A weird adventure story depicting the exploits of three ex-cons traveling through Depression-era West Virginia, Fools’ Parade features such a delicate combination of eccentric characterizations and literary contrivances that it would have taken a director of tremendous artistry to pull the pieces together into a coherent whole. Alas, Andrew V. McLaglen is not such a director. Because he presents the story with the same brisk, unvarnished style with which he made several entertaining action films, the peculiar nuances of Fools’ Parade end up feeling completely false. So while the movie is watchable thanks to the novelty of familiar actors playing offbeat scenes, Fools’ Parade isn’t satisfying—the execution is too straight for fans of idiosyncratic cinema, and the storyline is unlikely to thrill people who prefer conventional narratives.
Jimmy Stewart stars as Mattie Appleyard, a recently paroled inmate who accrued $25,000 in back pay through 40 years of hard labor behind bars. Mattie has gathered a surrogate family of fellow ex-cons, including Lee Cottrill (Strother Martin), a nervous would-be storekeeper, and Johnny Jesus (Kurt Russell), a naïve youth. The trio’s goal of starting a business together hits a roadblock when they realize their former jailor, a psycho named “Doc” Council (George Kennedy), has conspired to prevent Mattie from safely cashing his $25,000 check. This circumstance precipitates a battle of wills between the ex-cons and their once and future oppressor, who chases after them with gun-toting henchmen. There’s also a subplot involving a blowsy madam (Anne Baxter) and a reluctant prostitute (Kathy Cannon), plus another subplot involving a corrupt banker (David Huddleston) who’s in cahoots with Council.
Fools’ Parade was based on a book by Davis Grubb, who also wrote the source material for the 1955 cult classic The Night of the Hunter. This is arch material, but McLaglen plays the story straight, missing opportunities for irony, satire, and whimsy. Only the action scenes really work, at least in the conventional sense. Another issue is the clunky dialogue by screenwriter James Lee Barrett, much of which the normally excellent Huddleston is forced to deliver; Huddleston is little more than an exposition machine here.
Despite these fatal flaws, Fools’ Parade is mildly arresting. Watching Stewart play a stately crook who does things like yank his glass eye from his skull in order to tell fortunes is bracing. Martin squirms through one of his signature performances as a Southern-fried oddball. And Russell plays every moment with the same gee-whiz sincerity he brought to myriad Disney flicks in the early ’70s. Yet Kennedy delivers the movie’s most extravagant performance. Wearing grime over his teeth and wire-rimmed glasses over his face, the bulky actor hunches over like a troglodyte and drags out utterances in the vocal style a tweaked country preacher. His acting is spectacularly bad. (Baxter almost matches him for over-the-top stagecraft, especially since she wears garish whore makeup.) It’s hard to imagine how or why Fools’ Parade got made, since it must have been nearly as strange on paper as it is on screen. After all, the climax features a sight gag involving a lovable dog fetching a stick of lit dynamite. However, these bizarre flourishes make Fools’ Parade a curio—one can only marvel that the movie exists.
Fools’ Parade: FREAKY