A History of the Comedy Western #5: 1990-present

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Westerns with tags , on July 3, 2015 by travsd

This is part five of a five part series. For part one, covering the years of silent comedy, go here.  For part two, on the 30s and 1940s, go here. For part three, covering the 1950s and 1960s, go here. For part four, 1970s-1980s, go here.

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Back to the Future III (1991)

We hereby give honorable mention to this film, the third part in Robert Zemeckis’s very clever time travel trilogy starring Michael  J. Fox and Christoper Lloyd. It perhaps intentionally gets all sorts of historical details wrong. The West in this supposed past is the West of Hollywood movies…which appears to be part of the trilogy’s theme, for the series also views the 1950s, “the sci-fi future” and ultimately even the 1980s through the same affectionate lens. Marty gives his name as  “Clint Eastwood” when he’s in the past, and a plot  twist (stopping a bullet with a piece of sheet metal under the shirt) is taken from A Fistful of Dollars. Harry Carey Jr and other familiar western character actors are in the picture. And somehow Monument Valley is suddenly nearby Marty’s town — who knew?

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City Slickers (1991) and City Slickers II (1994)

Again an honorable mention. City Slickers takes place on a dude ranch in contemporary times, but because of that “pretend” setting, it allows a real western scenario to happen. Jack Palance as Curly conjures all his past western movie roles, the most famous perhaps being the villain in Shane. As part of a dude ranch experience he takes three middle aged suburban baby boomer girly men (Billy Crystal, Bruno Kirby,  and Daniel Stern) on a cattle drive. But his cowhands (ex cons) have other plans. A nice and frequently funny tribute to the western genre and relevant meditation on manhood in the modern age. The sequel, featuring Palance in dual roles (he has an evil twin) adheres to the Law of Diminishing Returns.

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Lucky Luke (1991-1992)

Silly movie and tv series based on a Belgian comic created by “Morris”. An Italian/ U.S. co-production, it starred Terence Hill as the white hatted hero of Daisy Town, with a theme song by Roger Miller. I only saw one episode, entitled “Ghost Train”,  featuring guest stars Jack Elam and Abe Vigoda. I found it pleasant and inoffensive enough.

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The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. (1993-1994)

I was quite fond of this tv series when it aired originally and watched it every week for a spell. It starred Bruce Campbell from the Evil Dead movies as a very tongue-in cheek western bounty hunter out to track down an evil gang, with John Astin as a Professor who helps him with futuristic steampunk devices. It ws of course, too smart for tv at the time and lasted only one season.

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Wagons East (1994)

A fairly dumb comedy, directed in a hackish manner, but saved by a few decent gags and several game performances. The premise is that several misfits (mostly played by recognizable character actors and led by the always hilarious Richard Lewis) decide they can’t cut it in the west and so they hire inept wagonmaster John Candy (in his last role) to take them back east. Since there always needs to be a bad guy, the one in this picture is a capitalist who wants to stop their journey because he is trying to encourage a land rush west, so no one can go east— kind of lame and implausible. The cast also includes John C. McGinley, Ed Lauter, Charles Rocket and Native American actor and activist Russel Means. The movie was a sad swan song for Candy, and he’s not at his best here.

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Maverick (1994)

One of those cynical attempts to adapt a tv series into cinematic payday. Like most such attempts, this is a worthless film in nearly every measurable way.  And worse, a movie by and for people who don’t know or care about, westerns. Which is fine, I suppose. It doesn’t REALLY pretend to be a western. What it pretends to be is a “western”, and it takes for granted all sorts of erroneous and disrespectful things about the genre, such as that it is necessarily full of clichés, that it has no three dimensional characters, etc etc. And the movie also, assumes that westerns have no plot, I guess? An hour and a half of this movie is spent on Mel Gibson’s Brett Maverick trying to get to a poker game — the sort of poker game that never would have existed a century ago, one in which the players all put in $25,000 and the winnings are half a million dollars. At the game, there is a little brouhaha about winning the pot, and a swindle, and a brief altercation. That’s it. Just a chain of card games, fights, comic set pieces, character exchanges, but no plot. It’s almost as self-indulgently bad as Hudson Hawk.

And this skimpy story is filled with characters you give don’t care about. Gibson is at his most irritating when he thinks he’s funny and cute. It’s a potentially good concept: a likable gambler and con man who has a million angles, and is prepared for any eventuality ahead of time. But it’s done cheesily here. Jodi Foster wastes her prodigious talent as an actress as a thief and gambler with a phony southern accent, and Gibson’s love interest. Her salary must have been large. James Garner (who played Maverick on the tv show) is a crook who disguises himself as a cop, and James Coburn the riverboat captain who organizes the poker game. But who cares? Then there are a bunch of real sad cameos by third rate actors from the fringes of late westerns: Denver Pyle, Doug McClure, and so forth. Worse, they stick some terrible contemporary country music in, the kind of thing that carries NO echoes of the period depicted in the movie, that is, assuming the film is supposed to convey any particular time period. It’s the kind of movie where the canyon the hero almost falls into has to be the Grand Canyon, and where the heroes sing “Amazing Grace” when they bury somebody, clearly because that’s the only hymn the creators know. In short, the film is an affront to every breathing soul, past, present and future.

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The Cherokee Kid (1996)

Likable African American comedian Sinbad stars in this comedy western co-written and co-produced by SNL alum Tim Kazurinsky (who has a cameo in the film as a flim-flam man). The story is actually too serious to bear a comedy, and the occasional comedy bits prevent us from taking the story seriously. When he is a child, young Isaiah Turner (Sinbad—Ike Turner, get it?) witnesses the death of his parents at the hands of railroad agents who want their Oklahoma land (although due to the color difference the incident comes uncomfortably close to playing like a lynching). The railroad gang is led by James Coburn — upon whom Turner vows vengeance when he grows up. The adult turner leaves the home of the preacher who raised him (Ernie Hudson) as a naïf with no survival skills. He falls off his horse, etc.

Unfortunately, Sinbad is a bit of a non-actor. Not only can he not handle the dramatic scenes but he is surprisingly inept at the comic ones. (but he’s still likable). He hooks up with a mountain man (Burt Reynolds) who teaches him survival skills, and then a band of robbers, who teach him to shoot, ride, etc. In the end he is shot by bounty hunter Gregory Hines, nicknamed the “Undertaker”, and actually his own brother, separated in childhood and now a gunslinger. Sinbad fakes his death, and then springs out of his coffin. Then all the good guys kill the bad guys.

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Almost Heroes (1998)

Extremely funny comedy western directed by Christopher Guest, starring Chris Farley and Mathew Perry as would-be competitors to Lewis and Clark. The film reminds me of an American version of Monty Python films like Holy Grail, Jabberwocky and The Life of Brian. The grit of historical verisimilitude is married to outrageous, frequently scatological comedy. Farley is particularly hilarious as the earthy scout, and I even enjoyed Perry in his role as the effete gentleman. Eugene Levy is a French tracker who claims to speak a hundred languages (but actually speaks nothing other than French and English). The plot is picaresque…they merely go from adventure to adventure, although at a certain point they run afoul of  a vain conquistador (played with uncharacteristic broadness by Kevin Dunn), adding some tension to their race to the west coast. I really love this movie—it is clearly too smart to be better known.

