Real-life outlaw Al Jennings claimed the plot of this film was based on one of his exploits. I’ll leave it to the viewer to decide but there is no doubt that this is a valuable piece of film history and a rather rugged western to boot.
No, this isn’t about baseball.
Classic movie fans will be familiar with a California town called Tehachapi. It once was home to a women’s prison (now maximum security and all-male) that was mentioned in Humphrey Bogart’s famous speech at the conclusion of The Maltese Falcon:
“Well, if you get a good break, you’ll be out of Tehachapi in 20 years and you can come back to me then. I hope they don’t hang you, precious, by that sweet neck…”
In fact, a good number of noir classics make mention of the prison. Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Out of the Past… It’s practically a rite of passage!
Real-life Oklahoma outlaw Al Jennings didn’t go to Tehachapi for the prison; it wasn’t built yet anyway. No, he went there to make a movie on the cheap in a western-looking town. The Lady of the Dugout uses real buildings and real landscape, no sets or studio lots. This makes it a priceless time capsule. The film is also of personal interest to me. You see, my grandparents were living in Los Angeles when they decided to get a summer place to escape the city and enjoy some country air. You guessed it, they bought a place in Tehachapi. As a result, I am quite familiar with the landscape, though most of the buildings in the modern city were built long after 1918.
(By the way, the 1928 classic The Wind was shot just over the hill in Mojave. It’s about a 30-minute drive on modern freeways.)
Jennings didn’t have a large budget but he hoped to draw crowds with promises of seeing a real, live western bandit plying his trade on the silver screen. He wanted George Siegmann but couldn’t afford him so he settled for a younger, cheaper kid called W.S. Van Dyke. Van Dyke, as you may recall, directed Tarzan the Ape Man, The Thin Man and Marie Antoinette.
Al Jennings and his brother Frank star as themselves, a couple of bandits on the run from the local law. Tires and hungry, they stumble onto the underground home of titular lady, Mary (Corinne Grant). She is living in abject poverty thanks to her drunken husband (Joseph Singleton), who has gone to town and left his wife and son without any food. By the way, the son is played by Ben Alexander, who would go on to play Kemmerich in All Quiet on the Western Front and Frank Smith in Dragnet.
The outlaws feel sorry for the lady and use their loot to buy her a wagon full of supplies. Her sad story involves being thrown out of her old home by a ruthless banker and so they also decide to rob that particular bank. The robbery scene is the most famous in the film with all the usual heist elements: gathering the gang, casing the joint, the robbery, the escape and the aftermath. Mary gets her money, the husband conveniently dies in some crossfire and the bandits have done their good deed for the year.
The Lady of the Dugout has a solid basic story but I’m afraid that it is two reels of entertainment stretched out to feature length. The film only runs about an hour but it’s pretty slow going. The Jennings brothers were not really what you would call natural actors and their wooden performances do not help matters. While certain scenes are exciting, particularly the second bank robbery and the climactic gunfight, most of the film is taken up with the lady looking tragic, the Jennings boys riding around and lots of dense title cards.
Okay, so the inevitable question arises: how real is this story? Well, parts of it.
The Jennings brothers were indeed outlaws and did indeed serve time for their crimes before receiving presidential pardons. What The Lady of the Dugout exaggerates is their basic competence. You see, they were less Jesse James and more the Apple Dumpling Gang. The brothers only rob banks in the picture but in real life, their favorite targets were trains. They were twice thwarted by wily conductors who refused to stop their locomotives and they managed to blow up an entire train car when they overestimated the amount of dynamite required to open a safe.
All told, it was better for everyone that Jennings decided to go into the tall tale business because his Wile E. Coyote antics were bound to get someone killed sooner or later. He became a celebrity of sorts, his name associated with both Teddy Roosevelt and O. Henry, and a 1913 piece in the Saturday Evening Post entitled Beating Back helped increase his notoriety. Jennings famous enough to be paid to endorse the Savage Automatic Pistol in an advertisement the following year. (“Jiminy! It’s the hottest, fastest gun I ever saw!”) It seems to me that endorsing explosives would have been more suitable but I am not his agent. Jennings also ran for governor of Oklahoma but was defeated. He also took to claiming that he had been pressganged into service during the American Civil War (1861-1865), which would have been quite an accomplishment as he was born in late December 1861.
Jennings was an incompetent bandit and a true eccentric but he was not stupid. As entertaining folks with his tales of banditry and heroism was the one profession that had been successful for him, Jennings went to the world capital of ballyhoo: Hollywood. He was in demand as an actor and technical consultant for westerns and he continued living in California and only occasionally shooting his friends. He passed away at the age of ninety-seven, a character to the last.
The Lady of the Dugout plays to the image that Jennings had been carefully curating: “I was very, very naughty but wasn’t I awesome, too?” The Jennings brothers are consistently portrayed as gallant heroes who rob from the rich to give to the poor. It’s all made right in a final title card explaining that the bandit life is just awful and no one should go into it and Mr. Jennings will be available for autographs in the lobby.
For all the fluff, the film is full of little details that, well, I hesitate to use the word “realistic” considering Al Jennings’ propensity for tall tales but they do add a realistic flavor. Of course, even though Jennings tended to exaggerate his exploits as a bandit, he certainly did live in Oklahoma during rougher times and likely had plenty of experience to draw upon. For example, one of the outlaws is shot in the arm and his mother digs the bullet out with a kitchen knife while his sister holds a lamp. Later, the bandits escape the dugout by digging up and out through the roof. There are even small touches, like a man getting annoyed when his friend rolls his spurs on the floor. All of these little details combine to create a fully-realized cinematic world.
Oh, and in case you were wondering, this is what Tehachapi looks like now. A lot of the buildings are gone due to modernization and the 1952 Kern County earthquake and some of the mountains have been meddled with but it generally looks the same. (I’ll probably do a full location scouting post at some point.)
The Lady of the Dugout is a slow-moving affair, more interesting for research than actual viewing. If you are a Jennings fan or have a personal connection to the filming location, it’s worth seeing. Everyone else is encouraged to just read up on Jennings, one of the most colorful figures of the American frontier.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★
Where can I see it?
Released on DVD as part of the excellent Treasures 5: The West box set. The box includes loads of rare films shot in the American west and is a great bargain considering the quality and quantity. The film has also been released on DVD by Grapevine packaged with other Al Jennings titles.