Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Film Review: SHOWDOWN (1973)


Why the Hell isn't this on DVD yet? -- Number 67

SHOWDOWN (1973 Universal) Starring Dean Martin, Rock Hudson, Susan Clark, Donald Moffat, John McLiam, Ed Begley Jr., Charles Baca.  Directed by George Seaton.

It's the old chestnut that's been around far longer than Hollywood itself: childhood friends Martin and Hudson find themselves on opposite sides of the law as adults.  Masquerading as a lawman, Martin leads his gang through a successful train robbery.  He is forced to thin the ranks by one in self-defense afterward and subsequently takes off with all the loot.  The real sheriff is Hudson, Martin's lifelong best pallie, and D.A. McLiam fears that Hudson will let friendship get in the way of duty.  It's up to Hudson to capture Dino and keep him alive for a fair trial.  The latter isn't an easy task, as he'll have to get to him ahead of the surviving members of Martin's entourage (led by Moffat) AND keep the bloodthirsty McLiam at bay.

Frequent flashbacks flesh out the lifelong bond between the two friends and their friendly rivalry for Clark, who ultimately chose the safe Hudson, but wonders about the road not taken.  She also worries about her husband, who can't match Martin's draw or marksmanship.  In short, there's next to nothing in SHOWDOWN that you haven't seen dozens of times, and screenwriter Taylor even acknowledges the lack of freshness by having Clark reference Damon and Pytheus halfway through.

Taylor doesn't give him the greatest one-liners, but Martin still displays his usual effortless charm without being cloying.  He even gets things off to a jovial start with a Jimmy Stewart impression while in disguise on the train.  Like his SHOWDOWN character, Martin's personal life was going through a rough patch during production: the accidental death of his long-time horse "Tops" and the aftermath of his 1972 divorce being the contributing factors.  With actor and character both facing midlife crises, there's extra depth to Martin's performance: lines like "nothin's gone right since I left here" carry more resonance than usual.

Since Martin has the showier role by far, Hudson is mostly required to be sturdy and bland.  He's nevertheless solid and avoids being completely overshadowed, getting in some great moments of his own when concocting a story to potentially help Dino post-capture and silently reminiscing about their friendship. 

Filmed entirely on location in New Mexico, SHOWDOWN was the final western for both stars and director Seaton's cinematic swan song.  There's few surprises (if any) in the script and the teaming of Martin and Hudson isn't the big event it would have been a decade earlier. Still, contrary to what some have written elsewhere, no one involved is mailing this one in--not even Dino.  Easy to forget afterwards, SHOWDOWN is also easy to watch and sufficiently entertaining with a number of poignant moments.

So.....why isn't this on DVD yet?

The film is more derivative than most.  While Martin and Hudson were boob tube A-listers in '73, both had reached the end of the trail as box office attractions, leading to SHOWDOWN's disappointing receipts and ensuing low profile over the years.  Within a year, Dino would even become a part timer on television.  Hudson wouldn't star in another feature until 1976's EMBRYO.

Why it should be on DVD:

As probably the coolest Rat Packer of them all, Dino's appeal is timeless.  Virtually any Martin vehicle is going to have a built-in audience, and this is the one time that he and Hudson co-starred.   By 1973, he had little left to prove, so the highly motivated Dean Martin of RIO BRAVO and THE YOUNG LIONS was long gone.  Still, biographer William Schoell (MARTINI MAN) opines that SHOWDOWN is one of Martin's best later features.  IMO it is definitely a much better western than SOMETHING BIG (1971) for Dean's final bow in the genre.

Dino with Tops (R.I.P.) in the last western for both

If you'd like to check it out for yourself, SHOWDOWN airs on Encore Westerns this Friday, October 28th.

Monday, October 03, 2011


Welcome to The Horn Section's contribution to The Dick Van Dyke Show blog-a-thon, celebrating the show's 50th Anniversary today and hosted by Ivan Shreve's Thrilling Days of Yesteryear.  If you haven't checked out Mr. Shreve's blog yet, by all means do so--he offers an incredible wealth of information on classic film, television and radio.  I could single out examples, but it would make this intro to the post prohibitively lengthy, so just check out Thrilling Days at your convenience and you'll see what I mean.

And now, without further ado, our feature presentation, which also serves as the latest edition of......

"Why the Hell isn't this on DVD yet?"-- Number 66

DON'T WORRY, WE'LL THINK OF A TITLE (1966 United Artists) Starring Morey Amsterdam, Rose Marie, Richard Deacon, Jack Heller, Carmen Phillips, Henry Corden, Michael Ford, January Jones (no, not that one).  Directed by Harmon Jones.

Amsterdam, Marie and Jones work together in Deacon's diner, which is under surveillance by Soviet spies who are convinced that a "traitor" cosmonaut is hiding out there, since the defector is Amsterdam's doppelganger.  After Deacon is on the receiving end of slapstick incompetence on his birthday, he fires all three employees, and they move on to work at a bookstore Jones has inherited.  The foreign operatives trail them--and counterspies, robbers and beatniks end up tagging along as the communists attempt to apprehend Amsterdam for "Mr. Big" Heller.

Mr. Big!

I first became acquainted with THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW in daily syndication as a child of the '70's.  From the beginning, my favorite character was Buddy Sorrell, Rob Petrie's slightly sardonic, constantly wisecracking co-worker that Carl Reiner loosely based on his long-time collaborator Mel Brooks. Reiner cast Morey Amsterdam as Sorrell, and the character subsequently lived up to the veteran comic's real-life nickname, "The Human Joke Machine".

