"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Let's revive "Texas Across the River"

Mention the movie "Texas Across the River" and you might not get an immediate reaction. The name might not register. But if you're speaking with a boomer like me, you might get a glint of recognition by reminding of some movie details.
This is a movie that to my knowledge hasn't turned up on cable TV in the modern era. Which is surprising, given this movie was a staple of the prime time fare of broadcast TV once. As schoolkids we'd laugh the next day after a showing, by reminding each other of certain scenes.
I'm a mid-boomer. The movie of which I speak was made in 1966. Get some of the Monkees' hits playing in your head. On a sad note, remember that the Viet Nam War was escalating.
How ironic we could have such fun movies turned out, including those featuring Don Knotts, when being a kid in the U.S. had such a cloud hanging over it (the draft).
Our society was struggling in other ways. Women's liberation hadn't arrived yet. Racial sensitivity was far from having been attained.
Guys my age can remember female elementary teachers who were quite brilliant. Those same women today could more readily find better careers. We were fortunate.
Unenlightened as our society could be, we still knew how to laugh. "Texas Across the River" is an escapist gem that appears to have slid into the dustbin. And it's pretty obvious why. Although I find the movie innocent, there are qualities that one might judge politically incorrect. Well, they are politically incorrect but I sense no sinister intent by the creators.
How do I know this? I just do. It's just intuition.
It's the same intuition that allowed me to laugh at Johnny Carson's "Aunt Blabby" character. It just seemed benign to be. I loved the way "dear sweet lovable. . .old Aunt Blabby" would ogle Ed McMahon. She wielded her cane in an absent-minded way. But I didn't see the character in a disturbing or disrespectful way.
It's intuition, the same intuition that makes me remember most fondly that cinema release "Texas Across the River."
If it still doesn't register with you, I'll toss out two of the prime stars: Dean Martin and Joey Bishop. "Dean-o!" A "rat pack" man. Those were still the "Mad Men" days, weren't they?
"Texas Across the River" has references to Native Americans that would cause some to bristle today. I would argue this movie was a total parody that seized on elements of the traditional western with no holds barred.
The Indians are incredibly funny. They are Comanches, a tribe referenced in a way that automatically induces fear. "We're crossing Comanche territory." But the Comanches in this movie aren't blood-curdling. They only have the outward appearance of being menacing (and that's barely). Really it seems they're just a bunch of white guys dressed up as Indians, which in my mind contributes to the humor. It's like kids dressing up for Halloween. They copy what they see on the movie screen.
Stereotypes. So what? It's just plain funny.
The Indians in the movie seem lovable. They only go through the motions of "fighting." (We hear calliope music when they're about to behave in an absurd way.)
The chief, named "Iron Shirt" (played by Michael Ansara), is trying to groom his son for future leadership. The son is hopeless, showing incompetence at every juncture. Every time this is revealed, the camera pans over to a couple of average-Joe Indians who turn to each other and roll their eyes. This is a running gag.
Us kids loved the scene where the chief lets out a shriek as instructions to his reluctant warriors, only the shriek is actually a horse whinny (a real horse whinny, dubbed in).
An Indian shoots a flaming arrow on top of the schoolhouse causing school to be let out and the kids to show reverie. You think us kids didn't find that funny?
I asked my boss at the Morris newspaper once, Jim Morrison, if he remembered this movie. I tried him with just the name. He paused, smiled and then said "harrar-hare." He remembered vividly!
"Harrar-hare" was the voice signal that cavalry leader Peter Graves gave constantly to his men, regardless of what he wanted them to do. It was pure parody on the old western movie where cavalry leaders behaved in such a fashion. They'd raise an arm and intone "harrar-hare!"
Morrison is a mid-boomer like me. The only way we can re-capture the fun of that movie, it seems, is to obtain it on tape or DVD. I had a friend order the VHS tape for me several years ago. We watched it in his living room. We were able to anticipate so much of the humor, despite the time having gone by.
I'm sure Hollywood is very nervous about how far "political correctness" could go in wiping away certain movies from current awareness. Do you remember what happened to the Charlie Chan movies? The big mistake was a cable movie channel planning a "Charlie Chan Marathon." This kindled the issue of ethnic sensitivity. The Chan franchise may have been practically wiped from the map. Will cable TV touch it anymore?
Old westerns in general could be endangered, such is the way Native Americans can be portrayed. Many old comedies showed African Americans as being easy to scare, as with strange sounds in a house or fear of ghosts. Their eyes might bug out and they'd take off running.
We need to view a lot of this stuff in context, realizing such fare could never get released today. Only the most egregious offenders should probably be censored.
"Texas Across the River" has some lines that could make you wince. There are also some lines of the misogynistic kind. But this movie is not an egregious offender. It plays on imagery of the old westerns, plain and simple. Its purpose is to have fun.
"Blazing Saddles" was a parody too but not the same kind. The Mel Brooks movie from the mid-1970s did satire in a way as to reject the original model entirely. It skewered westerns in a mocking way. Boomers of the mid-1970s went through a cynical phase - we ate it up. "Young Frankenstein" skewered monster movies.
Us boomers yawned at convention. We're past that now of course.
"Texas Across the River" was a leap into unbridled fun. Maybe Native Americans should appreciate that the Comanches were shown as mere fun-loving types. Joey Bishop is a "Kronkua" Indian which is a passive tribe. Asked to read smoke signals, he says he can't because they're in a different language.
Rosemary Forsyth plays Phoebe Ann Naylor, the most feminine sought-after belle of the South. The setting is 1845 Louisiana. People in trouble might want to escape to Texas, not yet a state. Phoebe Ann is set to marry Don Andrea Baldazar, played by Alain Delon. On comes a U.S. Dragoons troop led by the Graves character.
We remember Graves generating laughs in the later "Airplane!" movie. This was not comic acting. Performers like Graves and Leslie Nielsen learned to do their standard stiff leading man routine only with comic lines fed to them. This we see with Graves in "Texas Across the River."
The wedding is broken up over a dispute over who Phoebe Ann was going to marry. Baldazar gets falsely accused of murder. He flees to Texas where he meets up with Martin and Bishop who are gun-runners for a Texas settlement, "Moccasin Flats."
Martin calls Baldazar "Baldy." Impressed with his gun ability, Martin (as "Sam Hollis") enlists "Baldy." Phoebe Ann heads in the same direction, as she is supposed to "lay low" for a while.
We get a love triangle. A young attractive Indian woman comes along too. She is not the bumbling type of Indian. She may be the hero of the whole story. She and Phoebe Ann work at the end to straighten everyone out. The men are vain and error-prone.
"Loneta" the Indian woman has a secret about how to tame longhorn cattle. The story is quite interesting with lots of twists. Martin shows his laid-back acting style. It looks easy but of course isn't. Talented performers can make their work look easy.
Martin's character has a "rascally" manner. A critic described him as "the very image of the anti-hero."
Martin as Hollis is steadfast in his mission while observing the hilarious antics of others. Sight gags abound. Martin and Bishop have very effective chemistry. A critic wrote of this movie that "It's not politically correct, but that's OK as just about everyone is equally made fun of."
That statement is totally accurate. But it's not enough, I suspect, to persuade the powers that be that this flick should get on TV again. It sits there as a museum piece next to the rat pack. It's a shame.
The Kingston Trio sings the theme song. 
"Texas Across the River" should move forward into the public consciousness again, perhaps with the command "harrar-hare!"
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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