Nothin’ Dirty Goin’ On: THE CHEYENNE SOCIAL CLUB (National General 1970)

THE CHEYENNE SOCIAL CLUB isn’t a great movie, but it’s not a bad one, either. It couldn’t be; not with all that talent in front of and behind the cameras. You’ve got two legendary leads, James Stewart and Henry Fonda , Oscar winner Shirley Jones, Gene Kelly in the director’s chair, and John Wayne’s favorite cinematographer William Clothier . Still, the film, while amusing, should’ve been so much better.

The story’s fairy simple: two old Texas cowhands, John O’Hanlon (Stewart) and Harley Sullivan (Fonda) are plying their trade when John receives a letter. Seems John’s brother has died and left him an inheritance – The Cheyenne Social Club in Cheyenne, Wyoming. John and his old pal head north, and it turns out The Cheyenne Social Club is a cathouse, run by Madame Jenny (Jones), and she and the girls warmly greet the perplexed duo. Uptight John, who’s always wanted to be a “man of property”, decides he’s going to fire the girls and open a boarding house, but Harley doesn’t seem to mind the set-up, sampling all the fine young wares!

The girls are upset when John gives them the news, and the townsfolk are up in arms. There’s an obligatory barroom brawl which lands John in the pokey, and he then discovers if he gets rid of the girls, he loses the property, due to an agreement his brother, “the late DJ”, made with the railroad. Jenny receives a brutal beating from irate customer Corey Bannister, and John straps on his shootin’ iron (even though he’s “no hand with a gun”) and goes after him. Thanks to Harley’s inveterate habit of cracking nuts, John wins the gunfight, only to have the entire Bannister clan descend on Cheyenne for the inevitable shootout scene….

Critics of the time called the film “smutty”, but it’s pretty harmless when seen today. There’s a lot of chuckles to be had, but like I said it’s not the great movie it could’ve been. The problem as I see it is two-fold, the first being Gene Kelly’s meandering direction. Kelly is my favorite among Golden Age dancers (sorry, Fred Astaire), and co-directed one of my all-time favorite films, SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN. But his career as a solo director was hit-or-miss, and the pacing in this Western comedy is off by a country mile. Someone like Burt Kennedy would’ve had a ball with this material, but Kelly is out of his element. Then again, James Lee Barrett’s script doesn’t help matters. It’s far too talky and lacks characterization. Only the three main stars get anything resembling distinctive, motivated parts; everyone else is a cardboard cut-out.

Fonda and Stewart, of course, can do no wrong. The two actors had been friends since their salad days at the University Playhouse on Cape Cod, and became lifelong friends despite the differences in their personalities. Both men became major stars, and appeared together in three films: the 1948 anthology ON OUR MERRY WAY, the Western drama FIRECREEK (1968), and this one (both were in the all-star HOW THE WEST WAS WON, but appeared separately). Jimmy’s still being Jimmy here, but the usually taciturn Fonda’s Harley is a garrulous, randy old coot, and gives the funnier performance. Stewart and Fonda never let their political differences get in the way of their friendship (something sorely lacking today), and even got to satirize it in this exchange:

John: “Solid, respectable, Republican business. That’s what makes America, Harley.”

Harley: “Our folks were Democrats, John.”

John: “Yeah, and where did it get you. A lifetime on the range and sweat in the summer and freezin’ in the winter, and sleeping on the ground and fightin’ wolves and the rattlesnakes… oh no, Harley. There can’t be a finer calling in the world than being a Republican businessman.”

Harley: “I don’t like to dispute you, John, but didn’t you always vote Democratic?”

John (in that trademark Jimmy Stewart hemming and hawing): “Wal, wal, that was when I didn’t know any better.”

And later in the exchange – Harley: “John, you don’t mind if I still vote Democratic, do you?”

John: “Just so long as you’re not seen with me when you do it. Be bad for business.”

