Ah. Kentucky…home of bluegrass and mint juleps. It’s also the location of two stables that house the finest of horseflesh—one belongs to Major Peter Wingate (William H. Turner) and the other to Colonel Jefferson Girard (Josef Swickard). The offspring of these two fine Southern gentlemen—daughter Betty Girard (Marilyn Mills) and son Larry Wingate (Ralph Emerson—billed here as “Walter”)—have been sort of sweet on one another since the day they crawled out of their respective playpens. The relationship between their fathers (the whereabouts of the moms goes unmentioned—I don’t know if they passed on or ran off just to get the hell out of Kentucky) has been one of a friendly rivalry…but the milk of human kindness slowly starts to curdle after Larry defeats Betty in a horse race. (In Betty’s defense—she was riding sidesaddle during the contest…a considerable handicap.)
Before Wingate and Girard agree to be the best of enemies, Wingate demands that his nemesis pay off on a promissory note. Girard gets a receipt, and Wingate instructs his secretary, Cal Hutton (James McLaughlin), to deliver the note to Girard. However, Hutton is what Snuffy Smith would call a “shif’less skonk”; instead of doing what his boss asked, he decides to put the moves on Betty. When Miss Wingate chases him away brandishing a shovel, Hutton returns to Wingate Manor…and tells a bold-faced lie to his employer that he gave Girard the note.
Betty heads off for France to attend boarding school. She won’t be around to witness an argument between her father and Major Wingate as to what’s holding up the note—a disagreement that ultimately results in the gunning down of Wingate by an unknown assailant. When Betty returns home, she learns that Daddy is so broke he can’t pay attention (her schooling and his trial wiped out the estate). She’ll have to enter her prized horse Beverly into a sweepstakes race to earn money to keep body and soul together as fiancé Larry plays detective to find the scoundrel what killed his old man.
About a month ago (the street date was July 24), Alpha Video released Three Pals (1926) to DVD—a feature film that served as the penultimate showcase for actress Marilyn Mills, dubbed “The Queen of the Cowgirls” by fan zines of the period due to her co-starring roles in a number of Westerns (Two Fisted Justice, Come on Cowboys!) alongside Dick Hatton. Pals and the previous Tricks (1925) were releases sired by Mills’ own production company and distributed by a states’ rights outfit known as Davis Distributing Division. After The Love of Paquita (1927), Marilyn called it quits where motion pictures were concerned; the certificate issued after her death in 1956 (at age 52) noted that she was a housewife, so here’s hoping domestic engineering was a satisfying career move for Ms. Mills.
I was a little perplexed as to why this movie was called Three Pals; the nearest I can figure is that it’s a reference to Marilyn and the two horses that get second- and third-billing in the opening credits, “Star” and “Beverly.” (The two equines also appeared with Marilyn in Tricks.) The Alpha DVD cover proudly gives future two-time Oscar winner Gary Cooper star billing, however…and here’s where I think an explanation is in order. Coop’s in this movie—there’s nothing dishonest about that. But it’s a little like announcing the billing in, say, 1982’s The Verdict, as “Starring Paul Newman and Bruce Willis.” (Until I finally spotted Cooper, I thought he might turn up in the horse race sequence…and then immediately discounted that because Gary doesn’t seem to be the jockey type.)
In the Alpha Video print, you don’t really get a good look at Cooper until the last four minutes of the film—I’ve taken the liberty of preparing two screen grabs to illustrate my lecture:
At the (always reliable) IMDb, Gary’s billed as “Car Driver Flirting with Betty (uncredited)”—though I’d wager they got that information from the photo at left. (There’s a similar photo of Coop and Marilyn here.) I can’t say for certain if there’s a scene in Three Pals where Gary does engage in a bit of flirtation because the print from the Alpha release doesn’t feature one. I strongly suspect their print has undergone some editing only because there’s a noticeable jump in the scene where Wingate and Girard confront one another as to why Girard never got his note back (just before the Major takes on some additional lead from his murderer). I had trouble figuring out what their quarrel was about and didn’t catch on until a later scene where the lawman investigating Wingate’s death reads a letter Girard sent Wingate. (Girard is arrested for murder…and he must have had one hell of a lawyer because he didn’t appear to do any hard time for it.)
Truth be told, I think Alpha could have gotten away with mentioning Cooper’s presence in the film without making him a co-star because Three Pals is a pleasant little melodrama that can stand on its own, Coop or no Coop. Marilyn Mills is quite charming (I like how she leaves the Bluegrass State as an eager young woman and returns from France in full flapper mode) and I recognized veteran Josef Swickard from Dante’s Inferno (1924). There is a bit of political incorrectness in the film, however, emanating from “Uncle Luke” (Martin Turner), the Girard’s family retainer, and another unnamed character (I couldn’t identify the actor) who has a pronounced stutter (wince). Leading man Ralph Emerson isn’t of much use (I kind of tittered at how the villain was able to get him out of the way until he’s rescued by the horses) but seems earnest enough. If you’re not familiar with the oeuvre of Marilyn Mills, you should give Three Pals a look-see.