I wasn’t entirely sure that I should include Evil Roy Slade in this season, since it was actually a made-for-television movie rather than a theatrically released film. But I’ve had the DVD for a long time, a gift from a work mate who recommended it, and this seemed like an ideal opportunity to get round to watching it. From the outset, the picture quality said all I needed to knowaboout this being TV stock, not film stock, being so far from HD it needed a new category of BSD – Below Standard Definition. Still, a film that stars John (Gomez Addams) Astin will at least have a strong central comic presence, right?
Inevitably, wrong. Evil Roy Slade is a spoof western, made it 1972, putting it a year ahead of Blazing Saddles. In addition to Astin it stars big names like Mickey Rooney, ex-Laugh-In star Henry Gibson, legendary comedian Milton Berle and the uninhibited Dick Shawn. It’s co-written by Garry Marshall, creator of Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley and Mork and Mindy. These are all people with a track record. So how come the film’s such an utter bust?
Basically, Astin plays the title role, a ruthless Western crook, the meanest man in the West, thanks to having grow up in the wild after his parents were killed by Indians. The first gag is that, contrary to legends about Indians taking in white babies and raising him as their own, they take one look at him and flee. As for wolvestaking in babies and suckling them, they flee too. All Slade has is his teddy bear.
One day, Slade’s gang rob a bank and he steals a kiss from pretty schoolteacher, Betsy Potter (a bit of glam supplied by Pamela Austin, who’d appeared in a couple of Elvis films and the first series of Laugh-In but was mostly famous as ‘The Dodge Rebellion Girl’, a longseries of ads for Dodge motor cars, until she became so popular she was dropped for overshadowing the cars). Slade falls in love with Betsy and she with him. She takes him back to Boston and tries to civilise him but she fails and he goes back West to return to robbing.
Once again, Slade’s main victim, railroad tycoon Nelson Stool (Rooney) and his incompetent Sheriff nephew Clifford (Gibson) draw up plans to capture Slade by having singing marshall Bing Bell (Shawn, whose character name is the subject of a singularly unfunny running gag about how everybody asumes it’s someone at the door) romance Betsy and set up a wedding.
Slade intervenes, kidnaps the not-unwilling Betsy and accidentally kills Bell whilst threatening the latter’s most loved thing, his guitar. He and Betsy then swap clothes, leaving Slade to ride away to continue his evil career, dressed in her wedding gown.
Milton Berle? Forget him.
I’ll admit that I laughed quietly once, well over an hour into the film. But it was flat throughout. The jokes were unfunny and unimaginative, and there were far fewer of them, or of what were meant to be jokes, for the film to stand any hope of succeeding. Nobody could manage a convincing performance, nor go OTT with anything like the vigour that funny overacting demands. Astin, who I’ve always liked, was a terrible disappointment, completely lacking in conviction, like a man who ralises his career is on the slideand who isn’t getting paid enough for a piece of shit like this.
The relative coincidence of this and Blazing Saddles makes comparisons unavoidable, and makes them intensely unflattering to Evil Roy Slade, which hasn’t got a gram of the surrealism and anarchy that made Mel Brooks’ movie the enduring classic it still is. It isn’t even interesting to analyse as a failure, except that being old enough to have seen Blazing Saddles in the cinem, and recalling its transgressive aspect, I’d like to ascribe the failure as being at least in part due to it not being ready to go in too deep.
But that’s not really tenable. It fails because it’s just crap. There isn’t anything else to say about it.