The Warner Archive has released the 1965 comedy "The Rounders" on Blu-ray. The film is primarily notable for the teaming of Glenn Ford and Henry Fonda, two estimable Hollywood stars who could be relied upon to play convincingly in both dark, somber dramas and frolicking comedies. "The Rounders" was directed and written by Burt Kennedy, who adapted a novel from by Max Evans. Kennedy was a veteran of big studio productions who worked his way from screenwriter to director. If he never made any indisputable classics, it can be said that he made a good many films that were top-notch entertainment. Among them: "Support Your Local Sheriff", "The War Wagon", "Hannie Caulder" and "The Train Robbers". While Westerns were Kennedy's specialty, he did have a prestigious achievement with his screenplay for Clint Eastwood's woefully underseen and under-praised 1990 film "White Hunter, Black Heart". It's not an insult to state that most of Kennedy's directorial efforts could be considered lightweight. They were not concerned with social issues and generally had a Hawksian emphasis on heroes who engaged in good-natured bantering ("The War Wagon" is the best example of this.) Those elements are in full display in "The Rounders" but the film never rises above the status of resembling an extended episode of a TV sitcom from the era. That isn't meant as a knock, considering how many good TV sitcoms were on the airwaves in 1965, but there is a rather lazy element to the production and one would be suspects that an old pro like Kennedy probably knocked off the script over a long lunch.
The film, set in contemporary Arizona, finds Ford and Fonda playing Ben Jones and "Howdy" Lewis (his real name is Marion, but he's too ashamed to admit it, which is a nice inside joke aimed at Fonda's old pal John Wayne, whose real name was Marion Morrison.) The two are middle-aged wranglers who make ends meet by "breaking" and taming wild horses. It's a rough-and-tumble profession that inevitably results in them being tossed around like rag dolls as they ride atop bucking broncos. However, Ben and "Howdy" are still the best in their profession, although their meager wages have left them with no tangible assets beyond a beaten-up pickup truck. Local land baron Jim Ed Love (Chill Wills) hires them to spend the winter in a dilapidated cabin in the mountains in order to round up stray horses and keep them safe until spring. The assignment means enduring harsh weather and complete isolation, but the pair need the money so they accept. Since Fonda and Ford are the stars, there's no chance of this evolving into a "Brokeback Mountain" scenario and the two spend time gazing at a poster that depicts a ridiculously sanitized hula girl, a symbol of Ben's long-time dream of moving to a tropical island. Much of the script centers on their trials and tribulations in attempting to break a particularly rebellious roan horse that defies conforming to their commands. It gets personal with Ben, who decides that at the end of winter, he will buy the horse from Love for the simple pleasure of taking him to a soap factory. The two men survive the winter and head off (with roan horse in tow) to the big rodeo, a stop they make every year in order to supplement their income by winning bucking bronco riding contests. Along they way they have a chance encounter with two sisters who happen to be exotic dancers (Sue Ane Langdon and Hope Holiday). They are amiable bubbleheads but after the men have been in the mountains sans female companionship for many months, they can't resist attempting to woo them. The family-friendly screenplay is quite timid when it comes to depicting adult sexual behavior. Ben and "Howdy" are understandably enticed by the vivacious sisters but they seem satiated by inducing them to join them in a moonlight skinny-dipping session, which is interrupted by a police raid. The climax finds the two partners attempting to use the unbreakable roan horse as a gimmick to lure local wranglers and riders to bet money they can best him. There's a bit of a con in their scheme, but as one might suspect, their plans go awry and they don't benefit from any ill-gotten gains. As you might also suspect, the roan horse earns Ben's respect and never makes it to that dreaded soap factory.
That's pretty much the entire plot of "The Rounders", which is lightweight enough to resemble a celluloid wisp of smoke. If it's never boring, it's also never very engaging, as we keep expecting the script to provide some kind of creative or engaging plot device that never arrives. Still, it has its pleasures and Fonda and Ford exude real chemistry that elevates the proceedings substantially. There is also the wonder of the magnificent Arizona locations, a jaunty musical score by Jeff Alexander and a marvelous cast of reliable and familiar character actors that, in addition to the incomparible Chill Wills, includes Edgar Buchanan, Kathleen Freeman, Barton MacLane, Doodles Weaver and Denver Pyle.
When the film was released, even MGM felt the production was rather lacking in commercial appeal. Village Voice critic Andrew Sarris, who gave the film some faint praise, justifiably took issue with the fact that the studio had buried "The Rounders" by placing it at the bottom of a double-feature with a forgettable teeny bopper musical, "Get Yourself a College Girl". He said it must have been depressing for all involved to have a film headlining Glenn Ford and Henry Fonda play second fiddle to a movie that starred Mary Ann Mobley and Nancy Sinatra. He also praised Burt Kennedy, acknowledging that his often estimable contributions to the film business were generally overlooked. Unexpectedly, however, "The Rounders" proved to be a hit in its own right. It drew devoted fans in rural areas and on the drive-in circuit and ended up overshadowing the top-of-the-bill feature. It would even later be made into a television series starring Patrick Wayne, Ron Hayes and Chill Wills, reprising his role from the film.
The Warner Archive Blu-ray does justice to Paul Vogel's impressive cinematography by providing a truly impressive and all-around gorgeous Blu-ray transfer. The release also includes the original trailer.
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