The Fastest Guitar Alive
Cast & Crew
During the last months of the Civil War, Johnny Banner and Steve Menlo cross the plains in a horse-drawn medicine wagon, a cover for their actual roles as Confederate spies planning to rob a government mint. Johnny scares off a band of Indians with a rifle concealed in his guitar when the caravan is attacked. The medicine wagon is accompanied by another wagon transporting a bevy of dancing barmaids, including the Chestnut sisters, Sue and Flo, who love Johnny and Steve. Johnny's girl, unaware that his only purpose is to get information about the mint, becomes jealous when Johnny starts giving guitar lessons to the governor's daughter. Once the mint has been robbed of $150,000, the two wagons set out to deliver the gold to a Confederate general. Then word arrives that the war is over, and Johnny and Steve realize they are no longer Southern patriots but common thieves. Their efforts to return the gold to the authorities are complicated by the conniving Charlie Mansfield, a Barbary Coast spy for whom they previously worked, but the troupe finally escapes with the assistance of the Indians. In exchange for the shooting guitar, Johnny and his friends are assured of safe passage to a Union fort where they plan to surrender their bounty.
Iron Eyes Cody
Sam The Sham
Daniel M. White
George W. Davis
Jerome F. Katzman
W. Wallace Kelley
Robert E. Kent
Donald C. Klune
Joseph J. Stone
The Fastest Guitar Alive
So what did MGM do? Instead of showcasing his musical talent in a contemporary setting, they cast him in The Fastest Guitar Alive (1967), a comedic Western in which Roy plays a Confederate spy who steals a shipment of Union gold with his partner Sammy Jackson. The most-wanted duo soon team up with the Chesnut Sisters (Joan Freeman and Maggie Pierce), two dance-hall girls who accompany our heroes as dangerous renegades pursue them from town to town. The film's key gimmick is Orbison's guitar, which also functions as a rifle, hence the title. Luckily, Orbison gets to sing too and the songs include "Good Time Party," "Rollin' On," and "Whirlwind." Yes, not one of them is a recognizable hit for good reason, but where else are you going to see Roy Orbison in a silly Civil War-era musical? For the sheer curiosity value alone, The Fastest Guitar Alive is required viewing for any Orbison fan and it even features Sam the Sham (without the Pharaohs) in a supporting role. (Sorry, but he doesn't get to perform "Wooly-Bully.")
Orbison is not a natural performer by any stretch of the imagination and sometimes he looks slightly stunned at the dialogue emerging from his own mouth; one standout line delivered with guitar in hand goes "In case you're interested, I can kill you with this and play your funeral march at the same time." But he can also surprise you in unexpected ways. For the "Pistolero" number, he enters singing, wearing a sombrero and dressed completely in black highlighted by a red sash. The dramatic tension builds as he stalks the woman he is serenading like a matador. At the other extreme is a folksy ballad - "River Song" - that really shows off Orbison's plaintive voice. And if you want to understand the meaning of "high camp," you have to see the "Medicine Man" number with Roy performing center stage while background "Indian maiden" dancers go through some Las Vegas showgirl gyrations.
Originally, The Fastest Guitar Alive was supposed to be Elvis Presley's follow-up film to Love Me Tender (1957) but it was eventually rejected in favor of Loving You (1957), an almost autobiographical account of the rock 'n' roll star's climb to fame. So, when Orbison expressed an interest in making a movie, exploitation producer Sam Katzman was happy to offer him the Elvis reject. Katzman had a genius for turning out profitable low-budget quickies - everything from horror thrillers like Zombies of Mora Tau (1957) to pop culture rip-offs like Don't Knock the Twist (1962) - but his instincts were wrong about The Fastest Guitar Alive. Orbison made the film at one of the lowest points of his career. His wife, Claudette, had just been killed in a car accident, his record sales were in decline, and the following year the singer's two sons would die tragically in a house fire.
According to biographer Ellis Amburn in his book, Dark Star: The Roy Orbison Story, "Roy's lapse in judgment in taking the role may have been attributable to the fact that he had always been an avid movie fan, and starring in his own film, however trite, was one of the prerogatives of a rock star that he did not intend to miss." "It was intended to be a serious film," Roy said, "Cat Ballou had just won an Oscar and so they changed it to comedy."
When The Fastest Guitar Alive was released, one critic - John Mahoney of The Hollywood Reporter - voiced what many people felt was an accurate assessment of the film: "Orbison appears unlikely to generate the same kind of celluloid excitement as Elvis Presley. Not only does he look quite different than he sounds, but he is clearly not cut out to carry conventional romantic leading roles...the film has in its favor brevity, the best production values a low budget can buy and seven original songs, likably performed....Orbison gives a good performance and generates a degree of natural charm." It's interesting to ponder what might have happened if Orbison had actually been offered a script that exploited his true, god-given talents. Still, The Fastest Guitar Alive is your only opportunity to see the Vernon, Texas, legend in a starring film role and it's absurd premise makes it an amusing oddity.
Producer: Jerome F. Katzman, Sam Katzman
Director: Michael Moore
Screenplay: Robert E. Kent
Cinematography: W. Wallace Kelley Editing: Ben Lewis
Music: Fred Karger, Roy Orbison
Production Design: George W. Davis, Merrill Pye
Cast: Roy Orbison (Johnny Banner), Sammy Jackson (Steve Menlo), Maggie Pierce (Flo), Joan Freeman (Sue), Lyle Bettger (Charlie), John Doucette (Max), Patricia Donahue (Stella), Ben Cooper (Rink), Domingo Samudio aka Sam the Sham (1st Expressman), Iron Eyes Cody (1st Indian).
By Jeff Stafford
The Fastest Guitar Alive
Elvis Presley was the first choice for the role of Johnny Banner, but he turned down the offer.
Daniel M. White's participation in the cast is unconfirmed.