Shirley Jones won the Oscar for playing a prostitute in ELMER GANTRY, and she’s a bawdy good time here. Her Jenny is the only one of the girls – Sue Ane Langdon , Jackie Joseph, Elaine Devry, Jackie Russell, Sharon DeBord, all capable actresses – with a fully fleshed out character. Jean Willes is entertaining as Alice, a saloon girl with her sights set on Harley, but again she’s just a stock character, as are the other Familiar Faces here: John Dehner, Dabbs Greer, Myron Healy, Arch Johnson, Robert Middleton, J. Pat O’Malley, Charles Tyner, Jason Wingreen. I’ll usually watch THE CHEYENNE SOCIAL CLUB whenever it’s aired (and have many times), but I can’t help but wonder how much better it could’ve been with tighter direction and a richer script. James Stewart and Henry Fonda together on film for the last time is what makes it worthwhile for me.

Navy Blue & Gold: MISTER ROBERTS (Warner Brothers 1955)

I grew up a “Navy brat”, often accompanying my dad to bases in Newport, RI. and Bethesda, MD. I’d hang out at the Enlisted Men’s Club he ran, watching Bugs Bunny and Road Runner cartoons with the sailors while dad did the books. I remember going aboard ship plenty of times, and saw one of my first movies with the crew on Family Night (the Cary Grant/Doris Day flick THAT TOUCH OF MINK). So naturally, I have a soft spot for nautical tales, and one of my favorites has always been MISTER ROBERTS.

The film marked Henry Fonda’s return to the screen after an eight year absence. Fonda had starred in the original Broadway production to great acclaim, and his performance is imbued with his own experiences during WWII. Douglas Roberts is a lieutenant (j.g.) assigned to the cargo ship Reluctant in the South Pacific, run by the vain, tyrannical Captain Morton (James Cagney ). The crew loves Roberts, who always sticks up for them against the martinet Morton. But Roberts longs to see combat, and despite his weekly letters asking for a transfer, he’s always shot down by Morton, who needs Roberts’s expertise to further his own career.

Roberts’s best friends are Doc (William Powell), a wise old soul whom he confides in, and Ensign Pulver (Jack Lemmon), a callow braggart who looks up to Roberts (but is scared to death of Captain Morton!). The men of the Reluctant haven’t had liberty in a long while, and tensions are rising. Roberts bribes an old pal with a bottle of Scotch to get them to a port where they can blow off steam, but Morton, learning of the ruse, refuses to let them go ashore.. that is, unless Roberts agrees to stop writing his letters and carrying out his orders to a tee. Roberts, knowing how much it means to the men, accedes to the captain’s wishes, with orders not to tell the crew about their little bargain.

Having sown some wild oats on the island (and getting the Reluctant thrown out of port in the process!), the men notice a change in Roberts’ attitude, and peg him as just another officer bucking for promotion. They begin to give him the cold shoulder, until a radio broadcast announces the war in Europe has ended. Roberts finds a way to celebrate by tossing the Captain’s beloved palm tree overboard, incurring his wrath, and the two have a heated shouting match, which unbeknownst to both is being broadcast over the loudspeaker. The men realize Roberts is one of them after all, and forge documents to get Mr. Roberts that transfer he’s longed for. After awarding him a handmade “Order of the Palm” for his valor, Roberts finally gets to see combat. Later, a letter sent to Pulver reveals the final fate of Mister Roberts…

Fonda, who won a Tony for the role in 1948, wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar, but Jack Lemmon was, winning for his comic performance as Ensign Pulver. It was Lemmon’s breakthrough role, and he makes the lazy, incompetent Pulver into a likeable character, an all-talk-no-action goofus who redeems himself at film’s end. Cagney, as the villain of the piece, gets to show a bit of his comic side as well… you’ll laugh hysterically when Morton learns his palm tree is gone! Powell, in his last film, balances out things well as the cynical realist Doc.

The rest of the cast includes many Familiar Faces. Young Betsy Palmer (FRIDAY THE 13TH’s Mrs. Voorhees) is quite a hottie as a nurse Pulver tries to put the make on, without success. The crew features actors like Nick Adams , Frank Aletter, Tige Andrews (of TV’s THE MOD SQUAD), Philip Carey , James Flavin, Martin Milner , Gregory Walcott , and John Ford Stock Company players Ward Bond, Danny Borzage, Harry Carey Jr, Ken Curtis, Jack Pennick, and baby-faced Patrick Wayne.

