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Restrospectus Obscurus

by Scott Andrew Hutchins

Volume IV:

  • Dirty Dingus Magee
  • directed by Burt Kennedy

    music by Jeff Alexander

    additional music by Billy Strange

    title song by Mack David

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 later on.

    A man's gotta live by the
    Code of the West,
    Where the good guys be the bad guys
    When put to the test.
    Since there has to be a villain
    For the good guys to be killin',
    That's the reason I'm a bad guy:
    It's the code of the West.

    Chorus:

    I'm Dingus Magee,
    Dirty Dingus Magee,
    Rotten to the core,
    And plenty mean and ornery.
    I've lived a life of sin,
    And let me tell you, Gunga Din,
    I'm a better man than--
    I'm a better man than--
    ...And I can't think of anyone
    I'm a better man than.
    Men must make love by the
    Code of the West,
    Where you wear a pair of long johns
    When you are caressed.
    In my red flannel long johns
    It's been said that I'm a strong john,
    So I love 'em in my long johns
    It's the code of the West.

    (Chorus repeats three times.)

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 jade.

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 film.

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 xylophone.

"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.

MailBag@filmscoremonthly.com

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