Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Michael's Movie Pick #3: Rustler's Rhapsody (1985)

Ken O is currently away from the ship’s helm while he takes care of his wife and brand new son. During that time we are forgoing our normal updates for something special. Every month Turner Classic Movies has a Guest Programmer who chooses the films they show for that night. For 9 days we’ll be acting as we were the Guest Programmer. So you’ll get 3 movies from me, 3 from Brandon, and 3 from our guest writer Michael May! A huge thank you goes out to Michael May; please go check out his Adventure Blog.

Rustlers’ Rhapsody is a very different movie than my previous choices, so it probably requires some explanation. When Ken approached me about doing this, there were two things he said that made me want to chip in. The first was, “Do you want to chip in?” Because it’s Ken. Of course I wanted to help. But even if he’d been a stranger, allowing me to pretend that I’m a TCM guest host introducing my favorite movies is a stellar hook that I couldn’t say no to. So I tried to pick from three different eras: silent, Golden Age Hollywood (even though I chose a British film), and something produced in my lifetime.

My initial criterion was simply that I wanted to share movies that I’m already evangelistic about. Films that when I hear someone hasn’t seen them, I immediately schedule a time for us to watch them together. Rustlers’ Rhapsody is probably the first movie I ever got that way about. It was under-seen even in its day, but it still has the power to make me laugh every time I revisit it and I want to share that with as many people as possible.

Because it’s a comedy it’s going to be difficult to talk up without trying to retell a bunch of the jokes. That’s why I usually just tell people that they have to come over and watch it. I do always ask if they like Westerns though, because Rustlers’ Rhapsody assumes that you know some things about that genre as it’s been depicted in film. You can enjoy many of the gags without ever having seen a Western, but you’ll love it more if familiar with the genre.

It opens with a screen-within-the-screen showing what looks like an old Gene Autry or Roy Rogers movie. It’s like those trailers for 3D re-releases where they show you a tiny, tinny-sounding version of Phantom Menace or whatever (as if that’s the only way you’ve been able to experience it up to now) before blowing it up on the full screen with awesome sound. The little, black-and-white movie shows Rex O’Herlihan, the Singing Cowoy (Tom Berenger) chasing down a gang of bandits as GW Bailey (Captain Harris from the Police Academy movies) acknowledges the quaintness of these old films and then wonders what they’d be like if they were made today. On cue, the picture fills the screen, the color kicks in, and the gunshots are deafening.

At this point, virgin viewers are probably assuming that the film is going to be a Western spoof in which the hapless hero tries to adjust to the modern take on this genre. They’d only be half right. It is a spoof, but far from being miserable, Rex O’Herlihan benefits from modern sensibilities in some very cool ways, primarily by becoming self-aware.

A lot of the humor in Rustlers’ Rhapsody comes from the combination of two things: a) the knowledge that classic, B-Westerns all had pretty much the exact same plot, and b) that Rex understands this and uses it to his advantage. When you’ve spent your entire life traveling from town to town, helping the local underdogs defeat the rich and powerful land barons as the railroad’s coming through, you start to get confident that you always know what’s going to happen next and will be able to deal with it. That turns Rex into kind of a cowboy superhero. That could have been really annoying except that Berenger is so completely humble and charming about it and the movie is so darn funny. In addition to effectively giving him precog “super powers”, Rustlers’ Rhapsody also explains some “secret origin”-type stuff like: how does he afford this lifestyle, how does he recover so quickly from being wounded, and where does he keep all those different shirts?

In this particular story, Rex has ridden into Oakwood Estates where the evil cattle baron, Colonel Ticonderoga (effeminately played by an hilariously out-of-his-usual-character Andy Griffith) and his men are terrorizing the local, awful smelling sheepherders. Rex teams up with the town drunk (Bailey) to stop them, also making friends with the town prostitute (Marilu Henner) and the Colonel’s daughter (Sela Ward), a girl who – like Rex – has named her horse Wildfire, because all awesome, free-spirited horses are named Wildfire.

After some initial encounters with Rex, the Colonel realizes that he’s going to need some help, so he forms an alliance with another Colonel (they’re always colonels; this one’s played by Fernando Rey) who owns the railroad. The railroad guys are right out of Spaghetti Westerns, allowing the B-movie cowboys to be envious of the cooler background music and long raincoats. Unfortunately for the Colonels, even this coalition isn’t enough to defeat Rex, because he’s the Good Guy and the Good Guy always wins.

I won’t spoil it, but the Colonels figure out a way around this, resulting not only in some more great gags, but also an examination of what it really means to be a Good Guy, both in the ‘30s and ’40 and in modern times. Rustlers’ Rhapsody is always about being funny first, but it manages to sneak some actual ideas in there too.

Come to think of it, Rustlers’ Rhapsody may not be that different from The Lodger and Night of the Demon after all. All three films play with the idea of Good Guys and Bad Guys in different ways. The Lodger offers a policeman who’s kind a jerk and a possible serial killer as the romantic lead. Night of the Demon pits an abrasively stubborn protagonist against a friendly Satan-worshipper who only wants to be left alone. Rustlers’ Rhapsody takes the ultimate, one-dimensionally Good Guy character, a singing cowboy, and makes him question that righteousness. I guess my picks have a unifying theme after all.


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