Buddy Ebsen had many of the same affable everyman qualities of a Jimmy Stewart. If Stewart had not already existed, Ebsen would have made a fine replacement.
Mail Order Bride showcases these attributes in a film that was made to cash in on Ebsen's success on
The Beverly Hillbillies.
Ebsen plays Will Lane, who enters the film looking for Lee Carey, the son of his best friend, now deceased. It seems that Will was willed the elder Carey's property and told to take care of it, only to give Lee the land at such time as he believed the son was fit to own and care for it himself.
That Lee (as played by
2001: A Space Odyssey's Keir Dullea) is a wild young buck whose days are filled with whisky, fights, and prostitutes does not make him a prime candidate for immediate land ownership, to say the least, in Will's eyes. In order to "tame" him, Will suggests (all but demands, really) that Lee get married -- to a girl in a listing Will found in the outhouse catalog. But the title character eventually comes in the form of Annie (Lois Nettleton), a redheaded Joanne Woodward lookalike who keeps house at a Kansas City saloon.
Nettleton is the soul of this picture and
Mail Order Bride would have been a very different film in her absence. Not classically pretty, she still has a presence that fills the screen. I could not take my eyes off of her. Her pale grace makes the contrived-at-best film go down with ease.
Dullea surprises with a hearty performance (miles from his stoic portrayal of Dr. Dave Bowman) in this comic western. His Lee has simple needs and he is stubborn, but he understands what needs to be done in order to get his family's land back for himself. That Lee falls in love with Annie despite himself is, of course, entirely predictable, but Dullea takes us through Lee's range of intervening emotions smoothly.
Ebsen has star billing, but he almost serves as the Chorus, so to speak. His role seems to be mostly to move the other characters towards the inevitable resolution, spouting folksy homilies along the way in his inimitable fashion. He is given a mild subtext that moves the audience to sympathize with him (especially at the satisfying conclusion), but otherwise doesn't have much of an emotional row to hoe.
Mail Order Bride is a pleasant enough diversion for a weekend afternoon. It is bright and colorful, contains likeable characters, and doesn't ask much in return (like deep thought). Also featured are Warren Oates
(The Wild Bunch,
Stripes) as Lee troublemaking "friend" and BarBara Luna
(Ship of Fools) as his favorite lady-of-the-evening. Unfortunately, at this writing, it does not appear to be available on video in any form, so prospective viewers will have to keep a sharp eye on the Turner Classic Movies schedule (where this reviewer luckily came across it).
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