Fearless Fagan (1952)
Brando’s Pick of the Month
For this MGM release detailing the plight of Fagan, a 400 pound tamed lion, Janet Leigh, scored top billing opposite Carleton Carpenter and Keenan Wynn who shared above the title billing with the newly minted Mrs. Tony Curtis.
Our feline adventure that Brando the Weiner Dog suggested we give a go begins with Carpenter working a small time circus troupe as a clown who does a comical act with his best pal, Fearless Fagan. Parley Baer as the actual lion tamer thinks Carpenter is taking his life in his hands and someday Fagan will turn on him. Baer believes in the pistol and the whip to have his lions do his bidding during his circus act. Seeing Carpenter (or the stuntman in the clown suit) interact with Fagan during the show is a great sight gag and for me never gets old.
Carpenter’s life is going to be turned upside down when he learns he’s being investigated for evading the draft. His mail never catches up to the circus and he’s given a couple hours reprieve to find the nearest recruitment center. But what to do with his best pal Fagan? There’s no way he’s about to hand over the lion to the heartless Baer who will put Fagan in his show behind the whip and the chair. So it’s off to the military for both where company Sergeant Keenan Wynn awaits.
It’s while at boot camp that Carlton keeps Fagan locked up in the woods just off the base. He needs to find a home for his best buddy and instantly puts in for a 60 day pass netting him latrine duty. The good Sargent Wynn doesn’t believe his far out story of a pet lion needing a home. And then along comes celebrity singer Janet Leigh to the base to lift up the boys spirits. It’s while she’s enroute to the base that she comes across Carpenter and Fagan in the woods just off the base.
She has absolutely no interest in befriending the maneater and against the wishes of Carpenter, reports to the Camp Commander the presence of a real live lion in the woods.
One thing leads to another and as the Army is attempting to look more family friendly, the gruff Wynn is put in charge of helping the big cat find a home. This leads to photos and pictures for local newspapers that show just how gentle this 400 pound baby can be.
Thankfully farmers Ellen Corby and her hubby, John Call, step up to give the big fellah a home nearby the base. The problem is Fagan is lovesick for his master and decides to come a calling. Comically he winds up inside the WACS camp. Cue the screams and cries for help when the big fellah saunters into their quarters. The truth is the gentle giant likes music and came a-calling because he could hear the radio playing. As we all know, music soothes the savage beast.
Maybe he’ll be more welcome where Wynn and his troops are running night maneuvers? Thought not but he does leave the quick tempered Wynn hanging upside down from a tree limb and just about the right height for a good face licking. Truth is I was reminded of two things during the final stanza of this family outing from director Stanley Donen. First off was a song I’ve known since I was a kid though I have no recollection why. You may recall the lyrics …
The cat came back the very next day
The cat came back
They thought he was a goner but the cat came back
Cause he wouldn’t no he wouldn’t stay away
Well, Fearless Fagan, keeps coming back no matter how hard the simple minded Carpenter keeps trying to give the big guy away until he gets out of the military at which point they can be reunited. The other item I was reminded of was Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. If you know how that one ends then you’ll get my meaning. And NO I’m not saying that’s how this family film ends but it sure was headed that way for a minute or two. Maybe, just maybe Carpenter’s hick good old boy might find romance in his future with you know who. Maybe she could babysit and find Fagan work in tinsel town. One never knows.
Apparently the story of Fearless Fagan was based on a real life incident but according to Stephen Silverman’s bio on director Stanley Donen, neither he nor leading lady, Janet Leigh, wanted the assignment from MGM. Easy to understand when you consider their other films at this time. Miss Leigh had just starred opposite Stewart Granger in the splendid technicolor release, Scaramouch, and following Fagan would appear opposite James Stewart in the excellent Anthony Mann western, The Naked Spur.
When we look at Stanley Donen’s participation one is left scratching their head. A black and white “B” film assigned to the man who had just directed Singin’ In the Rain? Not to mention he’d already helmed On the Town and Royal Wedding prior to the Gene Kelly – Donald O’Connor – Debbie Reynolds hit.
MGM had a second film in release during the 1952 season that joined both Carpenter and Wynn together again only this time Miss Leigh is nowhere in sight. Instead, it’s Jan Sterling teaming up with the boys for a comedy western titled Sky Full of Moon. A film I’ve yet to see so please drop me a line if you have and your thoughts on it.
One thing about Fearless Fagan that did surprise me upon this revisit years after seeing it as a child was the interplay between the lion and the actors. I really didn’t expect Carleton Carpenter to interact with the big cat as much as did. Which in the end played a great part in my allowing Brando himself to cozy up to Fagan for an afternoon nap. Of course Brando had to take his squeaky ball with him.