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Hot Lead and Cold Feet

Hot Lead and Cold Feet(1978)

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teaser Hot Lead and Cold Feet (1978)

Darren McGavin and Don Knotts are probably two of the most talented actors to ever appear in a family comedy about twin brothers vying to inherit a town in the old west, Hot Lead and Cold Feet. No, McGavin and Knotts don't play the brothers, they play the town's corrupt mayor and its not so corrupt sheriff, respectively, and it's their talent, charisma, and sheer energy that keeps the whole movie afloat.

Hot Lead and Cold Feet is a live action Disney movie from 1978 and if there was one thing Disney live action films specialized in, it was getting supremely talented people to enliven silly throwaway stories. In fact, Disney Studios built up a stable of stars who populated their movies, from Ken Berry to Kurt Russell, who were immensely underrated and never taken as seriously as they could or should have been due to their association with the kiddie movie crowd. But make no mistake, they were as talented as any A-list Oscar winner. It could be reasonably argued that Don Knotts and Tim Conway, appearing in Disney's The Apple Dumpling Gang, were one of the best comedy teams in the movies.

The story of Hot Lead and Cold Feet starts when Jasper Bloodshy, played by Jim Dale, returns to the old west town Bloodshy, the town he founded, to divide up his estate properly. He is met by Mayor Ragsdale (McGavin) and Sheriff Denver Kid (Knotts) who believe that the town will be bequeathed to Bloodshy's dangerous gunslinger son, Wild Billy Bloodshy (also Dale). To their surprise, they're informed that there is another brother, Eli (Dale yet again), a missionary in Philadelphia who has now been included in the will. The two brothers are to be brought together and forced to compete for the town itself. Of course, Mayor Ragsdale would rather have the town for himself. As with any Disney live action movie from this period, the requisite hijinks do indeed ensue.

Hot Lead and Cold Feet is the kind of silly story that Disney and other studios used to make for kids. In a way, it was the last time there actually were movies made just for kids. Instead of filling the movie with in-jokes and cultural references that only adults would get, the movie aims to entertain children and the actors understand that, playing their roles as broadly as they can. That's not to say there's anything wrong with making movies both adults and children can enjoy, it's just that there was a time when movies made primarily for kids weren't overly concerned with what the adults thought at all and if the acting was good enough, they'd be entertained anyway.

The movie brings to the fore a host of talent from Disney's studios. Most of the names involved had either worked for Disney before or had literally worked only for Disney. The director, Robert Butler, was already an old pro with Disney live action movies, having directed The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, The Barefoot Executive, and Now You See Him, Now You Don't, all for Disney and all starring perhaps the greatest actor Disney ever employed, Kurt Russell. He also had decades of experience in television, with dozens upon dozens of shows under his belt, something good to have when working with actors who honed their craft on television, like McGavin and Knotts, and were used to the no-nonsense efficiency of working on a limited budget and a strict timetable.

By 1978, Don Knotts had long been established as one of the greatest comedy actors of all time and his name alone was enough to sell the movie in the markets where it played. Knotts was the kind of actor that brought his talent and enthusiasm to every job, no matter how big or small, and made the director's job almost meaningless, at least the part of the job directing the actors. Knotts was the kind of actor who knew how to play broad comedy in a way that didn't seem too big or too desperate for laughs. Maybe it was his face, maybe it was his lanky frame, but whatever it was, Knotts never gave a comedic performance that didn't work.

Darren McGavin, by this point, had become a star on television as intrepid investigator of the paranormal, Carl Kolchak, in Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Rather than being typecast as a horror tv actor, he consistently stretched himself onscreen, taking on roles like this one as a corrupt mayor, or a conniving sports reporter in The Natural, or the beloved and befuddled father of A Christmas Story.

The lead roles of the twin brothers, and their father, are tackled by one man, Jim Dale. Dale was an English actor who had made a splash with Disney just a year before in their big-budget musical Pete's Dragon. Before that, he had made his mark in more than a few of the legendary Carry On films, movies that made up more than half of his resume before teaming up with Disney.

Joining Knotts, McGavin, and Dale is an assortment of talent as dependable as they are diverse. Karen Valentine plays the love interest, Jack Elam plays the town's wannabe sheriff, and John Williams, the great English actor who sends Ray Milland up the river in Alfred Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder, is on hand as Mansfield, the manservant of the Bloodshy patriarch. All told, the solid cast make for an entertaining romp and Hot Lead and Cold Feet serves as a reminder of another time when G-rated live action movies, made just for kids, roamed the earth.

By Greg Ferrara

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