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.

Queen of the Outlaws: CAT BALLOU (Columbia 1965)

Lee Marvin  didn’t get many chances to show his comedic side; in fact, I can only think of two off the top of my head: the John Wayne/John Ford outing DONOVAN’S REEF (1963) and the 1976 spoof THE GREAT SCOUT AND CATHOUSE THURSDAY (I’ll be charitably silent about 1969’s PAINT YOUR WAGON!).  Then there’s the comedy western CAT BALLOU, for which Marvin won an Oscar in the dual roles of drunken, broken down outlaw Kid Shelleen and hired killer Tim Strawn. Marvin’s marvelous, but if the truth be told, it wasn’t much of a stretch for Marvin to play a hard drinker and a macho tough guy… there’s a little bit of Lee in both personas!

We know we’re in for a good time right off the get-go when the fabled Columbia Torch Lady morphs into an animated, six-gun packin’ cowgirl, a sure sign not to take things too seriously. CAT BALLOU concerns prim young Catherine Ballou returning to Wolf City, Wyoming to become a schoolteacher only to find her father’s ranch being threatened by the railroad company. When her father is killed at the hand of silver-nosed Strawn, Cat seeks revenge on the railroad along with her compatriots Clay Boone, a cowardly cattle rustler who’s hot for Cat, Clay’s Uncle Jed, who passes himself off as a man of the cloth, and ranch hand Jackson Two Bears. Cat hires a gunslinger of her own, the notorious Kid Shelleen, whom she’s read about in dime novels. What she gets is a broken-down drunk who literally can’t hit the side of a barn without a few belts in him!

Cat and company ride out to the infamous Hole in the Wall to meet the fearsome Butch Cassidy, who’s not so fearsome any longer… Cassidy and his gang are all old and decrepit now! But Cat’s determined to avenge her father’s death, starting by pulling off a daring train robbery. Then it’s on to railroad boss Sir Harry Percival, where she disguises herself as a hooker named ‘Trixie’, and winds up accidentally shooting the lustful old codger, arrested for murder, and sentenced to hang…

Marvin first appears rolling out the back of a stagecoach, and proceeds to steal the show with his comic antics. He’s half in the bag most of the time, but my favorite scene occurs when Shelleen tries to sober up and get back in shape for a showdown with Strawn, assisted by Two Bears. He takes a bath for the first time in years, then is strapped into a corset and dons his old gunfighter clothing and pearl-handled Colts ready to do battle with the enemy. The fact that Marvin plays both Shelleen and Strawn means that Lee Marvin actually ends up gunning down himself! The Academy should’ve given Lee two Oscars for that!

Jane Fonda  stars as Cat, who goes from wide-eyed innocent to outlaw queen. The movie was made during Jane’s formative film years, and the surprise hit did a lot to boost her stock as an actress to be reckoned with in the future. Jane fits right in with the Western milieu, as befits the daughter of oater favorite Henry Fonda . Michael Callan (Clay) and Dwayne Hickman (Jed) get their best screen roles in this one, and Tom Nardini (Two Bears) is a favorite of mine from AIP exploitation fare like THE YOUNG SAVAGES and THE DEVIL’S 8. John Marley plays Cat’s dad, Reginald Denny is villainous Sir Harry, and sagebrush vets Bruce Cabot , Arthur Hunnicut (as Butch Cassidy), Jay C. Flippen , and Burt Mustin appear in small roles.

One fun aspect of CAT BALLOU is the presence of Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye as wandering minstrels acting as a Greek chorus throughout the film. If Cole’s velvet voice sounds a bit gruffer than usual, it’s because he was suffering from the lung cancer that eventually killed him, four months before the movie was released. The pair stroll along singing “The Ballad of Cat Ballou”, written for the film by Mack David and Jerry Livingston, which also earned the film an Oscar nomination. Frank DeVol’s score, Chris Nelson’s editing, and the screenplay by Walter Newman and Frank Pierson were nominated, as well. Director Elliot Silverstein marks his feature debut; he would go on to helm only five others, including the Richard Harris Western A MAN CALLED HORSE. Straddling the fence between comedy and Western can be tough, and most are played too broadly, but in CAT BALLOU Silverstein and his game cast (especially Marvin) and crew make it work, and it’s one of the genre’s best. This CAT is sleek entertainment, and a whole lot of fun!

 

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!  

