Sunday, August 4, 2013

Lesley Ann Warren, Sandra Dee, and Karen Valentine are "The Daughters of Joshua Cabe"

Lesley Ann Warren, Sandra Dee, and Karen Valentine are three actresses whose names you would never expect to see in a sentence, much less appear in the same film together.  But appear together they do in the ABC Movie of the Week "The Daughters of Joshua Cabe" (1972) starring Buddy Ebsen and Jack Elam.  In this light-hearted, yet surprisingly touching, Western, Warren, Dee, and Valentine are given good roles that allow them to play smart, hard-working, courageous young women who leave behind tarnished lives marked by criminal activity in order to redeem themselves in the Western frontier and earn a place to call home.  Buddy Ebsen, marking time after the end of "The Beverly Hillbillies" (1962-71) and before the premiere of "Barnaby Jones" (1973-80) stars as Joshua Cabe, an elderly fur trapper who has been squatting on land in Wyoming, that he does not actually hold title to, for decades.  Joshua lives on the land with his best friend Bitterroot (Jack Elam) after the death of his wife Martha, and after he sent his three daughters, who he has not heard from in decades, to go live in St. Louis.  Joshua's life is turned upside down when he learns that a recently passed homestead law might allow his mean-spirited rival Amos Wetherall (Leif Erickson) and his four vicious sons (played by Don Stroud, William Katt, Paul Koslo, and Michael Anderson, Jr.) to lay claim upon the land he has been living on for years.

Joshua realizes his only hope is to find his three daughters, convince them to return to Wyoming so that each of them can lay claim upon two sections of land apiece so that Joshua can hold onto his home.  The catch is that the daughters must be willing to live on the land for a year in order to qualify under the new homestead law.  Joshua travels to St. Louis, only to learn that one of his daughters has become a nun, and that the other two are married and have families in New York.  While in St. Louis, Joshua rescues a prostititue named Mae (Lesley Ann Warren) from being abused by her pimp.  Joshua realizes that he can still save his land if he can convince Mae--and two other young women--to return to Wyoming with him so that they can pose as his daughters and lay claim to the land together.  Joshua eventually convinces recently paroled con artist Charity (Karen Valentine) and pickpocket Ada (Sandra Dee) to join Mae in posing as his daughters.  Mae, Charity, and Ada soon form an impromptu family unit with Joshua and Bitterroot as they work together to improve the land and wait patiently for the day when the government filing agent arrives in town so they can formally claim the land.  While living together, Mae, Charity, and Ada put aside their individual differences and start to see one another as surrogate sisters.

However, Amos Wetherall causes a cattle stampede that destroys the dam that the quintet have taken weeks to build and which almost causes Charity to get killed.  Joshua decides to send the ladies back to St. Louis before there is further violence.  While in town awaiting the train, Wetherall's son Blue (played by Don Stroud) learns about Mae's past as a prostitute and blackmails her into acquiescing to his sexual advances.  Blue explains to Mae that, once the entire town realizes that Joshua has been perpetrating a fraud, he would be driven out.  While in the stables, Mae gets the upper hand turning Blue's gun on him, but not before Bitterroot and Joshua come upon the scene, and a shootout takes place where one of Wetherall's sons is injured.  Wetherall and his boys challenge Joshua and Bitterroot to a gun battle in the streets.  Mae, Charity, and Ada realize that their friends are outnumbered, so they steal rifles from the local store and prove to be effective marksmen as they work together to ultimately defeat the Wetheralls.  Joshua, Bitterroot, Mae, Charity, and Ada are present when the government land official arrives in town and they apply to become partners and owners of the land.  As they ride back home together, the three young women resume quarreling amongst themselves as Joshua and Bitterroot smile contentedly.

