Sunday, October 20, 2019

Tonight's Movie: Bronco Billy (1980) - A Warner Archive Blu-ray Review

BRONCO BILLY (1980) is a sweet-natured film about a traveling Western show which stars and was directed by Clint Eastwood. It was recently released on Blu-ray by the Warner Archive.

Eastwood plays the titular Bronco Billy, who heads up a struggling, old-fashioned tent show. His employees are an odd lot; for instance, the ringmaster, Doc (Scatman Crothers), did time for practicing medicine without a license. There's also Leonard (Sam Bottoms), a young man Billy taught to do roping tricks; Lefty LeBow (Bill McKinney), who is missing a hand; and Chief Big Eagle (Dan Vadis) and his wife Running Water (Sierra Pecheur), who's not really an Indian, but she's decided she is one anyway.

But then, Billy was originally a shoe salesman from New Jersey who did time for shooting his unfaithful wife, so why not?

The troupe struggles from town to town, barely making ends meet yet finding their communal life satisfying. Into their world comes Antoinette Lily (Sondra Locke), a wealthy heiress whose husband (Geoffrey Lewis) has abandoned her on their wedding night after she makes clear they're married in name only. (It's a complicated story.) "Miss Lily" has been left without even a suitcase, but Bronco Billy and his crew take her under their wing.

When Miss Lily learns that her husband has been arrested for her murder, she decides to get even with him by remaining with Bronco Billy's show, where she works as his assistant. Little does the initially snobby and rude Miss Lily expect to find herself starting to like the life -- and liking Billy even more.

Matters come to a head when the show stops for a visit at a home for the mentally ill where her "husband" has been sentenced to live for life...

This was my first time to see this film, and while it's a bit of an oddball movie, I was charmed. In fact, its offbeat nature is part of the reason I liked it!

The plot is not your run-of-the-mill movie; despite being filled with ex-cons and people doing nutty things -- Billy wants to rob a train at one point?! -- it has a loving and optimistic tone. The themes of people caring for one another and deliberately choosing to remake their lives into something better than their previous existence resonated strongly with me. A scene where Running Water tells Antoinette that she has to decide who she wants to be, with the light bulb almost visibly clicking on in Antoinette's mind, was particularly good.

Although the film is set around the time it was made, circa 1980 -- there's reference to the Vietnam War, among other things -- in many ways this movie feels more like it's set in the Depression era, akin to the recently viewed THE HIGHWAYMEN (2019). It's not just the Wild West show and the hand-to-mouth existence of its performers; the "runaway heiress" theme seems like something out of a '30s screwball comedy. The fact that Locke is garbed for much of the film in an oversized '30s-style house dress, the only thing she can find to wear after her husband hits the road, adds to the impression of the film being set in an earlier era.

Eastwood is terrific in this, simultaneously scary and adorable. His Billy won't put up with a bank being robbed, momentarily turning the character into a Dirty Harry type, and he pitches a fit if his employees don't do what he says. But he will spend his last dollar to save a friend and despite the financial difficulty, he regularly performs free shows for orphans and mental patients. And he's all about being a great role model for children, telling them to eat their oatmeal, mind their parents, and say their bedtime prayers.

I liked the additional theme of kindness sometimes being repaid in unusual ways; the help Billy receives after his tent burns down is quite touching -- and funny. I laughed out loud at the first shot of the replacement tent.

All in all, this is a feel good film which left me with a big smile on my face. I'll happily watch it again in the future and probably not wait very long to do so. I suspect I will appreciate it even more on a second viewing, understanding what's in store.

BRONCO BILLY was written by Dennis Hacklin and filmed by David Worth. It runs 116 minutes.

The Warner Archive Blu-ray is a good-looking widescreen print with a strong soundtrack. The lone extra is the trailer.

Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this Blu-ray. Warner Archive Blu-rays may be ordered from the WBShop or from any online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays are sold.


Blogger Doug K said...

One of my favorite films -- for all the reasons you detailed in your excellent review. Well done, Laura!

3:57 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks very much, Doug! Glad to have you add your endorsement of this movie.

Best wishes,

7:23 PM  

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