Support Your Local Sheriff—James Garner, Joan Hackett, Jack Elam, Harry Morgan, Walter Brennan, Bruce Dern (1969; Dir: Burt Kennedy)
This is probably the best western satire ever made. Yes, that includes Mel Brooks’ broader Blazing Saddles. The plot seems to follow Rio Bravo from ten years earlier, but that’s not an uncommon plot for westerns. (See 2008’s Appaloosa for a later, but more serious, example.) The title comes from a law-and-order bumper sticker popular with some in the late 1960s.
In a small western town, settlers and prospectors discover gold in Boot Hill while burying one of their own. That sets off a gold rush and overnight the town develops aspirations to respectability—except for the many rowdies attracted by the gold strike. Among those with newfound wealth are Mayor Ollie Perkins (played by Harry Morgan) and his daughter Prudence (Joan Hackett), along with others on the town council. The prosperity brings a fair amount of disorder with it, however, and the town council is unable to keep a live sheriff for long until they happen on Jason McCullough (James Garner, in his good-natured mode). McCullough is just passing through “on my way to Australia” when he decides to check out the gold rush. He seems handy enough with a gun, and he’ll actually take the job, however temporarily. So he’s hired.
His first act is to imprison Joe Danby (Bruce Dern), whom he sees kill a man in a saloon. Danby is part of an important Clanton-esque family of quasi-outlaws; the Clanton connection is strengthened because Pa Danby, head of the clan, is played by veteran character actor Walter Brennan in a role reminiscent of his Old Man Clanton in My Darling Clementine twenty years earlier. The Danbys can muster legions of relatives and gunmen, while McCullough’s support is mostly the town “character” (or drunk) Jake (Jack Elam) who becomes McCullough’s unwilling deputy, along with Prudy, to whom McCullough is attracted romantically.
The writing is sprightly enough, but the genius of the film lies in the casting. This is the sort of role James Garner played better than anybody else; he’s basically reprising his Maverick character from the television series. If you want to see what a good job Joan Hackett does as Prudence, compare her with Suzanne Pleshette in the sequel Support Your Local Gunfighter. Pleshette is fine; she just doesn’t have the comic intensity and daffiness that Hackett does. Elam is marvelous. He demonstrates here that he has made the transition from playing criminals, villains and evildoers to full-blown character parts. As Elam’s Jake says while striking a pose at the end of the movie, he “goes on to become one of the most beloved characters in western folklore.” And we believe him, mostly.
Harry Morgan’s appearance as the town’s mayor and Prudence’s father is particularly interesting when compared with another role from earlier in his career. He played one of the townspeople who wouldn’t help Marshal Will Kane in 1952’s High Noon. When it comes to the showdown here, he doesn’t help Jason McCullough, either, although he is much more charming about it. And McCullough never seems all that threatened, anyway. Jack Elam’s “town character” also echoes his town drunk role from High Noon, but he comes through better here in a much meatier role.
Director Burt Kennedy has done a fair number of workmanlike westerns spread over several decades. He’s also known as the writer for the best of the Budd Boetticher-Randolph Scott westerns of the late 1950s. This movie represents the best of his work as a director. The script by writer-producer William Bowers is terrific. Too bad Bowers didn’t write the sequel. The Gunfighter sequel, with the same director, Garner, Elam and Morgan, is enjoyable, too, but not as perfect as this film. For more of Garner in his amiable con-man mode, see Skin Game, with Louis Gossett and Susan Clark.