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The Wild Wild West (1999)

God awful. What confluence of foul stars summoned this atrocity into existence has to be wondered at. Will Smith as the Robert Conrad character from the tv show, implausibly, anachronistically black for no apparent reason. Will Smith is a terrific actor, and more importantly a terrific star. Didn’t he have anything better, anything more important to do than this?  Kenneth Branagh as an insane, legless Confederate villain — he’s extremely good, but wasted in this movie. The film-makers toy with racial commentary, but only skirt it, and not in any constructive or instructive way. There is one scene, where Smith and the legless racist trade insults, that is nothing short of appalling.  The film even makes light of lynching. Kevin Kline is well cast in the Ross Martin role of Artmeus Gordon. The art direction, however, is fantastic though. And some sort of impossible very steampunk doomsday weapon figures into the plot. It’s directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, of the Addams Family and Men in Black film franchises.

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Shanghai Noon (2000)

Quite a funny slapstick buddy picture starring Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson. Chan plays a palace guard who traces a kidnapped Chinese princess to the U.S. and has to rescue her. Wilson, largely ad libbing, does his usual schtick as a lazy, pleasure-loving, easy-going bank robber. They team up out of necessity after Wilson has alienated his gang. Chan’s character is kind of a ne’er-do-well. Apparently the original concept for the film was his. There are some mild stabs at political consciousness (coolies working on a railroad) but they’re not taken very far.

 

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Django Unchained (2012)

I think Quentin Tarantino is a genius and there’s no real name for what he does. This film is more than just a comedy western. Its aesthetic impact (on me, at least) is too profound for that, but it’s too funny not to include here. As escaped slave Djano Jamie Foxxx, who is capable of great comic flights, plays it mostly straight. The great ongoing comic business belongs to Christoph Waltz, a wheeling, dealing kibbitzer with a deadly side, and a never-ending parade of familiar character actors (including a priceless Jonah Hill as a racist vigilante). A tribute not only to spaghetti westerns (although its relationship to the 1966 Django is tangential at best, sharing only the theme song and the actor Franco Nero) but to blaxploitation westerns like Mandingo. I could rant at length, but that’s for some other post.

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The Lone Ranger (2012)

I wrote on this movie at length here. I include it among comedy westerns because everything is so tongue-in-cheek and ironic nowadays that it’s impossible to know what’s intentionally comedy and what’s not. Johnny Depp as Tonto? That had better be intended ironically. If you don’t want to follow the link, here’s an excerpt:

“…And the cynicism and the nastiness! The story is ostensibly being told to a seven year old boy, presumably a stand-in for the film’s target audience. And the story we tell the boy is filled to the brim with graphic violence and occasional profanity. One man is gutted like a fish and chokes in his own blood. In reaction, another man vomits. A transvestite desperado expresses the slight hope that he’ll be raped by the lawmen. A train wreck comes to a skidding halt and one of its pistons comes lose and flies javelin-like through the air, landing between our heroes in the spitting image of an erect penis. For no reason at all (except I guess to amuse any mongolian idiots in the audience) a pile of manure plops out of a horse’s ass — in close-up.  And a bunch of cute, sweet little bunnies turns out to be a pack of savage, meat-eating, fanged jackalopes. I assure you that Walt Disney is spinning in his grave.”

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A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014)

A million thing I’d rather be doing than watch this movie. (I started to, but only got five minutes in. I got as far as the shadow puppet hand job and then I calmly took the DVD out of the player, put in the Netflix envelope, and carried it to the mailbox using hazmat tongs).

For more on comedy film history please check out my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etcchain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500

Tomorrow at MOMA: Hondo

Posted in Silent Film, Westerns with tags , , , , , , , on July 3, 2015 by travsd

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Tomorrow at 4:30pm at the Museum of Modern Art, as part of their 3D Summer series: the classic John Wayne western Hondo (1953), directed by John Farrow. 

Warning: we always include spoilers. 

This is an odd western for Wayne. It feels more like an Anthony Mann western, or one of those later, more reflective western dramas like Will Penny. It’s based on a Louis L’Amour story.

Wayne plays a cavalry messenger and scout who stumbles out of the desert (his horse died) and partakes of the kindness of a farmer’s wife (Geraldine Page) and 6 year old son (Lee Aaker). She claims her husband is due back any day, but it is clear to Wayne the man is not coming back. It has been a couple of months. He believes he has been killed by Apaches;  Chiricahua leader Victorio is breaking their last treaty.

But when Wayne leaves, he is beset by bushwhackers. He kills them, and one of them turns out to have been the woman’s (apparently worthless) husband. (Wayne deduces it because he has the kid’s picture in his pocket). Apaches come to seize the woman and the boy, but the boy proves his mettle by trying to shoot one of the braves. He is made an honorary Apache brave. Later, Wayne is caught, and the Indians are about to torture him. They stop when they find the picture of the boy. They instead let him fight to death with a brave he has insulted. Hondo is victorious. They dump him off with the woman and the boy.

Now she finds out he killed her husband. He is surprised tp learn that is okay with it. He wants to tell the boy, but she won’t let him. Honesty can be a fault sometimes. (Wayne’s character has his own code. He refuses to even “own” his dog; he just rides with him as a companion). Wayne’s character is also half Apache, giving him that mysterious purity writ large in the mythos. There is big battle at the end and Wayne helps the cavalrymen defeat the Apaches.

This is just the broad outline, taken from the scribbles in my notebook. The one with the real analysis, in exhaustive detail as always is my old pal Sheila O’Malley. Read it here.  (She’s the one tipped me off that it’s playing)

For more information go here. 

 

My Revolutionary Relatives

Posted in AMERICANA, HOLIDAYS/ FESTIVALS/ MEMORIALS/ PARADES, ME, My Family History with tags , , , , , , on July 3, 2015 by travsd

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It’s Independence Day weekend!  I’ve recently uncovered details about several ancestors who fought in the American Revolution. Today seems like the ideal time to share the information.

As I’ve already written, I am distantly related to John Adams, Sam Adams and George Washington (In each case, I’m descended from their great-grandfathers, although not from them directly). But for the most part (actually, for the entire part) unlike the Pilgrim and Puritan generation of a century earlier and more, my direct Revolutionary War ancestors weren’t among the leaders driving the historic events. But it gives me pride and fires my imagination to know that many took part.

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By the 1770s, my mother’s various ancestral lines which had been spread across Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island had begun to converge around the area where she would be born, Woodstock, Connecticut. As it happens Woodstock, was the Connecticut town that would supply the greatest number of soldiers (184) to the Battle of Lexington and Concord (April 1775). If you look at a map, this makes sense; it’s in the northeast corner of the state, and thus closest. Still, it was a 60 or 70 mile march away. One of the most important generals of the war Israel Putnam was from the next town, Pomfret; the town of Putnam, Connecticut was named after him. Leading the Woodstock men was Captain (later General) Samuel McClellan, grandfather of Civil War general and Presidential candidate George B. McClelllan and great-grand father of New York City Mayor George B. McClellan, Jr. (Later Samuel McClellan would also distinguish himself at the Battle of Groton Heights, the closest Revolutionary battle to my hometown. (I’m not related to Putnam or McClellan; I just thought it was cool)

Among my ancestors at Lexington and Concord were Jonathan Marcy (1742-1822) who marched with his brother Capt. Nathaniel Marcy’s company, and Ichabod Turner (1725-1809), who enlisted as a private though he was 50 years old (he was from Wrentham, Mass., not Woodstock). Other Woodstock relatives (though not direct ancestors) who went to Lexington and Concord included Benjamin Bugbee and Benjamin and Nebediah Cady (my grandmother was a Cady). I see my Woodstock ancestor Jonathan Bugbee listed in the “Graves of the Revolutionary Patriots” but haven’t learnt yet where he served. (I do know he was one of the founders of Chautauqua, New York, so I suspect he served in western or upstate New York).

