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Film review--Hearts of the West (1975)

Hearts of the West was part of a wave of Hollywood nostalgia pictures in the 70s that generally could be divided into two camps. There were the heart-on-the-sleeve reminiscences that harken back to self-reflexive silents like The Extra Girl and Show People. This type would include The World’s Greatest Lover, Movie Movie, and Nickelodeon. Then there were the films whose ancestry was Sunset Blvd., grim pictures dwelling on false idols and degradation. Day of the Locust and Inserts would fall into this category. Rob Thompson, the screenwriter of Hearts of the West, puts his film in the former category, citing countless hours of watching ‘B’ Westerns on TV and thumbing through Kalton Lahue’s book about the early cowboy stars of the screen, Winners of the West, as inspiration for the film. Accordingly, the film drifts by like a cozy evening at home. It’s a fine movie, but the heart is a muscle and this one could have used some healthy stress.

To illustrate, consider a poignant vignette in 1932’s Hollywood tragicomedy Make Me a Star: Stuart Erwin plays a Midwestern rube who escapes the confines of his provincial hometown in a hopelessly naïve attempt to star in Hollywood Westerns. Joan Blondell’s character works as a low-tier actress in Keystone-style “cross-eyed” comedies for Majestic Studios. Taking pity on this bumpkin with laughably amateurish 8x10 glossies and a correspondence school degree, she gets him a bit part in a Buck Benson oater. Erwin’s direction consists of presenting a letter to his gang and saying, “Hey boys, here’s something funny.” With each take, this simple act gets mangled beyond recognition. The “something funny” ironically twists into a moment of humiliation. Buck Benson stares on coolly, Blondell looks on with growing concern. The director’s frustration mounts until he gives up and breaks for lunch. Erwin is told not to return. Blondell quietly slinks off. Alone on the set, Erwin goes through the take one more time, hits his marks, and delivers the line perfectly.

This scene is quintessential early Hollywood. Watched in or out of context, it is like a finely honed movement of a watch; the script, direction, and performance are expertly coordinated. It plays off archetypes from the era of mass media—the earnest rural boy, the savvy yet sweet cosmopolitan girl, the aloof movie star, and the mercurial director—in a way that is both concise and emotionally charged. The Hollywood factory was running with maximum efficiency by 1932 and this scene is a prime example of the product. The fact that this impeccable scene is about a dysfunctional movie set is the tart cherry on top. But above all, the scene taps into a universal fear of choking at the big moment. There is palpable anguish.

Make Me a Star’s lineage extends from the 1922 novel Merton of the Movies by Harry Leon Wilson, a stage play by George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly, a 1924 picture, and Red Skelton’s take on the role in 1947. A case could be made that Hearts of the West from 1975 continued the tradition. Judge and jury can decide if this is a case of misdemeanor intellectual theft or if by the mid-70s Merton’s tale was a part of our collective unconsciousness, a public domain story to be disseminated without express written consent. The story is remarkably similar. Lewis Tater (Jeff Bridges) has one goal in life: to write Western stories. He leaves his American Gothic-looking parents and his idiot brothers in Iowa to go to Nevada where a shady writer’s correspondence school is located. Expecting a campus, he instead finds nothing more than a Post Office Box. After a series of tumultuous events with the criminal heads of the fraudulent school he stumbles upon the set of a Western being filmed by Tumbleweed Productions. He follows the ragtag group of grizzled bit players. Confident beyond his accomplishments, Tater eventually wills himself into a cowboy star and finds himself in a position to sell his book, “Hearts of the West.”

While it does suffer in comparison to similar movies of the past, Hearts of the West still has outstanding qualities. Bridges is perfectly suited for the character, his incessant writerly narration of events as they unfold is hilarious. He floridly calls the desert “the barren waste.” Upon casting eyes on the ocean, he stops and with the utmost gravitas intones: “The vast Pacific.” The secondary roles are richly filled by Blythe Danner and Andy Griffith (who delivers perhaps the film’s best line, “When someone else says you’re a writer that’s when you’re a writer.”). Herb Edelman, Alan Arkin, and Donald Pleasence are too good for their small roles as jaded studio men. The three are listed here in ascending order of sheer insanity. Marie Windsor makes an enormous impression in a tiny role as a weary hotel owner. Similarly, Candy Azzara leaps off the screen as a cute, Blondell-esque diner waitress. Anthony Holland has about 60 seconds of screen time to flamboyantly opine on lox vs. sturgeon, von Sternberg vs. Dietrich, and a new “white diet” which only allows one to eat things that are white. These roles are frustratingly slight but give the film ample reason for revisiting.

I would be interested to know what others think of the verisimilitude of the 1930s films (including a Vitaphone-style musical short) recreated in Hearts of the West. They felt off to me in ways that are hard to exactly pin down. However, my overall impression of Hearts is more immediately clear, especially when compared to Make Me a Star. To put it in film collector terms, it’s a slightly soft dupe of a pristine original.

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