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Welcome to Hard Times

Welcome to Hard Times(1967)

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teaser Welcome to Hard Times (1967)

Welcome to Hard Times is a good name for this 1967 western because the film hit hard times indeed when it opened theatrically. The swinging sixties were in full swing and old-fashioned Western shoot-em-ups just weren't relevant anymore. The only way you could market a Western then was to appeal to an older and decidedly smaller audience by casting big name stars like John Wayne. Or you could try to attract younger, more hip audiences by jazzing up the Western formula with an art film approach (The Outrage, Martin Ritt's 1964 remake of Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon), or mixing in other genre elements, like mad scientists and monsters (Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter, 1966). The truth is that the most successful Westerns during this transitory time were either comedies (Cat Ballou (1965), Support Your Local Sheriff, 1969), or imports from Italy (A Fistful of Dollars).

Welcome to Hard Times didn't fit into either of these categories although it did LOOK like a Western from the old school. Originally produced for television but released theatrically, it featured Henry Fonda in the lead role and the supporting cast was a virtual who's who of the Western genre - Warren Oates, John Anderson, Royal Dano, Edgar Buchanan, Denver Pyle, Paul Fix, Elisha Cook Jr., Keenan Wynn, and Aldo Ray as the meanest pyromaniac in the West. But the mood of the film was another matter entirely. Here is a Western where the hero is a spineless wimp and it's not played for laughs. Audiences didn't want to see Henry Fonda playing a coward and they stayed away in droves. But if you approach the film as an allegory - Think High Plains Drifter (1973) with Clint Eastwood and you've got the idea - you'll find an intriguing tale about how difficult it is for people to take a moral stand on anything, even when it threatens their whole way of life.

Welcome to Hard Times, based on a novel by E. L. Doctorow, the author of Ragtime, was one of several non-traditional Westerns that Henry Fonda made during the mid-sixties, the others being The Rounders (1965), A Big Hand For the Little Lady (1966), and Once Upon a Time in the West (1969). The title of the film was apt because Henry Fonda was also going through some rough times offscreen with his son Peter. In his autobiography, My Life, he said:"I was in Arizona making Welcome to Hard Times when I heard that my son was to go on trial in Municipal Court in downtown Los Angeles for drug possession. Well, I flew into town, put on my most conservative suit, and drove to the courtroom....When Peter was called to the stand, he couldn't have been a worst defendant. Every time the prosecutor asked him a question, Peter gave him a wisecrack and then turned to the judge or the jury to see if he'd landed a laugh. He didn't look at me because I would have given him the signal to stop it and play it straight. But he went on like that for the better part of the morning, trying for laughs instead of trying for an acquittal...When the court adjourned for an hour....Peter and I started out for lunch. "Listen," I told him, 'you're handling this in the wrong way. You're dressed crazy enough to make them believe you are on drugs. If you think you're going to win over those twelve good men and women in the jury box, you're out of your head. You've got to persuade that judge and jury that you're honest, sober, that you're an upright citizen, not some kind of comic.' "Peter got the message. He listened to me and said, "You're right, Dad!" After lunch he played the scene just as I told him - straight....By the end of the day Peter was found not guilty, and I think the other two boys may have drawn a year's probation. And that's the last time Peter caused me any trouble."

That wasn't the case with daughter Jane who was just about to bare all in Barbarella. But's that's another story.

When Welcome to Hard Times opened theatrically, it received decidedly mixed reviews. Bosley Crowther of the New York Times wrote, "It's different, all right. It's listless, haphazard, and there isn't a single person in it with whom you're made to identify. Not even Mr. Fonda, who walks through it drearily." Richard Schickel of Life magazine was more objective, stating that the film "may be a bit hard to take for those who insist on purity in the Western form. Certainly the violence of the film, though infrequent, is far too savage for exposure to childish or squeamish eyes, even though one can truthfully say that it is esthetically justified...It may be imperfect, but it is well worth the attention of anyone who cares about such matters."

Henry Fonda, however, was his own worst critic, later admitting, "[Director-scripter Burt Kennedy] and I went into it with a great deal of enthusiasm, meaning we committed outselves to the project based on the strength of our mutual enthusiasm for the book...It didn't work as a picture, but I wasn't surprised because by the time we got to the production I knew it wouldn't."

Producer: David Karr, Hank Moonjean, Max E. Youngstein
Director: Burt Kennedy
Screenplay: Burt Kennedy, E.L. Doctorow (novel)
Cinematography: Harry Stradling Jr.
Film Editing: Aaron Stell
Art Direction: Carl Anderson, George W. Davis
Music: Harry Sukman
Cast: Henry Fonda (Mayor Will Blue), Janice Rule (Molly Riordan), Keenan Wynn (Zar), Janis Paige (Adah), John Anderson (Ezra/Isaac Maple), Warren Oates (Deputy Marshal Leo Jenks).
C-103m. Letterboxed.

by Jeff Stafford

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