View from the Cheap Seats

More From the Cheap Seats: Jonathan Winters, Major Dundee and Oblivion

May 02, 2013 - 10:06 am   |   By 

I see now, somewhere in that great beyond, a randy, bewigged Maude Frickert chasing after a younger farm hand of hers with salacious activities on her mind, or Elwood P. Suggins screaming to his wife regarding the landing of a flying saucer “Don’t run, Martha, that’s what they want you to do!” or spoiled brat Chester Honehyhugger crying to his parents that “sissy has Spotty the dog, so I want a kitty,” or the Hollywood stuntman who had his head “completely turned around on his shoulders 13 times,” or the country songwriter who just penned a song for Pat Boone entitled “I’m On a Chartered Bus Going Nowhere” or any one of thousands of regular Americans whose personalities and extreme behaviors all came from the mind of, in my humble opinion, the greatest humorist of my time – Jonathan Winters.

I’m sure there are also sound effects galore, from a flying saucer landing, to a German Shepard barking, to a bullfrog belching to a an Indian arrow being shot at an unaware cowboy.

Jonathan Winters will never really be gone – even in the past several years he recorded a terrific new comedy album to add to the many he has released, many on the old Verve label, plus his appearances on such television programs as The Tonight Show and The Dean Martin Show are surely preserved for DVD release, however, with Jonathan, you always wanted more, as it was a very safe bet that almost anything that came out of his mouth was not only funny, it was quite possibly going to be the funniest thing you ever heard in your life. 

I was raised on the humor of Jonathan Winters.  My parents had records and he would be on TV pretty consistently – I think he even had his own CBS show on Saturday nights then – and then, about ten years ago, I got to meet him.

I was in L.A. when I saw that Ray Courts, who I had met through Dale Robertson, was hosting an autograph show at the Beverly Garland in Burbank.  I popped by and Ray showed me the list of who was attending the next day, Jonathan’s name, ending with a “W” was the last on the list.

“Is he really coming for sure?,” I asked Ray, because I couldn’t stand the thought of being so close and him not show.

“You never know with Jonathan,” he said.  “He really wakes up in a new world every day.”

I couldn’t sleep that night and was at the show as early as possible the next day and there he was goofing around with Fred “The Hammer” Williamson.  I stayed and watched him in the background all day and it was as though he was in the guest chair on Johnny Carson – he was never “off” and absolutely made me howl.  Finally, I got the nerve to introduce myself and when I told him I was from Oklahoma , he immediately, of course, mentioned Will Rogers, then made a quite obscene play on the phrase “Never met a man I didn’t like.”  It was a wonderful day.  And, of course, I didn’t have a camera.

If you think about, Jonathan Winters was perhaps the sweetest comedian American ever produced.  Unlike many comics, Winters didn’t come from a place of anger.  When Maude Frickert, as a kindergarten teacher, is hit by a clay bunny thrown at her by a young student – her reply was. “Normally, I’d throw that back at you (pause) and, what the heck, I think I’ll do it anyway.”

I’m no National Enquirer, but I heard one too juicy to pass up, from a very highly regarded film producer in L.A… while Tom Hanks is currently on Broadway, his agents are desperately trying to find him a next project.  It seems nobody will hire him.  After Larry Crowne and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, I don’t know that I would either.  I trust this rumor 1,000 percent.

 

On Video

Out of all the fabulous product that has found their way out of the secret labs at Twilight Time Home Video, and that includes such DVD and Blu-ray finds as The Kremlin Letter, Lost Horizon and Violent Saturday, maybe the most important is their newest release, Major Dundee, Sam Peckinpah’s follow up to Ride the High Country and a lead in to The Wild Bunch.Twilight Time's Major Dundee Blu-ray

This package, which includes Blu-ray versions of the original cut, and who knows what that really means, and a restored version with 11 extra minutes of the original cut that is probably the closest we’ll ever come to a cohesive version of this film.  It’s like The Magnificent Ambersons and other ‘what could have beens” – the movie is most certainly a mere shadow of what it could have been, however, it’s still better than 90% of what was released as adult westerns at the time.

I’m beginning to maybe re-think Charlton Heston as an actor and as a fighter for the right causes – he fought for both Orson Welles in Touch of Evil and Peckinpah here, even relinquishing his salary in order to better the picture. 

