Supposedly, the Australian outback of 1874 is a desperado wilderness, a land that, as one complaint has it, is filled with too many English crooks and not enough sheepherders. But from what we see in Stingaree, this criminal element is of a far more genial sort. In William A. Wellman’s 1934 RKO release, the titular rebel focus, played by lively Richard Dix, is a dashing Robin Hood-esque rogue, the type of bandit barroom revelers sing lively songs about, which they do. As the region’s “prized outlaw,” Stingaree meets his amorous match in Irene Dunne’s Hilda Bouverie, a servant girl songbird kept in her dutiful cage by the wealthy Clarkson family. A tale of fugitive exuberance (a bill Dix fits nicely), Stingaree is also an agreeable rags-to-riches story, wherein Dunne’s sympathetic vocalist takes center stage as she and her unlikely suitor seek triumphant, allied liberation.
Based on a collection of stories by Ernest William Hornung (not unlike his “Raffles” series, also about a “gentleman thief”), Stingaree’s amusing set-up first introduces sheep farmer Hugh Clarkson (a droll Henry Stephenson) and his overpowering wife (a fittingly buoyant Mary Boland). While her actual talent is suspect, Mrs. Clarkson has undeniable operatic pretentions, behaving as if she were constantly in a heightened state of theatrical performance, with boisterous inflection and perpetually ear-piercing tone. Enjoyably contrasting and combative types, Mr. and Mrs. Clarkson are, at the same time, utterly, if begrudgingly, devoted to one another. But when she and her husband aren’t engaged in comically bickering banter (Stephenson can often say more with his exasperated facial expressions than he can in verbal response), Mrs. Clarkson is gripped by the possibilities of music prominence, something intensified by the impending arrival of famed London composer Sir Julian Kent (Conway Tearle). Others, like Hugh, are less convinced. As she prepares to sing for assembled partygoers, he dares deride the missus: “Now?” he questions. “But everyone was having such a good time.”
Music isn’t the only thing in the air, however. Before long, at first glance really, love consumes Stingaree and Hilda. Posing as the renowned Sir Julian, Stingaree arrives at the Clarkson home and is instantly taken by lowly Hilda, appreciating her moderated beauty and her own musical inclinations, which are otherwise frowned upon by limelight hog Mrs. Clarkson. The ruse plays well until Police Inspector Radford (George Barraud) recognizes the imposter. But Stingaree’s persuasive aim is affirmative and appealing, and by being in on the stunt, we are effortlessly on his, and by extension their (his and Hilda’s) side. In a sense, Stingaree and Hilda are cooperative outcasts, with his charismatic defiance and her charmed curiosity, with each seeking freedom and prosperity as the powers that be work against them. So, as he whisks her away (just as we hoped he would), her initially antagonistic irritation isn’t convincing for a second. “You’ll be just as safe here as you want to be,” Stingaree tells Hilda, soon thereafter securing her an audience—at gunpoint—with the influential Julian. It’s a successful scheme, which sets her off on a globetrotting tour of eminent concert halls as loving reminders of her time with Stingaree linger on in her superimposed consciousness.
The introduction of a downtrodden Dunne serves its purpose, though no amount of plain clothes can conceal the sparkle of this radiant actress. A trained mezzo-soprano, who here does her own singing (as she did in later films), Dunne was an RKO favorite at the time. She recently received an Oscar nomination for her performance in Cimarron (1931), which also took home Best Picture and garnered a nomination for Richard Dix, her co-star there as well. History has verified how exceptional Dunne was, especially compared to Dix, for example, who is perfectly suited to Stingaree but can’t hold a candle to her lasting impression. It could be argued that Hilda’s career concession is a step backwards, that she would give up all she has achieved to reunite with Stingaree as he, when she returns to Melbourne for a show, is still on the lam living a life of danger and uncertainty. Stingaree handles this well, though, presenting for Hilda the best of both worlds; she receives a hearty dose of success and a concrete confirmation of her talents, but she also gets the romantic happy ending. It’s a reasonable compromise.
Joining Dunne and Dix is a roster of superlative character actors, each of whom do what they do best in these exemplary roles (Andy Devine, who appears as Howie, Stingaree’s partner, is standard Andy Devine—limited in range but a peerless addition to any film). Their most notable contribution is the humor that offsets the starry-eyed fancy of Stingaree and Hilda, usually, in fact, overriding it. And leading the production, of course, was “Wild Bill” Wellman. Having directed such titles as Wings (1927), the inaugural Academy Award winner for Best Picture, and classics like Night Nurse and The Public Enemy (both 1931), the oddness of Stingaree appealed to the prolific filmmaker, at least according to son William Wellman Jr., who provides a commentary on the Kino Blu-ray of the film. As a genre amalgam—a romantic-comedy-action-musical— Stingaree is indeed a little bit of a lot.
Shot partly on the 1925 set of Lon Chaney’s The Phantom of the Opera, while other California sites stood in for the Land Down Under, Wellman’s picture was one of six 1930s RKO films thought lost but rediscovered and restored by TCM. With rousing music by Max Steiner and rich cinematography by James Van Tree, and running just 77 minutes—forgoing much in the way of backstory and character development in the process—Stingaree is a model of lean, economic storytelling, a template for Hollywood’s immaculate escapism. After the Hays Office demanded several alterations, its current pre-code qualities are relatively slight, just some subtle glances, sly transitional cues, and witty repartee that isn’t quite as scandalous as other favorites of the era. With a few exceptions: “Why, the very foundation of empire is woman’s virginity,” Mrs. Clarkson observes. To which Julian responds, “Chastity, madame, chastity. No empire would get very far with virginity.” Then there’s the (only slightly) subtler variety: “I sometimes had to wait a long time for a coach I’ve had designs on,” Stingaree tells Hilda, advancing the metaphor. “Sooner or later, it comes along, and I rifle her of everything she has to give.” To that, a rapt Dunne leans slightly forward in Dix’s direction. End scene.