BOOTLEG FILES 655: “The Fighting Kentuckian – The 8mm Version” (severely truncated 8mm version of the 1949 John Wayne film).
LAST SEEN: On YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Severely edited version of a feature film in a long-defunct home entertainment format.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Not likely.
Prior to the proliferation of video cassette recorders in the late 1970s and early 1980s, movie lovers who wanted to screen their favorite classic films at home made use of portable projectors that screened the 35mm or 70mm Hollywood theatrical fare in the much smaller 16mm, 9.5mm, 8mm and Super 8 formats.
But there was a problem with the films sold for home viewing. Due to the expense of producing and shipping prints and the limited amount of footage that could wrapped around the smaller format reels, the feature films being sold directly to consumers were edited with varying degrees of severity. Sometimes the editing was not problematic, most notably with the 16mm home entertainment print of the Lon Chaney version of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” – the 35mm theatrical prints are lost and the 16mm version, which only cut some relatively minor sequences, is all that remains of that silent classic.
More frequently, the edited versions sold to consumers, especially in the 8mm and Super 8 formats, butchered the films drastically. Sometimes, these chopped versions consisted of a single sequence – in comedy films, a grand climactic chase sequence would be marketed as a standalone offering. But perhaps the most extreme case of a heavily truncated Hollywood title was an 8mm version of the 1949 John Wayne feature “The Fighting Kentuckian,” which played in the theaters at 100 minutes but was sold to the home entertainment version in a 3-minute and 26-second version. Even worse, the film’s soundtrack was erased and replaced with subtitles to explain what was happening.
“The Fighting Kentuckian” was made at Republic Pictures, the low-rent studio where Wayne was under contract. While Republic had no problems loaning Wayne out to bigger studios, it had problems keeping Wayne satisfied in its less-than-extravagant settings. In order to maintain a happy star, Republic enabled Wayne to branch out into producing. He served as producer in his 1947 feature “Angel and the Badman,” and “The Fighting Kentuckian” was the second Republic release on which Wayne carried producer credit.
At Wayne’s insistence, Republic recruited Oliver Hardy to co-star with him in “The Fighting Kentuckian.” On the surface, this seemed like a strange casting decision because Hardy was known as one-half of the comedy team of Laurel and Hardy and Wayne was actively splitting the funnyman away from his longtime partner Stan Laurel. Wayne knew Hardy since the 1920s and they were good friends, and the script of “The Fighting Kentuckian” called for a single sidekick for Wayne, so there was no place for Laurel. Fortunately, Laurel had no problems with Hardy working as solo – the comics had been off-screen since 1945 and Laurel was having diabetes-related health issues and was not particularly eager to be back on the screen at the time.
Less pleasant for Wayne was having Republic studio chief Herbert Yates require the casting of Vera Ralston as his leading lady. Ralston was a Czechoslovakian ice skater that Yates tried to make into a star. The fact that Ralston was his mistress – and, later, his second wife – clouded the executive’s notion of her star potential. Wayne worked with Ralston on the forgettable 1945 feature “Dakota,” and he was unhappy to have her in this film. Ralston’s inadequacy as an actress required multiple takes on her scenes – and Wayne would later blame her for what he perceived as the film’s mediocrity, although he was being highly unfair since it is an entertaining (if forgettable) work and Ralston gives a satisfactory performance in a badly-written role as Wayne’s adoring love interest.
“The Fighting Kentuckian” takes place in Alabama in 1818. Wayne plays a Kentucky militiaman returning from the Battle of New Orleans who become involved in foiling a plot to prevent a robber baron from cheating hundreds of French army refugees out of land granted to them by Congress. Ralston is the daughter of a French general – her Czech accent is never explained – while Hardy is Wayne’s bumbling sidekick.
For a 100-minute film, “The Fighting Kentuckian” packs a lot of plot into a relatively compact running time. Wayne and Hardy engage in silly comedy, perennial bad girl Marie Windsor provides her usual brand of sexy menace, and silent film buffs can spot Griffith leading lady Mae Marsh in a small role. The grand finale is, to borrow Variety’s lingo, a boffo chase and fight sequence that reaffirmed Republic’s ability to churn out highly enjoyable fare with relatively minimal expense.
For the 8mm home entertainment version, “The Fighting Kentuckian” is shrunken into a confusing shadow of its theatrical edition. This edition only mentions the film’s title and Wayne in its opening credits. The establishing shots feature the Kentucky militia marching through a town, with a subtitle explaining that “The Fighting Kentuckians come marching through, on their way home to Kentucky.” The viewer is clueless regarding when or where this march occurred. The next subtitled shot involves a man in a coonskin hat opening saloon doors while exclaiming, “Fighting Kentuckians outside.” We then see Wayne and Hardy marching along, singing something that the silent film format prevents us from enjoying. Elderly women look on in concern and a subtitle tells us that one of them is saying, “Soldiers are coming.”
Wayne and Hardy are then standing around with mugs of what might be alcohol. Wayne sees someone off-screen and hands Hardy his mug before walking out of the frame. Hardy spills the contents of the mugs on himself and brushes the excess liquid off his garments. Wayne connects with Ralston’s Miss Marchant, and the subtitles tell us that Wayne will stay in Alabama with this lovely lady and his roly-poly friend.
The subtitles on the next sequence are difficult to read, but what can be deciphered is information that Wayne and Hardy are engaged as surveyors. Wayne and Hardy try to chart out territory, with Hardy falling backwards into a stream and creating a huge splash. The remaining footage features a battle between … well, it is difficult to determine who is fighting who, and for what reason. Wayne and Ralston are hiding behind a log and Hardy arrives in a wagon to the rescue while blowing a horn. The footage concludes with Wayne and Ralston at their wedding ceremony, with Hardy giving the groom a top hat as a gift.
The theatrical version of “The Fighting Kentuckian” fielded mixed reviews but generated a healthy box office return. It is not certain when the 8mm version was released or how long it was in circulation, but prints can be found on eBay. This version was not included in the digital formatted home entertainment releases of the film, but a highly battered version that looks like it was videotaped off a screen can be found in an unauthorized YouTube posting.
At a time when DVDs and Blu-rays are overpacked with 4K restorations and director’s cut versions, it is somewhat amusing to see how distant generations viewed movies at home at the other extreme – even an absent soundtrack and 97 missing footage minutes was no deterrent for selling John Wayne to his fans.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.
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