The Warner Archive has released the 1951 comedy Callaway Went Thataway. The film is a low-key but delightful tale that has more than a wisp of Frank Capra in its story line. The movie opens with a montage of scenes showing young boys and girls glued to their television sets as they watch the adventures of singing cowboy Smoky Callaway (Howard Keel). They don't realize they are actually viewing old "B" movies from the 1930s. Not that it matters. Callaway has found a new audience with a younger generation and they have made him America's favorite TV hero in these early days of the medium.(Since so many households did not have televisions in 1951, the film shows a common sight during this era: people crowded around department store windows to watch TV broadcasts). Network brass and sponsors immediately want to keep the gold train rolling by initiating more new films starring Smoky. The only problem is that no one has seen him in ten years. The network enlists a marketing firm owned by partners Mike Frye (Fred MacMurray) and Deborah Patterson (Dorothy McGuire) to track down Smoky and sign him up for an exclusive contract that will also see an explosion of merchandise with his name and face on it. Everyone stands to get rich including the marketing firm- but finding Smoky seems to be an impossibility. Mike hires a private eye, George Markham (Jesse White) to turn over every stone to find the unwitting superstar. Ultimately, they assume Smoky must have passed away, alone and forgotten. By happenstance, they come across Stretch Barnes, an amiable young cowboy who is an exact look-a-like for Smoky. The ever-opportunistic Mike convinces him to pose as the real Smoky and sign the relevant contracts that will make everyone a fortune. The ruse works. Network executives and sponsors are delighted and kids enthusiastically look forward to meeting Smoky during his nationwide personal appearance tour. The only problem occurs when Stretch goes before the cameras. Lacking any acting experience, his performance is awkward and unprofessional. However, the executives attribute this to simply having been out of the business for a while and decide they can edit around the footage to make him look like his old self. In the course of accompanying Smoky on public appearance stops, Deborah finds that the simple but sincere country boy has fallen in love with her. He even gives her an engagement ring and tells her to hold on to it until the day she feels he would make a good husband.
The funniest bits in the movie occur late in the story when Markham ends up finding the real Smoky (Keel in a dual role). It turns out he's a far cry from his old image. He's a hopeless alcoholic and womanizer and he's greedy as well. He blackmails Mike and Deborah by threatening to have them arrest for identity theft if they don't fire the phony Smoky and hire him. This leads to some genuinely funny sequences. Mike, stalling for time, agrees to the terms on the proviso that the real Smoky dries out in at a fitness farm. Here, Smoky manages to mix his exercise routine with getting drunk via some well-hidden bottles of booze he has stashed around the facility. Things finally come to a head when Smoky is required to make a charity appearance before 90,000 fans. The real Smoky is too crude to pull it off and Stretch, feeling ashamed of his role in all this deceit, intends to go back to his farm. The finale may be predictable but it's quite entertaining with Keel squaring off in a fistfight with himself!
The performances are very entertaining. MacMurray has long been underrated as an actor, remembered primarily for his late career string of Disney films and starring on the sitcom My Three Sons. However, he was an actor of great depth. He could play villains (The Apartment, The Caine Mutiny, Double Indemnity) and lovable cads with equal skill. McGuire is very charming in the only prominent female role and Keel steals the film in a part that surely would have been played a decade earlier by either Gary Cooper or James Stewart. The movie moves at a brisk pace thanks to collaborators Norman Panama and Melvin Frank, who co-wrote and co-directed the film. The movie is charming throughout and the Warner Archive DVD boasts not only an impressive transfer but an original trailer as well. There is also an unintentionally amusing explanation at the end of the film assuring viewers that MGM meant no disrespect to any contemporary western star and that the studio is well aware of the wonderful social values Hollywood cowboys instill in America's youth!