 

Rat Pack – 3 = FOUR FOR TEXAS (Warner Brothers 1963)

The wait is finally over, my new DirecTV receiver has arrived and is all hooked up! Unfortunately, all my DVR’d movies have vanished. And since it was filled to about 70% capacity, that’s a lot of movies! Needless to say, I’ve got to load up the ol’ DVR again. Thanks to TCM, I re-recorded one of my old favorites the other day, FOUR FOR TEXAS, an action-packed Western comedy I’ve seen about 100 times already (ok, that’s a slight exaggeration). This combines the two leaders of the Rat Pack, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin , with the talents of director Robert Aldrich. The result is an all-star, slam-bang entertainment that is loads of fun for film fans.

The pre-credits sequence looks like we’re about to watch a traditional Western, with a gang of outlaws led by Charles Bronson   riding out to ambush a stagecoach. But wait, that’s Frankie and Dino defending the coach, shooting it out with the robbers. Frank is Zack Thomas, who’s got a $100,000 hidden onboard; Dean is Joe Jarrett, a sharp-shooting con artist. After the stage crashes, Zack and Joe are the only survivors. Joe holds Zack at gunpoint intending on stealing the loot. Zack turns the tables, but Joe turns ’em right back and leaves Zack in the desert, high, dry, and horseless.

Seems Zack “persuaded” Galveston banker Harvey Burden (a dyspeptic Victor Buono ) to get the money so he could open a riverboat gambling operation. Zack serves as “protection” to Burden and his crooked cronies. What he doesn’t know is it was Burden who hired Matson (our man Bronson) to bushwhack the stage and kill Zack in the process. While Zack relaxes with his main squeeze Elya (the voluptuous Anita Ekberg), who should come riding into town but good ol’ Joe Jarrett. Zack sends some of his boys (led by Mike Mazurki and Richard Jaeckel ) to jump Joe and get the dough back, but Joe’s aided by his driver (Calypso singer Edric Connor) and little Angel (Nick Dennis), who deposits Joe’s loot (sewn into his jacket!) and takes him to meet riverboat owner Max.

Joe has second thoughts about investing when he sees the run-down, decrepit boat, and even thirds when Max begins shooting at him from a window! That is, until he gets a look at Max in the flesh – it’s Ursula Andress , fresh off her success in DR. NO! Naturally, they hook up, refurbish the boat, and get ready for opening night. Meanwhile, a cargo ship owned by Zack gets scuttled, and Zack assumes Joe’s behind it. He and his men storm the dock, looking for a hostile takeover, and the two go mano y mano (or at least their stunt doubles do!). Little do either of them know Burden’s the guilty culprit, and has sent Matson and an army of men to destroy the boat and kill Zack once and for all.

My favorite scene in the film has nothing to do with the plot; it’s the arrival of The Three Stooges   (Moe, Larry, and Curly Joe) delivering a nude portrait of Ursula to the ship. The comedy vets get to do their old “point to the right” gag, receiving a triple-slap from Dino for their troubles. They’re then accosted by a couple of elderly widows out to ban the painting, and revive their “toughest man in Texas” routine. It’s a fun scene, and I’m sure Martin appreciated it, having been a member of a comedy team himself with Jerry Lewis.

Director Aldrich is noted for his testosterone-fueled films like KISS ME DEADLY and THE DIRTY DOZEN , but he had his lighter side, too (THE LONGEST YARD, …ALL THE MARBLES ). He co-wrote the script with Teddi Sherman but allegedly wasn’t happy with it, nor with Sinatra. The film works for me though, with its plush sets and gorgeous Technicolor, Frank and Dean trading quips and barbs, Anita and Ursula both looking beautiful, and the top-notch supporting cast. Bronson plays his role totally straight, and it’s one of his best villainous performances. (His sick offscreen laugh is dubbed by Frank Gorshin, warming up for his later gig on BATMAN as The Riddler!). Buono gives another of his ace bad-guy turns as the cowardly, corpulent Burden. The roster of Familiar Faces popping up includes Wesley Addy, Marjorie Bennett, Virginia Christine, Ellen Corby, Jack Elam , Fritz Feld, Arthur Godfey (in a comic cameo), Percy Helton , Jonathan Hole, Yaphet Kotto, Jack Lambert , Manuel Padilla Jr, Eva Six , Abraham Soafer, Bob Steele, Grady Sutton , and Dave Willock . Now THAT’S what I call a cast!

There’s plenty of brawling, romancing, double entendres, and laughs to be had viewing FOUR FOR TEXAS, but curiously, there’s no singing from either Frank or Dino. Most critics tend to dismiss the film as just another Frankie & Dino vanity production, but I enjoy it each and every time I watch. It did what it set out to do – it entertained me. And when it’s all said and done, isn’t that what a movie’s supposed to do?

