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Ben and Howdy are a couple of aging cowboys who bust broncos out of Sedona for Jim Ed Love, a slick operator if ever there was one. Sisters, Meg and Agatha, have their eyes on Ben and Howdy, but the boys aren't ready to settle down yet. They spend the winter in the high country corralling more than 100 stray cattle at $7 a head for Jim Ed. Most years, they blow their winter pay in one spring night at a Sedona bar, but this year, Ben and Howdy have a plan: to take an ornery roan that Ben has been unable to break and bet their bankroll that no cowboy at the Sedona rodeo can stay on the horse. What will they do if they win - marry the sisters or head for Tahiti? Written by
A wry contemporary Western classic, or "it takes a hard man to eat boiled owl... "
The Rounders is one of those oddly well-crafted movies which seems to have benefited from a fortunate gathering of the stars at its making. Good movie-making alone seems insufficient to account for its success; every frame of the film seems almost hand-painted; every minute scripted with more than common care (if not with up-to-date cinematic technique).
Director and screenwriter Burt Kennedy is the center around which this gem of a movie formed - the same wry humor that has characterized most of his movie and TV productions shines through here (Kennedy created a small swath of "Simon and Simon" episodes, a span of "Combat" episodes, little, memorable Westerns like "Dirty Dingus Magee," a little of almost every genre before passing on in 2001.) The cast, though, was one of those companies of actors you didn't often see together in low-budget Westerns then (1965) and still don't often see thirty-some years later. And, for a wonder, every actor and actress - from a remarkable cast - pulled his or her weight.
Denver Pyle ("Bull") would go on to anchor "The Dukes of Hazzard" as "Uncle Jesse" after a life in Westerns; Edgar Buchanan (as the irascible "Vince Moore," creator of "that wonderful stuff" in a still located under his barn floor) was just embarking on a long stretch of soft duty as "Uncle Joe" in "Petticoat Junction," plus a number of cameo roles in various other TV and movie projects after spending a good career in movies; Sue Ane Langdon was playing one of a number of sexy/innocent ingenue roles that ran from the late 1940s to the mid-1970s, then after a short hiatus, she would go on to play a series of older roles); Chill Wills would stay with the role of tightwad ranch owner "Jim Ed Love" for the movie AND the TV show which spun off of it the following year.
"The Rounders - The TV Series" ran in the 1966 and 1967 seasons, not a bad run, considering the two leads were replaced by younger, less seasoned actors (including Patrick Wayne as "Howdy Lewis"); not only do we see Glenn Ford and Henry Fonda as the stars of this rollicking epic but as a bonus, Peter Ford and Peter Fonda (sons of the stars) appear in uncredited roles.
The production, if it can be said to have a weak spot, suffers from Disney Disease - that bogus-homespun touch which afflicted Disney's Wonderful World of Color's series of outdoor documentaries (in which announcers with wrinkly, familiar old voices narrated carefully-edited wildlife documentaries in which little baby animals hardly ever got caught by predators). Fortunately, the screenwriter played off of this ambiance for laughs, so that the overall feel is something like "Mister Roberts Goes West."
Fonda ("Howdy Lewis")and Ford ("Ben Jones") work well together on screen as a pair of itinerant, half-clever cowboys who seem always to get the worst from every deal they make with Jim Ed Love. Both actors spent time with the novel, apparently, and their performances benefited from the extra work. This compensates for clumsy special effects (clumsily faked double takes from the "plug-head" horse who is the bane of "Howdy's" existence, for example).
But "The Rounders'" main failing is also its saving grace - an artlessness which makes the show much more enjoyable (to me, anyway) than if it had been a little more polished. It earns a solid eight out of ten points for a great off-beat Western comedic style.
"The Rounders" may just be the last good OLD Western movie; the genre lay in a restless, unquiet coma with brief flashes of lucidity (and a few unlamented "electric westerns") until Clint Eastwood and a handful of other talented directors brought it back to vibrant life. But "The Rounders" is a valedictory for all of those great westerns (and all the not-so-great ones that were worth having, anyway) that Henry Fonda, Glenn Ford, Chill Wills, Edgar Buchanan, Denver Pyle and all the rest of those guys gave us.
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