You know Mr Nicholson, for an actor you’ve been a pretty good director…
An outlaw is saved from the gallows, on condition that he marries. But that’s not the only catch.
Goin’ South | Promo | 1991 | WZDX Fox 54 Saturday Noon Movie | Huntsville Alabama, Analog Indulgence
It’s been a while – well half a year in pandemic time – since I reviewed Jack Nicholson. But as I learned Goin South (1978) not only had him in a leading role but also had him credited as director, this film went up the “to review” list faster than actress Lee Grant running to get her (well deserved) Oscar.
Nicholson starred in this Western romantic comedy with the lovely Mary Steenburgen in her debut film, and she heads a list of familiar Nicholson co-stars including Danny DeVito and Christopher Lloyd – from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1976) – and Veronica Cartwright – who later starred with him in The Witches of Eastwick (1987).
It’s the late 1860s… A bearded Nicholson is a wanted outlaw, Henry Moon and – in the opening credits – he’s escaping the Sheriff and his men by horse. He then crosses over from Texas via the river to Mexico, he’s superhappy and does a wee victorious dance to celebrate.
But the Sheriff and his men are relentless and still go after him. Then as Moon’s horse collapses, Moon is distraught and he makes a run for it. But he’s caught by some expert lassoing that Wonder Woman would be proud of! The men then arrest him, he’s taken back to Texas, and he’s jailed.
This outlaw, Moon is sentenced to be hung for bank robbing and horse thieving. He’s first visited by his “family”, as his old thieving gang only come to see him off – he left them to go solo and it “didn’t work out” – as there are few tears from Hog (DeVito), Big Abe (Jeff Morris), Coogan (Tracey Walter) and Moon’s ex-girlfriend, Hermine (Cartwright).
Moon is then viewed by groups of much older women (including Anne Ramsey from The Goonies (1985)). All these women are aware of the local town ordinance that decrees that due to the lack of men after the Civil War in the town, that they (with land) can marry those condemned – unless these men murdered – if they take responsibility for their new husband’s good behaviour.
However, Moon – not knowing this rule – is rude and obnoxious to these women. Deputy Sheriff Towfield (Lloyd) and his cronies including the Mexican Deputy Hector (Belushi) are superhappy. It seems that Moon has been on their wanted list longer than Inception (2010) has been on my to review list (ie a very long time).
It’s only just before the gallows that Moon learns about this ruling from the more tolerant Sheriff Andrew Kyle (Richard Bradford) that he can escape the noose if a woman agrees to marry him. But after giving an unsuccessful heartfelt plea to the (now lovely) ladies in his final words, Moon is prepared for hanging.
However, he hears – from beneath his head covering – a woman agreeing to take him on as her husband. He’s jubilant even when he discovers it’s the elderly (possible cougar) Florence (Georgia Schmidt). He runs down to meet his new bride, and after he whirls her around so enthusiastically, she dies. Moon is all set to be taken to the gallows once more when the younger prim and genteel spinster, Julia Tate (Steenburgen) agrees to take him on as her husband.
This really annoys Deputy Towfield, who feels that Moon has stolen his girl. They then get married and this adds to his dislike of this outlaw. She then takes him home with her to her isolated farmstead. Once home, she then has him undress – and much to his dismay – this is to give him his work clothes! (as she’s not that sort of girl). She makes it clear that she’s only married him to do the heavy work in her so far unproductive goldmine that she inherited from her daddy.
Julia is ladylike and quiet, and it’s clear she finds Moon quite vulgar, uncouth and obnoxious. She changes the subject if Moon gets amorous, and she is clearly uncomfortable with him talking this way. Moon also has to sleep in the barn, eat boiled food (as it’s healthier) and is by law banned from drinking and gambling. And he’ll be fined 500 dollars if he makes a run for it.
Julia tells Moon that Polty (Gerald H Reynolds) – the Rail Road Manager – has given her 30 days notice for eviction. She tells Moon, that she wants to move to Philadelphia if she strikes gold. He however has his eyes set on Mexico. They appear to agree to disagree as they have no gold.
The newlyweds put on a show of marital bliss when some other self-confessed ordinance brides visit with their one-time outlaw husbands. As the girls have a girly chat about their husbands, it’s clear Julia is uncomfortable they compare stories about their husbands’ bedroom antics. She gets annoyed with Moon when he not so innocently refers to this later after he had, had the same talk from their husbands.
