Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Hearts of the West

This final night of the "Projected Image" series of the Jewish experience on film includes a movie that I have to admit to not being certain why it's been included: Hearts of the West, coming up overnight at 1:15 AM on TCM.

Jeff Bridges plays the decidedly non-Jewish Lewis Tater, an adult son living on a farm in Iowa in the 1930s. Lewis, for his part, has dreams of doing more than just farming; specifically, he wants to be a writer. To that end, Lewis has been taking courses from a correspondence school someplace out in Nevada. Lewis wants to talk with some of the professors about the book since he's almost finished it, so he sets off for Nevada and the writers' college. Of course, that corespondence school is a scam, being nothing more than a post office box in some god-forsaken whistle-stop town in the middle of nowhere in Nevada back in the days when Nevada outside of Las Vegas was even more the middle of nowhere than it is now. But Lewis is in a bit of luck as the two con artists happen to be in town to pick up the money from the post office box that is the front for the scam. Lewis gets in a fight with them, and winds up with their suitcase full of money. Understandably the con artists take off after him.

Lewis, in his escape, winds up in the middle of the Nevada desert, presumably never to be seen again, or at least that would be the case if we weren't only 15 minutes into the movie. So there's obviously going to be a plot twist, which is that he unknowingly walks straight into the middle of a movie set! The director/producer, Bert Kessler (Alan Arkin), is at first displeased because having to do more takes costs money, and this is an ultra-low budget studio trying to churn out B westerns as quickly as possible. Eventually, though, Lewis thanks to his good looks gets taken on as an extra with the rest of the stock cast, including the veteran writer-turned-actor Howard Pike (Andy Griffith).

They get back to Hollywood and Lewis keeps working as an extra, mostly because he needs the money, but in fact he really wants to sell the story he's brought along with him. Pike, having been a writer himself, knows a bit about writing and selling your writing in Hollywood, so he offers to help Lewis with the story. Along the way, Lewis becomes a more successful actor, at least getting to the top of this B studio's heap, being given the stage name Ned Wales. It enables him to get a girlfriend in the form of the secretary Trout (Blythe Danner) too. Meanwhile, those two con artists from Nevada have made their way to Los Angeles, and are still looking for Lewis....

I saw Hearts of the West a year or so ago on TCM when it aired one Saturday afternoon, and I'm trying to remember which character is supposed to be the obvious Jewish character to fit into the "Projected Image" spotlight. I'd guess it's Donald Pleasance as the studio boss Neitz, although I have to admit I don't remember thoses scenes well enough. But at any rate, it doesn't matter whether or not the movie fits the spotlight. It stands on its own as solid entertainment. Jeff Bridges is likeable enough, and the movie has the right mix of comedy and drama to be good light entertainment and nothing too seriously heavy. At the same time, it's a nice homage to a bygone era of movie-making.

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