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THE COMEBACK TRAIL (1982).

Writer-director Harry Hurwitz first came to the attention of fringe-cinema fans with his surreal and heartfelt THE PROJECTIONIST, but before that film was released in early 1971, he was already busy shooting this follow-up comedy, which was copyrighted in 1973, but didn't officially premiere until 1982! A low-rent film about low-rent filmmaking, this slapdash outing boasts a fraud-fueled, PRODUCERS-style concept; a standout performance from 62-year-old Olympic gold medalist and ex-Flash Gordon, Buster Crabbe; plus an inexplicably strange turn by early NYC-children's-TV legend Chuck McCann, who played the title role of THE PROJECTIONIST and later co-created/starred in Saturday morning's FAR OUT SPACE NUTS... For their latest 'brilliant' get-rich-quick scheme, deadbeat movie producer duo Enrico Kodac (McCann) and E. Eddie Eestman (Robert Staats) decide to hire a decrepit, near-death actor to star in their next poverty-row flick, then collect a two-million-dollar insurance pay-off when he 'accidentally' croaks due to overexertion. Their casting choice is aged, long-retired western-serial veteran Duke Montana (Crabbe). Unfortunately, when this old dude shows up to work, it turns out he's in better physical condition than they are! After a failed attempt to shoot their penny-ante western in the middle of Central Park, everyone (including PROJECTIONIST ingĂ©nue Ina Balin, as the partners' secretary) relocates to an actual Old West set (the J.W. Eaves movie ranch, near Santa Fe, New Mexico). Soon realizing that Duke has no trouble doing his own demanding stunts, Kodac tries to poison him (leading to the old 'mixed-up drinks' scenario), replaces blanks with live ammo and rigs up an exploding cigarette, but every scheme to knock Montana off predictably backfires... Wildly overacting throughout, McCann sports a hooked putty nose, greasy long hair, curled fake mustache, and outlandish Italian accent -- basically, an overgrown, penny-ante version of Danny DeVito's Penguin -- and though the film is only 75 minutes, a reel's worth of his obviously-improvised banter with Staats could've been ditched without any great loss. Casting Crabbe was an inspired decision though, and while Buster seems lost whenever the on-camera clowning goes overboard (e.g., an appearance on THE JOE FRANKLIN SHOW), he genuinely embraces his character and earns the biggest laughs. Years afterward, Crabbe referred to the film as the best thing he'd ever done on-screen, but also blamed its lack of distribution on "pornographic" scenes, obviously alluding to Hurwitz's wonderfully odd clips of the producers' past projects -- the sexploitation-musical "These Raging Loins," with topless dancing girls and Monti Rock III; a series of el cheapo genre films featuring Henny Youngman; plus the horrific "The Revenge of the Chicken Man," starring a rambling, cursing Professor Irwin Corey and manic stand-up Lenny Schultz. Hugh Hefner also makes a bookending cameo, visiting Duke at his posh Hollywood digs. The scattershot script is littered with inventive ideas, like how these producers are so broke that they work out of an old, cutaway movie set of an office; but just as often, gags spectacularly misfire (e.g., hiring an Adolph Hitler lookalike to direct the western?). There's workmanlike cinematography from (PROJECTIONIST alumnus) Victor Petrashevic, with second unit camerawork by Joåo Fernandes (who, as Harry Flecks, later shot DEVIL IN MISS JONES and DEEP THROAT). This loopy cult-film relic is often a tedious slog, but Crabbe's winning performance makes it well worth your time.

© 2017 by Steven Puchalski.