My (5th) great grandfather James Ledoyt (almost all the guys I’m mentioning as “ancestors” are either my 4th or 5th great grandfathers) was in the 4th Connecticut Regiment, which took part in the Invasion of Canada (1775) and the Battles of Brandywine and Germantown (both 1777) and Monmouth (1778)

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Another Woodstock area ancestor Joseph Griggs (1748-1840) enlisted three times.  In 1775 he served as a corporal in the Connecticut militia in Colonel Joseph Spencer’s regiment, which saw action at the Siege of Boston, including the Battle of Bunker Hill. In August 1777 he enlisted again and took part in the three month campaign against General Burgoyne. He marched all the way from his home in Connecticut to upstate Sarataoga, New York to take part in the Battle of Saratoga. In a written account I found, claimed to have been close to General Arnold (the ad hoc battle commander) when Arnold’s horse was shot and killed from under him, resulting in the leg injury that would plague him thereafter. (I am of course talking about Benedict Arnold. He was one of the Revolution’s most important leaders prior to his treason, which is why his switching sides was such a momentous event). Griggs mustered out in Peekskill in December 1777, and then re-enlisted in 1778, although I haven’t yet found where he served the third time.

Here’s a story that me both excited and sad. My (4th) great grandfather, Deacon Samuel Crawford (1748-1824) served in 1776, and took part in the fighting in New York City and the of Long Island. This is what made me excited. Much of the fighting in the battle took place in Brooklyn right near where I live. You could almost throw a rock from my house to hit some of the battle sites from that campaign. So that was cool. What was sad? Well, I don’t think he took much part in the fighting because he came down with camp fever. His brother John came and brought him home, and John and their father Hugh cared for him. Samuel recovered — but John and Hugh caught his fever and died!  Samuel went on to further service eventually attending the rank of lieutenant colonel. After the war, he became a prosperous land owner in West Woodstock (1000 acres) and also operated a mill. He became a selectman and state representative, and (obviously) a church deacon.

Another ancestor, Ezra Bellows (1750-1827)  of Worcester, Mass served as a private and was injured in the Mt. Hope Bay Raids (some of the only fighting that happened on Rhode Island soil) in 1778.

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My (5th) great grandfather David Ladd (1727-1796), of Norwich, CT  was a private in Col. John Durkee’s company of matrosses. He joined Colonel Durkee’s Regiment when they went into camp in Peekskill, NY in Spring 1777. In September, the Regiment was ordered to join General Washington’s army in Pennsylvania. The Regiment was engaged in the Battle of Germantown, Pennsylvania, October 4, 1777. Soon after, the Regiment was ordered to Fort Mifflin on Mud Island near Red Bank on the Delaware River. They were engaged in the defense of Fort Mifflin for about five or six weeks, lost a great many men, retreated and took up winter quarters at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Ladd left the unit at that point (as many did).

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OKAY! That’s my mom’s side of the family (at least, those I know about). Here’s the ones I know about on my dad’s side. As you saw above, the northern theatre mostly saw action at the front end of the war. My dad’s folks were from the south, which mostly saw action at the back end of the war. (Something we often forget — the Revolutionary War dragged on for EIGHT years!)

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My dad’s family comes from Tennessee, and several of his ancestors were among the state’s founders. The American Revolution played a big role in the creation of the state in the first place — it was settled largely by veterans of the war who were awarded land grants in the new territory for their service (mostly men from Virgina and the Carolinas). And some people who had already settled the area at the time of the war (when it was still officially part of North Carolina) went back over the mountains to take part. They were known as the Overmountain Men. One of these backwoods Over Mountainmen was my (5th) great grandfather John Hale (1743-1816) who fought at the incredible Battle of King’s Mountain (1780) and was one of the members of the Wautaga Association, one of the first attempts to set up an autonomous (non-British) government on American soil (much more on that later in a separate post) . At any rate, these guys are the reason Tennessee is known as the Volunteer State. Also, if you look at a map of Tennessee, you will that huge percentage of the counties are named after Revolutionary era military and political leaders.

One of my Southern ancestors Nathaniel Bilbrey (1751-1836), of Edgecombe County, NC was clearly one of those guys who is addicted to action. He pretty much served the ENTIRETY of the war. Most guys served three month hitches. If you remember your American history, Washington’s number one problem was the constant evaporation of his troop strength. Nathaniel Bilbrey was not part of the problem. He first enlisted as a private in 1776, re-enlisted numerous times, and was mustered out for the last time near the war’s end in 1783. In 1777 and 1778 he took part in all the major battles in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. For the last years of the war (1780 til the end) he served in the Carolinas. His rank went from private to lieutenant to sergeant major. You can read much more detail about it here. 

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Another North Carolina ancestor Joseph Howell Jr (1733-1835) served at a fairly old age, but he had valuable experience. He had served in the NC militia ten years prior to the revolution. He was 43 when Independence was declared and given the rank of captain in the NC, militia, serving in the Battles at Guilford Courthouse and King’s Mountain. He also furnished supplies and money to the Continental Army. His father-in-law, Col. William Starling (1756-1826) (also my ancestor) was in charge of a temporary local regiment whose mission was to defend Mecklenburg County, Virginia, although the unit didn’t see action.

My (6th) great grandfather William King (1750-1818) William King served  in the Duplin County (NC) Militia under his brother, Capt. Michael King. William King’s son William Rufus Devane King was America’s 13th vice president. (much more on THAT later).

Here’s an interesting one: my (5th) great grand father John Nichols (1743-1817) was an immigrant from Yorkshire, England who came over as a child. Despite this, he chose not to be a Loyalist, but a Patriot serving in the Orange County (NC) militia at the beginning of the war.

I save the best for last. Best, because it’s my patrilineal line and I’d been trying to find the answer for months, and my DNA test came in just under the wire to help me solve it. And I found this out yesterday. Sgt. William Stewart (1762-1848) served in both the Continental Army and the Virginia Militia from 1778 until the end of the war. The biggest action he saw was in the Siege of Yorktown — the climax of the war. To my delight, he has the same birthday as me. (November 8) .

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One last salvo:

Another Virginia ancestor, James Cox, (1760-1810) is listed in the Revolutionary War rolls as having served in the continentals as a “musician.” And, folks? If the war were to be fought again today? That’s probably me.

Happy Independence Day!

 

Stars and Stripes Forever!

Posted in Burlesk, Contemporary Variety, PLUGS with tags , , , on July 3, 2015 by travsd

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OK, this card is a little hard to read, so I’ll tell you all you need to know. Our friend Lefty Lucy is presenting this patriotic burlesque show at Coney Island USA tonight at 10pm, featuring herself, Julie Atlas Muz and a bunch of other “A” list burlesque stars. Plus it’s a Friday night at Coney and that means fireworks! See ya there!

The Goldwyn Girls! et al

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Hollywood (History), Impresarios, Jews/ Show Biz, Movies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 2, 2015 by travsd

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In July 1879 was born one Szmuel Gelbfisz in Warsaw, Poland. Later to become Samuel Goldfish, finally to become Samuel Goldwyn. Around the turn of the century he came to upstate New York and made a pile of money in the garment business.

In 1913 he threw in his lot with his brother-in-law Jesse Lasky and Cecil B. DeMille to make the hit feature The Squaw ManThe company would merge would Adolph Zukor’s Famous Players which would later become Paramount Pictures. But by then, Goldwyn was long since out.

In 1916 he formed Goldwyn Pictures with Edgar and Archibald Selwyn. (The name “Goldwyn” was made by smashing up his name, Goldfish, with the Selwyn’s) In 1924, Marcus Loew would acquire Goldwyn Pictures and turn it into MGM (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer), but by then Goldwyn was out of that one, too.

