Western Comedies

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 9, 2014

Western Comedies

“Dying is easy.  Comedy is hard.”  A version of this quotation has been attributed to a variety of actors, from Edmund Kean, the premier Shakespearean of his time about two hundred years ago, to Edmund Gwenn, the English actor best known for his role as Kris Kringle in the original Miracle on 34th Street (1947).  More recently, it was a line spoken by Alan Swann (played by Peter O’Toole) in My Favorite Year (1982), an excellent movie but unfortunately not a western. 

It refers to the fact that, while the point of comedy is to make the audience laugh, provide it with lightness of heart, and, occasionally, even make it think in a genial sort of way, getting there is far from easy.  Tragedy can be more forgiving of mistakes in tone or judgment.  And the line between the two is not always easy to see.  It’s no coincidence that two of the silent screen’s three best comics (and directors of comedies) typically played characters of a melancholy nature and produced their laughs by playing off that melancholia.  (That would be Chaplin and Keaton, for those who are still wondering.)  It’s complicated by the existence of wide variations in what people find funny, how they respond to jokes or what they think comedy is.  The image that comes to mind is the outrageous Groucho Marx playing against an apparently humorless Margaret Dumont in Duck Soup and other films.  It’s said that she never understood what made any of that funny.  Some find the Three Stooges funny; some tend not to get their humor at all and find them infantile.

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With westerns, comedy becomes even trickier.  There are only a handful of successful western comedies.  Partly that’s because, along with the variations in personal senses of humor, you have variations in what people expect of westerns.  It is further complicated by changes in the popular culture.   A western is usually a view of an earlier and more rustic time and place, seen through the lens of the time in which the movie is made.  Although western comedies have been made since the start of movies, some forms of that comedy just don’t seem very funny in the context of modern social attitudes, conventions and assumptions.  It’s always good to watch older movies, especially westerns, with a broader and more tolerant view than you’d have to bring to a current film at the multiplex.  And even if you do, some comedies just don’t age that well.

That doesn’t really mean that the oldest movies are the least successful comedies.  On the contrary, some of the oldest (Buster Keaton’s The General, Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush) are probably as funny now as when they were released 90 years ago.  The humor of some, though, hasn’t aged as well—Bob Hope’s humor in The Paleface (1948), for example, although some may still like that.  And some probably weren’t that successful as comedies to start with, like perhaps 2013’s The Lone Ranger.

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Some comedies aren’t entirely consistent in tone.  That is, they might be primarily comedic but with some serious elements, like Cat Ballou, with its killings and threatened hanging.  Or they might not be sure what they are, with comedic elements but a very uneven tone, like the recent film The Lone Ranger (sometimes referred to as Pirates of the Caribbean Ranger for director Gore Verbinski’s  antic attempts to import.the sensibility of those uneven pirate movies, along with Captain Jack Tonto, to the time-honored story of the Lone Ranger).  Some seem as if they would have been more successful as comedies if they’d toned down the broader elements of that comedy (like the cartoonish bird-twittering during brawls in North to Alaska, for example), while it would be a mistake to try to tone down the broad comedy of Mel Brooks in Blazing Saddles.

One of the traditional western themes tends to show up a lot in comedies:  the easterner who goes west and has to cope with a new environment and new rules.  Various aspects of this oldest of western stories (it was part of the plot of the first western novel, The Virginian, in 1902) are exaggerated, with a fish-out-of-water tale, and hilarity ensues.  Or it does if all goes well.  Most of the silent comedies used this line, and so do such recent successes as City Slickers (1991).  Even 2010’s Gunless is a variation on this theme, with The Montana Kid doing a sort of reverse by ending up in more civilized Canada.

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Below is an attempt to collect chronologically and in one place a more-or-less comprehensive list of this sub-genre, for those who’d like to explore more than they’ve seen already.  As with all such lists, there are certain to be some films that aren’t here.  Feel free to leave a comment, and we’ll add them.  Be aware, however, that this list is likely to be like trying to assemble a complete list of westerns generally: it will probably never be absolutely complete.  It is further complicated because it’s not always clear what is a comedy and what is not.

Those films marked with a (*) are thought to be the most successful comedies.  Some of these have been written about elsewhere in this blog, and others will show up in due course.  If there’s a link, you can read more specifically about the film in question.  If there isn’t yet, we’re always adding things, so check back. 