Produced by Aaron Spelling and Leonard Goldberg, "The Daughters of Joshua Cabe" is now interesting to watch as sort of a precursor/prototype for their later hit series "Charlie's Angels," at least four years before that series debuted.  As with "Charlie's Angels," "The Daughters of Joshua Cabe" features three beautiful women--who are smart, hard-working, and brave individuals--who go to work for two older men, one of whom (Joshua) worked to bring them together, acts as their leader, and assigns them new identities, just like Charlie assigned covers every week to his Angels whenever there was an assignment.  Meanwhile, the other gentleman--Jack Elam's warm and touching Bitterroot--acts as a kind and encouraging intermediary between Joshua and the three young ladies, just like David Doyle's Bosley did on "Charlie's Angels."  Even the title of the movie--"The Daughters of Joshua Cabe" echoes the later "Charlie's Angels" title by referring to the three young women with adjectives--"Daughters" or "Angels"--in relation to the paternal figure--"Joshua Cabe" or "Charlie"--who has brought them together for a common purpose.  The configuration of the types of actresses brought together for this movie--two brunettes and one blonde--also echoes the configuration that Spelling and Goldberg brought together for "Charlie's Angels."  It's obvious while watching "The Daughters of Joshua Cabe" that Spelling and Goldberg were already experimenting with the sort of characterizations that they would later make famous on "Charlie's Angels."

But I don't want to give the impression that "The Daughters of Joshua Cabe" is only interesting in comparison to its more famous counterpart.  On its own, it's a very entertaining and charming Western helped immensely by the fine performances of its cast.  Buddy Ebsen has impressive grit and determination as the wily Joshua Cabe.  I particularly like the scenes where Ebsen's Joshua confronts Leif Erickson's insufferable Wetherall.  Seething with rage and anger, you can see that Ebsen's character is no milquetoast and that he can be a formidable adversary to the cowardly and cruel Wetheralls.  Jack Elam is very endearing as the wise and sensible Bitterroot, with enough compassion and understanding of all the characters in the story to help mediate in times of conflict.  I also like the dinner table scene, where Bitterroot realizes the women are all exhausted from their chores, and suggests giving them an extra hour of sleep in the morning.  He recognizes that the women are at their breaking point and that he and Joshua cannot thoughtlessly assume that they will continue to stay in Wyoming without some incentives.  Both Joshua and the ladies are lucky to have Bitterroot around, as he has the kindness and wisdom to recognize what each of them needs in order to continue weathering all of the challenges facing them.

Best of all are Lesley Ann Warren, Sandra Dee, and Karen Valentine as the "Daughters" of Joshua Cabe.  Despite its short 75 minute running time, the fine performances and the script by Paul Savage goes a long way towards making them distinct, yet cohesive, personalities.  Karen Valentine has a smart, feisty grittiness that demonstrates how she was capable of playing characters beyond the "cute" image that was established for her on "Room 222."  Here, Valentine is still "cute," but she instills Charity with leadership qualities of wisdom and determination that indicate how she should have played more mature roles in her career.  Valentine also instills Charity with a sly, quirky sense of humor that demonstrates the extent of her character's wisdom and shrewdness.  (In some respects, Charity's gritty and feisty intelligence and leadership abilities echoes Kate Jackson's Sabrina on "Charlie's Angels.")

Similarly, Sandra Dee impresses as the sneaky pick-pocket Ada, a young woman with amusing airs of superiority.  Dee was several years past her days as one of Universal's top money-making actresses, and her voice had deepened so that it now resonated with maturity.  Dee brings a quick-witted and quick-thinking quality to Ada, particularly in her introductory scene where she is pick-pocketing a wallet from a woman's purse while casing a dress shop, that one would never have expected from her Gidget/Tammy days.  Dee is particularly good in the scene when she calmly slaps Wetherall in the face for feigning mock innocence about initiating the cattle stampede that has caused Joshua to give up and send the ladies back to St. Louis.  She demonstrates backbone and maturity that one would never have expected from her more famous film roles.  At the age of 30 when she filmed this, Dee is possibly even more beautiful than ever.  Years of life experience have now brought a sense of determination to Dee's face that should have also warranted more and better acting assignments for her in the 1970s.

