Come Blow Your Horn (1963) ***

Wonderful upbeat performance from Frank Sinatra lifts this out of a misogynistic pit where  women were either dumb, desperate to get married or passive-aggressive harridans. Bachelor playboy Alan (Frank Sinatra) has more women on a string than there is string. When younger brother Buddy (Tony Bill) moves in, Alan introduces him to the fun ways of the world, not expecting Buddy to be such an apt pupil.

Alan keeps main squeeze Connie (Barbara Rush) dangling while, pretending to have Hollywood connections, making hay with actress wannabe Peggy (Jill St John). He also keeps customer Mrs Eckman (Phyllis McGuire) sweet in transactional sex fashion and there’s no shortage of other women liable to appear out of the woodwork.

Meanwhile, his boss, apoplectic father Harry (Lee J. Cobb), goes around screaming at everyone, berating Alan for his lifestyle and moaning at harassed wife Sophie (Molly Picon). Most of the time it looks like it’s going to swerve into a more typical English farce with various women being hidden out of sight from various other woman or Harry or an equally apoplectic cuckolded husband (Dan Blocker).

But, with considerably more sophistication than that, the story takes the more interesting tack of character development. Alan, who might appear to be sitting pretty, woman at his beck and call, a glorious modern apartment, cocktails on tap, is brought up sharply by his brother’s delight at such a shallow life. Alan gets to play Hollywood honcho with Peggy while Connie delivers an ultimatum that threatens to bring Frank to his senses though, naturally, he believes it’s all hooey.

The fraternal business is well done, instead of the normal rivalry genuine affection and the older sibling offering guidance, though primarily in how to get drunk and get off with women rather than anything that might otherwise stand him in good stead. Though you might argue that being shown how to dress, and how converse with women, and organise a fun party might be as much education as a young gentleman in the Big Apple required.

The only thing better than one Frank Sinatra picture is two Frank Sinatras so to scoop up some extra cash these were paired for a speedy reissue.

Playwright Neil Simon, the toast of Broadway at this stage, exhibited such a keen sense of structure that the story never sagged. Any time that appeared a remote possibility, instead of a stranger coming in a la Raymond Chandler with a gun, it’s Harry stomping all over the place. There are some good catchphrases, genuinely funny moments, and some great lines, the best, I have to confess, from Peggy who bemoans the fact that she was stranded in a hotel room with Alan at a ski resort by all the snow outside. Redeeming factor: her homely kind of dumb serves narrative purpose, making the otherwise unbearably charming Alan come across as a heel.

This is quite a different Sinatra, like he’s channeling his record persona, none of the anguish, dramatic intensity or Rat Pack bonhomie he brought to other pictures. Often you hear of actors just playing the same character or a variation thereof, but this ain’t a Sinatra persona I’m familiar with and brings verve to the whole shebang.

Lee J. Cobb (Coogan’s Bluff, 1968) gives in to overacting. You can see how that loud style might work on the stage, but it’s less effective here. Jill St John (Tony Rome, 1967) is very good as the uncertain beauty, who could be incredibly seductive if only she could work out how, and not quite a victim either, and still managing vulnerability. Barbara Rush (Robin and the 7 Hoods, 1964) is wasted, though. Set up as a modern woman, she collapses at the first sniff of marriage, though framing her eyes in a mask of light in a taxi cab is about the only compositional mark of any note.

Quite what possessed director Bud Yorkin (Divorce American Style, 1967) to stick in the title song in the middle of the picture is anybody’s guess. Norman Lear (Divorce American Style) wrote the script but you can hardly go wrong with a Neil Simon template. 

End up: it’s mostly about family and people coming to terms with themselves and each other.

How the West Was Won (1962) ***** – Seen at the Cinerama

I’ve got Alfred Newman’s toe-tapping theme music in my head. In fact, every time I think of this music I get an earworm full of it. Not that I’m complaining. The score – almost a greatest hits of spiritual and traditional songs – is one of the best things about it. But then you’re struggling to find anything that isn’t good about it. But, for some reason, this western never seems to be given its due among the very best westerns.

Not only is it a rip-roaring picture featuring the all-star cast to end all-star casts it’s a very satisfying drama to boot and it follows an arc that goes from enterprise to consequence, pretty much the definition of all exploration.

