This nearly forgotten 1971 western drama from the late Blake Edwards was reportedly butchered by MGM, but eventually restored to road-show length by the director and is now available via the Warner Archives. “Wild Rovers” stars craggy William Holden and fresh-faced Ryan O’Neal as a pair of cross-generational buddies who have come to recognize why mommas shouldn’t let their babies grow up to be cowboys. Their not-smart solution: become wealthy bank robbers. The likelihood of tragedy grows even greater when their rancher boss (Karl Malden) sends out his loutish sons (Tom Skerritt and Joe Don Baker) in hot pursuit of the men who looted his payroll.
Edwards was a master of sorts, but on his first western as a director he tries much too hard to both pay homage to and outdo the competition. We have Howard Hawks-like dialogue scenes that go on forever, epic vistas shot in John Ford’s Monument Valley, and a few lifts from Sam Peckinpah. Blood squibs go off and characters writhe in slow motion a la “The Wild Bunch”; a lyrical montage about breaking a wild horse goes on and on like an outtake from “Major Dundee” or “The Ballad of Cable Hogue.” Considering the presence of “Wild Bunch” star William Holden and Edwards’ tendency to gentle wit, it’s impossible not to make the doubtless often repeated quip describing “Rovers” as “The Mild Bunch.” The problem, however, is not too much copying or excess affability, but Edwards’ undisciplined screenplay. It leaves an outstanding cast, and one of Jerry Goldsmith’s best scores, twisting in the wind like a horse thief on the end of a rope.
This week’s box office preview has been canceled both by some hopefully not at all serious health-related family tasks I’m handling today and also by the death of a truly notable filmmaker. Aside from being both extremely talented and extremely inconsistent, he was a sort of bridge between the classic Hollywood era and post-“Bonnie and Clyde” era of film school auteurs that arrived just his career faced its first major crisis. He was a little too hip and raunchy for the old school crowd and a little too old school for the hip crowd, and I think that was Blake Edwards’ most interesting quality.
Excessive consistency was not one of Edwards hobgoblins. I have to admit there are a number of his films — mostly from his later career — that I haven’t seen primarily because their reputation isn’t so good. I’ve probably forgotten a couple that I have seen by an act of will. At his best, though, there are very few Hollywood directors who could claim anything half as marvelous as “The Days of Wine and Roses,” the brilliant slapstick set-pieces of “Return of the Pink Panther” and “The Pink Panther Strikes Again,” and, most of all, 1982’s “Victor/Victoria,” a film that was both aggressively old-fashioned and easily the most bold pro-gay, pro-tolerance film ever to be made by mainstream Hollywood to that point. It was also simply topnotch entertainment, a work of hilarious compassion, and a joy forever.
Of course, that’s merely scratching the surface of Edwards’ films. Some of his less perfect pieces are nevertheless hugely entertaining and, in their own way, fascinating documents of their time. Prolific as a writer, producer and director from the 1950s until the 1990s, he had a career that supposedly went back to helping Orson Welles write the 1939 “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast when he was still a young teenager and continued into television in the fifties, so there’s quite a lot to go through. The assertively naive-yet-sophisticated silliness of “The Great Race,” a childhood favorite of mine from numerous TV viewings, still holds up, and looks better in widescreen than those panned-and-scanned TV prints I grew up with. “S.O.B.” is famous as the film in which Julie Andrews’ naked breasts all but received top billing; they certainly got a stars’ entrance. It’s also is a fascinating case study in how Edwards got caught in the crossfire of the Hollywood generational wars and is one of the most interesting anti-Hollywood films made in Hollywood. (I’d love it if you took a look at my 2008 thumbsucker about “S.O.B.” over my currently dormant blog.)
Largely because of Audrey Hepburn’s lingering fame and greatness, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” is a lot of people’s favorite movie and it’s not hard to see why. It can be breathtakingly wistful. Because of Mickey Rooney’s over-the-top godawful portrayal of a sex-crazed Japanese neighbor, it’s also not hard to see why none of those people are Asian. Bert Kwouk’s far more human, relatively competent and hilarious Kato in “The Pink Panther” series is a small consolation, but still a consolation.
Blake Edwards really was a hugely contradictory director. Deeply cynical, terribly romantic, a champion of tolerance and capable of creating stereotypes so vicious they stand-out even among films of their day, lacking in an obvious “style” but nevertheless a notable auteur in his versatile way, Edwards was just weird enough to be, maybe, truly great.
As usual, David Hudson over at MUBI has much, much more.
Blake Edwards’ 1965 “The Great Race” is an childhood favorite of mine — I remember being about six the first time I saw it. I think I liked the cars, the broad slapstick, and the cartoony iconography. I watched it again a couple of years back for the first time in its entirety in probably more than 20 years and found it held up a lot better than I had expected, not least because of a really fine comic performance by Tony Curtis as the absurdly heroic and properly chauvinistic the Great Leslie.
In this scene — briefly interrupted by some very nice Laurel & Hardy-slapstick from villains Jack Lemmon and Peter Falk — good guy Curtis puts various gentlemanly moves on early feminist Natalie Wood, who he had also romanced the prior year in “Sex and the Single Girl.” It’s a very funny send-up of supremely confident romantic movie heroes of old and of Curtis’s own ultra-suave persona. It also features some very nice sword play by Curtis, who was actually knew how to handle a saber.
“The Great Race” airs Sunday night/Monday morning as part of TCM’s 24-hour Tony Curtis marathon tomorrow night at 1:30 a.m. Eastern/10:30 Pacific for you night-owls and DVR owners.
The late Soupy Sales was a great comic who achieved his great fame through television but never had much of a film career. His one starring role, 1966’s “Birds Do It,” is essentially impossible to see. Given two of the comments currently on IMDb, perhaps for a reason.
Nevertheless, his pie throwing and receiving savvy tickled the funny bone of a couple of generations and certainly influenced the slapstick comedy of his era quite a bit. So, in honor of the late Mr. Sales, the most famed pie fight of the 1960s.
Considering that this scene from Blake Edwards’ 1965’s “The Great Race” features several of the biggest stars of its day including Natalie Wood, Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon (as two separate characters — the villainous Prof. Fate and the aimably drunken Crown Prince Hapnik), a pre-“Columbo” Peter Falk and character acting great Keenan Wynn (aka Col. Bat Guano of “Dr. Strangelove“), it’s also easily the most star-studded creamy pastry battle yet filmed.
And, remember the wise words of Mr. Sales and brush after every pie fight: “Be true to your teeth, and they’ll never be false to you.”
In honor of the late comedy writer, below is a trailer for his first motion picture credit, the 1962 comedy “The Notorious Landlady.” Though this piece of movie advertising is about as leering and puerile as “Mad Men” era trailers can get, this appears to be a decent little movie from veteran director Richard Quine and two writers very much on the way up: Gelbart and Blake Edwards (“Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” “The Pink Panther,” etc.). Having Kim Novak (“Vertigo“), Jack Lemmon, and Fred Astaire in it probably doesn’t hurt either.