Tim Conway Writes and Stars in Southern Prison Comedy



If only I could shave off forty years in order to let my eight-year-old self have a crack at this one.  1978’s “runaway hit of the year” (if only according to its own TV ads), They Went That-A-Way & That-A-Way, is just the kind of funny-faces-and-bonking-heads comedy that tickled my own non-discerning funny bone of yore.  It’s the ideal spirits-racing, fall-on-their-butts timewaster for a kid back then to find playing at the nearby drive-in or on local TV on Saturday afternoon.  And the movie is absolutely, absolutely nothing more.

The premise: In a dopier-than-Dukes of Hazard Deep South where everyone is stupid, the two worst small town police officers (a diminutively dim Tim Conway as Dewey and a barrel-like Chuck McCann as Wallace) get re-assigned to a super-secret undercover mission by the governor.  Dewey and Wallace are to pose as inmates in the local maximum-security prison in order to uncover a large amount of hidden stolen cash.  Immediately, the bumbling and perpetually stymied duo make enemies of both the prison authorities (led by the great Western character actor Dub Taylor) and the meanest convicts in the joint (headed up by the imposing Richard Kiel- the “Jaws” actor himself before “Jaws” himself turned good the following year in Moonraker).  

But then, darn the luck, the governor dies!  Which leaves Dewey and Wallace as the only ones who knew of the secret mission.  (Couldn’t they have just called their former chief…?  Maybe not- he’d probably deny ever knowing them after they ended their chaotic early-film car chase with their squad car in his office.  Yeah… that was the last straw!!! [Forcibly throws hat on floor]).  And go figure, when our exasperating heroes attempt to explain their situation to a way-past-the-point Dub Taylor, he in fact does not agree to let them borrow his car.  It’s only in the final fifteen or so minutes that they manage to make a break for it.  Indeed, for a movie called They Went That-A-Way & That-A-Way, they sure spend a lot of time holed up in one location.  

Somehow, it took not one but two directors to get They Went That-A-Way & That-A-Way in the can.  Written by Conway, it should be no surprise that the film feels improv heavy.  From there, however, it also feels sloppy. Conway will fumble something and react with wacky crossed eyes; McCann will do a big zany take without changing his facial expression.  No fruit is hanging too low.  Why simply get into a car when it’s three-percent funnier to clobber your head on the way in, feign cuckoo birds, shake it off, and then move on?  Don’t come in looking for the art of multi-prong gags or clever wit.  But if you’re in the market for dumb-guy-comedy that specializes in one-prong gags that receive an abundance of milage, this prison will be more of a retreat. 

Everything is rather squeaky clean, right down to future Twin Peaks star Grace Zabriskie’s turn as the token eye-catching lady.  The boys doing time sure do love her, and she’s happy to smile back while washing the car.  Cool Hand Luke, though, this most assuredly is not.   This being the South, there are a lot of Confederate flags throughout.  That’s to be expected, particularly in 1978. But why have a full Confederate army re-enactment going on at the end?  Gosh. It’s hard to know to what degree this is a love letter to that “Old South”, or just the world out the window.  The bit, however, that’s really aged the worst is the prolonged finale where, like Richard Kiel’s Jaws’ old enemy 007 once had to do, Dewey and Wallace must “become Japanese”.  For lack of anything actually clever, the whole movie ends with lots and lots of people all running into each other.  Crane out, credits!

Anyhow, unless you come to this a fan of Tim Conway and his better-known work on McHale’s NavyThe Carol Burnett ShowDorfThe Tim Conway Show, or the other The Tim Conway Show, there’s really not terribly much to see here.  Perhaps, like me, you’ve got a vested interest in studying all types of onscreen comedy, and They Went That-A-Way & That-A-Way is of one of the types that’s underrepresented on your personal filmography.  If so, be advised that the Blu-ray has arrived, courtesy of KL Studio Classics.  (Which is why we’re here in the first place).  A/V-wise, it’s more than adequate.  There are no extras aside from its trailer, a couple very rough TV spots, and trailers for other goofy comedies KL’s put out.  And good luck with your Film Comedy lecture series.