Given it covers virtually a half-century – from 1839 to 1889 – and could easily have been a sprawling mess dotted by cameos, it is astonishingly clever in knowing when to drop characters and when to take them up again, and there’s very little of the maudlin. For every pioneer there’s a predator or hustler whether river pirates, gamblers or outlaws and even a country as big as the United States can’t get any peace with itself, the Civil War coming plumb in the middle of the narrative.

Some enterprising character has built the Erie Canal, making it much easier for families to head west by river. Mountain man fur trader Linus Rawlings (James Stewart) on meeting prospective pioneers the Prescotts has a hankering after the young Eve (Carroll Baker) but as a self-confessed sinner and valuing his freedom has no intention of settling down. But he is bushwhacked by river pirates headed by Jeb Hawkins (Walter Brennan) and left for dead, but after saving the Prescotts from the gang changes his mind about settling down and sets up a homesteading with Eve.

We have already been introduced to Eve’s sister Lilith (Debbie Reynolds) who has attracted the attention of huckster Cleve Van Valen (Gregory Peck) and they meet again in St Louis where she is a music hall turn and widow. Her physical attraction pales in comparison with the fact she has inherited a gold mine. He follows her, unwelcome, in a wagon train which survives attack by Cheyenne, but still she resists him, not falling for him until a third meeting on a riverboat.

Zeb Rawlings (George Peppard) wants to follow his father to fight in the Civil War. Linus dies there, but there’s no great drama about it, he’s just another casualty, and the death is in the passing. In probably the only section that feels squeezed in, following the Battle of Shiloh a disillusioned Zeb saves General Sherman (John Wayne) and Ulysses S. Grant (Harry Morgan) from an assassin.

Returning home to find Eve dead, Zeb hands over his share of the farm to his brother and heads west to join the U.S. Cavalry at a time when the Army is required to keep the peace with Native Americans enraged by railroad expansion. Zeb links up with buffalo hunter Jethro Stuart (Henry Fonda), who appeared at the beginning as a friend of his father.

Eve, a widow again, meets up in Arizona with family man and lawman Zeb who uncovers a plot by outlaw Charlie Gant (Eli Wallach) to hijack a train. Zeb turns rancher once again, looking after her farm.

But the drama is peppered throughout by the kind of vivid action required of the Cinerama format, all such sections filmed from the audience point-of-view. So the Prescotts are caught in thundering rapids, there’s a wagon train attack and buffalo stampede, and a speeding train heading to spectacular wreck. There’s plenty other conflict and not so many winsome moments.

Interestingly, in the first half it’s the women who drive the narrative, Eve taming Linus, Lilith constantly fending off Cleve. And there’s no shortage of exposing the weaknesses and greed of the explorers, the railroad barons and buffalo hunters and outlaws, and few of the characters are aloof from some version of that greed, whether it be to own land or a gold mine or even in an incipient version of the rampaging buffalo hunters to pick off enough to make a healthy living.

And here’s the kicker. Virtually all the all-star cast play against type. John Wayne (Circus World, 1964) reveals tremendous insecurity, Gregory Peck (Mirage, 1965) is an unscrupulous though charming renegade, the otherwise sassy Debbie Reynolds (My Six Loves, 1963) is as dumb as they come to fall for him, and for all the glimpses of the aw-shucks persona James Stewart (Shenandoah, 1965) plays a much meaner hard-drinking hard-whoring version of his mean cowboy. Carroll Baker (Station Six Sahara, 1963) is an innocent not her usual temptress while George Peppard (The Blue Max, 1966) who usually depends on charm gets no opportunity to use it. .

Also worth mentioning: Henry Fonda (Madigan, 1968), Lee J. Cobb (Coogan’s Bluff, 1968), Carolyn Jones (Morticia in The Addams Family, 1964-1966), Eli Wallach (The Moon-Spinners, 1964), Richard Widmark (Madigan), Karl Malden (Nevada Smith, 1966) and Robert Preston (The Music Man, 1962).  

Though John Ford (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, 1962) had a hand in directing the picture, it was a small one (the short Civil War episode), and virtually all the credit belongs to Henry Hathaway (Circus World) who helmed three of the five sections with George Marshall (The Sheepman, 1958) taking up the slack for the railroad section.

And though you might balk at the idea of trying to cover such a lengthy period, there’s no doubting the skill of screenwriter James R. Webb (Alfred the Great, 1969) to mesh together so many strands, bring so many characters alive and write such good dialog. Bear in mind this was based on a series of non-fiction articles in Life magazine, not a novel, so events not characters had been to the forefront. Webb populated this with interesting people and built an excellent structure.

