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Chris Hicks: Utah jokes more silly than insulting

Published: Tuesday, July 7 2015 1:30 a.m. MDT

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Every now and then, while watching some old movie, I'll catch an out-of-the-blue reference to Salt Lake City or Mormons, usually in a sarcastic "isn't this a hick town?" context. And some of them are quite amusing, usually more silly than insulting.

So, as we anticipate next week's 24th of July celebrations, in honor of the Mormons making their way to the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, it seems fitting that a new one has just hit my radar. Well, it's actually almost 70 years old, but it's new to me.

"The Sky's the Limit," which earned a belated DVD debut recently on the manufacture-on-demand Warner Archive label, is a less-than-likely suspect for this kind of gag. Who would think Salt Lake City might provide a pivotal plot point in the first 10 minutes of an airy, nearly forgotten Fred Astaire trifle?

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Astaire plays an Army Air Corps pilot during World War II, which was still raging when the picture was released in 1943. Having gained some fame for heroics in the Pacific, Astaire's character and his buddies are sent stateside for a 10-day furlough, during which they are given a ticker-tape parade in Manhattan and sent across the country on a whistlestop tour to drum up support for the military effort.

As their train barrels through the West, an officer gives the boys their itinerary: "We arrive in Salt Lake tomorrow morning, visit the Mormon Tabernacle." And as he goes on, Astaire, his hand to his face, rolls his eyes. When the officer finishes, Astaire groans: "Ouch!" Then, when the train comes to a brief stop just outside "Arvin," wherever that is, Astaire slips off and makes his way back to New York City.

The Travel Council probably wouldn't like it, but it made me chuckle. And "The Sky's the Limit" isn't alone. Here are some other films (all on DVD) that offer equally dubious tourism plugs:

"Gentleman Jim" (1942) stars Errol Flynn in a fictionalized, mostly comic biography of James J. "Gentleman Jim" Corbett, the famed fighter of the late 19th and early 20th century. The morning after a drinking binge, Corbett awakens with a hangover in a strange hotel room and vaguely remembers a train trip. Puzzled about where he is, he looks out the window and sees the Salt Lake Mormon temple and a warehouse with a sign that says, "Salt Lake Ice Company." "Salt Lake City!" says Corbett, "That's where the Mormons come from." Later in the film, when Corbett tells some acquaintances he was in Salt Lake City, he's asked, "Whatever did you go there for?" He replies, "Oh, I wanted to see the lake."

"Ocean's Eleven" (1960), the original Las Vegas heist comedy starring Frank Sinatra's Rat Pack, has Akim Tamiroff as the easily exasperated backer of the robbery. At one point Sinatra tells him that the good news is, "We're leaving Phoenix." The bad news? "We're going to Salt Lake City." Later, when one of the crew, a drawling cowpoke, is late, Tamiroff says, "So where is this horse-wrangler? … Still running around Salt Lake City, I'll bet, saying goodbye to all his wives."

"The Sand Pebbles" (1966) stars Steve McQueen as a sailor on a U.S. gunboat in 1926 China. He hails from Grover, Utah, and when he tells a Chinese woman he's from Utah, she says with a glimmer of recognition, "Oh, Salt Lake City. Is Utah nice?" "Ehhh," McQueen replies, "for some people." Later, missionary Candice Bergen asks why he joined the Navy, and McQueen says, "Well, ain't much water in Utah."

"Airport 1975," the second film in the "Airport" disaster franchise, has a 747 jetliner bound for Los Angeles diverted to Salt Lake City, prompting a series of vaudeville-style wisecracks from various passengers: "What do you do in Salt Lake City?" asks one of a trio of drunken conventioneers, to which another responds, "I went there once. It was closed." Passenger Sid Caesar good-naturedly tells Myrna Loy, who has been downing boilermakers, "Salt Lake City may be very good for you. It's dry there, you know." "Dry!?!?" she exclaims in dismay. Susan Clark's whiny little boy says he wants to see everything, and she sarcastically says, "I suppose you'll want to see the Mormon temple." The boy responds, "Hey, that'd be neat." Finally, the copilot calls the Salt Lake International Airport tower and says, "We're descending for a landing in your fair city, please alert Brigham Young."

"The Getaway" (1972), the Sam Peckinpah thriller with Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw as bank robbers on the lam, has a scene with MacGraw sitting at a bar in a train station, and a soldier on the next stool asks, "You wouldn't happen to be a Mormon, would ya?" "No, I'm afraid not," MacGraw says, half chuckling. "Me neither," the soldier says. "I'm from Orem. That's right near Salt Lake. There's about 12 people in the state who aren't Mormons and I'm one of 'em." (This exchange is very closely duplicated in the 1994 remake with Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger.)

"Fletch" (1985), has Chevy Chase as an undercover reporter with a penchant for disguises investigating a Provo airline pilot. When Chase asks a mechanic if the pilot is a Mormon, the mechanic says, "I don't think he's doing a whole lotta singing with the Tabernacle Choir." Later, Chase is talking to the pilot's wife, who says she's bored. "If you're so bored, why didn't you go to Utah with (your husband)?" She replies, "Well, Utah's not exactly a cure for boredom." "That's a good point," Chase says. And during the film's climax, Chase reveals that the pilot was previously married and never divorced, "making (him) a bigamist — even in Utah."

"Switchback" (1997) is a serial-killer thriller that has a scene where Danny Glover picks up hitchhiker Jared Leto and asks where he's headed. "Utah," Leto says. "Big place, Utah," says Glover. Leto clarifies, "Salt Lake City." "Me too," says Glover, "how's that for luck? First I save you from freezin' to death, now you got a free ride to Mormonland."

"The X-Files" (1998), the movie that was spun off of the popular TV series, has a moment when Scully (Gillian Anderson) tells her partner Mulder (David Duchovny) that they are going to be split up, and that she's thinking of quitting because they've assigned her to — horrors! — the Salt Lake City office.

And, saving the best for last, in "Damnation Alley" (1977), a post-World War III apocalyptic thriller, an all-terrain vehicle drives through bombed-out Salt Lake City, where the entire downtown area is infested with oversized "armor-plated killer cockroaches."

What a missed opportunity. If those cockroaches had been crickets, maybe some armor-plated killer seagulls could have come to the rescue.

EMAIL: hicks@desnews.com

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