He was thus in at the founding of TWO major Hollywood studios. But he was a very independent character. What he would be best known for (besides his famous malapropisms) was for being the most successful independent Hollywood producer of his day. Samuel Goldwyn Productions made pictures from 1923 through 1959. And while there were many prestige pictures to his name, I thought I would focus today instead of a very unique contribution of his — The Goldwyn Girls.

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This innovation couldn’t have been more timely. The Depression had pretty much killed the Broadway Revue (and its foremost exponent Flo Ziegfeld). But before he passed on, Ziegfeld had dabbled a little in bringing his pulchritudinous brand of showmanship to the screen with Glorifying the American Girl (1929) and Whoopee! (1930). The latter was a transfer of his popular Broadway hit starring Eddie Cantor and it was produced at Goldwyn’s studio. Ziegfeld was to pass away in 1932, but Goldwyn would continue producing Cantor’s pictures, and adorning them with the Goldwyn Girls, his very own chorus line, often directed by Busby Berkley. (Palmy Days, The Kid from Spain, Roman Scandals, Kid Millions, Strike Me Pink). Among the ladies to have toiled as Goldwyn Girls were Lucille Ball, Paulette Goddard, Betty Grable, Virginia Mayo, Ann Sothern and Toby Wing.

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And when Ziegfeld’s grave had sufficiently cooled Goldwyn experimented with The Goldwyn Follies (1938), his first Technicolor picture, with a flimsy plot about film producer Adolphe Menjou seeking “Miss Humanity” (Andrea Leeds), and all star cast including The Ritz Brothers, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, Bobby Clark, Kenny Baker, Phil Baker and the American Ballet of the Metropolitan Opera. And of course the Goldwyn Girls. The picture was directed by George Marshall, and is the last film George Gershwin worked on before he died. It’s far from a work of art, but holds up to repeated viewings because of all the swell vaudeville turns. The Goldwyn Girls were trotted out regularly as late as the mid 1940s, but after that chorus lines were way out of fashion. Too bad! I like ’em!

To learn out more about show business history consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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A History of the Comedy Western #4: 1970s-1980s

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Westerns with tags , , on July 2, 2015 by travsd

This is part four of a five part series. For part one, covering the years of silent comedy, go here.  For part two, covering 1930s and 1940s, go here. For part three, covering the 1950s and 1960s, go here.

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The Cheyenne Social Club (1970)

A squaresville comedy western, starring Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda and directed by Gene Kelly.

The plot is: Stewart and Fonda are a couple of cowboys in an outfit that apparently employs geezers to do demanding physical work. Stewart gets a letter that says his no-good brother is dead and has left him some property. They ride all the way from Texas to Cheyenne, and learn that the property is a whorehouse, run by madam Shirley Jones. Stewart is appalled, tries to unload the whorehouse, but the law won’t let him. The town turns against him. A roughneck beats up Jones. Stewart kills him in a gunfight. Then a bunch of his relatives show up and Fonda and Stewart kill THEM in a fight. Then more relatives are coming. Stewart signs the whorehouse over to Jones and the two men head back to  Texas.

For a sex comedy, The Cheyenne Social Club is mighty prissy for even 1970. The film is lightly humorous, but very slight and doesn’t feel like enough of an event somehow. It strives mightily to trade in on the public’s affection for Stewart and Fonda as beloved Hollywood actors, right down to have them banter about their real life identities as a republican and a democrat.It feels a lot like some of John Wayne’s last movies, very much out of step with the times. Stewart in particular seems too old for the part he is playing, his lanky body now sagging in fifteen places like melting paraffin. It’s maybe one of the more comedic roles he had been called upon to do in decades, in some ways having more in common with his work in the thirties than his later westerns.  At any rate, it might have been a better role for a young Gary Cooper, whose persona to my mind always contained a certain stiffness around women.

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Dirty Dingus McGee (1970)

The Chairman of the Board as you’ve never seen him — and afterwards you’ll wish you could burn the sight from your retinas. The 60s-ish Frank Sinatra plays the titular Dingus in a Beatle wig and a mouthful of flashy dentures. A character who might be at least passable with a Michael York or Albert Finney in Tom Jones mode. Here it as distrurbing as Mae West in Sextette. The character is a sort of unwashed, semi-retarded naïf. When George Kennedy is your foil and you’re about evenly matched you know you’re in trouble. Kennedy is made sheriff of a town that has a cathouse madame (Ann Jackson) for a mayor. Kennedy keeps trying to catch Dingus for various infractions, and Dingus, stupid as he, is keeps outwitting him. The movie is full of infantile double entendres (“you forgot your cock!”) and farcical bedroom encounters. Harry Carey Jr has a small role (unrecognizable in a beard). Jack Elam plays a John Wesley Harding who has nothing to do with the real one. Worst, it’s yet another of those films that refer to “Indians” with no tribal affiliation, e.g. “Indians are attacking! ”— one of my litmus tests for a worthless western.

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Cockeyed Cowboys of Calico County (1970)

Blacksmith Dan Blocker (Hoss from Bonanza) spends his life savings on a mail-order bride but makes the mistake of paying in advance. She never shows up. He is so despondent he plans to leave the western town he lives in (the experience has been humiliating) but the town needs his blacksmithing skills so they persuade dance hall girl Nanette Fabray to portray the missing wife. The whole town has to conspire to prevent him from knowing the truth. This is essentially a sit-com length plot, stretched out to three times that. What keeps it going is all the character actors playing the town. It’s actually a throwback to Esssanay’s old Snakeville series, an effective comic idea that has been done surprisingly infrequently. In the cast are Jim Backus, Henry Jones, Mickey Rooney, Wally Cox, Jack Elam, Stubby Kaye, Noah Beery Jr, Iron Eyes Cody, and former western star Don “Red” Barry. 

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The Over the Hill Gang Rides Again (1970)

This movie actually better than its predecessor. Funnier jokes! And  it has an actual star (as opposed to a half dozen sidekicks) at its center: Fred Astaire joins Walter Brennan, Edgar Buchanan, Andy Devine, and Wills this time. The gang reunites to save their buddy (Astaire) from a hanging, but are saddened to learn that they are too late. But then they discover the hanged man was an impostor. Astaire, who is now a drunk, is made marshall of the town. He cleans himself up, and his friends backs up all his plays without him knowing it. He develops a kind of false confidence. He romances a dance hall girl (Lana Wood), but she lets him know the others have been backing him. He goes back on the bottle. A gang of bandits comes in to do a robbery. The heroes fight them off (including Astaire). A nice little family film.

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Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971)

A sequel of sorts I guess to Support Your Local Sheriff, directed also by Burt Kennedy and  also starring James Garner but sharing no other characters…and since THIS character isn’t really a character it’s hard to say what the continuity is. Garner skips out on a marriage to a madam, his pockets full of money. He gets off the train in a town called Purgatory, which appears to be populated entirely with familiar character actors. Harry Morgan returns, but as an entirely different character from the first movie. Here, he is a mine owner. His daughter Suzanne Pleshette is a wild hellion who shoots up the town. Morgan competes with another mine owner (John Dehner) to reach a mother lode of gold. First everyone mistakes Garner for a famous gunfighter who has been summoned to provide muscle by one mine company against the other. After a certain amount of business about this, Garner claims the gunfighter is Jack Elam, who just happens to be in town rolling his eye. After a certain amount of business about that, the real gunfighter (Chuck Connors) comes to town. There is a showdown, which garner subverts by riding to it on a mule laden with dynamite. The mule bucks and carries Garner into the bank. Explosion. The mother lode is discovered. Then Garner (who has twice lost all his money at roulette) wins a big stake and marries Pleshette.

