Monday, May 18, 2009

Movies I’ve stared at recently on TCM #27

Last night, Turner Classic Movies showcased a double feature of rodeo-themed movies, kicking things off with Sam Peckinpah’s Junior Bonner (1972). I’d already seen the film (review here) but I had not seen the movie that followed, J.W. Coop (1972), a labor of love for actor and would-be auteur Cliff Robertson.

The title character of Robertson’s first foray into directing is a rodeo cowboy who’s just finished serving a ten-year-stretch in the pokey (and for those of you who enjoy the cinematic device of convenience, figure out how much longer this film would have been had co-writer Robertson not incarcerated his character in a prison with a rodeo) and is anxious to get back on the circuit to pick up where he left off. He ambles back into his hometown to visit his mother (Geraldine Page), who’s in the throes of senile dementia, but when it looks as if he’s going to have repeat trouble with the cops who hassled him into the pen in the first place, he rides his thumb toward the first rodeo—befriending a free-spirited hippie (Cristina Ferrare) along the way.

Coop meets up with some of his old rodeo buddies (many of whom are played by actual rodeo cowboys: Larry Mahan, Myrtis Dightman, Clyde “Cisco” Mayde, etc.) who inform him that the rodeo business has changed in the time he’s been out of circulation—an example of this is current champion Billy Hawkins (Dennis Reiners), who uses a Cessna plane in order to compete in as many as three different rodeos a day. But with gritty determination and perseverance, Coop manages to work his way up into the #2 spot and he is more than ready to challenge Hawkins for the championship…until a tragic event bring his career to a screeching halt.

With the success of his Oscar-winning performance as a retarded man turned genius in the 1968 film Charly, Robertson obtained the clout he needed to make Coop—and the dedication in directing, producing and co-writing the film certainly shows (Robertson even went so far as to pony up the necessary scratch for the film’s completion bond); I think Bonner is the better of the two rodeo pictures but I would also argue that Coop is the more genuine of the two (of course, I’ve not seen the third “rodeo picture” that came out that same year, The Honkers [1972], so I may be prejudging here). The large number of unknowns (many of whom worked for scale—with the exception of Page, and to be frank, her role is nothing but a glorified cameo) adds to the film’s authenticity, as does the “small-town America” feel to the production. But Coop does have its share of flaws: having the main character succeed in too much a rapid amount of time (particularly since he’s supposed to have been in stir for a while) doesn’t allow you to fully root for the character’s underdog status. And while the romance between Robertson and Ferrare’s characters is fun at the beginning, it starts rolling downhill the moment she talks him into growing a ridiculous-looking moustache. The nail in the film’s coffin comes at the end: Coop’s actions are supposed to provoke the audience into seeing him as a heroic martyr figure…but as for myself, I was unable to buy into this—he seems more like a dumb essobee who doesn’t know when to quit.

Prästänkan (aka The Parson’s Widow) (1920) – TCM’s Silent Sunday Nights ran this early Carl Dreyer concoction after Coop, and while I’ve not seen a great many of Dreyer’s films if you showed this to me and then announced that its director would go on to oversee La passion de Jeanne d'Arc (1928), Vampyr - Der Traum des Allan Grey (1932) or Ordet (1955) I probably would have accused you of public intoxication.

A small Norwegian village has a rather novel method of cutting down on expenditures generated by the widowed wife of several of their recently expired parsons—any new candidate for the position must agree to marry the widow as a prelude to getting the post. The only drawback to this is that the current wife, Dame Margarete Pedersdotter (Hildur Carlberg), is old enough to be the grandmother of the latest hiree (Einar Röd)—which sort of puts the kibosh on his plans to marry his fiancée (Greta Almroth). They decide to make the best of it and just wait around until the old dame croaks (he successfully passes her off as his sister)…but it looks as if she might outlive the both of them.

Widow is a very broad farce that, as I previously noted, seems a bit out of sync with Dreyer’s later work—the only attributes that compare with his other films are his meticulous attention to realism in the sets and background and those marvelous actors/extras whose faces could tell stories of their own. Towards the end of Widow, the events become a bit more somber and serious but before that it’s hard not to laugh-out-loud at the plight of Söfren the pastor, who resorts to a series of Wile E. Coyote-like schemes to make time with fiancée Mari under the ever-watching eyes of Dame Margarete. There are some first-rate sight gags in this short-but-sweet comedy: my favorites are a scene where a more-than-just-a-little-tipsy Söfren reaches for a glass of schnapps…only to see it disappear and reappear at another spot on the table; and a nice bit during the wedding ceremony where the parson marrying Dame Margarete and Söfren has to place the wedding ring on one of Margarete’s other fingers because there’s no room on the traditional digit (she’s got three on there already). (There’s also a funny sequence where Söfren tries to throw his weight around the house by declaring that there’ll be a few changes since he is now the master; Margarete simply goes to the window, calls for her burly manservant to drop what he’s doing and come inside, and then orders the man to give the new “master” a thorough ass-whipping.)

1 comment:

Classic Maiden said...

I haven't seen 'Junior Bonner' in years, but I remember viewing it and being quite impressed with it, especially by Steve McQueen's performance.
Even though it's not one of Sam Pechinpah's best known, it's certainly worth the view.

Great review of the Dreyer films, even though I haven't seen the two reviewed. But being a Dane myself, I'm very partial to his work - a truly marvelous director.

- Sebina