Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Callaway Went Thataway


Oh, my, how TV has changed. Are any of you old enough to remember when it was a rounded little screen—maybe a whole fifteen inches!—with a fuzzy image in black and white? In those days pitchmen and women spoke directly to the camera, selling refrigerators, like Betty Furness, or Vitameatavegamins, like Lucy Ricardo. Or any number of other products, such as breakfast cereals. (In the language of the ad-biz, they were selling the steak. These days what most commercials sell is the sizzle. They want you to buy their stuff because it will make you cool.) They didn’t usually sell thirty second or one minute or even five minute slots, though that happened at some times. Usually a show had one sponsor, like Philco or Texaco or General Electric. Thus, the sponsor had the biggest say in program content, always.

And as always, there were crazes. Shows everybody watched. These days it would be The Sopranos, or Twin Peaks, or Friends, or M*A*S*H, or Seinfeld or, god help us, Honey Boo Boo. In the early fifties one of the fads was Hopalong Cassidy. (It was the first network television western, in 1949!) Later there would be Davy Crockett. (I had my fake coonskin hat, just like all my friends did.)

This movie very nicely satirizes those old TV westerns, and the ad agencies that promoted them and dreamed up tie-ins. Eat Puffed Grass, Hoppy’s favorite cereal, kids! Buy the Hoppy-approved cap pistol and BB gun! Send in three box-tops of Puffed Grass for the secret decoder ring! Jingles! “There goes a fellow with a green mouth/ He’s a Puffed Grass eater!/ Puffed Grass!”

Fred MacMurray and Dorothy McGuire are a small ad agency that has bought up the rights to a bunch of old oaters starring “Smokey” Callaway (Howard Keel), and the movies are a surprise hit. Now everyone is clamoring for Smokey to make appearances, and new episodes for TV. Trouble is, Smokey was a terrible drunk, and no one has seen him nor heard from him in ten years. They set out to find him, but they can’t. What they do find is a simple, clean, honest cowboy (“Stretch” Barnes, also Keel) in Idaho who is a dead ringer. They sign him up to impersonate Smokey.

You can see it coming, can’t you? Old Smokey turns up, and he is even more of an asshole than anyone remembered. He is a determined alcoholic, managing to smuggle liquor into hiding places in the health farm they ship him off to to dry out.

The finish is unbelievable and predictable, but it’s a lot of fun getting there.