James Stewart and Henry Fonda starred together in 1968's Firecreek, a pretty solid western that pitted the two legends against each other as adversaries. Friends off the screen, the duo didn't wait long to team up again, working together on 1970's The Cheyenne Social Club.
It's 1867 in Texas and two cowboys, John O'Hanlan (Stewart) and Harley Sullivan (Fonda), are doing what they do best, punching cows on a cattle ranch, when John receives a long overdue telegram. His brother has died and has left him his business, an establishment called the Cheyenne Social Club in Wyoming. The cowboys saddle up and head north to see what's up, but they're in for a surprise. Upon arrival, they meet Jenny (Shirley Jones) at the club and quickly realize that the Cheyenne Social Club is actually a whorehouse. John had been dead set on being a property owner, but now he faces an ethical situation. Does he continue on as owner or does he switch things up, turn it into a boarding house? The city of Cheyenne may have something to say about that.
Considering the year this flick was released -- 1970 -- it's a bit of an oddity. Spaghetti westerns were still very popular in Europe, and in America a trend toward revisionist westerns with a darker tone was on the upward swing. How then does a fairly light, sexually suggestive story fit in? Surprisingly well. Oh, and the director is dancer/actor Gene Kelly?!? It's a weird, pretty out there formula that just works. It doesn't rewrite the genre, and it has its funny moments with some sexually suggestive dialogue. The tone is appropriate (light) with some darker moments late. It's been generally forgotten since its release in 1970, but it's a solid American western from an era where there just weren't many solid American westerns.
It doesn't take a nuclear scientist to figure out the main appeal here. The chemistry between Stewart and Fonda is on display here from the opening scene. Stewart does what he does best, a sort of prickly, high-voiced cowboy with some eccentricities. Mostly though, he'd just like to have something of his own in terms of property, a business, some land. Fonda's Harley reminded me of his part in The Rounders (with Glenn Ford), an easy-going, even laconic cowboy who goes with the wind. He's talkative, rambling on almost incessantly, completely oblivious that he's even doing it. His Harley just enjoys life for the little things and goes with the flow. Their cowboy partnership working cattle drives and ranches together goes back 10 years (apparently they avoided the Civil War entirely), a history that's hinted at more than directly addressed. It's two pros doing their thing perfectly and carrying a movie in the process.
I liked the dynamic between the two veteran cowboys and their surprise gaggle of high-class hookers. A pre-Partridge Family Shirley Jones is excellent as Jenny, the head girl at the Social Club who ends up going toe-to-toe with Stewart's John. Her girls of the night include Opal Ann (Sue Ane Langdon), who takes a shining to Harley, Pauline (Elaine Devry), Carrie Virginia (Jackie Russell), Annie Jo (Jackie Joseph), and Sara Jean (Sharon DeBord). Also look for Robert Middleton as an amiable and angry bartender, Arch Johnson as Cheyenne's sheriff, Robert J. Wilke as a revenge-seeking gunslinger and Dabbs Greer as John's lawyer.
As a western, I liked the message 'Club' goes for. Stewart's John begins to question what he really wants to do with his life. He delivers a good monologue late laying it all out. The longtime friendship comes under fire late when John goes after the wrong man in town, setting his family down on Cheyenne and the Social Club. That's really the only action on display in the 102-minute movie, but it's an enjoyable action set piece. It's a good movie I'm having trouble analyzing. Maybe it's not meant to be. If you like westerns, James Stewart and Henry Fonda, you'll like this one.
The Cheyenne Social Club (1970): ***/****