Monday, April 22, 2013

WW and the Dixie Dancekings

Burt Reynolds may have been a sex symbol in the 1970s, but I don't know how much of an actor he was. Oh, there was a certain type that he could play, but I'm having trouble imagining him in any of a broad range of roles. Just think, for example, about all the different films TCM's Star fo the Month Laurence Olivier did, and then try to imagine Burt Reynolds in any of them. But if Reynolds got a role that fit his talent, the result could be altogether watchable and not bad at all. Such, I think, is the case with W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings, which you can catch tomorrow morning at 8:30 AM on the Fox Movie Channel.

Reynolds plays the titular W.W., whom we see in the opening driving his fancy two-tone limited-edition anniversary Oldsmobile down a country highway somewhere in Tennessee circa 1957. He pulls the car up to a service station selling gas from the Southland Oil Service and, after making some small talk with the kindly older man filling up his gas tank, pulls a gun on the attendant. No, really, this is a no-fooling hold-up. And apparently, it's not the first time somebody's held up an SOS station, as the head of the company is at his wits' end. But we'll get back to him later.

The local police are actually on to W.W. after the latest hold-up, and one of their number eventually chases him to a gymnasium turned into a dance hall for a dance with live music provided by Dixie (Conny Van Dyke) and the Dancekings. Just when it looks like the policeman is going to get W.W., he climbs up on stage a passes himself off as the manager of the band. And he's just so charming that he's able to get Dixie to swear to the cop that yes, indeed, W.W. is their manager. So now they've got a manager, and W.W. has a bunch of people in tow with him. W.W. is not only charming enough to get Dixie to lie for him; he's got enough charm that he can make them believe he can get them a music contract in Nashville and even an appearance at the Grand Ole Opry. Of course, that takes money, and the only way W.W. knows how to get money is to rob SOS and its subsidiaries, now with a country band as his accomplices. In the movie, W.W. is a Korean War veteran who is portrayed as having a vendetta against SOS. I think there was some reason given for it, but whatever it was, it was fairly perfunctory and glossed over.

The first third of the movie that sets all of this up is fairly slow, and frankly almost a bit tedious. But stay with it; things finally do pick up. Back to the CEO of SOS, Elton Bird (played by Sherman Lloyd). He is understandably miffed with a bunch of his outlets being held up, and is equally understandaby irritated that the police seem powerless to stop whoever is pulling off the bold-ups. But, he's got an ace up his sleeve, in the form of his brother (Art Carney). Carney's character is the Deacon, but the Deacon was formerly a sheriff himself. He was quite good and zealous as a sheriff, in fact. But he felt he had to quit the job because it required -- horror of horrors! -- working on Sundays, which are the Lord's day. So instead, he became the stereotype of every phony mass-media preacher you've heard on the radio or seen on TV. But dammit if he's still not vastly superior to the rest of the police force at doing detective work.

W.W. and the Dixie Danckings, as I mentioned earlier, starts off slowly, but eventually becomes a pretty entertaining movie thanks in part to the presence of Carney. The fact that Reynolds and the band are also given some more elaborate hold-ups to commit, with more opportunity for the improbable comic timing of cops just missing the fleeing Oldsmobile, helps as well. Especially notable here is when SOS gets into banking and opens the first drive-through bank in the region. Reynolds is well-cast; you can see why women of the day would have considered him such a sex symbol, and such a charming man: W.W.'s charm comes across as much more genuine than the oozy manipulation of a Wally Fay in Mildred Pierce. Art Carney is also great, cast way against the type he had played a year earlier when he won the Oscar for Harry and Tonto. It's almost tough to believe that the two characters were played by the same actor. The movie is quite obvious in taking sides, in that we're supposed to root for W.W. not to get caught, and for Dixie and her band to get the big break. Still, Carney is so much fun as the comic-book villian that he's just as much the highlight of the movie as Reynolds.

There are also some notable supporting performances: country singer Mel Tillis has a bit part; fellow singer Jery Reed plays one of the Dancekings; and Ned Beatty plays a successful country singer whom W.W. tries to convince to write a song for the Dancekings to perform. Unfortunately, they're overshadowed by mostly being in the less interesting parts of the movie. There's also a technical flaw, I think, in that the director (John Avildsen, who would do Rocky a year later) insisted on using offbeat wipes to transition between scenes. After the first three or four times, my feeling was, "Yeah, I get it. You're trying to be cute here."

IMDb doesn't list W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings as even being available for purchase at Amazon, which would imply that it's not gotten a release to DVD. I suppose that's understandable, since it's not a particularly outstanding movie or even anything earth-shattering. It is, however, entertaining enough.

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