Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Cheyenne Social Club (1970)


          A charming Western comedy in the vein of Howard Hawks’ cowboy classics, this amiable picture pairs two of the genre’s greatest stars, Henry Fonda and James Stewart, in a lively story that both pokes fun at their wholesome images and suits their advanced ages at the time the movie was made. John O’Hanlan (Stewart) and Harley Sullivan (Fonda) are graying cowpokes working on a Texas ranch when John receives word that he’s inherited a business from his late brother. They travel to Wyoming, where they discover the business is actually a brothel, much to the chagrin of aw-shucks John. Aghast at the idea of running a house of ill repute, John decides to close the Cheyenne Social Club, which makes him a pariah among the business’ loyal patrons, but then he discovers he can’t cash out his inheritance. Furthermore, when the club’s sunny madam, Jenny (Shirley Jones), is attacked by a client, John’s sense of Texas justice kicks in and starts him down the road of developing a proprietary interest in the ladies’ welfare. Unfortunately for John, his noble actions make him a target for a huge clan of no-good varmints, meaning an extended stay in Cheyenne would be hazardous to his health.
          Smoothly directed by studio-era Hollywood pro Gene Kellly, the dancer/filmmaker of Singin’ in the Rain fame, The Cheyenne Social Club is unabashedly old-fashioned, even with a handful of modern touches like location photography and brief nudity, so the dialogue gets a bit corny at times, there’s a great deal of sitcom-style patter between the stars, and the plotting is slick and uncomplicated. The Cheyenne Social Club also features the most whitewashed portrayal of prostitution this side of Pretty Woman (1990), which might make it unpalatable for some viewers. The cheerfully vanilla picture undoubtedly felt archaic in an era of revisionist Westerns, but seen with modern eyes, it’s as diverting as anything Hawks or Henry Hathaway helmed in the heyday of big-screen oaters. Fonda amusingly undercuts his heroic image by portraying a fellow more inclined to run from a fight than run into one, and Stewart uses his signature flummoxed stammer to great effect as a character unaccustomed to being a “man of property.” The Cheyenne Social Club isn’t a laugh-out-loud comedy so much as it’s a lighthearted yarn with comic touches, but that’s a good thing: The picture delivers a broad spectrum of entertainment, from action to jokes to romance, over the course of 103 amiable minutes.

The Cheyenne Social Club: GROOVY

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