At the bottom are a few more specific sub-genres of western comedy that might be interesting.  Although there were a couple of interesting western comedies dealing with the subject of slavery in the late 1960s-early 1970s, for example, it’s hard to imagine a current film doing so.  (However, the pre-KKK scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained is pretty funny, although you wouldn’t say that the movie as a whole is a comedy.)  The Rat Pack westerns of the 1960s, on the other hand, did well enough at the box office when they were released, but they haven’t aged very well.  Animated western features (as opposed to shorts and brief cartoons) seem to be a creation of the last twenty years, although it would not be surprising to find that there had been one with Mickey Mouse in the 1930s.  There should probably be another sublist for Spaghetti Western Comedies.  Any suggestions about what to put on it?

Western Satires and Comedies:

     Silents:

The Americano (1916, Douglas Fairbanks)

Wild and Woolly (1917, Douglas Fairbanks)

Two-Gun Gussie (1918, Harold Lloyd)

Out West (aka The Sheriff, 1918, Roscoe Arbuckle, Buster Keaton)

The Knickerbocker Buckaroo (1919, Douglas Fairbanks, now lost)

Billy Blazes, Esq. (1919, Harold Lloyd, Bebe Daniels)

The Mollycoddle (1920, Douglas Fairbanks, Wallace Beery)

An Eastern Westerner (1920; Harold Lloyd)

The Paleface (1922, Buster Keaton)

The Frozen North (1922, Buster Keaton)

The Pilgrim (1923, Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance)

Sawdust Trail (1924, Hoot Gibson)

Curses (1925, Al St. John; Dir:  Roscoe Arbuckle)

Go West (1925, Buster Keaton)

*The Gold Rush (1925, Charlie Chaplin, Mack Swain)

*The General (1926; Buster Keaton)

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 Buster Keaton in The Paleface, 1922.

     The Age of Sound:

Ruggles of Red Gap (1935, Charles Laughton)

The Gay Desperado (1936; Nino Martini, Ida Lupino)

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Way Out West (1937, Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy)

The Terror of Tiny Town (1938)

*Destry Rides Again (1939, James Stewart, Marlene Dietrich)

Go West (1940, Marx Brothers)

My Little Chickadee (1940, Mae West, W.C. Fields)

Go West, Young Lady (1941, Penny Singleton, Glenn Ford)

Ride ‘Em Cowboy (1942; Abbott and Costello, Ella Fitzgerald)

Belle of the Yukon (1944; Randolph Scott, Gypsy Rose Lee)

Along Came Jones (1945, Gary Cooper, Loretta Young)

Rockin’ in the Rockies (1945, The Three Stooges)

Heaven Only Knows (1947, Robert Cummings, Brian Donlevy)

Bowery Buckaroos (1947, Leo Gorcey and the Bowery Boys)

The Paleface (1948, Bob Hope, Jane Russell)

The Dude Goes West (1948, Eddie Albert)

Feudin’, Fussin’ and A-Fightin’ (1948, Donald O’Connor, Marjorie Main)

The Gal Who Took the West (1949, Yvonne DeCarlo)

The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend (1949, Betty Grable)

Fancy Pants (1950, Bob Hope, Lucille Ball:  remake of Ruggles of Red Gap)

A Ticket to Tomahawk (1950, Dan Dailey, Anne Baxter, Rory Calhoun)

Callaway Went Thataway (1951, Fred MacMurray, Dorothy McGuire, Howard Keel)

Son of Paleface (1952, Bob Hope, Jane Russell)

Pardners (1956, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis)

Sheriff of Fractured Jaw (1958; dir:  Raoul Walsh)

Alias Jesse James (1959, Bob Hope)

*North to Alaska (1960, John Wayne, Ernie Kovacs)

Sergeants 3 (1962, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin)

Four for Texas (1963, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin)

McLintock! (1963, John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara)

Advance to the Rear (1964, Glenn Ford, Stella Stevens)

*Cat Ballou (1965, Jane Fonda, Lee Marvin)

*The Hallelujah Trail (1965, Burt Lancaster, Lee Remick)

The Rounders (1965, Glenn Ford, Henry Fonda)

The Outlaws Is Coming! (1965, The Three Stooges)

Texas Across the River (1966, Dean Martin, Alain Delon)

Big Hand for the Little Lady (1966, Henry Fonda, Joanne Woodward)

The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin (1967; Roddy McDowell, Suzanne Pleshette)

Waterhole #3 (1967; James Coburn, Carroll O’Connor)

The Scalphunters (1968, Burt Lancaster, Ossie Davis)

The Shakiest Gun in the West (1968, Don Knotts)

The Good Guys and the Bad Guys (1969, Robert Mitchum, George Kennedy)

Paint Your Wagon (1969, Lee Marvin, Clint Eastwood)

Sam Whiskey (1969, Burt Reynolds)

The Great Bank Robbery (1969; Zero Mostel, Kim Novak, Clint Walker)

