Beautiful Winifred “Freddie” Jones (Betty Grable) is a saloon girl in the Old West. A crack shot ever since she was little girl, when Freddie catches her boyfriend, gambler Blackie Jobero (Cesar Romero) flirting with another woman, she blasts at him… but unfortunately hits Judge Alfalfa O’Toole (Porter Hall) in the ass instead. Freddie and her friend, Conchita (Olga San Juan) go on the run and wind up in a little nowheresville called Bashful Bend, where the pair are mistaken for a schoolteacher and her Indian maid. Amidst catcalls and wolf whistles from the local rowdies, Freddie’s sharp-shooting disarms troublemaker Gus. She later proves an unexpected success as a schoolteacher and draws romantic admiration from wealthy Charles Hingleman (Rudy Vallee), owner of a valuable gold mine. But chaos erupts when Blackie arrives in town, eager to collect a reward posted for Freddie’s capture.
A notorious flop in its day, this was the penultimate film from iconoclastic writer-producer-director Preston Sturges. He would not make another for six years and even that was a French production, Les carnets du Major Thompson (1955) (released in the U.S.A. as The French, They Are a Funny Race), Hollywood having seemingly lost interest in his singular talent. Like many Sturges films, it’s saucy and upfront about sex in a way that irked the Hays Code, and revels in witty wordplay and cartoonish comic creations inhabited by an array of endearingly goofy character actors. These include Hugh Herbert as a jolly doctor never happier than when extracting bullets from the judge’s butt; El Brendel as the heavily accented Swedish lawman Mr. Jorgenson; and a cameo from Margaret Hamilton, the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz (1939), as the judge’s shrewish wife.
What should have been an ideal fit for Betty Grable, the embodiment of ripe All-American sexuality, instead became her first flop. Grable had been the forces’ sweetheart and the number one box office draw throughout the Forties, in classics from Pin-Up Girl (1944) to Mother Wore Tights (1947) (arguably her best). Thankfully, the failure of The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend did not derail her career as drastically as it did Sturges’, but she was less than fond of it.
And yet Grable remains a delight as the brassy heroine, flashing those million dollar legs and as lethal with her sweet talk and fluttering eyelashes as with her six-shooter. Freddie takes no guff off the town lechers and when hassled by those overgrown adolescents the Basserman boys (Dan Jackson and Sterling Holloway - later the voice of Winnie the Pooh), scars the bejeezus out of them with her sharp-shooting. She is a fine counterpart to the roster of snappy, sexy heroines that populate Sturges’ classics like The Lady Eve (1941), Sullivan’s Travels (1941) or The Palm Beach Story (1942), even if the script fails to develop its premise satisfactorily.
Marred by an uncertain tone and a romance that never rings true since Sturges has Blackie switch from oily cad to lovelorn hero, while good-natured fop Charles is abruptly cast aside. Once two characters are shot dead at point blank range, the plot turns strangely dark. Gus goes crazed with vengeance, practically the entire cast grab guns as the town explodes in violence, and Freddie has to shoot through the nooses before Charlie and Blackie are hung. A crazy twist wraps things up way too easily and Gus, who throws some particularly nasty insults Freddie’s way, never gets his comeuppance. The wacky shootout is most likely satirical, but Sturges’ slapstick sits uneasily with the sadism. Although likely to leave viewers craving one of the star’s genuine classics, the film is way more entertaining than any so-called disaster has any right to be and watching Grable go all-guns blazing is certainly a rare thrill.