by Scott Andrew Hutchins
The mythic notions of the Western needed to be shattered. In the early
1970s, as Dr. Dennis Bingham, a specialist in film studies at Indiana University-Purdue
University Indianapolis notes, anti-Westerns were a dime a dozen, and audiences
were largely unappreciative. While Mel Brooks had a fair amount of success
with Blazing Saddles, other directors, such as Robert Altman with
McCabe & Mrs. Miller, were making films that few people wanted
to see. David Webb Peoples was unable to find a buyer for his anti-Western
screenplay, Unforgiven, which Clint Eastwood filmed in 1992, winning
multiple Oscars. A similar case was held for the comedic anti-Western,
Dirty Dingus Magee, which was praised by critics, but generally
despised by audiences. Released in 1970 by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the film
was quietly issued on video late in 1998.
Dirty Dingus Magee assaults the very idea of the Western picture,
at least the mainstream Western picture, as opposed to the mature efforts
known then as "adult Westerns" (before "adult" became
a euphemism for pornography). The themes are spelled out in the title song,
which appeared in the film only in an abbreviated chorus during the end
credits. Because the album (MCAC-25095) is generally unavailable and never
released on CD (I obtained a cassette copy last year--in the cut out rack
at Meijer), I print the lyrics here. The album, notably used the phrase
"music from the motion picture sound track," and probably should
have included "and inspired by," but I will come back to that
The song is performed by the Mike Curb Congregation, which also performed
the end title for Kelly's Heroes; the men sing the verses, and both
the men and the women sing the chorus. The main titles credit the song
to Mack David, but I'm not sure whether he contributed the whole song or
just the lyrics. He is not credited at all on the album (Jeff Alexander
receives full credit for composition), which includes none of Billy Strange's
additional music. As I was saying, the theme song, particularly the first
verse, is a true encapsulation of what the film is about. The film, while
broadly comic, takes essentially all conceits of the Western, and carries
them out to the Nth degree, in all its absurdity and hypocrisy. My initial
reaction to the film was that it was explaining, undiluted by all the comedy,
that the ideals of the Western can be blamed for moral breakdown in present-day
society. Whether this is the effect Burt Kennedy, who was responsible for
Support You Local Sheriff (which I'm told is much more innocuous
fare), intended, I am not sure, but it cannot be ignored. With a script
by Tom & Frank Waldman and Joseph Heller (Catch-22), it seems
unlikely that such serious message isn't embedded in the comedy.
In the film, Dingus Magee (Frank Sinatra) is making a living as an ass-breaker
when he encounters old acquaintance Herkimer "Hoke" Birdsill
(George Kennedy), who is taking the stage to San Francisco to get a new
job. He insists he has no money on him, but Dingus finds it ($700) under
his bowler hat, and promptly steals both. Hoke flees to the nearest town,
Yerkey's Hole, but finds that the mayor, Belle Knops (Anne Jackson), is
also the town madam. He seeks the aid of the sheriff, but since the town
has no sheriff, Belle appoints him, and he promptly sets a $10 reward on
the head of Dingus Magee.
Mayor Knops has problems of her own, in that she is about to lose almost
all her clientele when the soldiers of the nearby fort plan to join Custer's
troops in Little Big Horn. She orders Sheriff Birdsill to stir up the local
Indians to keep the business in town. This leads Hoke on a slippery slope
that makes it impossible to tell the good guys from the bad guys. As Dr.
Mychael Rice points out, the age-old formula for an adventure story establishes
as good guy and a bad guy. The bad guy is someone the good guy disagrees
with. The good guy kills the bad guy, and becomes the hero. It is an immature
way of thinking glorified by Westerns, though they are hardly the only
culprit. Show the good guy and the bad guy on the parallel course, and
the silliness of the concept, the myth, becomes more apparent.