Ford started the film, but a disagreement with Fonda led to an argument in which the volatile director punched his star in the face. The contrite Ford, who’d been friends with Ford since the 1930’s, began to drink heavily on the set, but it was a gall bladder attack that took him off the picture. Veteran Mervyn LeRoy took over, filming close as possible in the Ford style, and Joshua Logan shot some retakes. Just who shot what has long been a basis for speculation among film fans, but we do know Ford was responsible for the casting of Lemmon, and his stock players. Fonda and Ford, who made a total of seven movies together, never spoke to or worked with each other again.

MISTER ROBERTS doesn’t get much acclaim these days, but due to my background I find it a very entertaining film. It’s fairly true to life aboard ship, and the four stars alone make it worth watching for film buffs. Anchors aweigh!

(This post is lovingly dedicated to my father, who served in the Korean War and was deployed during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He passed away at age 39,  just short of making twenty years in service to his country. He was a good ol’ boy from South Carolina, a Navy boxing champion, and loving husband and father. This one’s for you, Dad.) 

R.L. “Rocky” Loggins, Jr. (1930-1969) 

Western Zing: MY NAME IS NOBODY (Titanus 1973)

Sergio Leone  wasn’t quite done with the Western genre after DUCK, YOU SUCKER. MY NAME IS NOBODY is based on “an idea by Sergio Leone”, and though Leone’s former Assistant Director Tonino Valerii is given full credit,  the Maestro reportedly directed a couple of scenes as well as some second-unit action in the film. Whatever the case, the film puts a comic spin on Spaghetti Westerns in general and Leone’s movies in particular, with the comedic talents of star Terence Hill standing in sharp contrast to the old school Hollywood hero Henry Fonda .

Hill was the brightest star on the Italian horizon, having starred in Giuseppe Colizzi’s GOD FORGIVES… I DON’T, ACE HIGH, and BOOT HILL alongside burly Bud Spencer, adding elements of humor as they went along . But with 1970’S THEY CALL ME TRINITY, the duo went full-bore into comedy territory, giving the Spaghetti genre a needed shot in the arm. Some fans hold the Hill/Spencer films in contempt, crying too much funny business ruined the Spaghetti recipe, but I’m certainly not among them. The best Spaghettis always had a strong strain of humor running through them, from Eli Wallach’s Tuco in THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY to the performances of Tomas Milian , and Leone himself never shied away from throwing in a good gag. To me, comedy is an essential herb for making a good Spaghetti, and box office returns on the Hill/Spencer vehicles proved that most fans agreed.

Hill’s ‘Nobody’ is basically an extension of his ‘Trinity’ character, a laid-back, outwardly goofy vagabond who happens to be quicker than he lets on in both his mind and his actions. He idolizes gunslinger Jack Beauregard (Fonda), the fastest gun in the west, whom we’re introduced to in a barber shop, where three killers have marked him for death. Beauregard beats the odds, and when the barber’s little boy asks who’s faster than Beauregard, the reply is, “Faster than him? Nobody!”, setting up the next scene where Beauregard comes across Nobody lazily attempting to catch a fish.

The plot involves a worthless mine used to fence stolen gold by outlaw gang The Wild Bunch, and Beauregard’s quest to snatch his late brother’s share of the loot, with Nobody urging the aging gunfighter to take on the Wild Bunch solo, “one against one hundred and fifty” and mark his place in the history books. But that’s all secondary to the images put onscreen by Valerii. Nobody’s ‘undercranked’ fighting scenes are throwbacks to the silent slapstick era (and resemble Hong Kong Kung-Fu movies), the direct opposite of Beauregard’s slo-mo killings, emphasizing the difference stylistically between the two Western brands. There’s a bizarre Street of Pleasure scene (reportedly Leone’s handiwork) which features a parody drinkin’ and shootin’ contest. Leone also did the scene with Nobody and a train conductor standing at the urinals, which in my opinion could’ve been edited out, but the Maestro thought it was funny. A ciascuno il suo. 

