The Fastest Guitar Alive (1967)

The Fastest Guitar Alive (1967)‘In case you’re interested, I can kill you with this and play your funeral march at the same time.’

Confederate spies steal a gold shipment from the San Francisco Mint in the closing days of the American Civil War. They use a travelling medicine show as cover and operate out of notorious local saloon the ‘Barbary Coast’ where one of their number entertains the customers with his guitar and unique vocal style.

Producer Sam Katzman was not famous in Hollywood for his films so much as his ‘cash conscious’ approach to the medium. Beginning his career in the 1930s with ‘poverty row’ studios like Monogram, his prodigious output included movie serials, Westerns, Jungle pictures and several 1940s horrors with a declining Bela Lugosi. This lightweight tale of music, stolen gold and the Old West was originally intended as a vehicle for Elvis Presley, but the King passed so Katzman went to a somewhat unlikely Plan ‘B’: Roy Orbison.

A decade into his singing career, the Big O’s popularity was in a state of decline, his material out of step with the latest musical trends. Hoping for a change in fortune, he signed a 5 picture deal with MGM studios, and this underwhelming release was the first result. It was both and critical and commercial failure and Orbison never acted again.

So what went wrong? Well, for once, the blame can’t be laid at Katzman’s door. Sure, the film’s certainly no epic, but the budgetary constraints aren’t too obvious, even though the woeful lack of action at the climax robs the story of any final dramatic punch. The problem is that the film fails to find a consistent tone under the direction of Michael D Moore, probably because the final script was an attempt to rewrite what was originally a serious drama as a candy floss concoction of soppy romance, pop songs and comedy.

Given Orbison’s total lack of experience as an actor, he’s double teamed here with TV veteran, the young and handsome Sammy Jackson. It’s a wise move. Orbison isn’t terrible in front of the camera but he’s no natural either, and it’s frightening to think how things might have turned out if he’d had to carry the picture on his own. What really doesn’t help, however, is that events play out in a thoroughly predictable manner, with our heroes doing their duty for the South whilst getting plenty of another kind of action with the Chestnut Sisters (Maggie Pierce and Joan Freeman), dancers who are part of their robbery scheme. Orbison sings half a dozen songs (the best parts of the film), appears without his trademark shades and has a guitar that (unconvincingly) doubles as a gun!

Director Moore started out as an actor in silent cinema, graduating via the Art Department, to become one of Hollywood’s most respected Second Unit and Assistant Directors. He fulfilled those roles on many big hits, including ‘War of the Worlds’ (1953), Cecil B DeMille’s ‘The Ten Commandments’ (1956), the Oscar-winning ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’ (1969), John Huston’s ‘The Man WhoWould Be King’ (1975), ‘unofficial’ James Bond flick ‘Never Say Never Again’ (1983) and the first three Indiana Jones films! It’s a very long, and seriously impressive, list. Unfortunately, his efforts at calling the shots himself were less-than stellar, being limited to some TV work and just half a dozen films, the most famous being one of Elvis Presley’s dreariest vehicles ‘Paradise: Hawaiian Style’ (1966).

Heroine Freeman also had royal connections, acting opposite the King in ‘Roustabout’ (1964), before turning up 20 years later in ‘Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter’ (1984)! Her dancing partner Pierce may be familiar to Vincent Price fans from Roger Corman’s ‘Tales of Terror’ (1962) and she also starred in notoriously awful 1960’s sitcom ‘My Mother The Car.’ Further down the cast, we find Lyle Betteger and John Doucette, both familiar faces from countless TV Westerns in the 1960s, with Betteger then reporting for duty on many network cop shows in the following decade.

Writer Robert E Kent scripted musicals, crime programmers, Westerns, ‘Zombies On Broadway’ (1945) with Bela Lugosi, a couple of early 1960s Vincent Price vehicles and episodes of TV’s ‘Wild Wild West.’ But his biggest successes came with Katzman in the 1950s when the duo hit pay dirt with ‘Rock Around The Clock’ (1956), ‘Don’t Knock The Rock’ (1956), ‘Twist Around The Clock’ (1961) and ‘Don’t Knock The Twist’ (1961)!

If all the assembled talent here seem a little second-rate, then sadly that is reflected in the final product. lts not a disaster by any means but, without the presence of The Big O, it would likely be long forgotten now. As it is, it’s a curiosity for his fans, rather than anything else.

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