Reviewed by DAN STUMPF

TENNESSEE’S PARTNER. RKO, 1955. John Payne, Rhonda Fleming, Ronald Reagan and Coleen Gray. Written by Milton Krims and D. D. Beauchamp, based on the story by Bret Harte (Overland Monthly, 1869). Photography by John Alton. Directed by Alan Dwan.

   An elegant little Western: maybe a bit short on action, but fun nonetheless and even a bit poignant in parts.

   Director Alan Dwan was in the movies almost since they started, with classics to his credit from Robin Hood (1923) to Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) with stops along the way for Shirley Temple in Heidi and the Ritz Brothers in The Gorilla, but he is perhaps most fondly remembered for a series of medium-to-low-budget films he did for producer Benedict Bogeaus in the 1950s of which Tennessee’s Partner may be the most charming.

   Loosely (and I mean very loosely) based on a Bret Harte story, with the dubious charisma of John Payne and Ronald Reagan to carry it along, Partner moves a bit sluggishly at first; Payne is Tennessee, a cynical gambler who likes no one, and Reagan (looking a bit long in the tooth for the part) is a naïve cowpoke (that’s his name: Cowpoke) who likes everyone. When Cowpoke saves Tennessee’s life in a rigged gunfight and the two of them land in jail, they become unlikely friends and partners — hence the title of the piece.

   The plot gels a bit when Cowpoke’s fiancée (Coleen Gray) shows up and Payne recognizes her as a mercenary little tramp … and proceeds to run off with her, leaving Reagan in the proverbial lurch and looking something of a chump. Payne quickly dumps Gray however, and returns to settle up with his partner, since he did it all for Cowpoke’s sake anyway.

   So far so dull, and I think if I were a little kid at the movies in those days, I’d have been mighty restless by now. But then things pick up sharply, with a stolen gold claim, murder, a lynch mob out after the unpopular Tennessee, and enough chasin’ shooton’ and fightin’ to fill the quota of any B-Western.

   I should especially note the rich Technicolor photography of John Alton, a painter-with-light whose work highlighted films across the spectrum from He Walked by Night to Elmer Gantry, and makes Tennessee’s Partner a joy to look at even when there’s nothing going on.

   John Payne manages to inject a pleasing bit of rattiness into the character of Tennessee, and Coleen Gray, memorable in Red River and Nightmare Alley, makes a fine trollop, but the prize for Screen Presence here goes to Rhonda Fleming as Tennessee’s girlfriend and owner of the local brothel, an opulent establishment that advertises itself as a Matrimonial Bureau. When Coleen Gray enters and remarks, “I’ve never been in a place so beautiful!” Rhonda replies knowingly, “I think you’ll feel right at home!”