They Went That-A-Way & That-A-Way

Director: Stuart E. McGowan and Edward Montagne
Tim Conway, Chuck McCann, Joe Dorsey

It sure can be hard to make a movie, whether you are working for a major Hollywood studio or an independent filmmaker who decided one day to pick up a digital camera and shoot something on your own. Financing, organization, and the struggle for creative control are just some of the many problems that come up when making a movie. One of the biggest filmmaking challenges, however, is managing to get through every obstacle and ending up making a movie that will make its audience happy to have seen it. There is one way filmmakers can increase their odds of doing so, and that is with plenty of preparation beforehand. I want to talk about possible preparation for one particular kind of movie, and that is the comedy. Making a comedy certainly isn't easy, but there are some ways that can get you closer to succeeding. I once read a statement from a producer of a television sitcom, words that I feel apply to movie comedies as well. He said that one of the key parts of a successful sitcom is character. If you have well-defined and strong characters, writers will find it easier to come up with humor surrounding these characters. With that in mind, let me ask you a question: When you hear the term "prison comedy", what possible characters come to mind? More likely than not, what crossed your mind are characters that aren't funny. You probably thought of big bald hulking prisoners named "Bubba", cross dressing prisoners who talk with a lisp, as well as prison guards and wardens who are idiots in a manner that hasn't been funny for decades.

There's no doubt about it - past prison movies that have been comedies have been filled with the same stereotype characters. You have to wonder why this is so, especially since comedy has become more permissive with every subsequent decade that has passed. This got me thinking for quite a while, and after a lengthy period of thought, I came up with a couple of possible theories as to why many prison comedies have been so dismal. I believe that the problem comes with other key elements of a comedy, not just characters. A good comedy also depends on a good situation and a good setting. Let me tackle the setting element first. Just think about what real life prisons are like. They are very confined spaces, not allowing the prisoners to have a lot of variety and movement in their lives. Being confined in the same basic place day after day quickly gets monotonous. It also restricts writers, who somehow have to come up with a steady stream of gags with much less resources to mine from. That's bad enough, but what makes it worse is that other element that I mentioned several sentences ago, the situation. I don't know about you, but I don't find the idea of people being locked up in prison for incredibly long stretches to be all that funny. For one thing, prison is an awful place to be stuck in, with bad things ranging from bland food to fellow prisoners who threaten to hurt or kill you. With that in mind, more likely people in the audience would feel sorry for prisoners instead of laughing. Another problem I have is that I must confess I have a personal fear of being locked up for a crime I did not commit, which further erodes my enthusiasm for prison movies of any kind.

It probably goes without saying that the movie I'm reviewing here, They Went That-A-Way & That-A-Way, is a comedy that spends much of its running time in a prison. I was not looking forward to watching it because of my viewpoint that the prison comedy genre was a poor idea even They Went That-A-Way & That-A-Waywhen movies first started to be made. So you may be wondering why I decided to review it. Well, I haven't reviewed any other prison comedies before, and I have been trying ever since starting this web site to review as wide a range of movies as possible. Also, the movie starred Tim Conway, and I wanted to point out something unusual about his career. As a player on The Carol Burnett Show, he was very funny. But outside of that show, I have found him to be remarkably unfunny when he's up front and center, whether it's his Dorf videos or his feature-length movies. This movie seemed a great opportunity to examine why Conway (at least to me) can't seem to be funny outside of The Carol Burnett Show when he's up front and center. Though at the same time I had a glimmer of hope that the movie could be good - you have to have some hope when you take a chance on an obscurity. The movie centers around two policemen somewhere south of the Mason-Dixon Line, Dewey (Conway) and Wallace (McCann, Hamburger: The Motion Picture). Both Dewey and Wallace are (you guessed it) incredibly stupid and incompetent at their job, and one day they are called in by the Governor of their state. But instead of firing them or asking how on earth they got into positions of power, the Governor tells them of a problem he has. In one of the state prisons is a convict by the name of Butch Collins (Hank Worden, Flush). Before Collins was caught and imprisoned, he was an armed robber who managed to steal a great deal of money, money that he's managed to hide from the authorities. The Governor asks Dewey and Wallace to go undercover as convicts in the prison Collins now resides in, and find out where the money is hidden. Dewey and Wallace agree to take on the assignment, and promptly go undercover as convicts at the prison. Of course, it isn't easy for these idiots as they bumble their way through their undercover assignment. It's even harder for them sometime later when they find out that the Governor has suddenly died - and he's the only one who knew their actual identities! Now the two are forced to switch their plans to one of escape, though that soon proves as hard as pretending to be hardened criminals.

