Wednesday, July 7, 2010
Over The Next Valley
The Fourth of July is always a weird time for me. Too many odd things have happened over that weekend in the past as if the date is some kind of conduit designed to drive me mad and question everything I’m doing in life. It’s gotten to the point where I don’t even want to do anything on the actual day anymore, like I’m worried that some other kind of fateful event will happen, terrified that it won’t. So I wind up keeping to myself for much of the weekend. I eat a few hot dogs, drink some beer, go for long walks and ponder all sorts of things that I won’t talk about here. And then when night falls on the Fourth I go up to my roof to watch fireworks happening all around the city and wonder even more about the meaning of it all, what’s happening to me, what never has. Seriously, a few of those Fourths in the past have really fucked with my head but I suppose that’s all part of the fun of living in Los Angeles. I happened to get BRONCO BILLY from Netflix that weekend partly because Clint Eastwood seemed appropriately patriotic and I had never gotten around to seeing it. I actually wasn’t even sure how much of a comedy or drama it was going to be so I didn’t have any particular expectations of the film. As it turns out, what I got still wasn’t quite what I expected and on a day like that one it turned out to be a good thing. But when you come right down to it, Clint has often been able to offer a few surprises. I never seem to hear anyone say much about this film—hell, THE ROOKIE is probably better remembered—and suddenly I think it might very well be one of his most endearing. I think I feel like watching it again right now.
Bronco Billy McCoy (Clint Eastwood) is the owner and main attraction of “Bronco Billy’s Wild West Show” billed as ‘the greatest, most entertaining wild west show in America’, a ramshackle traveling circus made up of Billy and several others, going from town to town putting on their show to sparse crowds, making very little money. When setting up for a new show and badly in need of an assistant, Billy happens upon heiress Antoinette Lilly (Sondra Locke) who has just been abandoned in a small town by her new husband John Arlington (Geoffrey Lewis) who has run off with all her money so she has no choice but to accept the job as Billy’s job offer. When a series of events results in Arlington arrested for the missing heiress’s murder, “Miss Lilly” decides to stay with the show for a while but as problems begin to overwhelm Billy, she’s suddenly branded bad luck just as she becomes more a member of this small family.
I pretty much realized this wasn’t going to be quite what I thought it would be at first when about fifteen minutes into this film that up to then had a fairly naturalistic feel Sondra Locke appears in her first scene smoking a cigarette using a giant holder like she’s in some 30s screwball comedy. Somehow I doubt many heiresses were using such an affectation in 1980 but my guess is that Clint thought she looked charming holding it, which she kind of does. Knowing very little about what the actual story of BRONCO BILLY was going to be ahead of time at first I thought it would be one of those scrappy seventies comedies that play much more depressing now than it did then, maybe a little like THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT. Released in June 1980, BRONCO BILLY is as it turns out actually a very lighthearted screwball update done in Clint’s relaxed directorial style, a little of IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT, quite a bit of a Howard Hawks feel with Clint as the John Wayne figure who performs gun & knife tricks on his assistant complete with blindfold leading his ragtag bunch around the country, each with their own specialty in this show. An easygoing Clint Eastwood doesn’t always work in his movies and EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE really does nothing for me—Yes, I know saying that is tantamount to sacrilege to some considering how that was a massive hit at the time (of course, Eastwood didn’t direct that film or its sequel but we all pretty much know he was in charge), certainly bigger than this film ever was. Loose and breezy all the way through, featuring laughs and a completely likable nature, BRONCO BILLY was the ideal movie for that lousy mood I was in. Containing a snappy script written by Dennis Hacklin with lots of fun patter, it’s filled with small moments that go together beautifully and an enjoyable rhythm to the dialogue, like when each person names the soda they really wanted Billy to get as he hands out Cokes for the gang. I watched the film very early in the evening as the sun started to go down, still dealing with my mindset so you’d think I barely would have been able to focus on anything and even at nearly two hours it seemed to go by in about five minutes.
