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Case Number 07622: Small Claims Court

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Shelley Duvall's Tall Tales And Legends: Pecos Bill

Koch Vision // 1986 // 50 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Jeff Andreasen (Retired) // September 22nd, 2005

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All Rise...

Judge Jeff Andreasen wonders if there's anything that Steve Guttenberg didn't have a hand in back in the eighties.

The Charge

Disturbing the peace.

The Case

Pecos Bill was the brainchild of The Century Magazine's Edward O'Reilly, who wrote "The Saga of Pecos Bill" in 1923. O'Reilly claimed his story was a compilation of tall tales told by real cowboys, but this seems itself a tall tale: oral historians are unconvinced that Pecos Bill is anything but a media creation. A darn good one, though, 'cause even if Bill wasn't birthed on the tongues of the kind of men he was the epitome of, he certainly endured on them. The original story was adopted as folklore by cowboys and by the western public, and soon the character was attributed even more outrageous feats than originally assigned by O'Reilly.

Pecos Bill was the mastermind of all the tricks of the cowboy trade, and is recognized as the patron saint of that rugged lifestyle. His story is a pastiche of myths and legends from the Greek and Mesopotamian pantheons. Thrown from his parents' wagon crossing the Pecos River, Bill was found and raised by coyotes, where he developed an affinity for and brotherhood with the animals. He was found by a kindly rancher and learned of his true identity as a human being…a la Enkidu, the Wild Man of Mesopotamia's Gilgamesh legends. His numerous feats, including draining the Rio Grande to water his farm, roping whole herds of cattle simultaneously, and riding cyclones like broncos smack of the Labors of Heracles, and the idea of providing inspiration and guidance for men can be found in any number of myths. Still, grafting these Old World legends into the pulse of the Wild West was an inspired idea, no matter how it first came about, and Pecos Bill has not only endured, but flourished, despite the progression of cynicism in the Atomic Age.

Shelley Duvall's Tall Tales and Legends, The Story of Pecos Bill is another success for this well-intentioned series of shows originally broadcast in the mid-'80s. At-the-time-big names Steve Guttenberg (Cocoon, Three Men and a Baby, the Police Academy movies) and Rebecca DeMornay (Risky Business, The Hand That Rocks The Cradle) star as Bill and Slewfoot Sue, and are ably supported by sitcom veterans Martin Mull, Claude Akins, a very young Peter Billingsley, and Megan Mullally (Will & Grace).

Petunia City is a prim, proper, and utterly lifeless town run by Governor Ambrose Peasley (Martin Mull). The annual highlight is the Checker Rodeo, which is usually won by Bob Watkins (Dick Schaal) after he outlasts the narcoleptic competition. Wandering back to his farm, Bob encounters a wild man dressed in furs and convinced he is a coyote. Bob convinces the man that he is no coyote, but a human being, and the wild man takes the name Pecos Bill, after the river where Bob found him. Bill joins the hands on Bob's ranch, and soon teaches them all manner of newfangled ways of doing things: lassoing steer instead of waiting for them to step into the loop; crooning "Home on the Range" to pass the time around the camp fire; wearing proper cowboy duds instead of the drab dress favored by Governor Peaseley and the staid citizenry of Petunia City, and raising hell. He's eventually run out of town for his raucous ways, but all ends happily, and Bill's deeds birth the Wild West as we know it.

As with all the stories adapted for the Shelley Duvall's Tall Tales and Legends series, Pecos Bill has gained in some areas and lost in others. The plot put around the tall tales gives us Governor Peaseley and his three daughters, Pansy, Posey, and Rose, who becomes infatuated with Bill and is eventually kidnapped by him. She adopts the name Slewfoot Sue to hide her identity as the daughter of the man who ran Bill out of town, and becomes Bill's bride after she impresses him by riding a catfish down the Rio Grande. She tries to ride Bill's horse, Widowmaker, but is thrown. Her steel-spring bustle saves her from a crushing landing, but bounces her so high she almost hits the moon. After four days, Bill is finally able to stop her from bouncing by lassoing her with seven miles of rope, and the two head down to Mexico when Texas becomes too hot to hold them. When news of a drought convinces Bill that he has to save Texas from drying up and blowing away, he rides a tornado into Petunia City and brings driving rains with him. All's well that ends well, right?

The character of Bill presented in the actual tales is fundamentally different from the one presented in Shelley Duvall's Tall Tales and Legends. In the legends, Bill is concerned with what's right and true, and strives to teach his fellows the "cowboy way," that is, being honest and truthful, and pure of heart. His deeds are motivated entirely by a Promethean desire to enlighten his fellows. Still, he is not without his pragmatic (though darkly so) side. When Slewfoot Sue cannot stop bouncing after being thrown from Widowmaker, Bill reluctantly shoots her so that she won't die of starvation. A bit drastic, and certainly not the sort of solution you want your kids seeing as a last resort.

Thus, in Shelley Duvall's Tall Tales and Legends, Bill is a precocious fellow who engages in wanton behavior simply because it's fun, and because it will liven up things in a decidedly lifeless Texas. He gives his ranch hand mates the same lessons the legendary Bill gave to his, and saves Slewfoot Sue rather than blasting her, but he also inspires brawls at the local tavern and robs a stagecoach, though it is quickly dismissed as "just having fun." I think Billy the Kid used to say the same thing.

But this is a film made in the Reagan era, when everything was painted rosy, and it would be churlish to chide Pecos Bill for touting a hero who disturbs the peace and disguises stagecoach robbery as a treasure hunt. Think of this Bill more along the lines of Errol Flynn's Robin Hood. He means well, and is more or less out to have a good time. Unlike Robin Hood, however, things never become serious here, and Bill eventually saves the day for Petunia City and for the state of Texas.

And let's face it, he doesn't cuss on Sundays and opens the door for ladies. How bad a role model can he be?

As for the DVD, like all the other entries in this series, it's pretty sparse. No extras, no subtitles, no foreign language tracks, and few chapter stops. The video and audio is competent but no more. But how technical do you want a family disc like this? This series was made to be slipped in, viewed, and enjoyed…and no more. On that level, this disc is a complete success, and is among the more watchable entries in the Shelley Duvall's Tall Tales and Legends canon.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 85

Perp Profile

Studio: Koch Vision
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Subtitles:
• None
Running Time: 50 Minutes
Release Year: 1986
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Genres:
• All Ages
• Television

Distinguishing Marks

• None








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