In one of my earlier reviews I stated that although James Stewart may occasionally have played morally ambiguous, conflicted characters, especially in the Westerns he made with Anthony Mann in the fifties, I could not recall him ever playing an outright villain. At first sight it seems that this film is going to be an exception, as we learn early on that his character, Mattie Appleyard, is a murderer. It soon becomes clear, however, that this is going to be one of those films where the criminals are the good guys and those supposedly charged with enforcing the law the bad guys.
The story takes place in 1935 in West Virginia. The elderly Appleyard is one of three prisoners released from jail on the same day; the others are middle-aged bank robber Lee Cottrill and the young Johnny Jesus. (We never learn exactly what Johnny's alleged crime was, although he continues to protest his innocence). The three are put on a train out of town, but soon realise that they are in danger from an unexpected source. A prison official, Captain "Doc" Council, and two accomplices are trying to track them down and kill them. The reason is that Council, who is in league with a corrupt local banker, wants to embezzle the large sum of money, in excess of $25,000, which Appleyard has received for all his work during his 40 years in prison.
During the earlier part of his career, Stewart was as accomplished a comic actor as he was a serious one, appearing in classic comedies as good as "Mr Smith Goes to Washington", "Destry Rides Again", "The Philadelphia Story" and "Harvey". After about 1950, however, his gift for picking the right film seemed to desert him when it came to comedy. He continued to appear in some excellent serious movies, principally Westerns, but few of his comedies from this period are of the same standard, and "Fools' Parade" is an example of what I mean. He has one splendid bravura passage where, in the throes of a supposed religious conversion, he plucks out one of his eyes in order to frighten off one of Council's sidekicks who has come to shoot him. (What the said sidekick doesn't realise is that this is in fact a glass eye). For most of the time, however, Stewart is simply trying to invest Appleyard with a greater depth and significance than he really merits; as one critic said "Time and again he gives you the impression of an interesting character that really isn't there in the role."
This was really Stewart's last starring role. After the film came out in 1971, he was absent from the screen for five years, and in his later films, starting with "The Shootist", he confined himself to supporting roles and cameos.
In his autobiography Charlton Heston recounts a conversation he had with his co-star Maximilian Schell during the making of "Counterpoint", in which Heston played an orchestral conductor captured by the Nazis during the war and Schell played the German officer holding him. Wouldn't it be fun, they agreed, if a second version of the film could be shot, this time with the music-loving Schell playing the musician and Heston (who rarely got the chance to play a villain) as the Nazi? Someone seems to have had a similar idea with "Fools' Parade" because it stars both George Kennedy and Strother Martin, both of whom had several years earlier appeared in another prison drama, "Cool Hand Luke". Only here their roles are reversed. Kennedy, who had played a prisoner in the earlier film, here plays Council, whereas Martin, a brutal prison warder in "Cool Hand Luke" ("What we have here is failure to communicate"), here plays the prisoner Cottrill.
Martin does not have the same impact here as he did in the earlier film, but Kennedy is one of the better things about "Fools' Parade". His Doc Council, complete with pebble glasses, bad teeth, an ill-fitting suit and a curious stooping gait, is a splendidly leering pantomime villain who combines his villainy with religious fanaticism. (In his spare time he is a Sunday-school teacher).
I earlier described the film as a comedy, although I note that some reviewers on this board have insisted on taking it seriously, possibly because the film-makers and cast seem to have been unsure what sort of film they were actually making. As I said, Stewart was trying to invest his character with a certain seriousness, but others, especially Kennedy's Doc and Anne Baxter's Cleo, a raddled old whore with an obsessive grievance against the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, who refuse to have her as a member, seem to be played firmly tongue-in-cheek. The result is a rather uncertain black comedy which occasionally tries to cross the border into seriousness but never gets very far.
A frequent complaint by my fellow reviewers is that "Fools' Parade" has not been released on DVD. Well, keep asking, lads, but personally I feel that there is more chance of Cleo being accepted by the DAR. 5/10
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