A Funhouse Hall of Mirrors scene is an obvious (but well done) homage to Welles’ THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI , and Leone’s American spirit brother Sam Peckinpah  gets name checked during a graveyard scene between Hill and Fonda. Unlike most early Spaghetti Westerns, much of MY NAME IS NOBODY was filmed on location in the American West (both New Mexico and New Orleans). Many American actors appear in brief roles: Leo Gordon , R.G.Armstrong  (for some reason billed as R.K.!), Geoffrey Lewis, and future DALLAS star Steve Kanaly. Also in the cast in a small bit is Leone and Spaghetti veteran Mario Brega .

Ennio Morricone  delivers his customary unique score, his themes punctuating the characters and the action onscreen. Sound plays an important role in the film, as it does in all the Spaghettis (for better or worse, in some cases). Grizzled vet Fonda delivers a final message that says goodbye to the Old Hollywood West, along with some advise to the new breed of international stars like Hill. MY NAME IS NOBODY may have too much basil and not enough oregano for some intenditori, but for my palate it’s a tasty entry on the Spaghetti Western menu that’s a feast for the eyes and ears. Buen appetito!  

 

Structural Failure: THE BIG STREET (RKO 1942)

When I hear the word “Runyonesque”, I think about racetrack touts, colorful Broadway denizens, dames with hearts of gold, and the like. If you want to make a Runyonesque movie, what better way than to have author Damon Runyon himself produce it, as RKO did for 1942’s THE BIG STREET. All the elements are there, the jargon, the characters, but the film suffers from abrupt shifts in tone from comedy to drama, and a totally unpleasant role for Lucille Ball . The result is an uneven movie with a real downer of an ending.

Based on Runyon’s short story “Little Pinks”, it follows the unrequited love of bus boy Augustus “Little Pinks” Pinkerton for torch singing gold digger Gloria Lyons, dubbed “Her Highness” by Pinks. Henry Fonda plays Pinks as  lovestruck, spineless sad sack, dubbing Lucy Her Highness, even though she’s thoroughly rotten to him. When she’s smacked by her gangster boyfriend Case Ables ( Barton MacLane ) down the stairs and loses the ability to walk, she still treats Pinks like shit. The two leads aren’t very happy characters, and the movie suffers because of it.

It’s Pinks who helps her the most, paying her hospital bills and willing to practically wheel her all the way to Miami (the scene they cause at the Holland Tunnel is a comic standout), yet Her Highness is just using the lowly bus boy, her only goal being to snag millionaire playboy Decatur Reed (William T. Orr, later a successful television producer for Warner Bros). I think it’s Lucy’s character that turned me off; even at the end (which I won’t spoil for those who want to watch), I didn’t have much sympathy for her. She’s a self absorbed, total bitch, especially in her treatment of those who care about her, and almost completely ruined the film for me.

The movie’s saving grace is the eccentric supporting cast that brings those trademark “Runyonesque” characters to vivid life. Ray Collins   and Sam Levene hit the bull’s-eye as a pair of erudite gamblers named Professor B and Horsethief. Eugene Pallette and Agnes Moorehead shine in the parts of Violette Shumberg and Nicely-Nicely Johnson, a “fat-and-skinny” odd couple (the Nicely-Nicely character would later pop up in GUYS & DOLLS, played this time by Stubby Kaye). Millard Mitchell   has an early role as retired hood Gentleman George. Among the other Familiar Faces around the big street you’ll find Louise Beavers, Hans Conreid, George Cleveland, Charlie Hall, Donald Kerr, Marian Martin, John Miljan, and Dewey Robinson. Ozzie Nelson and his Orchestra play in MacLane’s Miami nightclub, and look closely for Bess Flowers and a young Marie Windsor as faces in the crowd.

Director Irving Reis (THE BACHELOR AND THE BOBBY-SOXER, ALL MY SONS) had the unenviable task of balancing the bittersweet comedy-drama of Leonard Spielgass’s script, and isn’t quite up to it. Reis was fairly new in the director’s chair at the time, and those schizophrenic shifts from offbeat comical Runyonesque hoods to mean Lucy throwing shade at Fonda are quite jarring. Perhaps if director Reis had toned down Ball’s character a few notches and let Fonda lighten up a bit, I’d feel different. As it stands, I chalk it up as an interesting failure, but fans of Fonda, Ball, and Damon Runyon yarns will probably want to judge for themselves.

