For the past week and a half, I have been on a major Warren Oates kick. The latest Oates film that I watched was Kid Blue, a quirky western comedy that features Warren in a small but key supporting role.
Bickford Warner (Dennis Hopper) is a long-haired and spaced-out train robber who, after one failed robbery too many, decides to go straight and live a conventional life. He settles in the town of Dime Box, Texas. He starts out sweeping the floor of a barber shop before getting a better job wringing the necks of chickens. Eventually, he ends up working at the Great American Ceramic Novelty Company, where he helps to make ashtrays for tourists.
He also meets Molly and Reese Ford (Lee Purcell and Warren Oates), a married couple who both end up taking an interest in Bickford. Reese, who ignores his beautiful wife, constantly praised Greek culture and insists that Bickford take a bath with him. Meanwhile, Molly and Bickford end up having an affair.
Bickford also meets the local preacher, Bob (Peter Boyle). Bob is enthusiastic about peyote and has built a primitive flying machine that he keeps in a field. The town’s fascist sheriff, Mean John (Ben Johnson), comes across Bob performing a river baptism and angrily admonishes him for using “white man’s water” to baptize an Indian.
Bickford attempts to live a straight life but is constantly hassled by Mean John, who suspects that Bickford might actually be Kid Blue. When Bickford’s former criminal partner (Janice Rule) shows up in town and Molly announces that she’s pregnant, Bickford has to decide whether or not to return to his old ways.
Kid Blue is one of a handful of counterculture westerns that were released in the early 70s. The film’s biggest problem is that, at the time he was playing “Kid” Blue, Dennis Hopper was 37 and looked several years older. It’s hard to buy him as a naïve naif when he looks older than everyone else in the cast. As for Warren Oates, his role was small but he did great work as usual. Gay characters were rarely presented sympathetically in the early 70s and counter-culture films were often the worst offenders. As written, Reese is a one-note (and one-joke) character but Warren played him with a lot of empathy and gave him a wounded dignity that was probably not present in the film’s script.
Kid Blue plays out at its own stoned pace, an uneven mix of quirky comedy and dippy philosophy. Still, the film is worth seeing for the only-in-the-70s cast and the curiosity factor of seeing Dennis Hopper in full counterculture mode, before he detoxed and became Hollywood’s favorite super villain.