It’s the place “where the sun takes his shoes off.” It’s the place that “has got everything but population.” I’m referring, of course, to none other than 1840s California — soon to become known as the golden state!
Jonathan Trumbo (Ray Milland) has been hired to lead one of the first wagon trains to make its way to California, just before the Gold Rush hits and sends settlers to the coast in droves.
Lily Bishop (Barbara Stanwyck) is a woman of ill repute who wants to join the wagon train. Many of the travelers object, calling her a cheater, a gambler, and worse. Trumbo himself even objects, but Lily manages to find a kind old man who will allow her to tag along in his wagon.
Tensions brew on the trail and in Pharaoh City, a California town controlled by ruthless former slave trader Pharaoh Coffin. Trumbo butts heads not only with Lily, but with Coffin, who vehemently opposes the push for California statehood.
California was directed by John Farrow. The screenplay was written by Frank Butler and Theodore Strauss, based on a story by Boris Ingster.
As its state-centric title suggests, California is kind of more about the state itself than any of the characters inhabiting it. Songs about California are sung throughout, and alongside the dramas faced by those moving west, the path to statehood is also prominently explored. Being from the opposite side of the country, this isn’t a history I know a whole lot about, so I was interested in the historical subject matter (and the outside research it would inevitably lead me to, as all historical dramas do!).
Equally interesting is Stanwyck’s character, an outcast among the travelers with a reputation for gambling and other dirty deeds. To the audience, she’s quite sympathetic, especially early on — a misunderstood woman trying to find a place she can call home. Seeking security and stability.
She’s a true survivor, a woman who will do (and has done) whatever it takes to survive, in a world that was harsh for women — especially single women over a certain age.
(As a side note, I must mention that Stanwyck looks particularly lovely in this film, donning down-to-Earth traveling garb AND glamorous Edith Head gowns. One particularly striking outfit is an all-red ensemble worn in a vineyard. Even on the dusty trail to California, she gives the viewer hair envy as she “wisely” uses some of the limited water rations on hair-washing!)
California isn’t a complex or high-stakes drama, but it looks great and held my attention. The relationship between Stanwyck and Milland could have been better-developed, but the film has quite a bit of tension otherwise. Plus, it’s worthwhile for another strong Stanwyck performance and take-no-bull character.