You might think this land is your land and this land is my land, but it's really John Wayne's land.
America's all-time greatest movie hero presents a historical celebration with over two-dozen legendary guest stars!
A divisive Republican President. An unpopular war. National dissent. Calls for patriotism. It could be America in 2007, but I'm talking about America in 1970. While many of the surface issues are the same, though, the dynamic is much different now. For instance, while the war in Iraq is at least as unpopular as Viet Nam, returning soldiers are treated with a dignity denied those who fought in Nam. Patriotism is "in"; it's not just the bastion of out-of-touch "establishment" types. (Witness the Dixie Chicks debacles.) In 1970, counter-culture politics and entertainment, with their criticisms of all things America, were cool. Jingoism needed a shot in the arm. Who better to administer it than the über-patriot: John Wayne?
In 1970, when many of his contemporaries had faded from the scene or were trying to use their waning star power to fuel TV series, John Wayne was still on top of his game. He won an Oscar® that year, was still top-lining movies, and his conservative views made him a potent political force in the divided country. In November of 1970, Wayne brought his "America first" philosophy to the masses in a big, gaudy, variety-show extravaganza called Swing Out, Sweet Land. Broadcast on NBC and sponsored by Budweiser, the program was savaged by critics (Time called it the year's "most embarrassing special," tied with Raquel Welch's special, Raquel!, in which Wayne had also appeared). Audiences, however, seemed not to care about these nattering nabobs of negativism: More than 77 million people tuned in for John Wayne's valentine to the land he loved.
More than two dozen "names" were called on to portray a gallery of American historical figures in sketches and songs. With few exceptions, none of these fine folks could be considered "cutting edge." If everyone who'd ever appeared on a Bob Hope special boarded The Love Boat, got seasick, and puked up a year's worth of guest stars from The Hollywood Squares (save for Paul Lynde), the result would look something like the cast of Swing Out, Sweet Land. It's the usual suspects doing what they did best (or worst, depending on your aesthetic sensibilities).
But what might have been hopelessly square 37 years ago can be kitschy fun now.
SOSL opens with MC Wayne laying it on the line. In a nutshell: It's a great country, you're lucky to be here, now watch the show. In case you missed it, we then get Glen Campbell singing Irving Berlin's This Is a Great Country. Even the most ardent flag-waver might find this one-two punch a bit much, but it works because of Wayne's plain-talking sincerity.
From there it's a mixed bag of hit-or-miss shtick and music: Bob Hope entertaining the troops at Valley Forge; Jack Benny questioning George Washington (Lorne Greene) about throwing a dollar across the Potomac; Dean Martin as Eli Whitney inventing the cotton gin (get it?); Phyllis Diller as Belva Lockwood, female presidential candidate ("I'll turn the White House into the Pink House!"). You get the idea. These bits are funny in an eye-rolling, nostalgic kind of way. On the other hand, Dan Blocker as an "Ugh"-talking "Indian" selling Manhattan Island to Peter Minuit (Michael Landon) and a painfully arch "hip" turn by Dan Rowan and Dick Martin (Laugh-In) as the Wright Brothers are just unfunny fossils that should have stayed buried. With the exception of choral bits by the accursed Doodletown Pipers, the musical numbers are actually pretty good, with folky turns by Johnny Cash and Roy Clark and Vegasy ones by Leslie Uggams and Ann-Margaret (on the bill with Hope at Valley Forge).
SOSL also takes a few stabs at drama and, surprisingly, doesn't fall on its face. One scene has Red Skelton and Tommy Smothers as printers, reading an "editorial" (actually, the writing of Benjamin Franklin) on the place of dissent in a free society. Smothers was as much a symbol of liberal youth culture as Wayne was of the conservative establishment. Tommy reading, "dissent, but dissent honorably" is a nice inclusive touch and a good moment in the program. Likewise, near the end, Roscoe Lee Browne and Bing Crosby portray Frederic Douglass and Mark Twain having a conversation (culled from their writings) near the Statue of Liberty. It's a moving commentary on civil rights and segues into Lucille Ball reciting a "prayer" by Lady Liberty. Hokey? Well, yeah, and the use of a prayer is a bit discomfiting, but Lucy puts it across like a trooper, and if you've a mind for it, you might find it stirring.
This would have been a good place to stop, but Wayne wants to go out with a bang, and unfortunately, he relies on the afore-mentioned Rowan and Martin routine to deliver the goods. It doesn't. The big finale is the entire cast, individually and in costume (except Crosby), singing a line from God Bless America. Now, that is hard to take, and even some of the "stars" look uncomfortable with it.
For a 37-year-old television program, the disc looks and sounds very good, probably in line with how it looked and sounded when it was first shown. For extras, we get the Budweiser commercials that aired during the original broadcast and an appearance by Wayne on What's My Line?, both of which are appealingly nostalgic.
Swing Out, Sweet Land is a relic, both entertaining and cringe-worthy, a big-budgeted grade-school historical pageant as performed by grown-ups. If you're jonesing for a big, splashy, variety show filled with bits of hokum, the kind they don't make anymore, then this is your ticket.
Me find "The Duke" guilty? Not on your life.
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• Original sponsor commercials with John Wayne and Ed McMahon
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