by A.J. Hakari
If you jot down a list of the greatest comedy superstars, chances are that John Wayne wouldn’t reach the top fifty. If anything, the Duke’s dominating image is that of the hardened cowpoke showing smarmy greenhorns how little they actually know. But in 1963, Wayne chose to make a departure from his typically macho screen adventures with McLintock!, a lighthearted vehicle that turned out to be an ideal fit. Surrounding one of cinema’s most no-nonsense icons with a cast of larger than life characters was a stroke of genius, resulting in a western farce that saw the cowboy king starring as the ultimate straight man. Of course, it’s hard not to notice when someone opts for the deadpan route in a film like McLintock!, which greets viewers with a cornucopia of hollering and shameless mugging. But the picture does possess its instances of genuine charm and good humor, commendable above all for proving that Wayne was perfectly capable of turning his tough guy reputation on its ear.
There’s hardly a piece of the Old West that doesn’t belong to George Washington McLintock (Wayne). The man has his fingers in everything from mines to cattle ranches, growing so powerful and influential over the years as to have a bustling desert burg named in his honor. Fortunately, he also has the respect of darn near everyone in town, be they simple storekeepers or Native Americans whose rights he’s fighting to protect. The only thing that McLintock doesn’t have much of a hold on is his own family, which has been bringing him ten tons of grief as of yet. Two years after their separation, McLintock’s hot-tempered and hoity-toity wife Katy (Maureen O’Hara) has come back to town, demanding not only a divorce but that their daughter Becky (Stefanie Powers) move out east with her, too. Herself returning home after some time away, a grown-up Becky becomes the object of many a local boy’s affections, including her pop’s newly-hired farmhand (Patrick Wayne). The west is wild enough as it is, but between all these romantic goings-on and an Indian tribe he’s trying to save from being displaced, McLintock’s world is about to get even rowdier.
For a boisterous comedy with bronco busting, mud brawls, and a fairly prominent streak of misogyny, McLintock! sure had the royal treatment rolled out for it. The production design alone is about as pristine as anything Wayne ever made for John Ford, riding the line between authenticity and Hollywood fantasy. Sweeping vistas, colorful costumes, a town that looks fully-functional — it’s as if the Duke were plunked down into a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, only the final product isn’t quite as awkward as it sounds. Rather than stick out like a sore thumb, Wayne embraces the goofy nature of McLintock! and plays off of his rough image for comedic effect. His straight-shooting style works wonderfully here, enabling his character to cut through all kinds of baloney, from seeing through Katy’s upper-class pretenses to bringing wimpy bureaucrats down to size. But while the bulk of the picture is played for laughs, Wayne also intended McLintock! to be a soapbox of sorts for his personal politics. The Duke’s depiction of women as hot-headed creatures who need men to literally spank some sense into them doesn’t strike one as terribly progressive, but to see him standing up for the honor of the country’s natives comes as at least some form of compensation.
But the downfall of McLintock! lies with an overstuffed story through which it hasn’t the slightest clue how to navigate. For a movie with so much going on, it feels pretty damn plotless, drifting in a stream-of-consciousness style through an assortment of supporting characters and situations. I guess the overarching story is claimed by McLintock’s relationship with his wife, which is what gives us most of the film’s verbal sparring and physical comedy, in an attempt at making a western riff on Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. But little importance seems to have been placed on not only this aspect but on the narrative add-ons meant to enhance it, half-hearted efforts at introducing a rivalry between O’Hara and Yvonne De Carlo (as McLintock’s new cook) and Katy’s dalliance with a politician. The same goes for just about everything else the screenplay can throw at us, from Becky and the farmhand’s own tempestuous romance to the business about saving the Indians. It sure seems like everyone in the cast is having a grand old time, but by the end, the movie becomes one big traffic jam of subplots that sort of resolve themselves and end up bringing out interest in what comes of these folks to a standstill.
McLintock! is in many ways both a better film than I expected and a disappointment nonetheless. Even if he’s still essentially playing himself, it was fun to see Wayne indulge in a little jesting at the expense of the genre that propelled him to stardom and keep his own performance as reined in as possible, while his castmates raised the biggest ruckus they could. But though McLintock! possesses a certain wit, that it’s so hard to pick out from the pile of silly busywork the plot continually fills its plate with is frustrating to no end.
(Paramount’s spiffy-looking Blu-ray release of McLintock! also includes audio commentary, making-of featurettes, a photo gallery, a theatrical trailer, and an introduction by film critic Leonard Maltin.)