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Lock Stock and Barrel (1971)

Fairly tedious tv movie comedy western starring a very young, long haired Tim Matheson as a dirty smelly farm kid. He elopes with girl (Belinda Montgomery). The girl’s father Jack Albertson is in hot pursuit. They get separated when he has to stay aand work for a farmer who sent the pursuers in the wrong direction. He falls in with some rough soldiers (Neville Brand et al)  and wins all their money at poker. They turn the tables , take all his money, and send him on his way. He catches up with his wife and finds her with the man the soldiers are chasing (Claude Akins). The guy is full of crap, flattering them, he wants to travel with them. He’s wanted for a murder which he says was self defense. The soldiers arrive, which scares the guy off. The soldiers are too interested in the wife, so Matheson keeps them at bay with his rifle until they leave. Next they are menaced by a mountain lion. Once the creature is dispatched, the father and brother catch up with them again and then they are saved by Akins, who holds the men at gunpoint. The title comes from a line in the film “We are married, man and wife; lock stock and barrel”. The father relents and leaves with kind words. Then Akins and the couple learn that they each have deeds for the same plot of land, sold to them by a crooked “reverend” (Burgess Meredith). They assume they’re not really married since the preachjer was bogus, then they lose a lot of their belongings crossing a rickety bridge. They fight and separate. He spens a night with a widow at her ranch although he doesn’t sleep with her. The next day he finds the girl working as a dance hall girl. The young man and akins finally go to stake their claim. The preacher talks a good line. Then the soldiers show up to get Akins, etc etc. I confess that I lost in this rambling movie interest after this.

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Evil Roy Slade (1972)

A made for tv comedy western produced and written by Gary Marshall, directed by Jerry Paris, starring John Astin. As you can imagine, it’s frequently very stupid and frequently very funny. It is especially interesting that it predates Blazing saddles, because much of the humor is of a similar type. A bit of an all star cast, with the never-funny Mickey Rooney as the villain,  Henry Gibson  in a thankless role as a henchman, Edie Adams as dance hall girl, Dick Shawn as a singing transvestite marshall, Pat Morita as his Asian servant, Dom Deluise as a 19th century shrink, and Milton Berle as his girlfriend’s relative, who tries to make the hero reform by hiring him as a shoe salesman. (Penny Marshall has a walk-on as a bank teller. They didn’t have female bank tellers back then, but whatever.)

The fact that the hero needs to reform at all is of course the angle of the picture. The hero is a villain. Astin is playing against type, and his performance is very broad. Since there really is no character for him to play (aside from gags about how nasty he is), there is a sort of black hole in the center of the picture. But there are funny gags. Dick Shawn sings very funny cowboy songs. His gang rides around on his wagon tooting a stolen train whistle. The hero makes an escape on a Shetland pony. Some of the gags are painful, e.g., the blacksmith is a black guy named Smith. The picture has no ending really — Slade merely escapes

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Three Musketeers of the West (1973)

A hilarious spaghetti western comedy. Lots of slapstick. A rough similarity to The Three Musketeers, Dartagnan is Dart, Jr. who comes from Cheese Valley (where they make stinky cheese and have a big slapstick cheese fight in the opening scene) and wants to become a Texas Ranger. He rides with 3 rangers McAthos, Portland and Aramirerez. They are after a stolen gold shipment headed for a Mexican revolutionary general. Along the way they start helping a lady doctor with a shipment of medicine. It turns out the doctor is the smuggler and the wagon contains the gold. But not before there is A) a hilarious barroom brawl; B) for some reason they wind up in a Chinese village and have a martial arts brawl; and C) they have a fight on a train with a bunch of circus clowns. In the end they wind up with the revolutionary army and we are promised more adventures.

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The Brothers O’Toole (1973)

A fairly lame western comedy starring John Astin (in two roles)and Steve Carlson as his younger brother. The best thing about it is the lingo written for Astin as a a con man, but though his speech is florid…nothing happens with it, he does no cons or swindles and never even convinces anybody of anything. He gets mistaken for a desperado (also played by Astin) and sits in jail and then has a trial. There is almost no plot and the movie is almost entirely inert. Eventually it is learned that the town’s mysterious name Molybdenum (which is pronounced as Molly Be Damned by some, and others cant pronounce it at all) is actually an element used to produce steel and the town is rich in it, and most of the people in town own stock in the local mine. Also in film is Jesse White as the mayor, Lee Merriwether as the desperado’s wife, and Hans Conried as an industrialist named Brigadier Vandergeld.

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Dusty’s Trail (1973)

A tv sit-com by Sherwood Schwartz, of Gilligan’s Island and The Brady Bunch fame.  For Dusty’s Trail, Schwartz essentially just took the characters from Gilligan’s Island and transplanted them to the Old Weston a perpetually lost wagon train. Of the old cast, apparently he was only able to get Bob Denver, who played “Dusty” a distinctly Gilliganesque bumbling mule skinner. For the “Skipper” equivalent, apparently Alan Hale, Jr. was unavailable, so Schwartz did the next best thing — he cast Forrest Tucker of F Troop in the Skipper-like leadership role. And the rest? A group of familiar character actors portraying a rich banker and his wife, a farm girl, a schoolteacher and a dance hall girl. (Sound anything like a millionaire and his wife, a farm girl, a professor and a movie star?) And instead of racist depictions of South Sea Islanders we get racist depictions of American Plains Indians that are SO out of step for 1973 that it’s mind-boggling. It’s “how, Ugh” stuff, but several years after landmark shifts in Native American characterization like Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man (1970).

In short, Schwartz barely lifted a finger in the generation of this “new” idea, he just took old Gilligan’s Island scripts, crossed out “island” stuff and wrote in “western” stuff. I had never even heard of it until I found a bootleg DVD in the 99 cent bin a few years ago. And naturally watched every single episode (there are 26 of them. My favorite is the one in which Forrest Tucker dresses in drag. Oh, it’s disturbing, alright, plenty disturbing)

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Blazing Saddles (1974)

Mel Brooks spoof of westerns is certainly one of the most famous and successful comedy westerns of all time. I have grappled for years with why it doesn’t work for me (whereas it seems to work for almost everybody else. If this entry offends you, please feel free to skip it!). The main trouble, I think, is that Brooks doesn’t seem to understand, know, or appreciate westerns. Time has shown that what he understands best is musical comedy and burlesque-style black-out sketches. Hence the perfection of the film and stage vehicles The Producers, and isolated numbers like “The Inquisition” section of The History of the World, Part One. (Or the Roman section of that film which he stole entirely from Eddie Cantor’s Roman Scandals, a fact no one seems to have noticed) Blazing Saddles is reputed to “send up” the  western genre without any understanding of it, nor does it make any intelligible satirical comment on the white man’s treatment of blacks, Indians, etc, all for the same reason.

The parts that work best in this film are Brooks’ own role as Governor (heavily burlesque inflected), and the performances of Harvey Korman and Madeline Kahn (whose centerpiece is, again, a musical number). For me, the best part of the whole movie is when it unravels at the end, and the cast runs cavorting through studio sound stages, where they disrupt the shooting of what? A Hollywood musical. And of course, the title song (sung by Frankie Laine) nails it.

The rest is occasionally dreck — in the case of the much beloved “baked beans/ farting interlude”, quite literally. The rest of the cast seems at sea, neither playing it straight in the Zucker Brothers fashion (which I think might be the preferred technique) nor as funny as Brooks, Korman and Kahn. They seem ill at ease with all the use of the N word, which makes it doubly hard to laugh at from this historical vantage point. (This might have been addressed, ironically, by making the film more realistic, which would also have reinforced the social point, using a wide variety of disparaging euphemisms, insulting names, etc for black people.

