The following is my entry in The Movie of the Week Blogathon, being hosted at the blog Classic Film and TV Cafe on Feb. 20, 2017. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ takes on some of their favorite (for a variety of reasons) movies made for television!
When I was a kid, I was inexplicably fascinated by the concept of TV-movies. Looking back, I think it was because, even though I was too young to articulate it, I realized that at its core, the TV-movie is the television version of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”
The most famous example, ABC’s “Movie of the Week,” had a snazzy intro in which an announcer told us we’d be seeing “an original, world-premiere movie made especially for ABC.” But of course, it wasn’t really a movie at all; the minimal budget and connect-the-dots script made it perfectly clear that we were watching an hour-long TV episode stretched to 90 minutes.
Further illustrating the chasm of quality between legitimate feature films and made-for-TV movies was the latter’s “star system.” Hollywood has made much hay of their major actors whose quality shone through in movie after movie — Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis, et al. By contrast, the most apt comparison to TV-movies’ roster of stars would be the Educational Pictures short subjects of the 1930’s, which featured up-and-coming stars who weren’t quite stars (in the TV version, Kate Jackson, Karen Valentine, and Richard Long), or faded stars who’d already seen their heyday (Buddy Ebsen, Barbara Stanwyck, or at the other end of the age spectrum, Barbara Eden).
Finally, there’s the little matter of quality. Yeasayers of TV-movies will quickly point out some of the landmark productions that emerged from the genre — the true-life tearjerker Brian’s Song, Steven Spielberg’s Duel.
But let’s face it — those are the occasional exceptions to the rule. More often, the TV-movie is either a combination of familiar plot and character tropes, or it’s an emasculated version of theatrical cinema’s more daring subject matter. The Stranger Within is really just Rosemary’s Baby made more palatable by turning the innocent mother into spunky Barbara Eden. And the TV-movie I’m going to dissect, Pray for the Wildcats, is really Deliverance minus (let’s face it) those nasty hillbillies and their anal-probing tendencies.
So, long story short, vintage TV-movies are great fun to revisit. But in terms of originality and quality, they resemble theatrical movies about as much as Hanna-Barbera’s cheaper TV progeny resemble Hanna-Barbera’s fluidly animated Tom & Jerry.
(WARNING: Major spoilers abound. If you’re interested in seeing the movie first, it’s embedded at the end of this blog.)
Pray for the Wildcats flaunts its TV-movie chops right from the start, showing us four guys careening around in the desert on dirt bikes. This is TV shorthand for “macho white guys.”
It turns out that it’s really three pathetic grown men trying to curry favor from a daddy figure. Sam Farragut is a posturing business executive with a chip of machismo a mile wide on his shoulders. (Sam is played by Andy Griffith with about one part Sheriff Andy Taylor and three parts Lonesome Rhodes from A Face in the Crowd.)
Sam’s three sycophants are ad agency co-workers: free-spirited art designer Maxon (Marjoe Gortner); inattentive husband Paul McIlvain (“The Brady Bunch’s” Robert Reed); and suicidal Warren Summerfield (William Shatner in one of his better post-”Star Trek” performances) who, unbeknownst to the others, has recently been fired from the agency.
The trio try to sell Sam on their latest project for his company, but Sam is decidedly unimpressed. Sam lets the guys know that the only way he’ll sign off on their work is if he’ll accompany him on a dangerous dirt-bike trip through the Baja California desert.
(Sam has strange ideas about living on the edge. Once the guys reluctantly agree to Sam’s plan, Sam has lettermen’s jackets with the name “Wildcats” printed up for the four of them, as if they were going off on some hare-brained fraternity pledge.)
We’re meant to regard Sam menacingly, as a loose cannon who could be set off at the slightest provocation. But there’s nothing in Sam Farragut that we haven’t seen in any fatheated macho who’s had a few too many drinks. In fact, Sam’s rowdy behavior at a seedy Mexican bar is what sets the major part of the plot in motion.
Sam dances with a young blonde at the bar and then tries to have his way with her, even though it’s perfectly clear she’s with another man, who quickly steps in to try and flatten Sam. Warren plays peacemaker and separates the two, but Sam decides that his (one-sided) sense of honor has been squelched.
Later, while dragging Maxon along with him for a ride, Sam looks for and find the young couple camped out on the beach. Sam claims he’s “a hippie with money” and offers the guy $100 to sleep with his girlfriend. For some reason, the couple is not flattered by this offer, and Sam and the guy get into a fight. Just when it looks as though the guy has the upper hand, Sam grabs an axe and destroys the radiator of the couple’s car, leaving them stranded on the beach as Sam exits, an aghast Maxon in tow.
If you haven’t figured out where this is going by now, any further plot synopsis probably won’t help. Suffice to say, Sam Farragut is a perfect symbol of the motto “Save the drama for your mama” long before it was ever conceived, and Sam’s battle with his bruised sense of masculinity wears thin pretty quickly, for the ad execs and for the viewing audience.
Of slightly more interest, as is often the case in TV-movies, is the supporting cast. Janet Margolin, who played the waifish girlfriend of would-be bank robber Woody Allen in Take the Money and Run five years previously, here plays Maxon’s live-in lover Krissie, whose unexpected pregnancy blunts Maxon’s free spirit. A year before Jaws made movie history, Lorraine Gary plays Warren’s wife Lila, who fears for Warren’s sanity. And last but not least, Angie Dickinson plays Nancy — the slinky spouse to whom Paul is inattentive.
Now re-read that previous paragraph. The subtext of this TV-movie is that, even though Sam forces these guys to take this dangerous trip with him, they’re also compelled to do it because they feel trapped. Trapped by these loving women? Trapped by Angie Dickinson?? To the not-yet-created catchphrase “Save the drama for your mama,” we can also add the concept “First-World problems.”
Which pretty much sums up the modus operandi of the worst TV-movies: Take heartfelt, flesh-and-blood issues, and then reduce them to the lowest common denominator so that the most brain-dead yahoo in the audience can understand them. With a goal like that to shoot for, it’s no wonder that TV-movies’ creators stretched 60 minutes into 90 so effortlessly.
If you have any curiosity about watching the movie, here it is in its entirety on YouTube: