Weak from Walsh
I never much cottoned to Clark Gable (left) in Westerns. After a small part in the talkie version of The Painted Desert in 1931, he led in semi-Westerns like Call of the Wild, Boom Town and Honky Tonk. The disappointing mountain men drama Across the Wide Missouri in ’51 followed (director William A Wellman blamed MGM’s cuts) and then another early Western tale, Lone Star, in 1954. Fox’s The Tall Men in 1955 was frankly dreary, despite Raoul Walsh as director, overlong, over-talky and weak. The year after, Gable was back with Walsh for The King and Four Queens, not a success. He finished on a high note, The Misfits in 1961, but many would not regard that as a Western at all. So all in all it was a less than distinguished career in the saddle. Despite his star-power he just didn’t seemed suited to the genre, unless he could be a cynical gambler in a frock coat – which he was in King and Four Queens so he just about got away with it.
CinemaScope, Color De Luxe, Lucien Ballard photography, AZ locations: it ought to have been good. It wasn't.
Slick conman Dan Kehoe (Gable, already 55 years old) arrives in Touchstone where bartender Jay C Flippen tells him the story of Wagon Mound, inhabited only by women now that their men, the outlaw McDades, have been killed (all except perhaps one) in shoot-outs with the law. However, everyone is convinced that the McDades left a hundred thousand in gold hidden at Wagon Mound beforehand. Sadly, once he has recounted this, Flippen is immediately written out and takes no further part in proceedings.
Kehoe (it always sounds like Keyhole when they talk to him) inveigles his way into the place and proceeds to romance the four young women, though very much mistrusted (rightly) by the grouchy old .45-totin’ Ma McDade, played by Jo Van Fleet. She is probably the best thing about the picture and one of the better grannies-with-a-gun that Westerns have to offer (though only 42 at the time). Ms. Van Fleet was a talented Broadway actress who also won an Oscar for her film work. She would later be a young Kate Fisher in Gunfight at the OK Corral. In King & Four Queens she probably overdoes it but is certainly entertaining.
You don't want to mess with her
The four wives or, probably, widows, are brassy moll Birdie (Barbara Nichols), ruthless Ruby in a red dress (Jean Willes), meek Oralie in widow’s weeds (Sara Shane) and strong, clever Sabina (Eleanor Parker). Only Sabina rebuffs Kehoe’s advances – the others are more than ready to go off with him and the gold – and we sense that therefore she will be the one he ends up with.
The four wives - or widows
Parker was William Holden’s amour in Escape from Fort Bravo and Robert Taylor’s in Many Rivers to Cross but didn’t really do Westerns (this was her third and last). Nichols too was no Western specialist, only appearing in a few TV shows. This was Shane’s only Western. Only Willes was a regular as a saloon girl/gold-digger/gun moll in TV Westerns. But they only really had to be glamorous/scheming in King & Four Queens.
He plays hymns on the melodion. It doesn't soften her.
The rest of the picture is taken up with the flirting and scheming so as a Western it really bogs down. There’s only a flurry of action in the first and last couple of minutes; the rest is static talking (with the occasional kiss) on a studio sound set. Surprising, really, for an action-lover like Walsh. Walsh said, “I believed they were moving pictures, so I moved ‘em” but he seems on this one to have forgotten his own mantra. The screenplay (her first and last) was by Margaret Fitts, from her own novel, and occasionally there is the mildest of double-entendres but it’s all pretty tame.
It just got up to two revolvers for the granny with a gun.