Throughout the ’60s and ’70s, adventurous filmmakers stretched the boundaries of the Western genre in previously unimaginable ways, often using stories set in the American frontier as allegories for contemporary themes. Yet while such provocateurs as Peckinpah and Penn mixed irreverence with ultraviolence, some filmmakers dabbling in the postmodern-Western arena opted for a gentler approach. For example, consider Kid Blue, a ingratiating comedy of sorts starring Dennis Hopper. The picture was written by Bud Shrake and directed by TV veteran James Frawley, who capitalized on his experience with such lighthearted series as The Monkees to earn gigs directing a handful of ’70s diversions, including the silly The Big Bus (1976) and sublime The Muppet Movie (1979). Translation: Don’t dig too deep into Kid Blue for auteurist statement, because Frawley mostly just plays traffic cop for the peculiarity permeating the story.
Hopper plays Bickford, a second-rate outlaw-turned-drifter who wanders into the small town of Dime Box, looking to quit the criminal life for something more predictable. Alas, Bickford quickly gets on the wrong side of Sheriff “Mean John” Simpson (Ben Johnson)—who, in Bickford’s defense, probably doesn’t have a good side—which means that living righteously turns out to be as much of a hassle as criminality. Still, Bickford finds solace in the friendship of a sensitive factory worker, Reese (Oates), who evinces qualities that suggest a closeted homosexual. (Oates plays the put-upon textures of this character beautifully.) Bickford’s life is further complicated by trouble with women, because Reese’s wife, Molly (Lee Purcell), is a hot-to-trot spitfire who wants more than Reese is able to give, and Bickford’s old girlfriend eventually shows up, as well. Meanwhile, Bickford befriends an eccentric by the name of Preacher Bob (Boyle), who lives on the outskirts of town while he constructs a flying machine that he hopes will take him up in the air and away from the provincial rhythms of Dime Box.
The filmmakers play heavily into Hopper’s offscreen persona, portraying Bickford as a hippie unfairly constrained by the Establishment’s rules; in one key moment, Bickford undoes his ponytail and shakes out his long tresses like a Woodstock Nation resident letting his freak flag fly after a long shift at a 9-to-5 gig. And if the superimposition of ’70s ideas and themes onto the Western milieu is a bit forced, that’s a small price to pay for the enjoyably strange textures of Kid Blue. Dime Box is unlike the towns in most Westerns, because it’s filled with believably individualistic people—who, with the obvious exception of Preacher John, are defined more by their troubled inner lives than by their peculiar outer behavior. Dime Box has more than its share of shortcomings, including a slow pace, a deficit of big laughs, and an unmemorable ending. Furthermore, Hopper’s performance can be grating at times, so the actor fails to generate much audience empathy despite his character’s sad-sack plight. Nonetheless, while it’s unfolding, Kid Blue takes viewers to novel places, and it does so with charm and compassion.
Kid Blue: GROOVY