Each of the show’s members are extremely appealing, their camaraderie is endearing and even touching. Even the screwball elements connected with Miss Lilly in how she reluctantly becomes a part of this group are so disarming that I found myself breaking out into a huge smile. There’s something so damn unpretentious, so eager to please about the film that I found myself liking it more and more as it went on. And within its lighthearted tone a small amount of weight is given as we learn more about the past of Billy and everyone else in this show but it never kills the fun. Even when a bar fight turns from one that’s as breezy as you’ve ever seen to something considerably more serious, it still doesn’t feel like there’s any sort of tonal issue. It all just works. There’s something extremely confident about how Clint approaches all this with his direction, as if he knows how to tell this story without even thinking about it and he keeps it on this steady pace that is sometimes goofy but not too much, always assured. It also manages to acknowledge the considerably Quixotic nature of these people avoiding the big cities and just driving around through the heartland, becoming whoever they want to be in living a life they think is fulfilling, as well as refusing to face facts of what an antiquated concept this really is (much more so when looking at this movie thirty years down the line).
Maybe the whole thing says something about how Clint looks at making his movies, being out there on the road doing something, working with people he knows and likes. There are even a number of familiar faces from some of Clint’s other films from around this time, giving it all as much of a feel of a traveling company just as the movie portrays. It’s not perfect—an early bank robbery doesn’t affect things much at all, a subplot involving a local sheriff feels like a little too much of an ellipsis to the point where I can barely tell what happened and one of the big plot points would probably seem more plausible in the context of a genuine screwball comedy made back in the day. Locke’s transformation to a truly likable person almost has to be taken on faith but the movie itself is so likable and endearing that I’ll gladly give it that faith. Clint also doesn’t even make how things are cleared up in the end all that complicated as if there’s no real reason to. What seems to matter most is feeling good in the end, celebrating these people we’ve spent the past two hours with and the exuberant feel of the closing moments is totally earned. Even now, watching the final scenes once again makes me smile as I realize how much I’ve come to love these characters.
Clint fits this part like a glove, truly relaxed and confident. He perfectly makes is character larger than life at the right times, someone who kids can believably look up to and yet still plays the more serious sections just as he should. It feels like he loves playing this character in every single scene. He’s rarely been so truly likable, so loose. As for his female lead, I’ll make an honest admission: I like Sondra Locke in these movies she made with Clint during their lengthy relationship. She’s got presence, spunk and there’s something I find truly charming in how she turns from spoiled heiress to a full-fledged member of the troupe, yet it doesn’t feel at all inconsistent. When she looks at Billy and asks him, “Don’t you find anything about your life bizarre?” she hits just the right tone. I also think she’s a better actress than Jill Ireland, in case we’re going to make a comparison with Clint and Charles Bronson, but that’s just me. Geoffrey Lewis is enjoyably smarmy as the no-good husband and the other members of the show are played by DELIVERANCE’s Bill McKinney with a hook for a hand, Sam Bottoms, Dan Vadis, Sierra Pecheur and, maybe best of all, Scatman Crothers—apparently this was the film Scatman worked on after THE SHINING where Stanley Kubrick had him go through some scenes dozens of times. According to some sources soon after beginning this film he shot a first take after which Eastwood said “Print it,” and the actor nearly burst into tears. Each of the members of Bronco Billy’s show get their own moments that add to the feeling of camaraderie that goes through the entire movie. Old time western actor Hank Worden is the gas station mechanic who has to deal with Locke’s snobby heiress and tells her that the station phone ‘works on dimes’—some might also recognize him as the waiter Kyle MacLachlan’s Agent Cooper had to deal with in the opening of the second season premiere of TWIN PEAKS.
The movie didn’t exactly transform the mood that permeated me through the holiday but when it ended I did feel a little bit better and I knew that I’d made the ideal choice for what to watch as the sun went down on the Fourth of July. I went up to my roof and watched the fireworks, thinking about this film that seems to have been forgotten through the years as its director has gone onto bigger things, thinking about my life and what has gone on with me out here in the west. Wondering if I can still be what I want. Trying to reconcile myself with certain things that have happened in the past and how a few of those events have driven me near crazy. I still haven’t come up with an answer to why those things happened to me once upon a time but BRONCO BILLY was a help for a little while on that day as a reminder that there are still possibilities for the future out there that are up to me. Even if it did take me a full thirty years after it was released to catch up with this particular Clint Eastwood film, one that really does deserve to be better remembered now, it was there for me at just the right time.