 

METEOR is a Crashing Bore (AIP 1979)

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American-International Pictures had gotten pretty fancy-schmancy by the late 70’s. The studio was leaving their exploitation roots behind and branching out to bigger budgeted films like FORCE TEN FROM NAVARONE, LOVE AT FIRST BITE, and THE AMITYVILLE HORROR, with bigger name stars for marquee allure. Toward the end of 1979 they released METEOR, a $16 million dollar, star-studded, special-effects laden, sci-fi/ disaster film spectacle that bombed at the box-office and contributed to the company’s demise.

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Coming at the tail end of the disaster cycle, METEOR is formulaic as hell. Take a group of well-known stars (Sean Connery, Natalie Wood Karl Malden Brian Keith , Martin Landau, Henry Fonda ), give them a disastrous menace to combat (in this case a five-mile wide meteor hurtling toward Earth), add some conflict (US/USSR Cold War relations), and some scenes of destruction, and voila! instant disaster movie! Unfortunately, by 1979 audiences had already grown tired of the formula and its various permutations, leaving METEOR to crumble like so much space dust.

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A brief summary: former NASA scientist Paul Bradley (Connery), creator of America’s secret nuclear missile defense satellite Hercules, is plucked from his yacht race and brought back into service by ex-boss Harry Sherwood (Malden). A wayward comet has struck the asteroid belt, and now the aforementioned five-mile-wide meteor (nicknamed Orpheus) threatens good ol’ Mother Earth. The President (Fonda) holds a televised speech admitting they have the nuclear satellite, and asks for Russia’s cooperation, knowing they too have one (code name Peter The Great). The Ruskies send scientist Dr. Dubov (Keith) and his astrophysicist interpreter Tatiana (Wood) to help, much to the chagrin of commie-hating General Adlan (Landau). Now that the two superpowers have joined together, can they put aside their differences and turn their respective missiles at Orpheus instead of each other in time to avert a global catastrophe?

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It’s not exciting as it may sound. Connery looks bored, Malden and Landau overact, and Fonda’s obviously only there for the paycheck. Only Keith and Wood seem engaged in the material, though Trevor Howard does okay in his tiny role as a British astronomer. Besides the big names, there are other, lesser Familiar Faces in lesser roles: Joseph Campanella, Richard Dysart, Bibi Besch, Sybil Danning, Gregory Gaye, Clyde Kusatsu, newscaster Clete Roberts, and Uncle Walt’s nephew Roy Disney (wait… how’d he get in here??). They even got THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE’s Ronald Neame to direct, hoping to capture some of that movie’s popularity. Didn’t work- the new film was nowhere near that early disaster classic in terms of character development, script, or excitement.

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The special effects scenes are good, not great. There’s a tsunami in Hong Kong, an avalanche in the Swiss Alps, and a meteor fragment that destroys a large swath of New York City. There are some unintentionally funny moments, like watching Connery and Malden slog through a muddy flood in a subway tunnel, Malden’s comb-over flopping down his shoulder. We get ominous music every time Orpheus appears onscreen, kind of like when “Bruce” shows up in JAWS. It’s all silly and overwrought, and by the next year AIP founder Samuel Arkoff, his big-budget gambles all gone sour, sold the company to Filmways, which was later bought out by Orion, which in turn was sold to MGM, who now own the rights to the AIP catalog. Old Sam should’ve stuck with beach parties and monster movies.

Myths and Legends: John Ford’s MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (20th Century Fox 1946)

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“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”, says the newspaperman in John Ford’s 1962 THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE. The facts surrounding the famous O.K. Corral shootout are given a legendary backstory by screenwriters Samuel G. Engel and Winston Miller in MY DARLING CLEMENTINE. It may be historically inaccurate, but Ford’s painterly eye (aided by DP Joe MacDonald) elevate this low-key Western to high art. Every frame is a portrait, a Frederic Remington or N.C. Wyeth brought to life in glorious black-and-white.