The N word seems there just for shock value, which would have made more sense if the original star and co-writer (Richard Pryor) had come along for the ride. He undoubtedly would have been among the hilarious handful in the movie — in fact, would have been the centerpiece of the film. Instead, we have the singularly weak Cleavon Little, which in the end, ironically, strikes me as a basically racist (safe) choice. Pryor would have been a out-and-out comedy threat, in the time honored tradition of Chaplin and the Marx Brothers. Little is no more a threat than Stepin Fetchit and company, despite the fact that he occasionally ridicules such old school Uncle Toms here. He is no improvement. The deck is stacked on the side of the white people. (Brooks has demonstrated his latent racism on other occasions — maybe most heinously in the form of the black character in Robin Hood: Men in Tights).

Also weak here is the usually superlative Gene Wilder. He decides to play against type here. Originally cast in Harvey Korman’s role (which would have been appropriate) he opted instead to play the gunslinger. What the hell he is doing with this performance is to me the central enigma of the movie. Wilder is at his best with his signature hysteria, either losing his shit or just barely holding in an outburst. Here he decides to be ridiculously relaxed. Is he a stoner? Is he gay? What is the point of the portrayal? Is he commenting on some other actor, some other type? If he is, I don’t recognize it.

But above all, though countless reviewers have commented on how expertly Brooks sends up westerns, I don’t see it — and I have seen 800 westerns. If anything, it seems of a piece with the decadent, slapdash, late westerns of its own era. There are a thousand little rich details (and major, core elements) I can think of that are missing. Even  F Troop is a better western spoof than Blazing Saddles. 

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Posse (1975)

An extremely interesting artifact, both thought-provoking and entertaining. Kirk Douglas produced, directed and stars in this political satire/ western. Influence of spaghetti westerns, and possibly Robert Altman here. It’s certainly a much better film than Altman’s Buffalo Bill and the Indians. Douglas plays a vain, strutting marshall who’s running for senate. His vanity is justified in some ways. He’s very good at his work. But his character is fatally flawed, as we shall see. The only thing between him and a career of perfection is the fact that bank robber Bruce Dern is still at large. After a couple of very memorable, clever set pieces, Dern is caught…and, again very cleverly, we watch as he contrives to escape, and manages to do so. Just as the hero proves to have faults, Dern’s robber eventually becomes sort of likable, at least to the characters in the story. In the end, Dern kidnaps Douglas and demands an immediate ransom of $40,000, the amount he lost from his bank robbery. Douglas orders his posse to go get the money—and they do, by looting the town and killing one of its leading citizens. THEN, the posse joins up with Dern (they’d earlier learned that Douglas wasn’t going to retain them on staff when he became a senator…instead they were to get railroad jobs at a cut in salary). Douglas has in a single instant lost all political goodwill, all possibility of the senate seat that seemed assured, and he is completely alone in the world. It is clearly an allegory about Richard Nixon. Very well made— so odd for it to be this obscure.

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The Apple Dumpling Gang (1975)

A pretty tough pill to swallow. Disney “comedy” aimed strictly at children — and children from 30 years ago at that. Echoes of The Courtship of Eddie’s Father: Bill Bixby is a gambler who is tricked into taking care of three orphans in fictional Quake City, California. The supposedly worthless mine they inherited turns out to contain gold. Suddenly they’re rich. Bixby marries a Calamity Jane like female stage driver in order to take care of the kids. David Wayne plays her southern gentleman father. Harry Morgan is the town sheriff.  David Tomlinson (Mr. Banks in Marry Poppins)  is the town banker. Painfully unfunny, mechanical comic relief by Don Knotts and Tim Conway who try to do crimes, including stealing the gold, but bungle every attempt. A gang of genuine crooks, led by Slim Pickens, heats things up a trifle. A relative comes to claim the kids. The kids encourage the two clowns to steal the gold so they can have their family back. Slim Pickens, dressed as a reverend, robs it first. The kids are kidnapped. There is a hair-raising chase in a fire wagon — a fancy type this small town would never have. Bill Bixby fights Slim Pickens in rapids. The movie has a wacky but inappropriate bluegrass soundtrack.

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Rancho Deluxe

An Altmanesque countercultural hippie comedy, about a couple of ne’er-do-wells who become rustlers so they “don’t fall asleep”. Jeff Bridges is a bored rich boy, Sam Waterston is an Indian named Cecil. The setting is latter day Montana. They keep escalating pranks on local a cattleman (who formerly owned a string of hairdressing chops in Schenectady with his wife Elizabeth Ashley) until they become full fledged rustlers, with Harry Dean Stanton and another dude as inside men. The film is leisurely moving in the style of that time. Much cannabis influence. And the irritating thesis (so common at the time) that free-spirited youth are justified in committing all manner of crimes so long as they do it to capitalist assholes. But it has its moments.

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Goin’ South (1976)

A very funny comedy western and a special treat for Jack Nicholson fans, for he not only stars in this film but he directed it as well. Nicholson plays a guy who about to get hung but then is saved at the last minute by a local ordinance from the Civil War days that says a man can be freed if any eligible woman in the town wants to marry him. Mary Steenburger offers to do it, mostly so she can use him as slave labor to work the gold mine on her land. Other characters include Christopher Lloyd and John Belushi as deputies (Belushi as a Mexican — boy, how I miss him roles like this, offensive as it is). Danny Devito and some others play Nicholson’s old gang. (Clearly Nicholson had bonded with Lloyd and Devito on the set of the previous year’s triumph, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). There are a couple of distasteful rape scenes played for comedy which really don’t make the grade today, but otherwise, it’s mighty enjoyable A buddy picture, with the prim virgin Steenburgen and the stinky, bearded roughneck Nicholson growing on one another until they are a bona fide couple. Ed Begley, Jr.’s in it too as a fellow “gallows groom”.

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The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox (1976)

George Segal and Goldie Hawn. A comedy western that follows the It Happened One Night double chase formula. She’s a prostitute on a mission to marry a rich Mormon; he’s a good looking card cheat who’s hooked up with her because she stole the money he stole from some bank robbers. While his name is “Molloy”, Segal’s character is extremely Jewish. When you factor in the fact that he’s constantly smoking a huge cigar, it’s very like having George Burns or Georgie Jessell in the movie. The script and comedy are mostly annoying. Segal’s character is creepy and sleezy (the creators seem to think he’s simply cute and loveable) and I’ve never cared much for Goldie Hawn aside from her Laugh-In character (although I do find it amazing that she did this picture the same year as Foul Play. She was really on a roll briefly). Naturally over the course of the film they fall in love. They actually abandon their plan. He’s shot up and we think he will die, but mostly because he thinks he will die. She goads him back to life. The film is mostly significant because of the influence of Blazing Saddles in it. While it functions on its own terms as a “real” comedy western, i.e. we care (or are supposed to care) about the characters and plot, it also plays with the genre. Segal whistles to call his horse, and makes references to the way other cowboys do things in movies. There is a lot of Jewish stuff, including a whole scene where the two characters crash a Jewish wedding in San Francisco in order to escape. Early on , Goldie has a British music hall number that’s clearly influenced by Madeline Kahn’s in Blazing Saddles. Lastly, Bobby Vinton sings a Sammy Kahn song over a romantic MOS segment that is clearly meant to parody the “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” scene in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The other notable element is a surfeit of 70’s era profanity.

