The laid-back, plot challenged non-violent western gets a boost in this folksy comedy about two aging cowboys with less sense than the horses they tame. Glenn Ford and Henry Fonda star together for the first time, leaving behind their older images… they’re too tender-hearted for their own good. If the sex comedy wasn’t quite so dated, Burt Kennedy’s picture might be a classic.
Warner Archive Collection
1965 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 84 min. / Street Date April 18, 2017 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring: Glenn Ford, Henry Fonda, Sue Ane Langdon, Hope Holiday, Chill Wills, Edgar Buchanan, Kathleen Freeman, Joan Freeman, Denver Pyle, Barton MacLane, Doodles Weaver, Peter Fonda, Peter Ford, Bill Hart, Warren Oates, Chuck Roberson.
Cinematography: Paul Vogel
Film Editor: John McSweeney
Original Music: Jeff Alexander
From the Novel by Max Evans
Produced by Richard E. Lyons
Written and Directed by Burt Kennedy
Producer Richard E. Lyons is usually ignored in discussions of Sam Peckinpah, although it was he who put together Ride the High Country and made it work when the location shoot was cut short. MGM had no use for Peckinpah but allowed Lyons to finish out his three- picture deal with films that bear similarities to Peckinpah’s breakthrough. Greatly respected for his five Randolph Scott / Budd Boetticher westerns, writer Burt Kennedy was gaining directing experience and producer Lyons’ film allowed him another chance to establish himself on features. Mail Order Bride is about a different frontier marriage problem. Lovely Lois Nettleton tries to tame unruly punk Keir Dullea, with the help of a Steve Judd- like old-timer, Buddy Ebsen. Lyons had earlier western film experience on four Robert Lippert films released through Fox, where he worked with actors Barton McLane and Chill Wills. MGM must have ordered him to save money, for Mail Order Bride recycles the entire soundtrack of Ride the High Country.
Lyons and Kennedy were able to continue together on The Rounders, this time with bigger stars. Glenn Ford had maintained his status as a leading man and Henry Fonda was just on the cusp of slipping into co-starring work. Kennedy adapted a book by Max Evans, another native westerner who had a knack for authentic language. He also was buddies with Sam Peckinpah for a time, and even acted in one of his movies. The story is again about sore old westerners that have outlived their time. A few years later Hollywood would generate a slew of mostly pessimistic tales of rodeo woe — J.W. Coop, Junior Bonner, When the Legends Die, etc. — but Evans and Kennedy’s film is basically a comedy. A stubborn horse provides the slapstick antics, but the real fun is seeing Fonda and Ford wrap their talent around a couple of believably softheaded horse breakers and rodeo bums. Glenn’s character describes his profession as suited for “a cowboy with his brains knocked out,” which is pretty much the pair’s eternal fate. They’re really too old to be bucked off angry horses, but that’s where they always end up, face down in the dirt. Howdy is so easy going that his response to most every one of Ben’s ideas is an amiable, “Whatever suits you just tickles me plumb to death.” Ben continually muses about his own stupidity. When he gets a good idea, he’s too good-natured to profit from it.
Partners Ben Jones and Howdy Lewis (Glenn Ford & Henry Fonda) have nothing to their name but an old pickup truck, a couple of horses and some rope. They keep getting fleeced by old Jim Ed Love (Chill Wills), a smooth talker in a white suit who pretends to be stupid and friendly, yet always suckers them into breaking horses or rounding up steers for survival wages. First Love talks them into breaking a pen of horses that include one animal that could be the horse from hell — it takes a personal disliking to Ben, biting him and pretending to be tame before bucking him ten feet in the air. Although Ben trades the horse for liquor and then sells him outright, the horse always returns. The boys then get suckered into rounding up cows in ‘the high country,’ spending an entire winter alone except for visits by a few friends and a trip to visit Vince Moore (Edgar Buchanan), who makes great moonshine. His two daughters, Agatha and Meg (Kathleen Freeman & Joan Freeman) set their caps for our aging boys, but can’t persuade them to settle down.
Free of their exile in the high meadow job and left with a little more money than usual by the cheapskate Jim Ed Love, Ben and Howdy head to town. Ben gets a brainstorm: instead of blowing all their cash, how about they get a bunch of the boys in the bar to bet that they can ride that cantankerous, un-ride-able horse in their truck? As can be expected, they’re much too softhearted to profit from the venture. But they do pick up Mary and Sister (Sue Ane Langdon & Hope Holiday), a pair of strippers between gigs. A daytime picnic turns into a nighttime skinny dip.
