Thursday, September 3, 2015

James Stewart Leads a Fools' Parade

James Stewart behind "bars" in Fools' Parade.
James Stewart's career in the 1960s and 1970s consisted largely of paternal roles, Westerns, and occasional supporting parts. There were some notable exceptions in the 1960s, specifically The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and The Flight of the Phoenix (1965). His final starring role in a theatrical film was in Fools' Parade (1971) and, though it pales next to his classics, it's a respectable way to close out an incredible career as a leading man.

Set in West Virginia in 1935, the film focuses on three men released from the Glory State Penitentiary. Mattie Appleyard, the trio's leader, spent 40 years in prison for killing three men (in self defense as we later learn). Mattie's hard labor as an inmate has earned him $25,000, which he and his friends plan to use to open a general store. Unfortunately, a local banker (who has embezzled Mattie's money) and an abusive prison guard plan to kill the ex-cons.

The film was later retitled, presumably
to make it sound more exciting.
Director Andrew McLaglen worked frequently in the 1960s with Stewart (Shenandoah, The Rare Breed, Bandolero!) and John Wayne (Hellfighters, McLintok!). Considering his propensity to specialize in Westerns and action films, he seems like an odd choice for Fools' Parade, which is essentially a character study of a "family" comprised of the three ex-cons. However, he quietly lets his actors carry the film, a smart decision considering they are its biggest asset. McLaglen also nicely captures the time period, his camera lingering on homeless men as the train speeds through the gray West Virginia mountains.

James Stewart is in fine form as the rational leader of the group. Kurt Russell, who was still starring in Disney comedies, gives a likable performance as the youngest and most naive of the ex-cons. However, acting honors go to Strother Martin, who may even be better here than he was in his most famous role as the Captain in Cool Hand Luke (1967). His character has survived prison by thinking about the store they plan to open--to the point that he carries around a book to jot down notes about future inventory (e.g., if a bottle of bourbon was tasty, he notes the brand).

A lobby card showing Anne Baxter, Russell, Martin, and Stewart.
Unfortunately, the film's villains are no more than caricatures not worthy of our protagonists. Martin's Cool Hand Luke co-star George Kennedy overplays his nasty prison guard as a religious zealot. Ditto for David Huddleston as the greedy banker. (William Windom and Anne Baxter, though, bolster the proceedings in their brief scenes.)

As I was watching Fools' Parade, I couldn't help but think about the challenges of making a film set in the Great Depression for 1971 movie-goers. For example, there's no way that Mattie could have made $25,000 during his 40 years of hard labor. To put it in perspective, $25,000 in 1935 equates to over $400,000 today. It's more likely that Mattie's savings would have been much less. So, I can see the dilemma faced by the script writers. Would the audiences of 1971 have accepted the villains murdering the convicts for an a more realistic amount, as low as maybe $8,000?

Fools' Parade will never be listed among James Stewart's best films. Yet, it's definitely worth a look so you can relish one last star turn from Stewart, plus Strother Martin in a signature role, and Kurt Russell showing the appeal that would make him a reliable star that's still making films today.

3 comments:

  1. Your absolutely correct. Not a great film, but the cast makes up for the flaws. Recently saw the film on Movieplex channel. Many good memories of this film. 1st saw it at the local drive inwhen it was released.

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  2. This does sound like it's worth a look, despite the unbelievable salary the cons supposedly earned/saved. Stewart is always good, even if the film isn't.

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  3. It may not be found on lists of favorite films, but "Fools' Parade" is quite watchable. Thanks for sharing another lesser known work, Rick! It helps whet the whistle of classic film enthusiasts.

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