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In Ford’s version of the tale, Wyatt Earp and his brothers are driving cattle to California. Wyatt meets up on the trail with Old Man Clanton, who offers to buy the herd. Wyatt turns him down, but Clanton doesn’t give up easily. Wyatt and brothers Morgan and Virgil go into the “wide open town” of Tombstone for an evening of relaxation, while baby brother James stays to tend the herd. When the Earp brothers return in a rainstorm, they find their cattle gone, and brother James lying dead. Returning to Tombstone, former marshal Wyatt takes the lawman job there, with the notion to find James’ killers. He has a hunch the Clanton clan was involved, but can’t prove it.

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Doc Holiday returns to town to find there’s a new marshal. Doc’s an ex-surgeon turned outlaw and gunfighter, and both men are familiar with the other’s reputation. A test of wills at the saloon ends with a wary mutual respect. Doc has a girlfriend who works at the saloon, a spitfire named Chihuahua, who’s already tested Wyatt’s mettle and come up short. Doc’s old flame from Boston, Clementine Carter, arrives on the morning stage. She’s been searching for Doc across the West, but the TB and alcohol ravaged Doc, trying to be noble, wants her to leave him be. Chihuahua is immediately jealous of Clementine, and does everything in her power to send the woman back East.

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Into this scenario steps Granville Thorndyke, travelling Shakesperean actor, and I’d like to take a moment to focus on this sequence. Alan Mowbray plays Thorndyke as an erudite vagabond, and though the role is small, Mowbray gives it all he’s got.  When Thorndyke’s forced at gunpoint by the Clanton boys to perform in a rowdy cantina, he recites the Bard’s “To Be Or Not To Be” soliloquy with aplomb. Wyatt and Doc bail the frightened Thorndyke out, and when Old Man Clanton finds out the boys were outdrawn by Earp, he savagely whips them, snarling, “When you pull a gun, kill a man”. Thorndyke gratefully leaves Tombstone the next day with the parting words, “Great souls by instinct to each other turn, demand allegiance and in friendship burn. Good night, sweet prince”. Though the sequence doesn’t have much bearing on the overall plot, it’s one of my favorites in Westerns, and Alan Mowbray does an excellent job as the wandering thespian.

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Chihuahua is found with a necklace that belonged to James, and she tells Wyatt she got it from Doc. He rides out to fetch Doc back to Tombstone, and they confront Chihuahua, who breaks down and confesses she’s been two-timing Doc with Billy Clanton. Billy, who’s just escaped through the window, fires and mortally wounds the girl. Doc is forced to operate while Virgil goes after Billy. He shoots Clanton and tracks him to the Clanton home, where Old Man Clanton shoots him in the back. Chihuahua dies, and the Clantons drop Virgil’s body off in Tombstone, where the bitter patriarch yells, ‘We’ll be waitin’ for ya, Marshal, at the O.K. Corral”.

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Sunrise: Wyatt, Doc, and Morgan square off with the Clanton gang. This dramatic eight minute sequence is a true cinematic masterpiece, and shows why John Ford is The Great American Director. Skillfully shot and edited, with a minimum of dialogue, this showcases the power of the Western film as an art form. I can only think of the final gunfight in THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY as even coming close to it. Sergio Leone, of course, was a devotee of The Master, John Ford.

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MY DARLING CLEMENTINE, Henry Fonda, 1946, TM & Copyright (c) 20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved.

There are so many wonderful moments in MY DARLING CLEMENTINE it’s impossible for me to go over them all without making this a book-length post, so let’s look at the cast. Henry Fonda stars as Wyatt Earp, and his ease of being and laconic nature shine in the role. Fonda and Ford did six films together, and of them all, I only rank THE GRAPES OF WRATH higher. Victor Mature (Doc) was a good actor with a Mitchum-like quality who didn’t get much respect from film critics. He may be guilty of walking through some of his movies, but here he’s superb as the ailing Holiday. Character actor supreme Walter Brennan makes Old Man Clanton one of the genre’s most memorable villains. The ladies are ably represented by sweet Cathy Downs (Clementine) and sassy Linda Darnell (Chihuahua). Besides Mowbray, others in the cast include Ward Bond, Jane Darwell, John Ireland, Tim Holt, and Roy Roberts.