A skilled cellist and songwriter whose credits included "Why Oh Why Did I Ever Leave Wyoming" and "Rum and Coca-Cola", Amsterdam was also a standup comedian, author and frequent host on radio and TV.  He was ubiquitous in the latter medium's infancy, starring in his own self-titled series (on Dumont) and for a time hosting NBC's earliest version of THE TONIGHT SHOW, BROADWAY OPEN HOUSE.  At the time that VAN DYKE began its five-year run, Amsterdam was coming off his first dramatic feature role in MURDER, INC.  During the show's run, he further boosted his silver screen profile with the recurring role of Cappy in the A.I.P. BEACH PARTY films and recorded several comedy LP's.

These projects had given Amsterdam (then in his mid-50's) his greatest visibility to date, and during the hiatus preceding VAN DYKE's fifth and final season in 1965, the comic furthered his reputation as a jack of all trades by adding producer and screenwriter to his resume with DON'T WORRY, WE'LL THINK OF A TITLE.   The very first thing we see is the caricature of the star from his early TV ads:

Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore didn't join Amsterdam on his summer vacation, but Rose Marie and Richard Deacon signed on as co-stars and Carl Reiner joined much of TV Land in contributing a cameo.  We've all seen the usual results when the supporting players from a legendary TV classic get together to put on a show without the leads--think SANFORD ARMS or AFTERMASH, only this time on the big screen and for three times the running length.  I'd love to tell you that ever-likable renaissance man Amsterdam bucked the "second banana curse" and triumphed in yet another field with an undiscovered cinematic treasure, but I can't.  There's no way to sugarcoat it:  DON'T WORRY, WE'LL THINK OF A TITLE is very poorly written and executed.

Not finding much to laugh about, eh?

A spy spoof ("James Bond" even voice-cameos via phone) by way of vaudeville wasn't a bad idea when DON'T WORRY was filmed in the summer of '65, and few people could rival Amsterdam's encyclopedic recall of jokes--his nightclub act was centered around it.  Henny Youngman and perhaps Milton Berle (who cameos here) would have been the only people in the same ballpark.  Unfortunately Amsterdam filled his screenplay to the brim with the oldest ones he knew.  Literally.  They had to be:

"I was up all night trying to get my window open."
"There's no window in that room!"
"No wonder I couldn't get it open."

"Why are you pulling that piece of rope?"
"Y'ever try pushing one?"

Amsterdam's film ended up delayed for over a year and barely released in 1966 after VAN DYKE had ended its run.  By then GET SMART! had already spoofed the genre definitively for the target audience, even beating DON'T WORRY to the punchline of "Mr. Big" being played by a little person (Heller in this film, Michael Dunn in SMART!).  Too bad, because the screenplay needed a surprise or two.

Maybe if I throw in a Tom Swiftie.....

Amsterdam, Marie and Deacon all take the opportunity to break the fourth wall.  Repeatedly in Marie's case, and Deacon lets us know that he realizes he was playing a different role earlier in the picture.  If Amsterdam was striving for a HELLZAPOPPIN' feel, he didn't succeed in making his film anywhere close to zany enough.  If he was attempting a straight spy spoof, he didn't have the budget or collaborators.  Harmon Jones had never directed a comedy before (unless GORILLA AT LARGE counts); January Jones (related to the director?) is "introduced" with a key role, but exhibits no comic timing or acting ability and even appears uncomfortable on camera.  With maybe four sets to work with and a distinct lack of any espionage staples to tweak, DON'T WORRY has the look and feel of a lazy home movie, coming across like Morey Amsterdam and friends dabbling in movie making instead of having a truly inspired idea for a motion picture.

While it may not be funny or well-made, it is a veritable treasure chest of celebrity cameos.  The production costs may not have allowed for any elaborate action or comedy setpieces, but lots of recognizable names and faces were willing to join in on the fun.  For example, Moe Howard, who unfortunately didn't bring Larry or Curley-Joe with him:

I can't poke him in the eyes!  He's wearing glasses!

Irene Ryan (THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES) borrowed the Clampett truckster from Jethro to give our two leads a lift.  Milton Berle (probably paying Morey back for a stolen joke) got the hoary aforementioned "rope" gag.  Danny Thomas ordered a meal at the diner and Steve Allen dropped by the bookstore.  Cliff Arquette joined his HOLLYWOOD SQUARES co-panelists, with no lines and two seconds of screen time, but distinctively playing Charley Weaver.

And, just to show you how persuasive Morey Amsterdam was back in the day, he even convinced The Greatest Actor Who Ever Lived to donate about a half hour of his time:

Mack Tuck!
Everything including the kitchen sink is thrown in, but to no avail: DON'T WORRY, WE'LL THINK OF A TITLE was barely a blip at the box office in 1966 and would be Amsterdam's only feature production credit and only screenplay.  He, Marie and Deacon went back to television, where they all remained welcome guest stars and game show panelists, with regular gigs on MATCH GAME, HOLLYWOOD SQUARES and THE MOTHERS-IN-LAW respectively.

So.....why isn't this on DVD yet?

It more or less vanished after barely being released in 1966, and never even received a VHS release. Until well into the 2000's few had even heard of it.  But TCM dusted it off a years ago, Netflix Instant added it in 2010 and now----MGM Archives has it available for pre-order.  So....on October 11th, according to this link--it will be!

Why it should be on DVD:

It might not be a good movie, but it is a genuine artifact of its television era, and it does give three beloved character actors a moment in the spotlight.  I'd say it's a must for DICK VAN DYKE SHOW fans to see at least once and any fan of 1960's television will probably find it worth a look as well.

As mentioned above, DON'T WORRY, WE'LL THINK OF A TITLE is available on Netflix Instant if you'd like to give it a look before shelling out the $19.95.