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Adios Amigo (1976)

Former football star and blaxploitation hero Fred Williamson wrote, produced, directed and starred in this reportedly terrible film, and Richard Pryor, then on the cusp of exploding into superstardom, co-starred as a favor.

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Hot Lead and Cold Feet (1978)

Better than average Disney family fare. Rather ingenious mix of The Comedy of Errors and The Tortoise and the Hare. Jim Dale plays a pair of twins who don’t know about each other. One is a rootin’, tootin’ shoot ’em up bad guy. The other is a Salvation Army preacher. He also portrays their father, who plays dead in order to test the boys. The founder of a town, he leaves his enormous wealth to whichever of the sons wins a deadly cross-country race through the wilderness, down rapids, up a mountain. The funniest scenes are when good brother Dale arrives in the town with his two obligatory orphan wards and schoolteacher Karen Valentine. The entire town is engaged in fistfights, robberies, shootouts, hangings etc. The other funny scenes are the Comedy of Errors ones…when everyone thinks good guy  Dale is his mean brother, giving him all sorts of deference much to his bewilderment (kind of like Along Came Jones). Darren McGavin is brilliant as the banker/mayor who conspires to bump off both brothers so he can have all the wealth for himself. To the consternation of many, good guy Dale holds his own through the race, mostly by accident. He ends up saving his bad brother’s life. Not surpisingly, In the end, the mean one is a bit more civilized, and the good one, a bit more assertive. In a sort of superfluous subplot, Don Knotts plays a sheriff and Jack Elam, a criminal he keeps trying to duel with.

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The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again (1979)

This sequel is more palatable then its predecessor. There is a greater emphasis on comedy without the saccharine cutesy kid plot. Don Knotts and Tim Conway now attempt to go straight but run afoul of crooks.  The purported stars are as tedious as ever, but the rest of the cast is rewarding. Kenneth Mars is a hilarious Wild Bill Hickok parody named Wooly Bill Hitchcock. Tim Matheson as a young cavalryman. Harry Morgan as a general. Roger C. Carme; (Harry Mudd from Star Trek) as a bank robber; Jack Elam one of the gang. Ruth Buzzi as an obnoxious old lady. On the lam from Mars, the two guys are enlisted into the army. They do a horrific drag turn as dance hall girls towards the end. The nice lieutenant who’s going to marry the general’s daughter turns out to run the smuggling ring; Tim Matheson emerges as the hero.

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The Villain (1979)

An atrocious comedy western by Hal Needham, the rocket scientist behind the Smokey and the Bandit and Cannonball Run franchises. Kirk Douglas is woefully miscast as a bumbling, Wile E. Coyote like bounty hunter, trying to kill sheriff Arnold Schwarzenegger (yes!) and the always sexy Ann-Margaret. When I say Wile E. Coyote, I mean Wile E. Coyote…the film literally recreates Warner Brothers cartoon gags in live action. But Douglas has no comic ability or knack and what’s the point of cartoon gags without cartoon exaggeration? The film also contains a thousand character actors, some of whom we laugh at, some we laugh with: Mel Tillis (who also supplies the movie’s lame soundtrack, and I think co-produced), Paul Lynde (as an Indian!) Strother Martin, Foster Brooks, Ruth Buzzi, Jack Elam. The film limps along from gag to gag for the duration and then suddenly ends out of left field. Ann-Margaret has been trying to shtup Schwarzenegger right along….and he must be gay because he’s not interested (some joke!) In the end, she simply decides to go with Douglas, who leaps around in fast motion like Daffy Duck in response. End of movie.

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The Frisco Kid (1979)

A terrific idea wasted. Gene Wilder as a rabbi in the old west — how could it lose? It does, on just about every level. It fails as both a comedy and as a western. The premise is that it’s 1850 and that Gene Wilder is hired from his village in Poland to be the rabbi for a congregation in San Francisco. When he gets to Philadelphia, he has missed the boat (the best way for getting cross country at the time) and so must go by land. He has mishaps along the way: some guys steal his money and dump him off in western Pennsylvania. He is nursed by some Amish people. Then he hooks up with Harrison Ford, a bank robber, who sees him across the continent. Indians, mountains, deserts, etc. They become friends. When they get to the coast they encounter the bad guys from the beginning of the film and have a run in. The Rabbi takes a life. In the end, he becomes the rabbi AND runs the last bad guy out of town, AND marries a pretty girl.

The arc of the story is fine. Here’s where it fails. Director Robert Aldrich, usually a workmanlike director of action films and the like,  has a tin ear for comedy. He has what I think of (rightly or wrongly) as a German sense of humor — a weird lack of compassion. I felt this above all in the early scene where the rabbi is stripped, beaten and thrown off the back of a wagon. It is played for wacky comedy, as though we are supposed to laugh along with the thugs who are doing this cruel thing. And while the scene comes across as anti-Semitic I think that’s accidental. The real issue is a lack of sensitivity which would make one notice the wrongness right off the bat. The whole movie is like that: very clumsily and clunkily — indifferently — shot and edited. Wilder’s performance, though humorous and touching, is lost and wasted.

Equally unforgivable is the historical ignorance that subtly undermines the whole thing. We are accustomed to westerns taking occasional historical liberties. In such cases however we get the sense that the authors have at least had a grammar school education in American history and are simply toying with facts to make a better story. Here, it seems like the writers have not only never been near a classroom but have probably never seen a western! Set in 1850? They did this I guess because the “gold rush” is on, presumably the motive for lots of people going west. Since it plays no role in this story, they should have thrown it out and set it at a later date because every single aspect of the production has more to do with the 1870s or ’80s, from the clothes they are wearing, to the fact that the rabbi is familiar with western lore and “cowboys”, to the fact that San Francisco is already a big flourishing city with a fancy hotel (the boom only started in 1849). Furthermore, along the way, they are attacked by some vague group of people called “Indians” See above for my problem with THAT. It’s rare to find film-makers so slipshod and inexpert that they wouldn’t identify what tribe was attacking, and that they wouldn’t put some knowledge of the tribe into to the supposedly knowledgeable character’s (Harrison Ford’s) mouth. “Indians”! What is that? It’s like saying “Europeans”!

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Draw! (1984)

Kirk Douglas as an aging desperado on his way to Mexico to retire when he finds himself holed up in a hotel room with a beautiful blond hostage (Linda Sorenson). James Coburn, the drunken ex-sheriff who was his nemesis back in the day, is hired to take him down. I’ve not seen this one; copies seem a little hard to come by.

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Rustler’s Rhapsody (1985)

Tiresome, witless “comedy” that’s supposed to parody westerns of late ’30s through ’40s. Never mind the fact that by 1985 the clichés the movie parodies would only have been appreciated by senior citizens — it’s also not funny. It keeps calling attention to the clichés, but with no real “joke” attached. There is a lot of gay humor, poking fun of the overly costumed, virginal hero Rex O’Herlihan the Singing Cowboy (Tom Berenger) as well as the cattle baron villain (Andy Griffith). The presence of Griffith is to me an indication of how hard-up (and ignorant) the era is. “Country” and “Western” had long since split, but some people are tone deaf to the difference. This is true of the casting of the North Carolinian Griffith (who was never associated with westerns) and of the horrible orchestration of the cowboy songs in the movie, which are made to sound like they come from modern Nashville. Apparently because the writer couldn’t think of enough comic material to be gleaned from ’40s westerns (I can think of enough for five pictures) he includes digs at spaghetti westerns, too. The film was badly directed (shot-wise for comedy) by its screenwriter Hugh Wilson. And everbody’s hair is way too fucking long if this is supposed to represent a 1940s vision. Marilu Henner is the dance hall girl (thankless), Patrick Wayne, a rival, and G.W. bailey,Bthat distinctly unlikable guy who played Rizzo on M*A*S*H is the town drunk/sidekick. Is there anything good about the picture? Well, yes— there is a very impressive dancing horse. I’m quite in earnest. I’d watch that horse dance again any time.

