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Hearts of the West (DVD Review)

27 Jun, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
$19.95 DVD
Rated ‘PG.’
Stars Jeff Bridges, Andy Griffith, Alan Arkin, Blythe Danner.

On the IMDb.com entry for Jeff Bridges’ 900th cult movie of its era, you will see a shrunken replication (whose fine print specifics are tough to decipher) of rave critical blurbs for what may have been the most praised comic sleeper of 1975, a very good year for movies.

Hearts of the West probably never had much of a box office chance and still exists almost in the exclusive domain of movie cultists — which doesn’t mean that anyone coerced into seeing it won’t have a mellow good time, without necessarily feeling the need to write home about it. Truth is, people never write home about “mellow” — and yet, West remains the kind of movie hordes of people say they’d like to see more of from Hollywood when, actually, they end up going to see the same stupid comedies and action pics that are far easier for agency button-pushers to market.

The picture is set in 1933 Hollywood, which over the past 40 years or so has been two strikes right there. At some point, the mass audience began to tune out on any period piece outside heir experience — and truth to tell, it’s never been all that crazy about films that deal with the movie industry. There’s one thing, though, that Rob Thompson’s clever screenplay is onto that has never changed: the subterranean totem-poll standing of writers everywhere.

West opens with Bridges sitting a Depression dinner table with his father and mocking/laughing brothers, who are chiding him for pursuing a correspondence school’s promise to make him a successful writer — specifically, one who specializes in Western fiction. Bridges then elects to visit the school, which ends up being nothing but a few post office boxes near a train station in Nowhere, Nev., and run by a pair of creeps played by Richard B. Shull (baby cheeks on a 45-year-old) and Anthony James (previously In the Heat of the Night’s the diner employee of high cheeks who was simpatico with all those the flies). The three of them have an altercation, and Bridges escapes in their car — a to-be-continued pursuit that’s interrupted when our greenhorn literally runs into a friendly band of cowboy stuntmen whose elder hand is played by Andy Griffith (one of his few feature-film roles from this stage of his career). The encounter lands Bridges on the fringes of ‘B’-movie employment, where he crosses paths with a tyrannical director (Alan Arkin) and, more harmoniously, with a production assistant played by Blythe Danner.

She, who never seems to date, is always decked out in what could be called “Katharine Hepburn slacks” — which leads to a conversation between Griffith and Bridges over the possibility that Danner’s sexual proclivities might be “deviant.” Hearing Griffith raise this possibility in his standard drawl here, I couldn’t help but flash on a fantasy Mayberry episode where Andy and Opie are out squishing night-crawlers onto their hooks as the former offers the fatherly warning that some women in town are … well, deviant … and that, by the way, we’ve always been worried about Aunt Bee.

Another noteworthy scene is one where the now-stuntman Bridges leaps off a balcony for a direct downward trajectory into a waiting saddle — and pays the price. Mel Brooks got a lot of justifiable credit in the previous year’s Blazing Saddles for showing the true aftermath of cowboys eating all those beans around the campfire. Here, director Howard Zieff came up with another landmark (albeit one less heralded) that shows what it was like pulling off such a stunt without wearing a cup — which, in fact, the fellow stuntman later chide Bridges for having failed to do. That’s fine when you’re making a movie — but what about real life way back when? It’s tough to believe that any in-town hellraiser ever took the precautionary move of going into an 1880s general store run by some Edgar Buchanan type and asked, “Which brands do you have?”

Zieff, who died a couple years ago, came to movies following a tremendously successful career fashioning some of the most memorable commercials of the day. West was his second feature, following another underseen sleeper (Slither), and when he finally hit it commercially big in a limited big-screen career, it was with The Main Event (not very good) and Private Benjamin (which was and is what it is). West is probably his best movie.

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