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In the middle 70s Hollywood released two pictures that celebrated the early filmmaking years. Peter Bogdanovich's ambitious Nickelodeon took a look at the travails of pioneers making early silents in Los Angeles, recounting actual stories that happened to directors like Allan Dwan and King Vidor. Actor-turned producer Tony Bill's Hearts of the West is a nostalgic comedy about early-30s western filmmaking starring the always-delightful Jeff Bridges as an Iowa farm boy determined to become a big-time western writer. The idealistic kid makes a terrific contrast with Bridges' Oscar-nominated Rooster Cogburn from last year's True Grit.
Writer Rob Thompson fashions Hearts of the West as a comedy about an innocent learning that his dreams about the West are mostly illusions. Young Lewis Tater (Bridges) takes his share of the crop money and his new typewriter and travels to the Nevada campus of the western writing academy (the Titan Correspondence School) he subscribes to. The 'campus' turns out to be a post office box where a pair of swindlers (Richard B. Shull & Anthony James) rakes in cash from foolish mail order students like Lewis. Outraged, Lewis ends up stumbling through the "trackless wastes" carrying the thieves' cash box, and marveling at the real western adventure he's lucked into ("It'll help my writing!"). He's soon picked up and adopted by one of many Hollywood Blvd. fly-by-night western movie outfits. The broken-down cowboys and "colorful" types who act in these oaters slowly make Lewis one of their own. Thanks to the help of script girl Charlie Trout (Blythe Danner), Lewis catches the eye of cheapskate director-producer Bert Kessler (Alan Arkin), who grooms him for stardom. Experienced acting extra Howard Pike (Andy Griffith) agrees to read Lewis' western novel, a favor that leads to more than a little disillusion for the ambitious young writer. But Lewis will need real protection when the Titan writing school cheats arrive to reclaim their lost cash.
Not falling into any particular genre, Hearts of the West keeps us guessing what direction it will turn. Lewis Tater's brothers laugh out loud at his announcement that he's going westward to glory, so we're ready to see his immature hopes dashed. He instead embarks on what amounts to an innocents' journey, finding his fortune in a land that offers opportunities for crooks and honest kids -- an America we'd all settle for right now. The film gives us a parade of amusing actors as Lewis interacts with the likes of veterans Dub Taylor and Marie Windsor. Even the writers' school crooks are fun, greedily counting their weeks' bounty. And nothing beats the optimism of our young hero, who de-trains at a barren desert stop that barely has an indoor toilet, let alone a college campus. But he's convinced that the ivy gates must be around the next cactus somewhere.
The image given of Gower Gulch in Hollywood is endearing, to say the least. Lewis falls in with Tumbleweed Productions, one company among scores of storefront movie outfits with costumed cowboys congregating outside looking for work. And he gets work mainly because he's the only 'actor' stupid enough to do stunts for free. Every painfully learned lesson is an instant comedy scene, as when Lewis ruins a take by miming a ridiculously slow death scene. Or foolishly volunteers to leap onto a horse from a rooftop. As Lewis is carried off in agony, his cowboy colleagues ask him why he wasn't wearing a cup. The film has wonderful material with dog-faced workaday cowboys (Burton Gilliam, Matt Clark) proud of their grizzled looks on camera, and prouder yet when they can stonewall director Bert Kessler's attempts to cheat them. Director Kessler thinks he can do good work by appealing to the sagebrush spirit of his actors. The boys share a circle of cowboy whoops and Ki-yi-yi's (think Red River) just to get the hack director off their backs.
Lewis' enthusiastic friendship with the older and wiser Howard Pike warms up when the boy learns that Pike knows his favorite western author, the elusive Billy Pueblo. Unfortunately, Lewis' sophomore steps in the movie biz involve some hard lessons. When his star quits, Bert Kessler nominates Lewis to become his next white-hat hero, "Neddy Wells". Wearing pancake makeup and painted lips, Lewis's dialogue screen test is pretty hilarious. Malicious advice eventually scotches that happy ending. Lewis is also lured into sinking his cash resources (actually, the Titan school's ill-gotten gains) into a film production, and we all know how that goes. Finally, Lewis comes to know the almost universally experienced displeasure of seeing his creative work stolen -- his precious first novel. Purple prose or not, it apparently has what Hollywood wants, at least according to publisher A.J. Neitz (Donald Pleasance). Although the real Hollywood is mostly shady business practices, ostentatious parties and shifty people, Lewis is hooked.
Hearts of the West never takes itself too seriously. Lovely Miss Trout slowly attracts Lewis's interest, leading to a sweet sort-of courtship that seems totally appropriate for our virginal Lewis. Rob Thompson's script follows through with Lewis' quest to become a writer instead of steering him into cowboy stardom. The couple of reels where Lewis is just another pretend cowboy making movies in the desert are so relaxing and amusing, we're almost disappointed when the whole show doesn't stay in that groove. Director Howard Zieff concentrates on character fun and doesn't rub our noses in too much nostalgic detail. Hollywood looks cute, but a more realistic treatment would show it peppered with weedy vacant lots and dirt roads, even in the 1930s. And locals will be amused when an address on Melrose Blvd. turns out to be on a steep hill.
The upbeat ending has all the right elements. Those writing school villains finally track down their quarry, which enables a last-minute two-gun rescue in full cowboy tradition. Yet we feel slightly unfulfilled, and wish our hero's story would continue. Hearts of the West plays as if it should be the first of two or three chapters in the Lewis Tater saga.
The movie is a delightful collection of entertaining, attractive actors, with Jeff Bridges shining like a bright silver coin in the middle of it all. Alan Arkin is properly bull-headed as the producer-director doing his best to underpay his staff and Andy Griffith provides a fine credibility backstop with his seen-it-all attitude to the movie biz. We also get a peek at a rehearsal for a musical number. Tucker Smith of West Side Story is the main dancer, a "noodle in a pith helmet". A bachelor bash with a burlesque dancer is somewhat on the raw side, both for the sweet tone of this soft-edged movie and for its PG rating.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Hearts of the West is a colorful Remastered Edition of this western fan favorite. The original trailer appears as an extra. I remember a VHS tape being available, but if there was a laserdisc I missed it. It appears that Hearts of the West is for all practical purposes now an obscure title, which is a shame. Or maybe not, because it's now waiting and ready to be discovered afresh by new viewers. The movie is a real pleasure: Lewis's immature dreams of thundering hooves and burning deserts are a heavenly break from the problems of today.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Hearts of the West rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.