' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings (1975)

Friday, June 23, 2017

Friday's Old Fashioned: W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings (1975)

As W.W. Bright (Burt Reynolds) watches the fledgling country band Dixie (Conny Van Dyke) and her Dancekings, of whom he has appointed himself manager, in a manner of speaking, play to no one but a bartender in some small dive, he asks said bartender: “You think they got anything going for them?” She replies: “The best thing they got going for ‘em is you, that combination of horse manure and sincerity.” W.W. takes this in and, after the bartender has moved along, reasons aloud, “You know, she’s right.” Yes. She is. There might be an alternate version of “W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings” out there, the one that screenwriter Thomas Richman apparently intended that did not make it to screen, which so vexed Quentin Tarantino that he cites it as a reason he wanted to write movies, where the plight of the Dixie and the Dancekings and their ascent to the Grand Ole Opry is paramount. But that’s not the version director John G. Avildsen put on screen. No, this version, which is both busy, underscored by Avildsen indulging in every dissolve in the book, and laconic, mirroring its low-pressure leading man, is a star vehicle, totally and truly, opening with Reynolds as W.W. cruising down some country road in his 1955 Golden Anniversary Oldsmobile Rocket and right past a billboard declaring “Christ is coming soon.” W.W. smiles and you can’t help but think he thinks that sign portends his own arrival. Not many actors could get away with it, but Burt Reynolds’ combination of horse manure and sincerity carries the day. No one’s God complex ever looked so charismatically aw-shucks.

“W.W and the Dixie Dancekings” is such a star vehicle, in fact, that it allows a good half-hour of its star, playing a Tennessee con artist cum mostly good guy, to just sort of wander around from problem to problem, place to place, person to person, as if trying to determine what kind of movie he wants this to be. At one point he squires some young lady we don’t even see him meet to the drive-in where they watch “The Sun Also Rises” allowing him to opine on Errol Flynn. We never see W.W. watching “Adventures of Robin Hood”, probably because no self-respecting southern man would be caught dead watching men run around tights, but W.W. seems to model himself after Robin Hood anyway, robbing S.O.S. gas stations and only S.O.S. gas stations, evading capture by tipping the attendant and effusing charisma, an extension, of course, of Reynolds’s own movie star wattage.

That alone might have been compelling enough for a standalone movie, especially given the eventual presence of John Wesley Gore (Art Carney), a one-timed lawman turned devout Deacon, hired by the S.O.S. chairman (Sherman Lloyd) to ascertain who’s been plundering all their filling stations. Though little about “W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings” suggests reality, and thank God for that, this sequence between the Chairman and the Deacon, with thunder rolling outside and the dialogue pitched to a hammy boil, still feels, as Deacon Gore himself does, like broad caricature compared to everything else. It’s as if Deacon Gore, so fanatical in his Biblical obeyance, so devoted to vengeance against those whose devotion to God is suspect, has come marching in from a complete different movie, which, come to think of it, might well make it just right, as if he really was in another movie, got wind of W.W.’s antics and decided to re-cast himself to keep order over here.

In the end, W.W.’s reasons for turning to robbery have less to do with any kind of ideals than a helpful set-up for when he needs quick cash to help spur success for the Dixie and the Dancekings, whom he only encounters one night after escaping the clutches of a state trooper. But by bringing the band into the scheme, W.W. implicates them too, which gives Deacon Gore the chance to swoop in and put them all away, and right before the requisite Grand Ole Opry climax, a musical number which is refreshingly low-key, befitting the weekly concert’s barn dance origins rather than the over the top Opryland it’s become. W.W., however, intervenes by taking the fall, which brings us back to that “Christ is coming soon” billboard, as if this con artist is coming clean by sacrificing himself for the greater good. That doesn’t quite happen, however, because the movie lets him off the hook. It does, one might argue, because of a deus ex machina, but then the deus ex machina is Burt Reynolds. He is the star of the movie; the movie is the machine; he is its god.

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