The Rounders is a nice package of fun for fans that like their western comedies to not be completely stupid. The punishing action in the corral show the stars’ stand-ins pitched and tossed from saddles in every way imaginable, by a steed that seems smarter than they are. The horse has memorized the Mack Sennett playbook… Ford gets pounded, dragged, dunked and scraped off against convenient trees. There’s also a reasonably amusing bar brawl where we see favorite cowboy actors like Chuck Roberson. The stars’ sons Peter Ford and Peter Fonda are supposed to be in the parade crowd, but I couldn’t spot them; Peter wrote a fine biography of his father a few years back, describing him as an aging skirt-chaser par excellence.
The film was sold as a rowdy comedy, hawking the image of Ben and Howdy escorting Mary and Sister through the middle of a Sedona, Arizona rodeo days parade. They hold their cowboy hats over the girls’ behinds because all they have to wear are waitress’s aprons. An MGM exhibitors’ promo exists of the studio’s upcoming 1965 releases, which shows the insert shot of the girls spinning around to show their naked behinds. In the film, two black bands reading ‘Censored’ cover the naughty bits, but the promo leaves the shot unadorned. TCM shows it from time to time, without apology.
Unfortunately, the writing and dialogue in the girl-fun section of the film is not as polished. The strippers are clownish morons, with Ms. Holiday not half as endearing as she was in The Apartment, shooting straws at Jack Lemmon and crying about that ‘Fink’ Castro down in Cuba. We like bright-faced Sue Ane Langdon whenever she appears, but too often she was called upon to play a bimbo like Mary. The movie isn’t as generous with its women as it is with its male characters — the strippers are introduced with a smash zoom to Mary’s rear end in tight pants, bending over her stalled car. In what passes for ‘blue’ barnyard humor, the boys’ coming-to-attention reaction echoes their horse’s excitement over seeing the white rump of an attractive mare in the next stall.
The potential love interest is between Ford and the ‘good girl’ Meg, played by Joan Freeman of Panic in Year Zero! Ms Freeman sweet rural girl character is essentially a repeat from Mariette Hartley and Lois Nettleton; she’s even introduced the same as Ms. Hartley, dashing across the barnyard to change her dress. After a weak scene where she dances the twist with Ben, Meg is undercut by a script that makes her seem a little stupid as well. Ben gives her the old, “I have to work out my wild oats” speech, and she buys it. But boy, what a pleasant smile.
The character bits are fine. Edgar Buchanan is pleasant as the old boozer who guards his illicit stash, while Denver Pyle is less impressive. Old Barton MacLane is okay as a gruff townsman; he was winding up a career that started back in the silents. For a while it looks as if favorite comedienne Kathleen Freeman’s Agatha is going to be treated with respect, after spending years billed in cast lists as ‘Fat Girl.’ Fonda’s Howdy seems more than pleased with her company, and is suitably impressed when she comes out with his favorite dialogue refrain, Whatever suits you just tickles me plumb to death. But the last thing he says about Agatha is something to the effect that she starts to get pretty as the winter drags out. Jeez.
After getting special handling in both Ride the High Country and Mail Order Bride, Warren Oates appears for just a couple of scenes, unbilled. Perhaps he wanted it that way, as he was angling for bigger roles. Evans and Kennedy use Oates’ character Harley to make yet another statement about ‘good western manners,’ showing that Ben and Howdy have a respect for livestock and the profession that the callow Harley does not.
The actor best served by The Rounders is Chill Wills, who is a perfect fit for the slick negotiator Jim Ed Love. No matter what defense Ben puts up, Love gets the better of him. Chill Wills was always a standout, but in too many pictures he can be . . . bigger than life. Peckinpah used him to good effect as filthy, feral & scummy characters in The Deadly Companions and Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, but he chews scenery like a rabid beaver in John Wayne’s The Alamo. Wills is great here, as the tireless horse trader who always knows how to con Ben and Howdy into working for him . . . and owing him money at the end of the job.
The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of The Rounders is a handsome encoding of this Big Sky modern western comedy, filmed in Sedona and the Coconino National Forest, where the rocks are red and the high meadows are strewn with the photogenic remains of old trees. The sound is fine, with Jeff Alexander’s music score hitting most of the right moods. Just ignore the cues described by the subtitles as ‘groovy rock ‘n’ roll.’
Peter Ford says that the film came out on the bottom half of a double bill, just like Robert E. Lyons’ other two MGM pictures. The studio apparently felt the need to make westerns despite having zero faith in their box office appeal. All three were well reviewed. The Rounders was for quite a while the best known, until the Peckinpah fans canonized Ride the High Country.
The one extra is the trailer, which stresses the ‘outrageous sex angle.’ This was the year of What’s New Pussycat, and it’s too bad that Kennedy couldn’t figure out a way to make his cowboys’ love lives a little more female-friendly. Ironically, the next time I saw a film that concentrated on lonely cowboys working up in the remote hills for months at time, it was Brokeback Mountain.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Supplements: Original Trailer
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 20, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson