The actor James Caan died last week at age 82. It marked not only the passing of a great actor but also a kind of end to a culture that is no longer with us. Recently, Caan has been a strong presence of joy and humor on Twitter. He never tweeted about politics or even culture. Instead, in his usual fashion, he used the platform to talk about, what else? Movies.
When Caan’s family announced on Twitter that he died, Mel Brooks tweeted: “So sad to hear about the passing of Jimmy Caan. He was a joy to work with on SILENT MOVIE. Besides being a terrific actor, he was just a great guy. So full of joie de vivre. He will really be missed by all those that knew him.”
Caan’s short cameo in Brooks’ 1976 “Silent Movie,” is unforgettable. Brooks, Dom DeLuise, and Marty Feldman play three friends who are trying to make a silent picture, long after the “talkies” have become the norm. In order to have a green light from the producer, the trio must secure major movie stars or else the project will be dead on arrival. One of the actors they visit is James Caan (who is on location shooting another movie), and what ensues is a scene full of hilarious slapstick, in which the dressing room trailer is completely off balance, moving back and forth like an unsteady boat. Caan, ever the tough guy, is trying very hard to hold a cup of coffee and talk with Brooks about the movie proposal. The silly circumstances don’t prevent him from agreeing to do the project.
The easygoing attitude Brooks alluded to was, very clearly, observed by many who worked with him, so much so that it was considered James Caan’s modus operandi. The outpouring of grief and love on Twitter for him shows that he was not only loved but respected.
Caan is known for a number of intense roles, such as Sonny Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 “The Godfather,” Frank in Michael Mann’s 1981 “Thief,” or novelist Paul Sheldon in Rob Reiner’s 1990 “Misery,” captured by his “number one fan,” Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates).
One of Caan’s early roles that stands out for showcasing his great sense of humor is Howard Hawks’ 1966 Western, “El Dorado,” in which he plays a youthful cowboy who doesn’t know how to shoot. He has a long and complicated name so everyone just calls him Mississippi and he has come to the town of El Dorado to avenge the murder of his foster father. Mississippi gets caught in an additional drama between the film’s “bad guy,” Bart Jason (Ed Asner) and the MacDonald family, in which Jason is trying to swindle the MacDonalds out of the rightful ownership of their land.
Jason tries to hire Cole Thornton (John Wayne), a “gun for hire,” to take care of the problem but Cole is suspicious of the situation. Before he does anything, Cole talks to El Dorado’s sheriff, J. P. Harrah (Robert Mitchum) and realizes that Bart Jason does not have the right to the MacDonalds’ land. Of course, Jason doesn’t stop trying and hires Nelse McLeod, who thinks that he can complete the job, especially since the sheriff has become the town drunk.
Howard Hawks wanted to make a serious Western (especially after a few of his non-Westerns had been flops), but things quickly took a turn toward unintentional comedy. A band of unlikely heroes steps in to save the day. Wayne’s and Mitchum’s characters are older, either wounded and carrying crutches or drunk, and yet they are still excellent shots. Mitchum started out playing Harrah in a serious manner, but Hawks was not impressed with the performance. He wanted something else, and he definitely got it.
According to Mitchum’s biographer, Lee Server, he took Hawks’ criticism seriously and shifted the mood of the film, “in another direction, to a broad comic style, mugging and doing pratfalls that had cast and crew in stitches . . . The film went into areas of pure farce at times (according to Hawks, James Caan . . . never knew his part had turned into a comic one or he’d have ‘tried to be funny’; Caan said he did figure it out, and you can tell because he starts smiling after every line).”
Caan’s character fit in perfectly, and this smile Lee Server mentions became something audiences accepted, and perhaps even expected from Caan over the years. In almost every scene in “El Dorado” he exudes self-confidence yet he’s also deferential to Wayne and Mitchum. As Mississippi is learning the ways of the cowboy, so is Caan learning the ways of an actor.
“El Dorado” may not be the best Howard Hawks’ film. As Server mentions, it is a “meandering, misshapen . . . wardrobe that had a neatly pressed look of a dude ranch masquerade, continuity errors like the notorious shifting crutch [which was included in the film as a joke between Mitchum and Wayne].” Yet despite some of these failings, it is an immensely entertaining film, thanks to the great performances. Caan is the new kid on the block starring opposite two of the greats and in some ways his character mirrors real life. He gains their trust and they accept him into the fold.
“El Dorado” also has implied profound moments. Hawks is grappling with his own aging and mortality. In the end, it is humor that sustains and defines the film. Performances by Wayne, Mitchum, and a young Caan are a testament to human authenticity, something James Caan will certainly be remembered for.