Bronco Billy (1980)
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Written by Dennis Hackin
Produced by Dennis Hackin, Neal Dobrofsky
Like a skilled poker player, Clint Eastwood never overplayed his hand when poking fun at his image, but for one of the most revealing tells at what a wonderful comedian he could be, there’s Bronco Billy. Perhaps sensing this wasn’t the wild ‘n wooly western being advertised, audiences turned out in lower numbers than for almost any other Eastwood picture of the period, meaning it “only” grossed $15 million in the U.S. on a budget of roughly $5 million. What Eastwood apparently recognized in the material was that if Frank Capra were alive, he might have directed a movie like this, a screwball comedy that owes more to It Happened One Night than Animal House, a story that rolls along on sweetness and gentle tomfoolery instead of jokes. Of all the pictures Eastwood directed himself in, it cracks my personal Top Five.
Bronco Billy has a low key goofiness that somehow manages to affix a grin to my face whenever I watch it. There’s something deranged about grown-ups who’ve virtually dropped out of society to tour the land and entertain children as the cowboys or Indians they always wanted to be, but the sense of innocence that Dennis Hackin fashions in his wondrously offbeat script is irresistible. Of the six movies she co-starred in with Eastwood, this is by far Sondra Locke’s best work. She doesn’t have near the elegance of Carole Lombard or moxie of Jean Arthur say, but she’s funny nonetheless. Many of the plot details seem fuzzed over and the film introduces three or four villains before mysteriously abandoning them all, but like the audience of the Bronco Billy show, we’re too giddy to really care.
As Doc Lynch (Scatman Crothers) bellows to the tiny audience gathered under a bigtop somewhere in Montana, “the greatest, most authentic Wild West show in America” begins with a rattlesnake dance performed by Chief Big Eagle (Dan Vadis) and his wife Running Water (Sierra Pecheur). The Chief is bitten by one of the rattlers he’s refused to substitute with gopher snakes. Leonard James (Sam Bottoms), “the greatest lasso artist in the West” is up next. Backstage, the troupe’s leader Bronco Billy McCoy (Clint Eastwood) tries to ease the nerves of his latest floozy/assistant, Miss Mitzi (Tessa Richarde) who in her show business debut alongside “the greatest trick shooter in the West” is nicked by Billy’s buckknife in his signature stunt, the wheel of fortune shootout.
Bronco Billy’s Wild West Show is glued together by Billy’s honest-to-goodness ethics of loyalty and hard work and sharing the wonder of cowboys and Indians with “the little pardners”. The outfit pitches its tent across from a motel in Idaho where spoiled heiress Antoinette Lily (Sondra Locke) honeymoons after a quickie marriage to a stooge (Geoffrey Lewis) to retain her inheritance. The groom tires of his bride’s snootiness and takes off with her possessions, leaving Lily no choice but to accept a ride with Billy to the next town. Contemptuous of her rusticated surroundings at first, Lily takes over as Billy’s assistant and proves a fine addition to the cast. Through a run of bad luck, the show threatens to fold, but the redemptive power of their frontier theater proves difficult for the players to walk away from.
Rotten Tomatoes “Tomatometer” average among 15 users: 80% for Bronco Billy
Metacritic “Metascore” average among leading critics: Not available
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