Posted in: by Richard T. Jameson, Contributors, Film Reviews

Hearts of the West

Hearts of the West will be shown on Turner Classic Movies this coming Friday, Nov. 4, at 9 a.m. West Coast time, 12 noon Eastern. Here’s the program note from the “Marvelous Modern Scripts” screening. —RTJ

There isn’t really a whole lot that needs to be teased out of Hearts of the West. It’s a pleasant film—from its opening 1.33:1 masking of the old monochrome MGM logo, a movie full of affection for the absurdities, inanities, and tacky pleasures of El Cheapo filmmaking and fictionmaking. Its gentle teasing of would-be writers steeped in formulae and short on living experience is readily apparent. Offsetting this is our pleasurable awareness that “The Kid” Lewis Tater writes about and the enthusiastic “kid” that he is probably both reflect aspects of the local kid—Rob Thompson of Bothell—whose first script this was. He took it to Hollywood and a couple of days later he had sold it to producer Tony Bill, who happened to be having an afternoon drink in the same bar where Thompson and a mutual friend were sitting. The rest is history, of a sort: Hearts of the West got made to the satisfaction of those involved, critics and film festival audiences warmed to it, MGM gave it the wrong ad campaign, and mostly people didn’t go to see it. A lost masterpiece it’s not; a nice movie to make the acquaintance of, it remains.

A good deal of the charm in Thompson’s script inheres in the way that Hearts of the West starts out as if it will be a picaresque tale and then settles into narrowly defined, almost homely orbits. The Hollywood people who make up the professional family of Tumbleweed Productions do about the same things and go to basically the same places. The Rio Café is not only the starting point of the search by the two shady characters on Lewis’s trail, but also the unofficial lunchroom and catering service for the company, a corporate hall of memory and a place where someone just starting out in town can scrape together a living by bussing tables and washing dishes. Not that much separates someone who is just starting out at Tumbleweed and someone who is serving time at Tumbleweed on the downswing from a more exalted career. The side wall of the Rio sports a billboard for MGM’s Anna Christie (which would peg the vintage of our story at 1930); Garbo, Metro, and Eugene O’Neill are at the other end of the socioaesthetic order from the ex–Billy Pueblo, Tumbleweed, and Zane Grey, but in the last analysis they seek to validate themselves in the same currency of illusionism: “Garbo Talks!” and “This is talkin’ pictures—this is the real thing.” Hearts of the West, with its hero toting a novel entitled Hearts of the West, proposes its own validation as Lewis Tater is wheeled away musing “This [what’s happened to me] could make a hell of a story,” and seeks to cap its own funky legend by having a bystander ask, “Who is that kid?” Well, he could hardly say, “Who was that masked man?…”

Hearts of the West was among the first features directed by Howard Zieff , the man responsible for one of the rare classy series of TV commercials people actually looked forward to seeing—the Alka-Seltzer campaign. Like those commercials, his films tend to achieve their most distinctive moments when the camera just sits and watches an agreeably offcenter kind of comedy percolate out of a slightly preposterous human specimen. I have never watched the film a second time, but I still remember the opening of Slither, a dark screen from which emanated the voice of Richard B. Shull singing “Happy Days Are Here Again”; scene lightens to reveal Shull, with light suit and face equally rumpled, and then—camera pulling out slightly—James Caan sitting alongside, equally embarrassed, bewildered, and indulgent toward this guy who insists on singing to him as they share a seat on a public conveyance (bus? railroad car?). This tolerant, satiric, and ever so slightly bent predilection for oddball behavior merges effectively with Thompson’s looking-back/climbing-aboard attitude toward the movie business itself. By Thompson’s own testimony, many of the bits of character business, occupational detail, and period music that decorate and build bridges between the major sequences of the film/script are Zieff’s invention.

Marvelous Modern Scripts, October 29, 1980

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1975. Directed by Howard Zieff. Screenplay: Rob Thompson. Cinematography (Metrocolor): Mario Tosi. Art direction: Robert Luthardt. Editing: Edward Warschinka. Music: Ken Lauber. Produced by Tony Bill. (102 minutes)
The players:  Jeff Bridges (Lewis Tater), Blythe Danner (Trouty), Andy Griffith (Howard Pike), Alan Arkin (Kessler); Richard B. Shull, Anthony James (the crooks); Matt Clark (Jackson), Raymond Guth (Wally), Burton Gilliarn (Sam), Alex Rocco (assistant director), Woodrow Parfrey (Gates), Donald Pleasence (A.J. Nietz), Herb Edelman (Polo, Nietz’s cousin), Candace Azzara (waitress), Anthony Holland (Larry, guest at brunch), Frank Cady (Lewis’s father), Dub Taylor (postal clerk), Marie Windsor (hotelkeeper), Thayer David, William Christopher (bank officers).