A man's not a man—until he's a cowboy.
In their heyday, westerns were a dime a dozen. Every archetypal situation was represented in westerns: the cocky newcomer versus the old hardened veteran, the conflicted hero who overcomes his inner demons as well as external. The fish-out-of-water theme, however, was not addressed much before Cowboy. A true story based on Frank Harris' book My Reminisces As A Cowboy, Cowboy tells the fascinating tale of a Chicago hotel employee who persuades a grizzled veteran into letting him come along on a cattle drive. Can this little-known Western hold up as a classic, especially on a new DVD transfer by Columbia TriStar?
Facts of the Case
When Tom Reece (Glenn Ford, 3:10 to Yuma) arrives at a genteel Chicago hotel, his room is ready and waiting for him. He's been around, a veteran trail boss who knows what he likes (whiskey and hot baths) and knows what he doesn't like (lost cattle, incompetent cowhands). When Frank Harris (Jack Lemmon, The Apartment), a desk clerk, asks to go with Reece on his trip to Mexico, it takes a lot of convincing—i.e., cash.
Harris' main motivation is to reach his true love Maria (Anna Kashfil). Reece is leading his crew to Maria's home, her father's ranch in Mexico. However, along the way this inexperienced "boy" becomes a true cowboy as he deals with fractious relations with the crew and, most pointedly, Reece. Major plot points—confrontation with Maria in Mexico, a scuffle with Indians (Native Americans now, Indians then)—exist primarily to show us Frank's development into a Real Man.
When you think of heroes in westerns, well, you just don't think of Jack Lemmon. He does seem the perfect choice in this case—as Frank Harris, a naïve farm boy anticipating a rough-n-tough cattle drive in the Old West, his fresh-scrubbed eagerness seems just the thing. Paired against Glenn Ford's fierce trail boss, this could be a match made in Western heaven. The casting certainly is inspired. Glenn Ford is a man's man for sure, and Jack Lemmon could not be more unlikely a cowboy. Lemmon believably transforms into a hardened frontier man before our eyes, however, and Ford does just the opposite—softens into a man confronted with his own weaknesses. Still, don't expect anything deep in this film. It's good, clean fun. The plotting can be a bit sluggish, and the direction of the Indian scenes and other moments of tension is less than eloquent. In this film's case the performances and the simplicity of the story make it watchable.
But the transfer doesn't. Why? In a word: FULL SCREEN. Ewww. What is up with that? Why make a transfer to DVD…IN FULL SCREEN? Yuck yuck yuck. Need I say more? The quality of video is fine for a flick this old. There was some grain, especially in bright daytime scenes—the blue sky, in fact, was often fogged with grain. But overall, a surprisingly clean, crisp transfer, with relatively natural skin tones.
The Dolby 1.0 Mono sound track made me about as happy as the full screen status of Cowboy. Flat, no levels, plain and simple. Unfortunately, the film did not include the sort of grand music westerns were known for, so I guess the sound didn't have to be too elaborate. Still, with all that shootin', yellin', and roundin' up cattle…a fancy sound set up would have been appreciated. Also included on this disc are subtitles in English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese.
The only extra features available on Cowboy are of the "bonus trailers" variety. The classic Mackenna's Gold and the not-so-classic but interesting-looking Geronimo are featured, as well as the horribly archived trailer for Cowboy (the negative must have been in awful shape, with darks buzzing so badly they became opaque). As always, it's a kick to see how movies were marketed back in the day, and to see a blip on the movie radar screen, Geronimo, dusted off.
Like most folks, I enjoy a decent western. Cowboy was pleasant, funny in patches, and had two endearing and charismatic stars. The plot was a bit stodgy and the action scenes sleepily filmed, but overall I it ain't a bad lil' roll in the hay. However, FULL SCREEN?? For a western? Grumble grumble…
Too bad Columbia TriStar didn't go the extra mile to figure out how to do this picture further justice. Better extras and a decent video widescreen transfer would have made this DVD a keeper for any Western enthusiast's collection. Sentenced to one year eating Cookie's Bean Surprise straight out of 'da kettle!
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Scales of Justice
• Three Bonus Trailers
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