At some point in The Fastest Guitar Alive, a friend tells the character played by rock legend Roy Orbison that he should stick to guitar playing because he doesn't have much of a future as a gunslinger. The same advice appears to have been given to Orbison about his future as an actor, as this proved to be his big screen debut and farewell as a leading man. The 1967 movie was the brainchild of producer Sam Katzman, who was forever associated with schlock that often top-lined popular singers. Often these poorly-made productions proved to be hits with the youth audience and it was that philosophy that obviously led Katzman to think that Orbison could be box-office gold. Katzman had previously brought several Elvis Presley and Herman's Hermits films to the screen with success, but his instincts were off with The Fastest Guitar Alive. Even by Katzman standards, the 1967 MGM Western comedy is a dud on all levels. The fact that the Warner Archive has released the movie will nevertheless be welcome news to Orbison fans, who will treat this an anomaly in an otherwise distinguished career that saw him write and perform some of the best known songs of his era.
In this dreary vehicle, Orbison plays Johnny, a gentle singer of ballads who is partners with Steve (Sammy Jackson). Together, the men travel through small towns selling snake oil medicine and performing in saloons with a bevy of showgirls who accompany them (though all seem curiously virginal). In reality, Johnny and Steve are spies working for the Confederacy. They use their cover as troubadours to successfully initiate the robbery of a Union gold shipment in San Francisco with the hopes of bringing the loot to the fading Southern cause in Texas. The slight plot is simply a necessary device to frame the numerous ballads that Orbison gets to warble. It becomes clear that this was a film designed to support a soundtrack album, not the other way around. To make Johnny live up to the movie's title, he is given a guitar that must have been designed by a frontier version of Q Branch: it has a recoiling rifle that extends when a button is pressed. He uses this to comic effect on an Indian tribe, the degrading depiction of which must have been the primary cause for the emergence of Native American activist groups.
The story ambles from one anemic comic setup to the next without generating any evidence of wit on the part of the screenwriters. Although some of Orbison's tunes are fairly good, every time he begins to sing he is joined by an invisible chorus and full band, all hallmarks of Katzman productions. The result is absurd, as Orbison is supposedly plucking away love songs in intimate situations when the soundtrack clearly has him lip-synching to records made in a state of the art studio. These unintentional laughs are the only guffaws in the entire movie. The biggest flaw in the film is Orbison's performance. He looks nervous and uncomfortable and delivers his lines like a frightened 8th grader making his stage debut in the school annual play. With every line he utters, I was reminded of that classic episode of The Honeymooners in which Jackie Gleason's Ralph Kramden has a panic attack when filming a live commercial as the Chef of the Future. He gets scant help from the supporting cast, although old time Western character actors John Doucette and James Westerfield bring a modicum of dignity to the production. There is one curious aspect to the movie's legacy: it's the only vehicle that ever allowed Iron Eyes Cody to co-star with Sam the Sham, the lead singer of the 60s rock group The Pharaohs.