As “Rustlers’ Rhapsody” (citywide) opens with an impeccable re-creation of a vintage black-and-white B Western, a voice on the sound track tells us how that old picture’s star, Rex O’Herlihan, the Singing Cowboy, and his Wonder Horse Wildfire made 52 Westerns between 1938 and 1947 “before the lights sort of went out.”
When our narrator, whom we later learn was Rex’s screen sidekick, says he “always wondered what they’d be like if we were still makin’ ‘em today,” the image stretches and acquires color. Given all the pitfalls of the Western spoof, there’s every reason for apprehension, but never fear: “Rustlers’ Rhapsody” is a joy, as sweet as it is funny because it was made by writer-director Hugh Wilson with a genuine affection for those Republic and Columbia Westerns of a more innocent time. It’s not hard to imagine Gene Autry and Roy Rogers having a good laugh over “Rustlers’ Rhapsody.”
It’s Wilson’s inspired notion to present Rex as trapped by his role, forever fated to come into a new town, take on the bad guys and barely get to kiss the girl--if even that--before moving on to repeat himself throughout cinematic eternity. (Talk about the myth of Sisyphus.) That what we see in “Rustlers’ Rhapsody” we’ve seen before is the point. But Wilson, who directed “Police Academy” (but not, repeat not, its blah sequel), throws a few anachronistic curves with results that are often as wistful as they are hilarious.
When Rex (Tom Berenger) goes up to the bar of the frontier town saloon you can be sure he orders warm milk. Sure enough, too, the greedy local cattle baron (Andy Griffith) “who always had a 1000 head of cattle you’d hear but not see” is soon joining forces with a railroad baron (Fernando Rey) to make life miserable for the sheepherders. In no time, too, Rex is being pursued by a brazen dance hall girl (Marilu Henner) and the cattle baron’s equally smitten daughter (Sela Ward). Whether he likes it or not, Rex acquires that sidekick (G. W. Bailey), the town drunk, quickly reformed.
Wilson’s satire is confident and relaxed enough even to include a tip of the 10-gallon to Spaghetti Westerns (which Bailey tells us he envied for their stylish scores and the great-looking raincoats the cowboys wore even when the temperature hit 110 degrees). Indeed, “Rustlers’ Rhapsody” was shot in a frontier set in Almeria that Sergio Leone had built more than 20 years ago, and Fernando Rey is introduced in an homage to the opening sequence of Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in the West.”
Typical of the film’s throwaway gags is Rex zapping his campfire with a charcoal lighter. But as the humor builds and builds you wonder what Wilson is going to come up with for a climax. Then enters a rival good guy (Patrick Wayne), who’s really not so good since he’s in Griffith and Rey’s hire, and who hints at a dark secret in Rex’s private life.
Essential to “Rustler’s Rhapsody” is its great on-target look, thanks to the efforts of distinguished veteran production designer Gil Parrando and especially to costume designer Wayne Finkelman, who turned out for Rex an extensive fringed, pastelled and embroidered wardrobe that would have done the late Nudie proud. Among other painstaking feats he even re-created Marlene Dietrich’s lacy can-can outfit from “Destry Rides Again” for Henner.
But “Rustler’s Rhapsody” is not all jokes and appearances. The cast is very, very good, especially Berenger, who has just the right handsome, square-jawed look for a Saturday matinee hero but also has the humor and depth to engage us in Rex’s plight. He’s well-matched by Wayne’s tongue-in-cheekery and well supported by Bailey and his droll humor.
It’s worth noting that if ever a film was ill served by a stay-away trailer it’s “Rustlers’ Rhapsody.” The murky hues of the trailer do injustice to the rich coloring cameraman Jose Luis Alcaine brings to the actual film, and its collage of gags makes it seem that what you’re in for is merely nonstop silliness. Yet “Rustlers’ Rhapsody” (rated PG for some mild innuendo and profanity) may just leave you feeling surprised to realize that you’ve been touched by it.