In Honky Tonk grifter and con-man Candy Johnson is tired of being run out of every town he visits whenever the citizens discover who he is. So he and his partner hop on a train determined to find a small town which he can shape and control for even larger payouts such as graft. On the train, Candy’s eye is drawn by beautiful blonde Elizabeth Cotton who is traveling west to meet her father, a man she believes is an upstanding, honest judge. Elizabeth refuses to be tempted by Candy’s smooth line, resisting his obvious flirtation. Upon debarking in Yellow Creek, Candy recognizes Elizabeth’s father as a fellow con-artist, but keeps his secret for Elizabeth’s sake.
Candy soon begins his campaign to take over the town of Yellow Creek and Elizabeth’s affections. After winning a large stake in a gamble of Russian roulette, Candy builds his own saloon and donates money to build a town mission as a civic gesture. After a little light manhandling from Candy and a talk with the Reverend’s wife, Elizabeth admits her attraction to Candy and decides she will marry him with the mission to reform him. It’s not long before Candy is running the town and Elizabeth is running their home, but a wrench is thrown into this happy setup when the Judge grows a conscience for his daughter’s sake and decides to spill the beans on Candy’s real intentions.
This may just be my second favorite Clark Gable film, after Gone With the Wind. Actually, Honky Tonk has several things in common with that incomparable classic, not the least of which is that Candy Johnson is very similar to Rhett Butler and all the characteristics of that lovable rogue. Like Rhett, Candy is an admittedly selfish character, only interested in what profits him, who also displays a lethal dose of masculine charm. Candy’s pursuit of Elizabeth is determined and aggressive, yet with a touch of tenderness. Although, there is a bit of a power struggle between them at first, he makes sure that she knows who is boss, yet she also ends up with the upper hand in the end owing to his love for her.
This is the first of four films that Gable made with Lana Turner and it is a pairing which I really love. His dominant masculinity is a good match with her innocently sexy self and her soothing child-like voice. Too, the contrast between his dark looks and her wide eyed blonde curves is appealing as well. Gable was paired more frequently with other and better actresses (including acting greats, Joan Crawford, Myrna Loy and Jean Harlow), but I prefer seeing him with Turner even though she cannot match the acting skill of some of his other partners. Her Elizabeth is just as determined as her man, she just tends to take a more subtle path towards her end goals. Elizabeth lends Candy a veneer of respectability and her love and faith in her weak father is sweet.
Another similarity with Gone With the Wind, is the presence of Claire Trevor, the saloon girl with the heart of gold, who is secretly in love with Candy, but stands by him as his friend, even when he marries another. Trevor gives Gold Dust depth and warmth, displaying her yearning and resignation in her eyes and through her subtle body language.
Honky Tonk fits a mix of genres, with some action and romance, dramatic and comedic moments. It’s setting as a mining town could also classify it as a Western. It really has something to appeal to everyone and is just downright fun to watch. It is too bad it wasn’t filmed in color as some of the costumes both Candy and Elizabeth wear in the film beg to be seen in multiple spectrum and not just black and white. I would love to have Elizabeth’s glamorous wardrobe.
If you are a fan of Rhett Butler, give Candy Johnson and Honky Tonk a watch. It’s Clark Gable at his roguish best. It’s available on DVD or you can catch it on the TCM channel this Wednesday May 24.