Seen by Martin before? No
What did I expect? I had not heard of this movie. I vaguely expected a sober, arid western.
What did I get? The Cheyenne Social Club is an innocuous and likeable western starring James Stewart and Henry Fonda. The idea of the movie is that Stewart and Fonda are two itinerant ranchers (i.e. losers) working in Texas, but then Stewart learns that he’s inherited property in Wyoming. When they reach Cheyenne, Stewart finds out that what he’s inherited is a brothel, but some aspiration to respectability in him powerfully resists the idea of his owning a whorehouse, and his attempts to dismantle the beloved institution bring him a fair amount of trouble.
Fonda plays Sancho Panza to Stewart’s Quixote, and The Cheyenne Social Club takes a great deal of pleasure puncturing Stewart’s simpleminded pretensions and misapprehensions. It’s primarily a comedy that incorporates a few familiar staples of the western genre (a barroom brawl, a quick-draw showdown, a big siege) a bit less comfortably, almost perfunctorily. Those more serious sequences are done competently enough, but not with great conviction.
Watching it a second time, it finally hit me that the considerable social differences between 1970 and 2011 have managed to obscure, almost entirely, one of the movie’s central conceits. You see, Stewart spends the whole movie running around telling people that in his native Texas they don’t approve of all this brothel business, but he can’t find anyone in Cheyenne who doesn’t regard the Social Club as a perfectly salutary organization — even quite respectable people like bankers and lawyers think this. Now you have to watch very attentively for this to catch it, but it’s supposed to be a real knee-slapper that even bankers and lawyers are positively enthusiastic about this, this … whorehouse! They’re just that randy or progressive or comfortable with their sexuality, or something. But in 2011, that’s simply one of a number of perfectly defensible positions to take, it’s not at all “weird” that someone educated or established might think this. The joke just doesn’t exist for us.
Thus, in an odd way, the movie isn’t just dated in that it looks and feels a lot more like Rio Bravo (1959) than McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), which it does. It’s also super extra dated in that our social assumptions have changed so much we can hardly recognize one of the movie’s central jokes for what it is.
What here smacks of 1970? Very, very little. Some of the widescreen exterior transitional footage feels like 1970. Everything else feels like 1960.
IMDB score: 6.7
My score: 6
Director: Gene Kelly
Writer: James Lee Barrett
Starring: Henry Fonda, James Stewart, Shirley Jones, Sue Ane Langdon, Elaine Devry, Charles Tyner
IMDB synopsis: John is working as a cow poke for very little money with his friend Harley when he gets word his brother, DJ, has left him The Cheyenne Social Club. He and Harley ride for nearly a thousand miles to his inheritance only to find he is now the owner of a first class brothel.