All three of the female leads are excellent, but Lesley Ann Warren especially stands out as the former prostitute Mae, whom Joshua rescues from being abused by her pimp.  Warren brings a touching vulnerability to Mae that allows her story to be the most compelling of all.  In perhaps the best-acted scene in the whole film, after Joshua has rescued her from her pimp, Mae attempts to cozy up to him to show her appreciation for what he has done for her.  Mae tells Joshua, in a slinky manner, "You're a tiger."  An unamused Joshua tells her, "You're wasting your time."  An insolent Mae responds, "You mean 'Thanks' would've been enough?" only to have Joshua say "Ain't even necessary, Missy."  A sincere and humbled Mae drops her defensive stance and tells Joshua that her name is "Mae...and thank you.  Not that it'll have changed anything."  Joshua sensibly observes, "I don't see chains on you."  Mae humbly points out, "Look again."  Joshua opines, "Nothing that a little face scrubbin,' fresh air, single-bed sleepin' wouldn't fix."  Mae retorts, "Look closer," only to have Joshua respond "Closer lookin's up to you."  Mae explains to Joshua, "Who hasn't had the thought of somehow starting over again?"  A lightbulb suddenly goes off in Joshua's head as he asks Mae "Would you if you could?"  Mae playfully and sardonically answers with "You got an unused miracle lying around, have you?"  As written, these short lines of dialogue don't appear to add up to much, but Ebsen and Warren (who previously worked together playing father and daughter in the 1968 Disney musical "The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band") do great work in order to bring more meaning and nuance to them than was probably intended.  In so doing, we realize that Mae has never before encountered a sincere gentleman who doesn't expect any favors from her in return for his kindness.  Without intending to, Joshua is able to get to the essence of Mae's character in ways that men before him have never been able to do.  Concurrently, Joshua also seizes upon the moment to devise his scheme to find himself three faux-daughters to help save his land.  In so doing, because of this fortuitous encounter, both Joshua and Mae have helped save one another from the dire fate their lives were headed.

What I find particularly touching about "The Daughters of Joshua Cabe" is how these three young women rise to the occasion to help Joshua when he needs them the most.  Back in St. Louis, when Mae's pimp returns and threatens to harm Joshua if she leaves with him, both Ada and Charity quickly arm themselves with impromptu weapons in order to do battle with the pimp if he lays one hand on Joshua.  Later, in the finale of the movie, Charity, Mae, and Ada steal rifles from the local general store in order to provide backup for Joshua and Bitterroot as they confront the Wetheralls in the street.  The three women, like Charlie's Angels, each prove to be effective action heroines in the face of danger.  They single-handedly take down the Wetheralls without Joshua or Bitterroot having to fire a single shot.  In so doing, they've taken control of their own destinies rather than leaving it up to the men in the story to determine it for them.

"The Daughters of Joshua Cabe" was successful enough for ABC and Aaron Spelling and Leonard Goldberg to produce two sequels, made in 1975 and 1976, respectively.  However, in each of the sequels Joshua Cabe, and his "daughters," were played by an entirely new set of actors.  Only in the third film in this series, "The New Daughters of Joshua Cabe," did Jack Elam return as Bitterroot.  Dub Taylor played Bitterroot in the second one.  By not reuniting the original cast, ABC and Spelling-Goldberg sabotaged any attempts to make this a truly successful series of films (and also inadvertently foreshadowed the frequent cast changes that would befall the similar "Charlie's Angels" TV series later in the decade).  The casts of each of the sequels were never able to recapture the chemistry of the cast in the original film.  It's a shame that more of an effort was not made to reunite the original cast for the sequels, because I would have welcomed more opportunities to see Buddy Ebsen, Jack Elam, Lesley Ann Warren, Sandra Dee, and Karen Valentine find other sly ways to hold onto their land in the further adventures of Joshua Cabe and his "daughters."

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