On a visit to town, Moon goes for a drink with Towfield after the scheming Deputy suggests this. Towfield offers a swig of alcohol in exchange for the truth about their marriage. Later, Polty visits the farm to survey the land, and there he spies on Julia who is bathing in her underwear. After Moon catches him spying Polty is sent off the land. Julia and Moon laugh together, and then during the hailstorm and thunderstorm that follows, Moon chases her and then he kisses Julia. She kisses him back. (I sob.)
Polty then serves the pair an eviction notice for fifteen days. As Julia gets closer to Moon, she talks about her hopes and dreams. Moon is supportive and he empathises, he tenderly touches her face and finds gold dust on his fingers. They’ve struck gold… After they kiss some more and their loving relationship develops, Moon’s old gang ride into town…
This romantic comedy film story, although it sounds like a contrived romance of the boy meets girl (etc) was however steeped in real-life history. It seems that Henry Moon was a former member of Quantrill’s Raiders. This infamous outlaw gang making its mark in other film and TV series including True Grit (2010) and Little House on the Prairie (1974-83). The film was filmed in Durango, Mexico where John Wayne’s family built a Western film set.
Nicholson gave a wacky, comic performance as Henry Moon, although some reviewers have criticised this performance. I felt that the nature of the script justified this over the top happy character. Nicholson played him with a glint in his eye and with suitably exuberant performance. Nicholson also gave the desired more serious performance as a love interest quite credibly and tenderly. This growing attraction between wife and husband was realistically portrayed from both him and Steenburgen, and I must admit to hoping for more soppy moments or even a montage.
Nicholson took on this dual role as director with creativity and flair. Scenes were set up and executed most admirably. The opening shot was a real delight in choreography as you saw his character literally Goin South. Comic scenes were wonderfully set up just as the scene where Moon’s horse collapses and then the untimely death of Florence.
The scenes in the goldmine felt claustrophobic and appropriately dark, unlike that cave in The Lady and the Highwayman (1989). Nighttime scenes were also shot without that all too familiar day-night feeling. Filters were used with a telescopic view as Polty spied on Julia and then seen again as Moon catches him in the act.
It’s hard to see Nicholson casting anyone else in the role of the quiet, prim, Julia. Other contenders included future and past Jack Nicholson co-stars (and on-screen love interests), Jessica Lange, Meryl Streep and Candice Bergen. Steenburgen shone in her debut role.
When Jack Nicholson was honoured by the AFI, Steenburgen thanked this actor director for giving him her first feature film role after her audition. The hopefuls then included only established actresses and models. This acting pair have a natural chemistry in this film, and their on-screen rapport grows at a natural pace, from scene to scene as their characters grow closer. Imdb states Nicholson praised his co-star as;
“the actress of her generation. She’s a blend of Barbara Stanwyck, Jean Arthur, Jennifer Jones, and Bambi.”
John Belushi was a constantly laughing Mexican sheriff, and I felt that he played a more irritating character. It’s sad Belushi didn’t have more of his comic talents shown, as the film could easily have been made without this underdeveloped role.
It was nice to see those One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest co-stars with Nicholson once again. DeVito starred in a small role, as one of Moon’s old outlaw gang popped in and out. But DeVito had a memorable shot seen singing a duet playing the violin next to a seated Steenburgen on the piano.
Lloyd was convincingly evil as Moon’s love rival, trying to find any way to get his rival hanged. Although his character never confronted Julia about his feelings, it was clear he held a torch for her. Interestingly, if you believe in interconnected film universes, he got this girl twenty years later, in the third of a film franchise trilogy. This was in another Western comedy and if you are keen to see Steenburgen as his love interest, you’d have to go Back to the Future…
Weeper Rating: 😦😦 😦 😦😦 😦😦/ 10
Handsqueeze Rating: 🙂 🙂 🙂🙂 🙂 🙂 / 10
Hulk Rating: / 10
Legends of Western Cinema Week 2021
This post was added to Legends of Western Cinema Week run by Meanwhile in Rivendell, Along the Brandywine and Hamlette’s Soliloquy Other reviews with this cast included Jack Nicholson in Heartburn, The Postman Always Rings Twice, One Flew over the Cuckoos Nest, Mars Attacks, The Witches of Eastwick, The Shining, Oscar Winner Best Actors in Superhero films, Terms of Endearment and the Jack Nicholson Blogathon. Danny DeVito stars in Terms of Endearment, Mars Attacks and Romancing the Stone. Christopher Lloyd in Back to the Future, Film Cameos and The Postman Always Rings Twice. Mary Steenburgen in Time After Time and Veronica Cartwright in Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Witches of Eastwick. Anne Ramsey stars in The Goonies.