In a manner of speaking, there's never a dull moment in "Hot Lead and Cold Feet," a Western farce from the Disney Studio. But the cumulative effect of the slapstick tumult and frantic stunt footage is more enervating then stimulating.
The gags themselves might be more effective if they were'nt forced to crowd each each other like so many rush-hour subway passengers. Energetic but dishevelled, this movie lacks the stylistic assurance that makes Hal Needham's "Hooper" such a sterling popular entertainment, a pleasurable blend of stunts and story, comedy and sentiment, rowdiness and reflection.
Ironically, the stunt coordinator on the Disney film, Buddy Joe Hooker, is mentioned by name in "Hooper" and performed one of its major stunts - the descent by rope on the face of a skyscraper. Hooker's name probably sugguested the name Sonny Hooper, the fictional stunt coordinator played by Burt Reynolds. Hooker's crew knocks itself out in "Hot Lead," but the movie illustrates how stuntwork can overbalance a weally constructed and assembled picture. It becomes too important in such a context - the only source of action and pitorial interest.
As a result, "Hot Lead" makes a shambles of a durable comic premise: a competition among heirs for the estate of an eccentric benefactor. (The idea was cleverly exploited a generation ago by screenwriter Michael Pertwee in the Alastair Simjoyce Grenfell comedy "Laughter in Paradise." In this case the beritage is a whole town, Bloodsky, foundred and apparently "owned" by an old coot named Jasper Bloodshy. Somewhere among the line he fathered twin sons who have grown into a trigger-happy tough. Wild Billy, and a flustered do-gooder, Eli, each ignorant of the other's existence.
All three Bloodshys are played by Jim Dale, an eager young comic with a Liverpool accent who projects puppyish charms that may have a special allure at the Disney studio, where the idea of leading men tends to be a trifle boobish. But the triple role really threatens to wear out Dale's welcome, already worn thin during his laborious song-and-dance numbers in "Pete's Dragan."
To be fair, disguises become Dale.At least he seems more diverting pretending to be cracked old Jasper and scroungy Billy than straining to be ingratiating as tenderfoot Eli, the nice-guy hero who cares fora beaming pair of blond Disney orphans (their looks alone destroy the illusion of a 19th-century setting) and finds antiseptic romance with a schoolmarm played by Karen Valentine.
But the movie is assembled so clumsily that it might have been impossible for Danny Kaye, Alec Guinness or Peter Sellers in their primes to capitalize on the triple opportunity entrusted to Dale. The contrasting impersonations are never coherently contrasted. They're lost in the shuffle of disorganized gut-busting.
Instead of building up comic momentum, the movie lurches between gag situations: Dale as Jasper taking a fall or a beaming; Dale as Wild Billy shooting up the joint; Dale as Eli flapping his arms and widening his eyes in distress; Don Knotts as a sheriff and Jack Elam as a gunfighter trying to settle an old score.
It seems unthinkable that the script would fail to explain the ground rules of the climactic contest between Billy and Eli - a cross-country relay race - well in advance, but that obligatory, suspense-inducting scene appears to be missing. The movie places such a premium on gratuitous funny business that it neglects essential exposition.
It's not reassuring to be reminded that the filmmakers are finding their level: Here and there in the theater customers, some old and some young, are obligingly busting a gut. The sloppy-hoppy dynamics of a "Hot Lead" obviously get by, and in more markets than Disney's (Note the lucky ineptitude of "Grease" and "Foul Play" earlier this summer.) The relative sophistication gracing popular hits like "Heaven Can Wait" and "Hooper" remains, as always, the exception rather than the rule.