The Great Depression. Man, I'm good at writing introductions to these reviews, aren't I? For every well-known Depression-era movie out there, it seems like there's that many more generally forgotten in a wave of flicks. Here's one I stumbled across on a cable movie channel recently and simply couldn't pass up because of an impressive cast, 1971's Fools' Parade.
It's 1935 and three convicts are being released from a West Virginia penitentiary, including Mattie Appleyard (James Stewart), Lee (Strother Martin) and Johnny (Kurt Russell), all of them having served their sentence for varying crimes. They're driven to the train station by a vicious prison guard, Doc Council (George Kennedy), who ominously states that he'll see them soon. The trio boards the train with plans of opening a general store down the train line, using Mattie's hard-earned savings as a bankroll to get things started. There's a problem though as they get further away from the town and penitentiary. Mattie's check -- earned and saved from 40 years in prison -- can only be cashed back in Glory...where they've been less than pleasantly told to never come back. If they do, Council will be waiting for them. That's not their only problem. Council may not even be waiting that long to hunt them down...
From the older classic like The Grapes of Wrath to the newer entries like O, Brother, Where Art Thou, Depression-era flicks are a cool little genre of flicks that doesn't always get a ton of attention. Maybe it's the whole soul-killing tone of these flicks. Maybe. I don't know. The 1970's especially had some cool entries, including this flick, Emperor of the North Pole, Hard Times, Paper Moon and Dillinger among others. 'Parade' belongs in that group. It's dark(ish), gritty and has the look and feel of one of America's roughest historical stretches.
So why then does this 1971 drama with some light comedy touches have virtually no reputation? Virtually no following? Well, for starters, it most definitely and assuredly is very, very odd. I can't specifically put a finger on said oddness, but it is. It's there. It...is...odd. Maybe as close as I can get is the tone, or lack of. From director Andrew McLaglen and a screenplay by James Lee Barrett, 'Parade' is just a bit of an oddball flick. It's able to build up an impressive sense of doom early on but it never quite takes off. Things slowly derail as the 98-minute running time nears its finish. Still, this is a movie that's never dull or boring. Very watchable, just odd.
Sometimes, an all over the place tone comes in second to something, anything else that's far more appealing. Here, that's easy. It's the cast. That cast. We mostly follow our three recently-freed crooks in Stewart, Martin and Russell. Stewart's Mattie served a 40-year sentence for killing two men, Martin's Lee six years for bank robbery, and Russell's Johnny a shorter sentence for an incident with a girl that's generally left unexplained. The story doesn't linger long on our trio's past criminal transgressions (wisely), instead focusing on them trying to start over again, albeit at different points in their lives. I especially liked Stewart as Mattie, sporting a bizarre-looking glass eye, the oldest of the three who most strongly wants that fresh start. He stashed away all his money during his 40-year sentence (earning a ridiculous-sounding $25,000) and now meets all sorts of roadblocks in getting that cash. Martin's Lee is seemingly a little simple-minded in his obsession with putting together a general store inventory while Russell's Johnny is stubbornly loyal to Mattie. Still, there's something charming about the trio, and there is a solid chemistry among the group.
An interesting cast all-around. When he wanted to, George Kennedy could play one interesting bad guy, and that's on display here. It's just creepy watching him. You're rooting for him to get his due and get it badly. Who else to watch for? An unrecognizable Anne Baxter as a madam who's fallen on hard times, William Windom as an unlucky traveling salesman, Mike Kellin and Morgan Paull as Doc's oddball killers, Robert Donner as a train conductor, Katherine Cannon as Baxter's lone "girl," and David Huddleston as the greedy bank owner. Quite the eclectic bunch!
I can't quite put my finger on it as to 'why' exactly, but I very much enjoyed this movie. Though the subject matter is dark, it is an easy-going, mostly pleasant movie. Yeah, it is a touch slow at times for a movie that runs just 98-minutes, but it is never dull. The West Virginia filming locations are an ideal backdrop for the story as well, giving it an authentic sense of watching where this story would have actually happened. Worth a watch. Apparently, it's somewhat difficult to find so here's my help to the situation. I watched it on Retro, a movie channel coupled with the Encore package on cable. It's a movie I recommend tracking down. Hope you enjoy it!
Fools' Parade (1971): ***/****