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Lust in the Dust (1985)

A Paul Bartel (Death Race 2000, Eating Raul) comedy western, with a John Waters cast (Tab Hunter and Divine. Also Edith Massey was planned, but she died so they cast another old lady). Cast also has Cesar Romero and Lainie Kazin. The film is just about precisely what you’d expect. Bartel’s style of camp is to be self-consciously bad, but is infectious. Like when you go to a drag show at a cabaret, there is a joy in it that can only be found in amateur and community theatre productions. The whole cast is totally committed to this preposterous scenario which casts Divine and Lainie Kazin as sisters who were separated at birth, each of whom has a treasure map tattooed to her ass. Kazin is directed to be as much of a nightmare as Divine is. Hunter (doing a take on Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name) and Henry Silva (a leader of a gang of bad guys that includes a black, a Chinese man, and a little person) square off in search of the gold. The gold plot gets short shrift though, it’s really an excuse for all sorts of sexual shenanigans. In one of the film’s best recurring gags, Divine’s fat thighs break the neck of every man who goes down on her. There are two musical numbers — Divine’s is as bad as you would imagine; Kazin’s as good as you would imagine. Anyway, in its way, this movie is better at what it does than either Pale Rider or Silverado (or Rustler’s Rhapsody), also released that year. By the way, Lust in the Dust was the original title of Duel in the Sun. 

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Three Amigos  (1986)

Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, and Martin Short co-star in a film co-written by Martin and Lorne Michaels, and directed by John Landis. For some reason I was completely uninterested in seeing this movie when it came out. It may have been because I was disappointed in the sight of men I considered brilliant satirists behaving like much stupider comedians (another example would be the one where john candy and Eugene levy play security guards). But I watched it a couple of years ago and found it very enjoyable, with a strong comic premise. It is 1916. The three stars are the titular amigos, three movie stars of a western adventure series with a Mexican setting reminiscent of Zorro or the Cisco Kid. Suddenly out of work, the actors answer a summons for help from a Mexican village, thinking it is a mere request for a personal appearance. When they get down there, they are forced to fight an evil bandit and his large gang. The best comedy comes from the first two-thirds of the film when they don’t yet know their confrontations are for real. The last third is the “serious comedy” stuff…when they save the day etc. This is also played mostly for laughs and is weaker than it should be because there are no real emotional stakes. Landis seems to have phoned in his direction — a caring hand would have made a better picture out of this screenplay. The whole thing feels oddly impersonal…none of the the stars is precisely themselves — any competent comedians could have played these parts. This is not to say that it is not full of funny gags. The best bit has the three of them on a very artificial western desert set singing a cowboy number, accompanied by the local animals.

For more on comedy film history please check out my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etcchain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500

Tomorrow A.M. on TCM: The Best Witch Movie Ever (& the Worst “Wizard”)

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Horror (Mostly Gothic), Larry Semon, Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , on July 1, 2015 by travsd

Haxan 1922 - Witches' Flight

Tomorrow morning at 6:00am, Turner Classic Movies will be showing perhaps the most hauntingly effective witchcraft movie ever made. A silent Danish/Swedish co-production from 1922,  Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (by Benjamin Christensen) purports to be a sort of anthropological documentary along the lines of Nanook of the North, but the bulk of it is taken up by fictional dramatization. In the tradition of the best romances, its fiction of “truth and realism” lends it added power. The movie tells of witches and devils, secret rites and ceremonies, orgies, communion with Satan, depictions of hell, late night flights on broomsticks, human sacrifice, literal ass-kissing (an unholy practice, which caused the film to be banned) etc. Plus the film shows (ironically) all the horrors and tortures of the Inquisition. The imagery in the film is gorgeous, powerful and scary. It is a compendium of visual source material to inspire artists of all sorts: film-makers, painters, theatre designers — all those who want to depict what goes on at Midnight. It puts us back in touch with the superstitious part of our brain and the fear inspired by old legends, something most modern stabs at the genre fail to do.

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Tomasin en el Reino de Oz - El Mago de Oz - The Wizard of Oz - 1925 - Cartel007

Then at 8:00 a.m. Turner Movie Classics will be showing the notorious 1925 Larry Semon silent version of The Wizard of Oz. This was actually the second screen version. A 1910 adaptation had been made by the Selig studio, with L. Frank Baum’s direct involvement and Bebe Daniels in the role of Dorothy. Semon’s was the first feature length version.

Any resemblance between this film and the Baum book is purely coincidental. Despite the fact that the film opens with an old man reading from a book of The Wizard of Oz scarcely any story detail remains intact (although Semon’s nose does resemble Margaret Hamilton’s). In this film, the Wizard is a mere toady of a mean despot named “Emperor Kruel”. Oliver Hardy is in the film, although, amazingly, he is not the heavy. That role can be said to be played by Fatty Alexander, here cast as Uncle Henry, a mean bully! Will the heresies never cease? Farm hands Hardy and Semon are rivals for the affection of Dorothy, who is about to turn 18.

While we are anxiously awaiting the arrival of a plot, Semon runs afowl of a duck who spits animated white liquid in his face; and then a bunch of animated bees which sting his butt, but not before his fundament has been kicked by a mule, sending Semon flying into an enormous patch of cactuses that have mysteriously been transplanted to Kansas. (Semon anticipates Jerry Lewis by wearing inappropriate jewelry—in this case a large ring—that his character would never wear).

There is a third farm hand played by an African-American whose SCREEN name is G. Howe Black”. You can imagine the kind of comedy this character generates. He is first discovered rolling his eyes and slurping a stolen watermelon. Later he will run through the skies as lightning keeps zapping his butt.

But we are ahead of ourselves. We learn in a flashback that Dorothy is not really related to Henry and Em, she was left on the doorstep as an infant (played by the ugliest baby I’ve ever seen on celluloid). A note in the basket says to open the attached envelope when she turns 18—she is clearly the lost Queen of Oz. Bad guys from Oz come to steal the note before she reads it. (They leave Oz in a tri-plane; arrive in Kansas in a biplane. Must be like heaven, when you leave, you lose a pair of wings.)

The tornado arrives by divine intervention bringing Hardy, Semon, Dorothy, Uncle Henry and the black guy to Oz.  Dorothy learns she is to be queen, but the bad guys show up. Semon hides by dressing as a Scarecrow. Hardy, the Tin Man. They are arrested, but only Semon and the black guy are thrown in the dungeon. Everyone else is perfectly happy about the situation. While Emperor Kruel schemes to marry Dorothy, our friends in the dungeon try to escape. The black guy dresses in a lion costume, thus completing the trilogy and fulfilling aesthetic mandate. The film’s best (or most original) sequence emerges…one I believe resuscitated by Abbott and Costello for Africa Screams. Semon and the costumed black guy (do you WANT me to call him G. Howe Black?) get amongst some real lions. Of course at a certain point Semon will think he is with his human friend and get very saucy and confident with an actual lion. Well…you had to be there.

Anyway, in the end, Prince Kynd (remember him?) has a sword fight and defeats Emperor Kruel, thus making all the other male characters in the plot superfluous.

EPILOGUE: The requisite Semon set piece on towers with the acrobatic swinging of stunt men. Semon’s character jumps onto an airplane just as the tower he is on is smashed by a cannon—this would go in ANY action film today. Back to the little girl’s dream. End.

For more on silent film don’t miss my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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