Why in the world someone would name a love story of sorts Honky Tonk, I will never understand, but with its leading actors, I can surely assume why the title would fail to turn audiences away. The 1941 flick was the first pairing of Clark Gable and Lana Turner, and despite their 20-year age difference (Turner was 20, Gable 40 when making this film) the duo would appear together three additional times. Fresh off her fame from Ziegfeld Girl, Turner was a hot item, but her character in Honky Tonk belies the seductress roles she would come to be known for. Her young face and the conservative attire of 1880s western America highlight her youth, and despite the innocent character she embodies, Turner still manages to let her powerful personality sneak through.
The story for Honky Tonk, unfortunately, is a bit messy. “Confidence man” (which I assume is the basis for the term “con man”) Candy Johnson decides to settle in Yellow Creek, NV, where the former swindler sets up the Square Deal saloon and gambling establishment, angering the self-appointed sheriff who runs the crooked version in the town. The smooth talking Candy easily has the town eating out of his hand in addition to Turner’s Elizabeth Cotton, newly arrived from Boston. Elizabeth clearly wants a kind man and a permanent sort of relationship and is blind to Candy’s taking a cut of all city action. She gets the on-the-wagon businessman drunk and marries him one night. Although he is not “the marrying kind”, Candy is fine with the arrangement because it means he gets to bed the young woman.
The story becomes increasingly complicated as Candy amasses ever-increasing mounds of money and a fabulous home, which angers the crooked public officials that essentially work for him. He’s moving up to swindling the governor and a couple senators, and Elizabeth is content to play party hostess and wear diamonds in her hair. Candy eventually decides to do “the right thing” and leave Elizabeth before she becomes further corrupted, but that does not last long, and we have a rather mediocre ending.
With all the trouble Candy stirs up and all his corruption, the romance between the dark man and the innocent young woman makes little sense. It does not follow that a man of Candy’s sort would be content to be married or that Elizabeth would be either unaware or uncaring about her husband’s means of procuring wealth. The typical moral one would expect would have something to do with money cannot buy happiness, so the woman just wishes to be poor and alone with her man. Coming from New England, I would expect Elizabeth to be unaccustomed to the shoot-em-up ways of the west and appalled when watching Candy shoot a man dead, albeit in self defense. Her only response is that she was glad her husband failed to heed her request not to carry a gun that day.
Honky Tonk‘s story certainly is a unique one, but it fails to leave me with any sort of warm romantic feeling about the relationship of the couple. Besides looking handsome together, there is not much else to draw me into their partnership.
Source: Robert Osborne