Personal Collection of Classics: THE CHEYENNE SOCIAL CLUB (1970)

I think that my Mom might have an inner cowgirl.  I recently found the James Stewart Signature Collection at a discount store, so of course I had to take it home.  When I was telling my Mom what movies were included in the collection, I mentioned the film THE CHEYENNE SOCIAL CLUB.  “You have to watch that movie!  It has to be your next blog post” she exclaimed.  I was skeptical, not being a huge western fan myself and this movie is definitely more “modern” than most of the classic films that I watch, but I decided to give it a try.  Starring Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda, and directed by Gene Kelly (yes, THAT Gene Kelly) comes the story of THE CHEYENNE SOCIAL CLUB.

John O’Hanlan (Stewart) is working as a cowhand in Texas alongside his good friend, Harley Sullivan (Fonda).  Being that they are out working on the open range, news and letters don’t travel fast.  In fact the day that John receives a letter is the first time that any man in the company has gotten one.  The letter is from a lawyer in the town of Cheyenne, Wyoming telling John that his brother DJ has died and has left him something in his will.  John immediately sets out for Cheyenne with Harley close behind.  One year and several thousand miles (and hundred thousand words from Harley) later the pair arrives in town and makes for the lawyer’s office.  Their arrival is a surprise for the lawyer, as DJ has been dead for two years and no one thought that John was coming to claim his property.  However, now that John and Harley are here the lawyer is more than happy to hand over the deed to the property that John has inherited.  DJ had become a business man and has left John his company, The Cheyenne Social Club.

John and Harley head off to find their new property but no one can tell them just what the Cheyenne Social Club is.  The women of the town seem offended when asked and the men just smile.  When they finally arrive at the house it suddenly becomes clear just how social this social club is.  Yes, DJ had been running a brothel and apparently expects John to continue on.  The madam of the house is Jenny, played by Shirley Jones, and she gives John the rundown of the girls.  There is Opal Ann, Pauline, Carrie Virginia, Annie Jo, Sara Jean, and of course Jenny.  The women are thrilled to have John here, hopeful that he will take care of them like DJ used to.  Harley sets about making himself at home and making friends with the girls, but John is completely resistant to the idea of running a brothel.  He heads out to get a drink at the local bar where he is welcomed with open arms by everyone (once they learn he is DJ’s brother and the new owner of the Cheyenne Social Club), except for one nasty individual who has a problem with Jenny.  This man was insulted because Jenny wouldn’t let him touch her unless he cleaned up, and so he doesn’t like Jenny or John.

John isn’t too happy with his situation, and he is even less happy when he breaks the news to the girls that he plans to close down the club and fire them all.  The reason John is unhappy is because no matter how many times he tells them, the girls make no indication that they are planning to leave at all.  The townsfolk get wind of John’s plans and let their displeasure be known (through a bar room brawl).  Even Harley tries to change John’s mind, as he is thoroughly enjoying his social time.  But John won’t relent in his ambitions to be an upstanding citizen.  He goes to see the lawyer again and expands on his plans to reopen the club as a boarding house.  But there is a hitch in his plans because the land that the club is sitting on is owned by the railroad  DJ was able to strike a deal with the railroad in that so long as the ladies remain at the club the club remains open.  If the ladies leave, the land reverts back to the railroad’s control.  Stymied, John returns to the club only to find that Jenny has been badly beaten.

With the town doctor attending to Jenny, John demands to know who did this to her.  Harley tells him that it was Corey Bannister, the unpleasant man from John’s first night at the bar.  Furious with what has happened, John storms off to the bar to confront Bannister.  Harley goes with him, protesting all the time that John is a terrible draw and “no hand with a gun”.  At the bar, John confronts Bannister demanding that he pay for what he has done to Jenny.  It will come down to who is the quicker draw and it doesn’t look like it will be John.  But through a lucky series of events John is able to shoot and kill Bannister, “Just like DJ would have done” marvels the barkeeper.  Back at the home, Jenny is recovering well and John has resigned himself to running a brothel.  The next day the sheriff rides up to tell John that Bannister’s kinsmen are riding to town to kill him, and recommends that John leaves town as soon as possible.  Harley thinks that this is an excellent idea and begins packing.  Much to his surprise John does not agree and insists on staying in Cheyenne to defend the ladies of the social club from the incoming Bannisters.  Not wanting to die, and seeing no reason to stay, Harley bids goodbye to John and rides off.

Harley can’t understand why John feels the need to stay behind, and reasons that he will be outnumbered ten to one when the Bannisters arrive.  How could ten to two make any difference?  Coming up over a ridge, Harley finds a group of about ten men gathered around a campfire.  He joins them for a rest and a cup of coffee and gets to talking.  Conversation turns and Harley realizes that the men that he is talking to are in fact, the Bannisters traveling to confront John.

As I said, I am not a huge fan of westerns but this film is more a “western lite”.  It plays more like a comedy with a western setting and is actually a pretty fun ride for an afternoon.  I love Jimmy Stewart always and seeing him play alongside his lifetime friend, Henry Fonda (who Stewart recommended for the role of Harley), is great.  You almost get the feeling that the two of them are just ad libbing actual conversations that they have had into the scenes.  The political subplot was definitely added in due to the real life political differences of Stewart and Fonda, and it would be interesting to know how much more of their relationship influenced their characters.  It was also interesting to watch a movie that was directed by Gene Kelly, as I have enjoyed some of his other directorial projects such as A GUIDE FOR THE MARRIED MAN and of course SINGING IN THE RAIN (although he was co-director for that one).

THE CHEYENNE SOCIAL CLUB isn’t a great film by any means.  But it is a fun and silly bit of storytelling that really lets the relationship between Stewart and Fonda shine.