The film tackles easier Western targets than this, such as the portrayal
of minorities. Dingus's baby-talking, sex-obsessed Indian love interest,
Anna (Michele Carey), is lighter skinned than he is, and when both are
in Indian vestments, she is mistaken for a white captive, he an old Indian
woman. Marya Christen plays a stereotyped Chinese called China Poppy. Unfortunately,
the stereotyped characters are a rather tedious addition, but the film
would lose some of its points if they were removed. More to the point is
the reprehensible behavior of Prudence Frost (Lois Nettleton), the schoolmarm
of lower character than the madam. By entirely erasing the gap between
the good and bad man and the good and bad woman (the latter judgement,
in true Western fashion, deals almost exclusively with sex), we don't necessarily
get a realistic picture of life in the Old West or life in general, but
we are at least exposed to the arbitrariness of the mythic structure that
lies at its heart. Hoke continues to act like Dingus, engaging in more
and more reprehensible acts as the film progresses, ostensibly for the
greater good, while revealing to the audience a strictly personal material
gain, and even then, he never knows what he has. What everyone believes
to be broken glass, the General (John Dehner), recognizes as authentic
As box-office receipts today suggest that a large segment of the audience
still holds dear the Western myths that this film lambastes, albeit now
received through different genres, it is no surprise the film did poorly
at the box office. Many armchair online critics lampoon the film as a low
point in Sinatra's career. Those that find the film to be unfunny tend
to focus on the red long johns scenes, however, which are comic low points
that do not dominate the film.
In terms of the score, Jeff Alexander is willing to use instrumentations
rarely heard in Westerns, including electric organ and vibraphone. Some
of the score quote Elmer Bernstein's The Magnificent Seven, but
traditional Western scoring is mostly limited to Billy Strange's music.
(I assume it is his because it is not on the album, and frequently replaces
the tags that do occur on the album.) The score is in what might have been
considered a "popular" style at the time (inasmuch as John Addison's
work was considered "popular" in style). It is of a particular
seventies sound, not symphonic, but closer to that than to jazz, rock,
funk, punk, or disco, while borrowing hints from all of those. Perhaps
the most widely heard comparison to the score would be George Bruns's Robin
Hood (1973). Anyone who likes the score from that film, and Johnny
Mercer's song "The Phony King of England," also form that film,
will find the album a real treat. The album is a classic example of humor
without words, but the track titles occasionally suggest am entirely different
It begins with "Dirty Dingus Magee," which, as I said, does
not appear in the film, though much of the score is based on it. It is
a brass backed song that is more country-influenced '70s show tune than
mainstream country Western music. The next track is "The Rounders"
which I believe is also not contained in the film. It is one of my favorite
pieces on the album, so I am sure I would have heard it if it were. This
repeats a similar theme many times with different instruments playing it
in different arrangements, including piano, electric organ, vibraphone,
harmonica, wailing electric guitar, and a small but amplified horn section.
It is a pulsating action piece with a similar energy (but wholly different
style) as some of the tracks on The Essential Michael Nyman Band (which
features new arrangements of music from Peter Greenaway films). "Strum!"
is an aptly described piece, in the vein of a Tiomkin Western score, that
is featured during the many boot hill scenes, when digging to bury the
treasure and dig it out. It has the main theme played on a harmonica, with
acoustic guitar playing harmony and a secondary theme backed with horns,
while vibraphone pulses back the early parts. "A Very Square Dance"
does not score a square dance (there is none in the film). The first part
appears during a raid on the town late in the film, while the latter part
is used when Hoke is trying to stir up the local Indians. It begins with
a Coplandesque string section. The midsection incorporates horns and percussion,
and is more Bernstein-influenced, though much music from that scene is
not included on the album. That music is more serious and is likely by
Strange. "Indian Made" is a faux-Indian melody played on recorder,
finger cymbals, flute, drum, and a strange noisemaker. It contains several
obvious musical jokes that I do not need to point out. This music scores
a scene when Dingus can't consummate his marriage to Anna (as though that
didn't already happen) because some old ladies (Mae Old Coyote, Lillian
Hogan, Florence Real Bird, and Ina Bad Bear) are supposed to watch him.
"Rip-Snortin' Main Title" is a pastiche of Western music (strings,
Jew's harp, horns, clanky piano, electric guitar, spoons), played in patterns
established by earlier composers, notably Copland and Bernstein, but also
hints at Tiomkin, Waxman, and Morricone. In the film, it segues into the
more serious music I assume is by Billy Strange, but on the album, it finishes
with a similar tag as the "Rip Snortin' End Title," which combines
bits and pieces of the song and score into a medley. That piece concludes
the end of side two, but side one concludes with "Trouble at Yerkey's
Hole." This pulsating brass piece with clarinet interludes (and two
brief piano interludes) underscores an early scene in which Anna tries
to shoot Dingus when he adds a zero to his ten dollar reward, believing
him to be hunting "Deengoose," to which he replies, after throwing
her off her horse "I'm don't hunt Deengoose, I am Deengoose!"
The piece is counterpointed on strings and backed with drums, piano, and
xylophone. The humor in the piece is less overt, but the cleverness and
musical quality is not.