As for Peckinpah, Major Dundee follows all but a few of his pictures in that someone other than the great director finished what had been started.  Peckinpah himself, speaking in “Peckinpah, the Western Films,” by Paul Seydor, said Major Dundee was the “story of the making of a great officer.”  Seydor himself says that Major Dundee and Pike Bishop, William Holden in The Wild Bunch, are “both someone triumphing over failure to become the man he imagines himself to be.”

 Our final word on Major Dundee comes from my movie mentor Dr. Jerry Holt, himself a Peckinpah scholar –

“Only he who has failed greatly can achieve greatly,” Herman Melville said – and Sam Peckinpah’s 1965 film Major Dundee may indeed prove Melville’s words.  It seems to be the trial-by-fire the director had to go through to get to make his greatest achievement – The Wild Bunch (1969). 

Indeed, Dundee has many elements that will carry to the later film – questions of loyalty and honor are at its core; the relationship between Dundee and Tyreen is an earlier version of the more excruciating one between Pike Bishop and Deke Thornton – and of course the entire theme of keeping a fraying bunch together in the heat of action looms large in both films. 

We will never know what Dundee might have been, because Peckinpah lost control of the project – and largely due to his own abrasiveness.  The popular notion of Peckinpah as renegade director vying with pompous studio shirts is now an important part of his legacy – but part of that is a Print the Legend matter. 

I interviewed Charlton Heston in Oklahoma City during the early 80s, and though the actor was still devoted to Peckinpah’s obvious genius, he was less impressed with the director’s own ability to hold a ragtag bunch in the form of a movie company in Mexico together.  “Too many fits; too much ego,” he said.  But again – perhaps the best way to measure the Dundee experience is to look at the tightly controlled film that is The Wild Bunch.  There were studio battles on that one, too – but there is no doubt about the result: The Wild Bunch is the most auteur of American films – every frame says Directed by Sam Peckinpah.  Few of his contemporaries – perhaps Altman or Malick – could say as much.  If Dundee was the price to pay for The Wild Bunch, it was well worth it.

Go to screenarchives.com and get your copy now, before the 3,000 unit limit runs out!

Recently, a Las Vegas Sun poll listed the top 20 entertainers in Sin City and number one was, mild surprise, Liberace and a new DVD Everything’s Liberace from Timeless Media includes shows taped before a live audiences in London in the 1960s. Also in this set are guests George Gobel, Minnie Pearl, Eva Gabor, Jack Benny, Larry Storch and many more.

 

In Theaters

Cinemark Theaters is currently offering a truly once in a lifetime chance to experience legendary films that haven’t been first run in theaters for many years.  Called “Cinemark Classics,” these play exclusively in Cinemark theaters every Wednesday, with showings at 2:00 and 7:00 p.m. Throughout the month of May, the chain will be showing The Graduate on the 1st, Alien on the 8th and Blazing Saddles on the 15th.  I recently took a neophyte to a screening of The Godfather at our local Tinseltown theater and was blown away both by the quality of the picture (in their Cinemark XD) and the classic film buffs who all stayed around afterward to discuss the picture.  Go to cinemark.com for more information.

 

Oblivion

As one sits through the sonorous new sci-fi film Oblivion, waiting with hopeful heart for one original thought or character to make in appearance, it becomes obvious that Tom Cruise has lost any respect he ever had with his audience, who, by now, won’t accept him in any other part than a one dimensional man of action.  Could you really imagine, at this point in his career, Tom Cruise as an everyman fighting city hall, as a husband, as a father?  Not happening and probably won’t ever again, and so, if he’s any kind of actor at all, he has to feel like he’s getting the short end of the stick and, hence, he makes ridiculous movies like Oblivion.

Screen shot from Oblivion

Thank goodness it’s my policy to never do a plot rehash when I review a movie, because I couldn’t describe this one using semaphores.  He’s with a lady and their on a planet and water is being used for energy on another planet and Morgan Freeman and Melissa Leo are disastrously wasted and then there’s somewhat of a plot twist that anyone who has seen every science fiction movie since, er Blade Runner, can see coming from a mile away and then, thankfully, mercifully, it’s over.

I would be interested in seeing who all had their fingerprints on the script for Oblivion,  (here’s a statement that won’t be heard in Hollywood for a long time – “Our first choice for this part is Tom Cruise!”) – after Pee Wee Herman turned it down, producers finally said “Let’s get the midget!”

- Bud Elder

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In 50 years or so, the @Criterion edition of The Interview will make a nice bookend with The Great Dictator.

by Adam Jahnke