I’m still tapping my toe as I write this and I was tapping my toe big-style to be able to see this courtesy of the Bradford Widescreen Weekend on the giant Cinerama screen with an old print where the vertical lines occasionally showed up. Superlatives are superfluous.

Coogan’s Bluff (1968) ***

Almost a curiosity in the Clint Eastwood canon from the later perspective, this modern western concerning a maverick Arizona cop pursuing a fugitive in New York could also be interpreted as a riposte to the violent avenger of the “Dollars” trilogy and Hang ‘Em High (1968). Like Rio Conchos (1964) there’s an action-packed start and finish and not much in between unless you count Coogan (Clint Eastwood) being beaten up, and like Firecreek, made in the same year but less of an audience attraction, a slow burn with little of the depth of the Vincent McEveety effort.

It fits more neatly into the “victim” niche of The Beguiled (1970) and Play Misty for Me (1971) with Eastwood, while attempting to present a macho image, set upon by predatory women. Here, although led into a trap by the girlfriend Linny (Tisha Sterling) of the wanted Ringerman (Don Stroud), the victim elements are mostly humorous, Coogan a fish-out-of-water taken advantage of by cab drivers and hoteliers and by a justice system that takes more note of due process than he is accustomed to. Otherwise, it’s pretty much a romance as Coogan, for whom persistence pays off, beds probation officer Julie (Susan Clark).

Coogan is a paid up member of the wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am fraternity, frolicking with an adulterous lover in Arizona, and displaying no qualms about getting it on with Linny. In the hands of Jack Lemmon this would be a comedy, so it’s a strange choice for Eastwood unless for experimental purposes, trying to set himself up more as Steve McQueen than John Wayne.

The picture opens with Coogan tracking down a Native American, and manacling him to a pole outside a house while he repairs inside for sex. Interrupted by a sheriff frustrated by his ways, he is despatched to New York where he manages, through a bluff, to have Ringerman removed from Bellevue mental hospital. On the way home, he is ambushed by Linny and some thugs, losing consciousness and his gun, neither going down well with the more bureaucratically-minded Lt. McElroy (Lee J Cobb) whose undercover stake-out plans he has also ruined.

Luckliy, Coogan has chanced upon probation officer Julie who can’t quite manage to deter his amorous advances and at an appropriate moment he sneaks a look at her files for his next lead. Not quite as sharp as he imagines, and clearly not much good at assimilating painful lessons, after a dalliance with Linny, he is astonished to be led into yet another trap. In the end, of course, he gets his man, courtesy of a motorbike chase. But there’s a curious ending. Not only does Julie, who he has betrayed with Linny, turn up to wave him off, but, as if he has now turned into a kinder, more humane specimen, he affords his prisoner a smoke, something he pointedly refused to do with the Native American.

It’s not dated particularly well and modern audiences will have trouble accepting domestic abuse and rape as comedic situations and eyebrows are scarcely going to be raised at the drug-addled Linny nor the club where naked women fly overhead on trapezes. The idea that intelligent women like Julie, weighed down with psych jargon and over-concern for offenders, just need a big hunk in their lives doesn’t fly either.

But if you accept the out-of-towner trope, and are happy to see Clint practising his squint and double take , you will find in between the action  and “victim” agenda, a quite tolerable romance. It was a bold choice for a star best known for killing people. Tough guy that he is, he is flummoxed by the big city and has a hell of a job getting his man. On the other hand Eastwood and Clark have excellent chemistry. This is embryo Eastwood, almost as if he is trying on a variety of screen persona to see what will fit. After Dirty Harry (1971) there was little truck with romance except for The Bridges of Madison County (1995) and In the Line of Fire (1993) so it’s interesting to see his moves, albeit that the best romantic work he did was in the director’s chair with Breezy (1973).

Susan Clark is superb, all the professional confidence of Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (1969) but the romantic cynicism replaced by an appealing hesitancy. Lee J. Cobb (Exodus, 1960) has little to do except be grumpy, Don Stroud (Madigan, 1968) doesn’t feature prominently enough while Tisha Sterling (Journey to Shiloh, 1968) makes the bigger impact.

Don Siegel (Dirty Harry) would become an Eastwood long-time confederate, directing him in six movies, of which this was the first. He had just made a Hollywood comeback after six years in the feature film wilderness with Madigan (1968), a tougher cop picture. I would be inclined to lavish more critical plaudits on the idea of playing around with the tough guy persona, but I’m not sure that was the intention.

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