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80 Steps to Jonah

80 Steps to Jonah(1969)

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teaser 80 Steps to Jonah (1969)

Wayne Newton became a sensation as a teenager when he was discovered by an agent in Las Vegas. Newton was performing with his brother and got signed to a five year deal, eventually becoming a solitary act and appearing on The Jackie Gleason Show numerous times in the early sixties. He also became a semi-regular on the tv show Bonanza and in 1963 recorded his international hit, Danke Schoen, at the young age of 21. By the late sixties, he was looking to make a move to movies and got his first lead role as the title character in 80 Steps to Jonah (1969).

The movie opens with a speeding Charger pursued by police. When it runs off the road and the passenger gets thrown, the driver, Mark Jonah Winters (Wayne Newton), claims he was just a hitchhiker and the driver of the car was the one who was thrown. The two police officers don't believe him but they can't question the other guy as he's knocked out and in bad shape. They tell Mark if the other guy dies, he'll be charged with manslaughter. After being put in an ambulance, Mark jumps out the back door and makes his escape. It's not long before he comes upon a camp for blind children and sticks around to lay low, filling in for their missing handyman.

Mark tells everyone to call him by his middle name, Jonah, and begins to help out with the children as well. He meets their den mother, Tracy (Diana Ewing), and her mom, Nonna (Jo Van Fleet) and he and Tracy immediately strike up a rapport. As Jonah becomes more involved in the children's lives, the police close in on him from outside. Two police officers, played by the legendary character actors Slim Pickens and R.G. Armstrong, pursue Jonah by following a series of reports on eyewitness sightings. In the meantime, an acquaintance of theirs, a plain clothes detective on vacation, Barney Glover (Keenan Wynn), is also keeping his eyes open.

80 Steps to Jonah doesn't pretend to be anything more than a star vehicle for Wayne Newton but, oddly, it only gives Newton a couple of songs to sing, even though he carries a guitar with him as he hitches across the country. Nonetheless, Warner Brothers/Seven Arts, the distributors and backers of the film, made sure there were plenty of cameos from well-established actors, even if the movie was obviously filmed on a tight budget. Oscar® winner Jo Van Fleet is the biggest name here but Mickey Rooney also shows up as a town drunk, Sal Mineo as the driver of the car in the beginning and, of course, the previously mentioned Wynn, Pickens and Armstrong.

Aside from the bigger names, the child actors contain many names that would become familiar to any kid growing up in the sixties and seventies. Brandon Cruz, from The Courtship of Eddie's Father (1969), plays one of the three child leads, followed by Erin Moran, soon to be famous on Happy Days as Joanie Cunningham and Butch Patrick, late of The Munsters.

All of this combines to make a perfectly acceptable vehicle for Newton but a movie moving at a relaxed pace rather than the heightened pace of a thriller. That's because it's not one. What looks to be a surefire wrong-man-on-the-run movie, quickly turns into a children's movie in which the asides to the police officers and their pursuit are so few and far between, and so incidental, that none of the action at the camp is ever broken by the tension of the chase.

In one of the oddest moments of the film, a movie done completely straightforward as a non-singing drama, the children and Newton break into song while planting seeds. Suddenly, more than halfway through, it's a musical, for that one solitary song. Newton can be heard on the soundtrack for a couple more but this one song about planting seeds, which is reprised at the end, stands out as one of the strangest genre insertions in many a movie. It's a drama, primarily, but for a little over four minutes, it's a musical, too. If only someone had had the good sense to have him thank the kids in German after the song, it would have been perfect.

Wayne Newton never became a star of the screen but he certainly became a star of the stage. Not long after this movie he finally became a headliner in Las Vegas and by the end of the next decade he was a legend. 80 Steps to Jonah remains a kind of oddity but one that must be seen by any Wayne Newton fan to see him in a way they've never seen him before.

Producers: Steve Broidy, Gerd OswaldDirector: Gerd OswaldWriters: Gerd Oswald (story), Frederick Louis Fox (story and screenplay)Original Music: George Shearing Cinematography: Joseph LaShelle Film Editing: Anthony DiMarco Art Direction: Howard Hollander Set Decoration: Robert R. Benton, Charles B. PierceCast: Wayne Newton (Mark Jonah Winters), Jo Van Fleet (Nonna), Keenan Wynn (Barney Glover), Diana Ewing (Tracy), Mickey Rooney (Wilfred Bashford), Sal Mineo (Jerry Taggart), Slim Pickens (Scott), R.G. Armstrong (Mackray), Brandon Cruz (Little Joe), Erin Moran (Kim), Butch Patrick (Brian)

By Greg Ferrara



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