Director: Jerry Paris
Writers: Jerry Belson and Garry Marshall
By Marilyn Ferdinand
When I started writing this post two days ago, Henry Gibson was alive. Now he’s not. What started as an appreciation of a wildly silly movie is now tinged with sadness. But I know Gibson wouldn’t want us to dwell on what’s now missing, but rather on what he left behind for us to enjoy until we join him. So onward, corny comedy fans!
Evil Roy Slade is fall-down funny from start to finish. I know this empirically because I fell off the couch laughing and had trouble maintaining my balance all along the way. Ask the hubby. He was there. Ask Fluffy. She was so startled by my uncharacteristic guffaws that she hid in her house and chewed nervously on Mousey for half the movie.
Is it just me and the time into which I was born that makes me love this TV movie so much? Its creative team of Paris, Belson, and Marshall, TV veterans all, had the charmingly witty “The Dick Van Dyke Show” in common before they teamed to do this western outlaw spoof. Would younger viewers find a speech like “I ain’t giving up. I’ve worked hard. It took me years to work my way to the bottom,” funny? How about all the physical comedy? I’ve always been a sucker for a great pratfall. Well, I’m betting that there’s a lot of life in this old film yet, if the continued popularity of Blazing Saddles is any indication. In fact, I do declare that Evil Roy Slade is better than Blazing Saddles, even if (or because) it’s only black character is named Smith.
HAVOC is emblazoned over scenes of bank robberies and explosions as Evil Roy Slade (John Astin at his finest), rejected as an infant by Indians and wolves alike and forced to change his own diapers while raising himself in the desert, warms himself in the exquisite joy of his own evilness. His most frequent target to thieve is Western Express; Nelson “I AM Western Express” Stool (Mickey Rooney) is fed up with the cowardice (“What do you call a nephew who rode side-saddle till he was 24?”) of his nephew Clifford Stool (Henry Gibson) in failing to bring Slade to justice. But his efforts to recruit the greatest lawman in the West, Marshall Bing “Is there someone at the door?” Bell (Dick Shawn), have been fruitless.
At that moment, Slade and his gang are robbing another bank. As is Slade’s custom, he kisses the first available woman. Dissatisfied with the dusty taste of the woman’s ruby red lips—forgetting that he kissed her through his mask—he sees the lovely Betsy Potter (Pamela Austin) glancing demurely in his direction. He lowers his mask, plants a good one on her, and drags a pen attached to a desk to her so she can write her address on a stolen $5 bill.
At Betsy’s urging, Slade tries to go straight, but in the end, finds he is not done with “Sneakin’ – Lyin’ – Arrogance – Dirty – Evil.” Marshall Bell is finally induced with a picture of Betsy in her skivvies to come out of retirement, his jeweled guitar ready to gun Slade down in “E Sharp or B Flat.”
Paris and company keep the jokes, both verbal and visual, coming fast and furious. Evil Roy Slade sends up everything from singing cowboys to psychoanalysis with good-natured humor that never gets raunchy. Astin’s twinkling eyes and maniacal grin have never been in better form. Gibson does his innocent poet voice from “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In,” which can make any fan of that show burst out laughing in recognition. Rooney doesn’t really seem to know how to get laughs with his trusted bulldog Custer, resorting to wiping his mouth with a silk handkerchief; he really didn’t need anything more than his manic energy. Pamela Austin as the wide-eyed blonde worth cleaning up for is sweet, if generic; there’s one like her in every generation of films. Shawn never needs to do much of anything to be funny; a comedian more in control of his body we’ll never find. Pat Morita, as Bell’s Indian servant Turhan, affects an almost Scottish accent that I found wickedly ridiculous.
Rounding out the all-star cast are Milton Berle as Betsy’s uncle, who never expected Roy to use a shoe horn to intimidate customers at Berle’s shoe store; Edie Adams as Floozy, I mean Flossie, Roy’s girl until Betsy usurps her (“Who wants Flossie?”); and Dom DeLuise as psychiatrist Logan Delp, who tries to cure Roy of his anger by making him cry with reminders of Roy’s lonely youth and the cactus in his diaper. The scene where Delp gets Roy to drop all his weapons and walk forward (“Walk to me! Ohhh, Roy walk to me, you sniveling little coward! Walk!”) is like Clara’s walking scene from Heidi gone horribly wrong. Look for cameos of Ed Begley, Jr. and John Ritter at the start of their careers, and Garry Marshall’s sister Penny as a bank teller.
Here’s the opening of the film to give you a taste of an era of comedy that may be past but will never really go out of style. Stay to the end of the video for the immortal campfire song, “Stubby Index Finger,” and the very recent graduate to angel, Henry Gibson, who hums along. I imagine that he’s already asked for a Jew’s harp instead of the regular kind to while away eternity. Happy trails, Henry. l