Seldom has more high-class talent gone for so little. The fact is, director Gene Kelly and stars James Stewart and Henry Fonda were winding down their careers in 1970 when they made "The Cheyenne Social Club," and the results sometimes seem more than a little tired. Still, it's good to see these old pros in action, and there is no denying that Stewart and Fonda make an appealing, genial team.
I wondered as I watched the film if scriptwriter James Lee Barrett ("The Greatest Story Ever Told," "Shenandoah," "The Green Berets," "Smokey and the Bandit") had "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" in mind, the buddy movie that had been such a big hit the year before, when he wrote his story. Certainly, "The Cheyenne Social Club" has a lot more going for it than the dreary film Stewart and Fonda made together several years earlier, "Firecreek," which the disc includes on the flip side of this Warner Bros. Western Double Feature.
In "The Cheyenne Social Club" Stewart and Fonda make a droll pair of pals. They're a couple of easygoing Texas cowpokes of the 1880s or so, John O'Hanlan and Harley Sullivan, who have been riding together for the past ten years. Stewart as O'Hanlan is the strong, silent type; Fonda as Sullivan can't keep still. After a decade, O'Hanlan finally tells Sullivan to stop talking. Things change for them when O'Hanlan receives a letter informing him that his brother, J.D., has died and left him some property in Cheyenne, Wyoming. The letter does not specify exactly what he has inherited, but John is pleased that for the first time in his life he will be "a man of property."
So off goes O'Hanlan to Wyoming, with Sullivan tagging along because it's what the two have been doing for years, just hanging around with each other. Imagine O'Hanlan's surprise when he reaches Cheyenne and discovers he's the new owner of the town's major institution, "a historical monument." Lodged in a mansion on the edge of town, it's the Cheyenne Social Club: A bordello.
It is, in fact, a ritzy brothel, a high-class whorehouse where J.D. personally handpicked all the young ladies himself. It's run by Jenny (Shirley Jones), the ritziest, and loveliest, madam in the business. The women of the house welcome O'Hanlan with open arms, and Sullivan, too, which isn't a bad deal; while the townspeople of Cheyenne, mainly the men, welcome O'Hanlan as one of their own. Unfortunately, O'Hanlan does not see things the way everyone else does. He's rather a prudish sort and has no intention of running a house of ill repute. The movie spends most of its time detailing his attempts to shut down the place and turn it into a boarding house. At that point everyone turns against him. "Harley," he explains to his friend, "you'd think I was closing down the Alamo."
Once the movie sets up its premise, there isn't much left. The script is long on charming repartee but short on characterization, plot development, or action. What we're left with is listening to Stewart and Fonda verbally interact, which is actually not such a bad idea, but at 102 minutes even these old pros have a hard time of it.
When the movie opens, the two men are riding along, Fonda singing a slow ballad called "Rolling Stone" in an easy drawl, and it quickly sets the tone for the rest of the movie. When O'Hanlan receives his inheritance, he gets $1,100.05 along with the house. "Harley," he says, "do you know what I can do with this much money?" Harley responds, "We passed some nice-lookin' saloons." Then, when John realizes he's become a businessman, he decides to become a Republican, too. Harley reminds him that he's always voted Democrat, but John tells him that was "back when I didn't know any better."
A minor conflict develops toward the end of the movie that generates a modicum of tension and excitement, but it isn't much. And as a director, Kelly, who spent most of his time in front of the camera, not behind it, does little more than point his lens in the direction of the actors and hope for the best. "The Cheyenne Social Club" is undoubtedly winsome and cute. Maybe a little too cute.
The dimensions for "The Cheyenne Social Club" approximate its original, 2.40:1 Panavision aspect ratio, rendered across my screen at about 2.20:1. The anamorphic picture quality is not the best delineated I've seen, though; it's kind of soft and fuzzy, actually. It's not awful, mind you; it just doesn't have those crisply defined edges one finds in WB's best transfers, despite a reasonably high bit rate. The print is good shape, though, showing very few signs of transfer noise and fairly natural Technicolor hues. Surprisingly, perhaps, the disc's older companion film, "Firecreek," found on the reverse side of the disc, displays better video characteristics, with deeper black levels and richer colors. Both films make their widescreen video debuts on this disc.
There is generally little one can say about older monaural soundtracks unless the film's original audio engineers took special care to ensure a wide dynamic range, and the studio engineers took the care to maintain it. Most of the time this doesn't happen, however, as is the case here. We get pretty ordinary sound, processed in Dolby Digital 1.0. The audio is quiet, with a decent high end and a well-balanced midrange. Nevertheless, the lowest frequencies and the overall impact are rather lacking.
The primary extra on this Warner Bros. Western Double Feature is the 1967 movie, "Firecreek," also starring Stewart and Fonda. But this time, they're adversaries in an unrelentingly downbeat combination of "High Noon" and "The Wild One." The two movies make a fascinating contrast in tone and character, but if I had to choose one over the other, it would most certainly be "The Cheyenne Social Club." And, as I say, they're both in widescreen.
In addition, side one includes a vintage, behind-the-scenes promo for "The Cheyenne Social Club" called "The Good Time Girls," about six minutes long. Then there are twenty-eight scene selections for each movie; widescreen theatrical trailers for each (the "Firecreek" trailer being wider); English and French spoken languages; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
There is no mistaking the honest tone of "The Cheyenne Social Club"; you can see that everyone involved with the project wanted to make something light and frothy and easy to digest. Unfortunately, beyond the pleasant banter between Stewart and Fonda and the sight of a number of pretty girls, there isn't much of a movie. And it's just a little too obviously contrived for its own good, from beginning to end. Nonetheless, it's got a charisma of its own, and regardless of its subject matter, it's non-offensive. The film is easy to criticize but hard to fault, if you know what I mean.
Warner Bros. have made "The Cheyenne Social Club" and "Fire Creek" double feature available individually or in the box set "James Stewart: The Signature Collection," where you will also find "The Spirit of St. Louis," "The FBI Story," "The Stratton Story," and "The Naked Spur."