders, I think he could have done a lot with the outlaw theme, so I find it frustrating that the Stingaree plot is largely elbowed out by endless shots of Hilda singing in assorted opera houses across Europe. Admittedly, though, I’m not an operetta fan and I’m sure people who like this type of music would react quite differently. The music for the songs in this movie was written by Max Steiner, whose film scores I usually love, but here the songs leave me cold.
Another problem is that there is never any explanation as to why Stingaree has chosen, or been driven to, this type of life – I see from the imdb that an earlier silent film about the character portrays him as a wealthy Englishman cheated out of his fortune by his brother, but there is no mention of that in this version. I also find Dix a bit unconvincing as an outlaw because, although handsome and swashbuckling, he seems so sleek and well-fed – there’s no desperation or feeling of living on the edge. I enjoyed seeing Wellman favourite Andy Devine as Stingaree’s sidekick Howie, but wasn’t too sure about his Aussie accent.
In all honesty, I don’t think this movie hangs together very well – but it is worth seeing if you like 1930s operettas or are a fan of either Wellman or Dunne. And it does have one of Wellman’s best rain sequences – I should really keep a list of those!