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Steelyard Blues

Steelyard Blues
Warmer DVD
1972 / B&W / 1:78 anamorphic widescreen / 93 min. / Street Date , 2007 /
Starring Jane Fonda, Peter Boyle, Donald Sutherland, Howard Hesseman, John Savage, Roger Bowen, Garry Goodrow
Cinematography Laszlo Kovacs, Stevan Larner
Production Design Vincent M. Cresciman
Film Editor Donn Cambern, Robert Grovener
Original Music Paul Butterfield, Nick Gravenites, David Shire
Written by David S. Ward
Produced by Tony Bill, Julia Phillips, Michael Phillips, Harold Schneider
Directed by Alan Myerson

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Steelyard Blues is a weak counterculture comedy that promoted some worthy talent but in the long run didn't do any of them much of a favor. An early producing effort from Tony Bill and Julia and Michael Phillips, it gathers Donald Sutherland, Jane Fonda and Peter Boyle, all three of whom carried good credentials in the "right on" pseudo-hippie studio atmosphere that followed the success of Easy Rider. The problem is mostly to be found in David S. Ward's sophomoric script, which could have come out of a summer screenplay class at UCLA ... the kind of formless 'lark' that expects cast members to bring a lot of sad clichés to life. It doesn't happen.


Goofy demolition derby driver Jesse Veldini (Donald Sutherland) is released from prison, where he served a term for burglaries to support his hobby. His respectable lawyer brother Frank (Howard Hesseman) tries to make Jesse tow the line with a ridiculous job cleaning out the lion cage at the zoo, but Jesse prefers to re-team with his crazy associate Eagle Thornberry (Peter Boyle), a circus dervish that the circus left behind. Jesse also tries to jump back in the sack with his hooker girlfriend Iris Caine (Jane Fonda), but she's strictly cash and carry now. The trio of nuts eventually teams up with another partner to restore an old Navy PBY flying boat, with the object of exploring the world. Trouble is, they must first break into a Navy base and steal some vital airplane parts.

Steelyard Blues plays like the work of well-meaning but inexperienced people that hope that by assembling some cool people in a free-form script, magic will happen. We instead get a picture with production problems. The film's 'biggest' scene is a face-off between twenty cop cars and a plane that wants to taxi off the runway. It comes to nothing, as if the time limit on the police cruiser rental expired before the director figured out what to do with them.

Star Donald Sutherland helped gather the cast, including Roger Bowen from his big hit M*A*S*H. Sutherland worked the previous year on Klute with Jane Fonda, who returns to again play prostitute to his not-so-straight man. The rest of the cast comes from the comedy group The Committee, musician friends and other hipster hangers-on.

Nobody makes much of an impression. Sutherland does his clumsy fool act and sweeps up lion poop with an unhappy look on his face, while Fonda is just terrible in an awful wig, making some kind of statement about the ethics of being a 'working girl.' In many scenes characters are just thrown together to 'get crazy.' Actors like young John Savage end up as extra baggage, doing quiet schtick that barely registers. Wild man Peter Boyle gets plenty of screen time strutting about in silly circus costumes (Master of Ceremonies, etc) and ends up falling back on a (rather good) Marlon Brando impression to disguise the fact that he doesn't have a character to play.

Director Alan Myerson went on to a long and fruitful TV career. He must have been working under very limited conditions because setups, coverage and sometimes even lighting are compromised. Some of the tedium is alleviated by the music of Paul Butterfield and Mike Bloomfield, featuring Maria Muldaur. But the essentially artificial story of a crew of misfit loonies working on the perfect crime doesn't come together. (spoiler) The confused ending is either a paste-up job or just incompetent: the escape plane never gets off the ground, and we last see our characters riding horses to reach an unseen helicopter mentioned only in a rough voiceover. Perhaps David S. Ward's original screenplay The Last Crash meant to have them all killed when the plane explodes, for a wacky laugh?

Steelyard Blues may be just the cup of tea for a certain group of nonconformists, but it really shows the lack of direction that dogged early 70s moviemaking ... "You know, for kids!" It was barely a blip in the careers of its main talent, as the producers, writer and top stars went on to put together some of the best films of the latter part of the decade. Phillips, Phillips and Ward had a home run the very next year with the completely different The Sting.

Warners' DVD of Steelyard Blues is an excellent enhanced transfer of a film that in Los Angeles kept showing up in tattered prints on desperation double bills. The English mono is clear. Besides a woefully unappetizing trailer, we get a rare treat in the form of the featurette Would You Believe?. The promo follows the manic Peter Boyle around New York as he tries out his comedy/performance art gags on Fifth Avenue street corners.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Steelyard Blues rates:
Movie: Fair
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailer, featurette Would You Believe?
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 10, 2007

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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