Ford shot MY DARLING CLEMENTINE mainly on location in beautiful Monument Valley, Utah, which he used as a backdrop in many of his Westerns.  There’s a reason John Ford is the only director to garner four Oscars. His total devotion to his films give them a look and feel as distinct as an artist’s canvas. Indeed, film WAS Ford’s canvas, and The Great American Director gave us another of his masterpieces with MY DARLING CLEMENTINE.

 

 

 

Let’s Get Buzzed With THE SWARM (Warner Brothers, 1978)

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The 1970s were the decade of the all-star disaster movie, and nobody made ’em like Irwin Allen. The Master of Disaster opened the floodgates for this genre with 1972’s THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, following quickly with the red-hot 1974 mega-hit THE TOWERING INFERNO. Soon Hollywood was unleashing one disaster film after another: EARTHQUAKE, AVALANCHE, SKYJACKED, and so on. But Allen was a sci-fi guy at heart, having made his mark with TV shows like LOST IN SPACE, VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA, THE TIME TUNNEL, and LAND OF THE GIANTS. Combining the two seemed natural for Allen, so together with screenwriter Stirling Silliphant, they concocted THE SWARM.

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A missile base has been mysteriously attacked, killing the communications crew. General Slater (Richard Widmark) rides in on a chopper, leading the troops. Brad Crane (Michael Caine), a Ph D entomologist (studier of bugs), is on base for reasons unknown, so the General holds him prisoner. A “moving black mass” on the radar screen reveals a giant cloud of “millions of bees”, that attacks some military helicopters, which crash and burn (lots of crashing and burning in this one!) Meanwhile, the sleepy little town of Marysville is holding their annual flower festival, where we’re introduced to a love triangle between two elderly gentlemen (Ben Johnson and Fred MacMurray) and a spinster schoolteacher (Olivia de Haviland,,,,hey, what’s SHE doing here!!)

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The President places Crane in control of the bee problem, to the chagrin of General Slater. Crane assembles a crew of experts including immunologist Dr. Krimm (Henry Fonda) and Dr. Kildare, I mean Dr. Hubbard (Richard Chamberlain). There’s a military doctor, Captain Anderson (Katherine Ross), on board, too, and of course she and Crane get all googly-eyed and lovey-dovey during the movie’s course. Slater assigns his assistant (Bradford Dillman) to keep an eye on the scientist. The rest of THE SWARM is a bunch of set-pieces for the action. Killer bees attack picnickers! Killer bees attack Marysville! Killer bees attack a train! Killer bees attack a nuclear facility!! The military attack the killer bees, burning down half of Houston in the process! Killer bees retailiate and attack the military! Finally (thank God!), Crane comes up with the answer to stop the bees from attacking by luring them to sea via sonic waves (shades of INVISIBLE INVADERS!!), where the military blows the swarm to kingdom come with missiles!!

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Allen directed THE SWARM himself, and he pretty much lets the actors do what they want, which is to overact and collect their paychecks. Those slo-mo shots of bee attacks are ludicrous, not frightening at all. Stirling Silliphant’s script is paint-by-numbers hokum, a far cry from his Oscar-winning IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT, not to mention his classic TV series ROUTE 66. Besides those I cited earlier, we get what amounts to cameo roles from Patty Duke, Slim Pickens, Lee Grant, Jose Ferrer, Cameron Mitchell, and Donald ‘Red’ Barry. Sadly, this was Fred MacMurray’s last film appearance.

THE SWARM came at the tail end of the disaster cycle. Allen made a couple more (BEYOND THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, WHEN TIME RAN OUT) before returning to television. The all-star disaster epic was spoofed by 1980’s AIRPLANE!, and is revived every now and then (ARMAGGEDON, of instance). I guess if your interested in playing Spot the Star, you might enjoy this film. Otherwise, I suggest you find another way to get your buzz on than watching THE SWARM.