In They Went That-A-Way & That-A-Way, Tim Conway seems to have had more creative control than he had on The Carol Burnett Show - he wrote the screenplay for the movie. True, Conway was credited with some of the writing on TCBS, but I am confident that the talented Burnett herself and various other talented people connected with the show had their own creative fingers over all of the show's writing. This movie (like many of his other projects when he's up front and center) was an independent production, and no doubt Conway had more freedom to do his thing here and in those other productions because of that. And the results show that Conway, when completely free to do his own thing, desperately needs someone expert in comedy to advise him on the quality of his material. I'll get to his script in a moment, but first I want to start on his performance. As expected, Conway plays his Dewey character as a complete moron. There's nothing automatically wrong with that - there have been a great number of movie actors who have played total dimwits to hilarious effect over the decades. But those actors were careful to make their characters' stupidity palatable. Conway simply doesn't do this. He doesn't manage to make Dewey seem truly naive. Instead, Conway makes Dewey's stupidity come across as if he indeed deep down seems to know better, but all the same does stupid things. I simply couldn't believe the stupid actions coming from this so-called moronic character. Instead of laughing, I quite frankly got angry at Dewey, and I wanted to grab him by the collar and slap him while yelling, "You know better!"

As for Chuck McCann, I more or less had the same problem with his performance that I had with Tim Conway's, the performance being too labored and not feeling natural enough to be convincing and therefore hilarious. But there is a further problem with both of the lead performances, having to do with the fact that they are more or less acting the same. The problem results in the movie not really needing both actors. Let me explain. In classic team-ups of comic actors like Laurel & Hardy, each actor played their dimwitted characters in a different way. For example, Hardy was the aggressive idea man, and Laurel was the meek follower. This created different personalities, which resulted in comic chemistry when forced together in various situations, and resulted in some very funny moments. But in this movie, with both of the principle characters acting in the same moronic fashion, there isn't that much chemistry generated. And as I said, with both characters more or less alike, it becomes puzzling why two characters with the same personality are needed when one would have been enough. With Conway and McCann giving disappointing performances, I think viewers will be looking at the supportive cast for any trace of enjoyment. Actually, there are two supporting performances in the movie that are fun to watch. Famed character actor Dub Taylor (The Great Smokey Roadblock) does well as the prison warden, playing it with gusto with his classic cranky attitude. Richard Kiel (The Giant Of Thunder Mountain) plays a prisoner whose imposing look and attitude deliver a few chuckles. Incidentally, Taylor and Kiel play their amusing roles completely straight, showing they had a better idea as to how to play their particular roles than Conway and McCann did as the leads.

I'm getting closer to talking about Conway's screenplay and how it alone sinks the movie, though you probably guessed that already. But before I do, I want to talk about the direction. Curiously, two individuals are credited with the direction. When that happens, it often means that there were some significant problems during the production. This might explain why there are big sections of the movie done in different styles. The scenes outside the prison have a late '70s style, while in the prison the movie has the feeling it was done during the '30s. But whatever the style may be at any point, it never hides the limited budget, which results in things like cheap sets and crummy-looking locations. The fact that both directors were over sixty-five years old may also explain how tired and flat most of the movie comes across, but it certainly didn't help that they were given Conway's extremely unfunny screenplay. The constantly humorless writing results in one misfired gag after another, ranging from McCann sucking his thumb while asleep to Conway spouting off gibberish and words like "Toyota" while impersonating a Japanese man (complete with a fake Fu Manchu mustache.) Not only is the screenplay unfunny, it is poorly paced. It takes forever for the Butch Collins character to first appear, and even longer for the protagonists to discover that the Governor has died and they are on their own. In the meantime, the movie is padded out to an ungodly length by many scenes that both serve no consequence and serve no laughs. Obviously, as I mentioned several paragraphs ago, Conway needs someone to provide quality control on his projects. But in the case of They Went That-A-Way & That-A-Way, the best advice that Conway should have been given would have been to dispose of the entire screenplay into the nearest wastepaper basket.

(Posted July 28, 2017)

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See also: Bullseye!, Crime Busters, Felon