Saturday, May 16, 2009

cinema obscura: John G. Avildsen's "W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings" (1975)

Good old boy Burt Reynolds with (from left) Don Williams, Rick Hurst, Jerry Reed, James Hampton and Conny Van Dyke in John G. Avildsen's delightful "W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings" (1975)
I miss Burt Reynolds movies the same way I miss Doris Day films.

Both stars made me feel good - but not in the hackneyed "feel-good" way. They made me happy. They were both good company.

Reynolds' career as a major movie star was sadly fleeting, reminding me of Ernest Dowson's haunting poem, "They Are Not Long":

"They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
Love and desire and hate:
I think they have no portion in us after
We pass the gate.
They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for awhile, then closes
Within a dream."

Burt's star shone all-too-briefly and then seemed to close within a dream. He reigned in the 1970s, during which he defined his star persona - part scamp, part playboy - largely on Johnny Carson's couch on "The Tonight Show" (which is where we really got to know him), while he worked hard to stretch himself as a film actor in a series of features for good directors which, in retrospect, now seem impressively varied and ambitious.

I can't think of another actor of his magnitude who was so nakedly sincere about improving himself. Burt Reynolds was a student of film, perhaps the only studio-system actor to operate without a studio. He arrived too late. Actually, Burt was born too late. The studio system was long dead when he came on the scene. I've a strong hunch that Jack Warner, Darryl F. Zanuck and Harry Cohn would have loved him.

All of this is in premable to celebrating the Fox Movie Channel's screening - at 4:30 p.m. on May 19th - of Burt's charming and difficult-to-see "W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings," one of four titles he made in 1975.

The movie year 1975 is memorable for such titles as Steven Spielberg's "Jaws," Robert Altman's "Nashville" and Stanley Kubrick's "Barry Lyndon," among others, but beyond those classics were the four that Burt made. In addition to John G. Avildsen's "Dancekings," there are Robert Aldrich's "Hustle," Stanley Donen's "Lucky Lady" and my beloved "At Long Last Love," directed by Peter Bogdanovich.

On paper, these all looked great - they still do - but in reality... Well, who remembers or cares about any of them? Well, I do (he says defiantly).

I've written here at length about "At Long Last Love" (and on two occasions); the bracing "Hustle" has a small cult of supporters who compare it to the work of Jean-Pierre Melville; and "Lucky Lady" was undermined when Fox decided the dark tone of its original ending (truly poignant and the point of the movie) was too disturbing and reshot it.

Of these four, "W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings" is the tiniest - a sour-mash-flavored road film about a rickety country-western group with a pleasing sound and its shady, incorrigible manager, W.W. Bright (Burt natch). Ned Beatty is the piece's well-fed villain; the appealing Conny Van Dyke (who made Phil Karlson's terrific "Framed" the same year and then seemingly dropped out of sight) is the female lead, and the supporting cast includes such female stalwarts as Louise Latham (uncredited), Peg Murray, Polly Holliday, Nancy Andrews, as well as James Hampton, Burt's pal, the late Jerry Reed, and, in an amusing cameo, Art Carney.

But it's Burt's film. He's light and appealing - grinning, blowing bubble gum and generally flirting with everyone in sight, men as well as woman.

For a long time, "W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings," almost impossible to see, seemed like a dream. Elusive. Now, thanks to the Fox Movie Channel, it's back at least one more time to be enjoyed.

My recorder is ready.


janet l. said...

Molly Haskell once wrote - I'm paraphrasing - that Burt Reynolds was made for warm nights and cool drinks. I hope I got that right. I do know that Haskell was a fan of his work in the '70s

Dan Buskirk said...

I didn't realize this has gone unissued on DVD. I loved this when I saw it in the theater as a kid, I remember being real curious about the old bluesman, who I later realized was the Memphis blues great Furry Lewis. I guess Avidsen made this just before ROCKY.

joe baltake said...

Yes, Dan, Furry Lewis has a tiny showcase in the film, and a couple other bluesmen. I think "W.W." was on VHS but only very briefly. The only place to see it now is on the Fox Channel. Hope you get to see it again. I'd be interested in your thoughts.

joe baltake said...


I think that quote is from Haskell's review of "Gator." Yes, she was a big Reynolds fan.

jbryant said...

Yeah, I should've recorded this. Haven't seen it since the original run, but I remember having a good time with it.

Jonathan said...

Did you happen to see the original ending of "Lucky Lady"?

joe baltake said...

