Sunday, June 10, 2012

Mrs. Sundance (1974) & Wanted: The Sundance Woman (1976)


          Since the Sundance Kid’s girlfriend, Etta Place, was the only major character left standing after the ending of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), it’s not surprising she became the focus of two attempts by 20th Century-Fox to capitalize on the film’s success. In 1974, Bewitched star Elizabeth Montgomery headlined Mrs. Sundance, the feature-length pilot for a potential series about Place’s adventures following the events of the 1969 movie. Mrs. Sundance begins with Place working as a small-town teacher under an assumed name. (There’s a price on her head because of her association with criminals.) Worried that relentless lawman Charles Siringo (L.Q. Jones) is close to finding her, Place hops a freight train and meets small-time crook Jack Maddox (Robert Foxworth), who recognizes her and claims to have known Sundance. Then, when Place hears a rumor that Sundance is still alive, she tracks down old accomplices for directions to the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang’s hideout. Unfortunately, it turns out Maddox has been pressured into working for Siringo, so Place doesn’t realize she’s heading into a trap.
          Mrs. Sundance is actually rather dark, since the specter of death runs through the whole storyline, and the movie features a potent musical score by Pat Williams. Jones makes an effective villain, all crisp diction and merciless efficiency, while Foxworth exudes a squirrelly sort of appeal as a small man ashamed of his own cravenness. Montgomery ends up being the weak link, her breathy line readings and vapid expressions making slow scenes feel even slower. Still, Montgomery’s beauty and spunk command attention; had Mrs. Sundance gone to series, she might have grown into the role. Alas, when Mrs. Sundance failed to excite the public, Fox decided to reboot the concept by hiring Katharine Ross, who originated the Place character in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, for a second TV movie.
          Wanted: The Sundance Woman is less grounded than Mrs. Sundance, although the picture offers stronger production values. In Wanted, Place asks Mexican outlaw Pancho Villa (Hector Elizondo) for protection, in exchange for helping with his revolutionary endeavors. Siringo is still on Place’s trail, but this time he’s played by Steve Forrest in an unmemorable performance. Whereas Mrs. Sundance rightly portrays Place as a woman still in love with a man who has recently died, Wanted hints at romantic tension between Place and Villa, a plot development that feels forced and tacky. Worse, Elizondo is too lightweight a presence to seem credible as an iconic revolutionary. Ross is as beautiful as ever, though the cheap lighting of a TV movie cannot match the spellbinding glamour with which cinematographer Conrad Hall surrounded Ross in Butch Cassidy.
          So, while both of these telefilms are mediocre, Mrs. Sundance is incrementally more satisfying. Ironically, had Ross agreed to star in the first picture, which has a better storyline, Etta Place might have become an interesting presence on ’70s episodic TV, instead of merely a footnote to the era’s small-screen fare.

Mrs. Sundance: FUNKY
Wanted: The Sundance Woman: FUNKY

1 comment:

P. DANIEL ASUNCION said...

Peter:)

Fascinating post!

Was not aware of the Elizabeth M thing. Wonder
why Katharine was not IMMEDIATELY offered
that?

Imagine the ETTA character, 45 years after
BUTCH CASSIDY...What year would that be?
Just after WW2, maybe? Of course, she would
have moved forward with her life, but I'm
sure that she would sometimes remember,
as we all do.