The second side opens with another piece not contained in the film,
"Dirty Dingus Magee (Jeff Alexander's Country Sound)." As you
might expect, this is a cover of the main theme, intended to in crease
popularity of soundtrack sales. It sounds more like part of a none-too-serious
Western score than a country song (though I admit I rarely listen to country
music). Scored mostly for tinkling piano, squeezebox, harmonica, and of
course, horns, (plus percussion, including tambourine), the piece is much
more leisurely paced than either the vocal version of the song, or the
"Rip Snortin' Main Title." It's a bit like the "Bad Orchestra"
cue in Once Upon a Time in the West, only more skillfully played and always
on key. The listed instruments each have a solo. The piece could easily
have worked in the film, but it was not used, and it is unlikely there
was ever any intention of doing so.
"Little Big Horny" despite its late placement on the album,
and the impression that it was taken directly from the full soundtrack
rather than just the music track (viewing the film makes clear that it
was not), scores a scene early on, and the different sound, indicates a
source track. It begins with more of the percussive Indian music and what
sounds like banging on steel presses. This piece scores a moment late in
the film when the Indians ride right through the town of Yerkey's Hole,
as if on the attack, but do nothing, fleeing from the shootout started
by serious outlaw John Wesley Hardin (Jack Elam). The rest of the piece
is a drum and bugle reveille as the soldiers are ordered away from the
prostitutes and back to the fort, which sounds like it was shot in an exterior.
The first commotion are the shouting crowds (out of context, it sounds
like a sporting match or wild West show is about to begin), followed by
a brief, silly statement on xylophones, brass, and timpani.
"Ring-a-Ding-Dingus" combines two cues. One scores one of
Dingus's many jail breaks, the other scores Dingus's escapades going in
and out of Prudence's house seeking shelter and warmth. The piece ventures
into parodying Tiomkin Western territory, and emphasizes harmonica and
"Hoke-y (Hoke's Theme)" combines a brief harmonica statement
when Hoke meets Dingus for the first time in years near the beginning of
the film with a statement of the theme related to Hoke.
"Raunchy" is a piece for multiple harmonicas and guitar, which
goes into a very funky guitar, vibraphone, horn, and piano piece that sounds
like 1970s jazz. It would seem to have no place in a Western, but more
like the kind of films Quentin Tarantino plays homage to in his films.
It returns to the original motif until the final statement, which hints
at the midsection. In this scene, Dingus is looking for Belle's valuables,
and then tries to talk to her in her sleep to find out where they are.
Hoke then wakes up to find out he is in bed with Dingus.
"No Trouble at Yerkey's Hole" starts out as a romantic guitar
piece, before a harmonica belts out a sad and rendition on Dingus's Theme,
followed by several musical jokes. Most of the music appears in the final
section of the film, but the last part of the piece splashes a big rendition
of the main theme in a rather bizarre place: when Dingus's (or rather,
Hoke's) bowler hat floats away with the money when he and Anna try to cross
the river on horseback. Dingus is quickly able to retrieve it, so the scene
becomes one of the most overscored in the history of film, but in this
case it was clearly intentional.
"Who Says a Horse Can't Talk?" suggests that the film shows
a talking horse; indeed it does not. The melody of the piece is played
on a tuba. It scores a droll scene when Hoke thinks he has captured Dingus
at a campfire.
"Rip Snortin' End Title" has the only version of the theme
song heard in the film, though this time, it's "Dingus Magee, Dingus
Magee, rotten to the core [rolled out], mean, ornery. He's live a life
of sin, but listen Gunga Din, he's a better man than, he's better than,
oh he can't think of anyone he's--he's better than" backed by strings
and plucks of a jew's harp. The theme then goes to the strings, aided by
jew's harp and tuba, before the chorus begins the last lines of the refrain,
leading into brief reprisals of several statements in an almost interminable,
stop-start finale. It mickeymouses the freeze frames during the curtain
call-style end titles.
The rest of the score that is not represented album is more typical
Western music, not to say filler, which it is, but it doesn't deserve such
a lowly label. The album is fairly short and the music from film to album,
as I have shown, is significantly different.
While many of the jokes fall flat, and the Indian stereotypes, parodies
of stereotypes as they are, are annoying, Dirty Dingus Magee is
an interesting deconstruction of the Western. Even in its melodramatic
reconstructions of stock characters, the film appropriately captures the
lawlessness of the old West and lampoons its influence on the popular mythic
structures of culture. What results are characters that fall to the depths
in satire in what appears a silly comedy. While falling favorably into
the laps of critics, it met with disdain by those who wanted to revere
the jingoistic myth of the American West.