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The Cheyenne Social Club/Fire Creek

The James Stewart Signature Collection

There could hardly be two westerns different than Cheyenne Social Club (1970) and Firecreek (1968) — one's an acerbic, silly comedy (directed by Gene Kelly!) about cowboys who inherit a brothel, and the other's a downbeat character piece about two aging gunmen on opposite sides of the law. What they share are terrific performances by Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda, two of the greatest purveyors of naturalistic acting in cinema. Friends since their college days at Princeton, Fonda and Stewart were roommates in New York while breaking into acting, and later lived together when they started out in Hollywood (acquiring a reputation as womanizers in the process). One intriguing aspect of their friendship is gently parodied in Cheyenne Social Club when Stewart's character, John O'Hanlon, tells his old pal Harley Sullivan (Fonda) that he plans to close the whorehouse and open a "solid, respectable Republican business — that's what makes America, Harley":

Harley: My folks were Democrats, John.
John: And look where it got you. A lifetime on the range, and sweatin' in the summer, and freezin' the winter, and sleepin' on the ground, and fightin' wolves and the rattlesnakes. No, no, Harley, there can't be a finer calling in the whole world than being a Republican businessman.
Harley: I don't like to dispute you, John, but didn't you always vote Democratic?
John: Well, that was when I didn't know any better. (pause) Harley, I want you to do me a favor. Don't tell anybody here in Cheyenne I ever voted Democratic. You'll do that for me, won't you?
Harley: If you say so. You don't mind if I still vote Democratic, do you?
John: Just so long as you're not seen with me when you do it. It's be bad for business.

Stewart, a conservative Republican, and Fonda, a liberal Democrat, maintained their lifelong friendship because, as Stewart told an interviewer in 1983, "Fifty years ago we agreed not to discuss politics." They shared an ability to enjoy lengthy careers as movie stars while turning out work that was among the most diverse and delicately crafted in American film. Cheyenne Social Club, a silly, rambunctious movie, is a testament to both their friendship and their professionalism. Made while Stewart was mourning the death of his son who was killed while serving in Vietnam, the only indication that Stewart's heart might not be completely in the project is how tired he sometimes looks. Otherwise, it appears that the two friends had a terrific time making the picture. The film's a lot of fun, despite running out of plot once the premise is established. John, something of a prude, wants to close the brothel but is thwarted at every turn — the locals don't support him, the ladies of the house are angry that he's kicking them to the curb, and it turns out that the house sits on a railroad easement only on the condition that the Social Club remain open. The film's enjoyable for the delightful dialogue, the repartee between Fonda and Stewart, and the gorgeous women — led by Shirley Jones — running around in corsets and bloomers. Great cinema, it's not, but it's pleasant entertainment.

Firecreek, offered on the disc's flip side, is almost the polar opposite of Cheyenne Social Club. Stewart plays Johnny Cobb, a peaceful family man and part-time sheriff who's spurred to action when a quintet of bad guys terrorize his town. What places the picture a cut above the many, many films that have covered this same theme is the complexity of the characters — Fonda's lawman is devoted to his pregnant wife and two children, and wants nothing to do with trouble — but when pushed to his limit, his fury is devastating. Fonda, as the outlaw leader, is essentially a good man on the wrong side of the law, whose gang shoots up the town and wreaks havoc while he's dallying with his lovely landlady (Inger Stevens), forcing him to try and clean up the mess. Firecreek, directed by television veteran Vincent McEveety, is ambitious in its attempt to portray the men as two opposing forces who embody both light and darkness, but the film as a whole never quite achieves the greatness to which it aspires. Fonda and Stewart are both excellent, of course, and the cast is studded with familiar Western character actors like Dean Jagger, Jack Elam, Ed Begley and James Best. But the uninspired dialogue drags down the so-so plot, and the ending, while effective, is blatantly stolen from High Noon (1952), making it a picture that's interesting for the two stars and little else.

*          *          *

Warner's two-sided DVD offers very clean, bright anamorphic transfers (2.40:1), retaining the original Panavision aspect ratio of both films. The Cheyenne Social Club transfer is a little soft — surprisingly, the little-seen Firecreek fares better, extremely sharp and crisp, with excellent color. The DD 1.0 audio (English or French, with optional English, French and Spanish subtitles) is fine, clean, and clear, but suffering from the usual drawbacks of monaural sound. A short promo piece, "The Good Time Girls" (4 min.), is offered with Cheyenne Social Club. Keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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