Yes, it was a sad ending, poignant and kind of bracing. It changed the film. At the time, Reynolds blamed Donen, but it was definitely the studio. Fox still has the footage (actually, two new endings were films) - Fox included it in a syndicated special about outtakes.

wwolfe said...

I've always been a big Reynolds fan, for exactly the reasons everyone has mentioned here. Can't help but wonder how his career might have progressed had Pauline Kael been a fan, rather than a constant detractor. (And don't get me started on how peeved I was, and still am, that the Academy awarded Robin Williams, rather than Burt for his amazing work in "Boogie Nights.") I haven't seen "Dancekings," but just the name alone was enough to make me smile. I bet I'd like it a lot, too, if I ever got the chance to see it.

Kevin Deany said...

I was about 12 when I saw W.W. at my local theater, the Dolton Theater in Dolton, IL, which in the 1970s showed every Burt Reynolds movie that came down the pike. W.W. played on a double bill with a re-issue of "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." Terrific twin bill. I haven't seen W.W. since, but have very fond memories of it.

joe baltake said...


I couldn't agree with you more. Burt was robbed when he lost to Williams that year. But, if you recall, he made a lot of strangely derisive comments about "Boogie Nights" which, frankly, never made sense. I don't know what came over him. He seemed to dismiss the film and his own wonderful performance in it.

Carrie said...

Burt Reynolds is to '70s films what Clark Gable was to the '30s and George Clooney is to the 'oughties: sly, suave, self-deprecating and considerably smarter than he let on. I agree with wwolfe that his perf in "Boogie Nights" was extraodinary, likewise in a nice little late '80s fim, "Breaking In." As some of you may know, Joe and I teasure him in "At Long Last Love." I loved him in "Smokey and the Bandit" and "The Longest Yard," too. For about 10 years he was the guarantee of a good time and a good movie. Best performance: "Starting Over" probably.

larry aydlette said...

Love Burt. Have been wanting to see this one again for awhile.

John Kaiser said...

My favorite Reynolds movies are "Smokey and the Bandit" which we saw at the drive-in I don't know how many times, "Hooper", "Breaking In" and his cameo in "Silent Movie".

MrsHenryWindleVale said...

I should probably chime in as someone else who loves "At Long Last Love." It's what got me talking to Carrie R. and Joe B., actually.

I like Reynolds a lot in "Hustle" -- which makes me think of early '70s Fassbinder, rather than Melville. I'd also stand up for his performances in the first "Longest Yard" and in "Semi-Tough."

"Mrs HWV"-a.k.a. Chris Sch.

John Kaiser said...

How could I forget "Semi-Tough"????? Aaaaargh!!!!

Defragged Memory said...

OMG...Amazed at the magnitude of people I have found on the web wishing and itching to see W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings. I was six years old when I saw this and now 36 years pass for me to find I am not alone with wonder about this film. Today I was turned on by a friend to IMDB after having a conversation about my first bag of popcorn and my fragmented childhood memory. I could not remember the Title, or much of the plot, but I have thought of this movie often over the years, asking hundreds of people if they could remember a flick like this and always told no. My father couldn't remember anything about it, or even taking me for that matter, but that's a different subject...moving on. After a couple of search words and clicks, there it was. Guess I would had more luck finding it by now if I hadn't convinced myself over the years that James Garner was playing the lead role. Why couldn't I remember Burt...He is one of my favorite actors when I was a child! He still is a great actor. So, I try to find this film on netflix, and I wind up here. Its funny now thinking about it...I am still using rabbit ears and no digital box or desire to get one since Netflix usually fills my needs, UNTIL now. Guess I will have to break down and cable up so I can request FMC to run it again for me. Back to IMDB to defrag more memories...

Defragged Memory said...

Hey Joe,

Just read your about me. Its nice.

Raised in the country and po...yes po, because we couldn't afford an extra 'o' and 'r' at the end; i "feel" your comments on being liberated by watching films. I only saw two movies in my first 13 years in a theater, so the televsion was my liberator.

After I posted my first comment I began reading your webpage, and another misplaced memory was restored about a little theater I saw on my television set every week called Matinee at the Bijou. I believe it was a P.B.S series. It was a great escape for me as a child. Did you ever watch this series and if so, any comments on it about liberation?

joe baltake said...

Dear Defragged Memory-

I lo-o-oved your responses to my site in general and to my "Dixie Dancekings" post in particular (which is shown reguarly on Fox). No, I never had the chance to watch Matinee at the Bijou. After reading your reponses, I which I had! Keep in touch!