How The West Was Fun: SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERIFF! (United Artists 1969)

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SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERIFF! is played strictly for laughs. It’s broad performances and slapstick situations won’t strain your brain, but will give you an hour and a half’s worth of escapist fun. Easy going James Garner has the lead, with solid comic support from Joan Hackett, Walter Brennan, Harry Morgan, and Jack Elam. Director Burt Kennedy made quite a few of these, and this is probably the best of the bunch.

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While burying an itinerant drifter, the townsfolk of Calendar, Colorado discover a mother lode of gold. The subsequent boom turns Calendar into a lawless, rowdy town that can’t keep a sheriff alive long enough to tame it. The town elders also can’t get their gold through without paying a 20% tribute to the mean Danby clan. Enter our hero Jason McCullough (Garner), who applies for the sheriff’s position “on a temporary basis…I’m on my way to Australia”.  Jason is a crack shot and fast on the draw, but prefers to use his brains over his gun. He locks up Danby brother Joe, much to the consternation of Old Man Danby.

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Mayor Perkins gives Jason free room and board to stay in town and clean it up. He’s got a klutzy daughter named Prudy, who first discovered the gold, and keeps getting into embarrassing predicaments whenever Jason’s around. Jason hires “town character” Jake as his deputy after Jake backs him up in a saloon showdown. After several attempts at killing Jason fail, the Danbys gather all their relatives to descend on Calendar. Mayor Perkins and the townsfolk cower in fear, and Jason has only Jake and Prudy to rely on in the frenetic final confrontation with the Danby clan.

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Credit director Burt Kennedy for his homages to the films of John Ford in this. Of course there’s triple Oscar winner Walter Brennan, lampooning his role of Old Man Clanton in MY DARLING CLEMENTINE. There’s another nod to CLEMENTINE with Garner sitting on the porch, leaning his chair back and trying to put his feet up a’la Henry Fonda. Ford regular Danny Borzage has a bit as the accordionist at the drifter’s gravesite. And that climactic gunfight has echoes of the OK Corral, only with a much more humorous outcome.

Burt Kennedy got his start writing for John Wayne and Randolph Scott before penning and directing the 1965 hit THE ROUNDERS, starring Fonda and Glenn Ford. Some of Kennedy’s other sagebrush spoofs were THE GOOD GUYS AND THE BAD GUYS (1969, with Robert Mitchum), DIRTY DINGUS MAGEE (1970, featuring Frank Sinatra), and the TV movies ONCE UPON A TRAIN and WHERE THE HELL’S THAT GOLD? (both 1988) starring singer Willie Nelson. There was also a sequel of sorts, 1971’s SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL GUNFIGHTER, reuniting Garner and Elam. He also made some serious Westerns, like WELCOME TO HARD TIMES (1967), HANNIE CALDER (with Raquel Welch, 1971), and Wayne’s THE TRAIN ROBBERS (1973). Kennedy wrote the screenplay for Clint Eastwood’s WHITE HUNTER, BLACK HEART (1990), and directed his last film SUBURBAN COMMANDO (with Hulk Hogan) in 1991.

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Besides Garner doing his laid-back thing, the rest of the cast also gets into the silly spirit. Joan Hackett was an underrated actress who never really got her due, adept at both comedy and drama. Some of her films were THE GROUP (1966), WILL PENNY (1968), and her Oscar nominated role in Neil Simon’s ONLY WHEN I LAUGH (1981). Harry Morgan brings his comic expertise as Mayor Perkins, while vets Henry Jones, Walter Burke, and Willis Bouchey are the other town fathers. Brennan is fine as always, and a young Bruce Dern shines as his deadly but dumb son Joe.

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The standout here is Jack Elam. After many years of  playing gunfighters, gangsters, and goons, Burt Kennedy gave Elam a chance to show his comic side, and the old rascal nails it. His Jake is a simple-minded, reluctant deputy, and the perfect comic foil for sharp sheriff Garner. Elam even gets to break the Fourth Wall at film’s end to deliver the movie’s punchline. Elam went on to be a go-to comic sidekick for the rest of his career, passing away in 2003.

SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERIFF! doesn’t blaze any new Western trails and probably won’t make anyone’s Must See lists. It will make you laugh, though, and it’s fun to watch genre vets like Garner, Brennan, Morgan, and especially Jack Elam go through their comic paces. Recommended for one of those days when you need a good chuckle to chase the blues way.