*Support Your Local Sheriff (1969, James Garner, Jack Elam, Joan Hackett)

Little Big Man (1970, Dustin Hoffman)

Dirty Dingus Magee (1970, Frank Sinatra, George Kennedy)

The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970, Jason Robards, Stella Stevens)

The Cheyenne Social Club (1970, James Stewart, Henry Fonda, Shirley Jones)

There Was a Crooked Man (1970, Kirk Douglas, Henry Fonda)

Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971, James Garner, Jack Elam)

Skin Game (1971, James Garner, Louis Gossett)

Scandalous John (1971, Brian Keith)

Evil Roy Slade (MfTV 1972, John Astin, Mickey Rooney, Dick Shawn)

One Little Indian (1973, James Garner, Vera Miles)

Castaway Cowboy (1974, James Garner, Vera Miles)

*Blazing Saddles (1974, Mel Brooks, Cleavon Little, Gene Wilder) 

Rancho Deluxe (1975, Jeff Bridges, Sam Waterston)   

The Apple Dumpling Gang (1975, Bill Bixby, Susan Clark)

From Noon ‘Til Three (1976, Charles Bronson, Jill Ireland)

The Great Scout and Cathouse Thursday (1976, Lee Marvin, Oliver Reed)

The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox (1976, Goldie Hawn, George Segal)

Hot Lead and Cold Feet (1978, Jim Dale, Darren McGavin)

Goin’ South (1978, Jack Nicholson, Mary Steenburgen)

The Frisco Kid (1979, Gene Wilder, Harrison Ford)

The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again (1979, Tim Conway, Don Knotts)

The Villain (1979, Kirk Douglas, Ann-Margret)

*Murphy’s Romance (1985, James Garner, Sally Field)

Rustlers’ Rhapsody (1985, Tom Berenger)

Three Amigos! (1986, Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, Martin Short)

*City Slickers (1991, Billy Crystal, Jack Palance)

City Slickers II (1994, Billy Crystal, Jack Palance)

Lightning Jack (1994, Paul Hogan, Cuba Gooding, Jr.)

Wagons East (1994, John Candy, Richard Lewis)

Maverick (1994, Mel Gibson, James Garner)

Tall Tales (1995, Patrick Swayze, Oliver Platt)

Almost Heroes (1998, Chris Farley, Matthew Perry)

Shanghai Noon (2000, Jackie Chan, Owen Wilson)

Shanghai Knights (2003, Jackie Chan, Owen Wilson)

Bandidas (2006, Salma Hayek, Penelope Cruz)

*Gunless (2010, Paul Gross, Sienna Guillory)

The Lone Ranger (2013, Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer)

A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014, Seth MacFarlane)

The Ridiculous 6 (2015, Adam Sandler)

In With the Outlaws (in development, 2012)

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Western Comedies Featuring Slavery

The Scalphunters (1968, Burt Lancaster, Ossie Davis)

Skin Game (1971, James Garner, Louis Gossett)

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Rat Pack Westerns from the 1960s

These usually (but not always) had Frank Sinatra in them; he was the unquestioned leader of the Rat Pack.  These films were an attempt to demonstrate that the alcohol-fueled camaraderie among a select group of friends and entertainers could translate to the screen and bring in cash to finance the continued hi-jinx in real life.  In general, these films did well enough at the box office upon initial release, but they are not watched that much 50 years later.  It’s easy to get the impression that those on the screen are having more fun than the audience is.  Sinatra could be an effective actor in war movies (From Here to Eternity, Von Ryan’s Express) and musicals (Anchors Aweigh, Guys and Dolls, The Tender Trap, Pal Joey, Can-Can, etc.).  Western comedy may not have been a natural fit for his talents.  Other Rat Pack movies of the 1960s included Oceans 11 (the original) and Robin and the 7 Hoods.  

Sergeants 3 (1962)  An attempt to remake the classic Gunga Din as a western.

Four for Texas (1963)  Sinatra and Martin as gamblers with competing riverboats.

Texas Across the River (1966)

Dirty Dingus Magee (1970)

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Spaghetti Western Comedies

The line between comedies and non-comedies gets very confused with spaghetti westerns, especially in the 1970s.  There are those who would say that by 1970 most spaghetti westerns, with all their surreal elements and strange touches, were parodies of westerns.  In any event, it is obvious that at least some of them in the 1970s were made with outright comic intent, whether the humor worked or not for American audiences.  One indication that the comedy was intentional was the presence of Terence Hill, as in the Trinity movies.  Some would say the most successful of these is Companeros.

They Call Me Trinity (1970, Terence Hill, Bud Spencer)

Companeros (1970, Franco Nero, Tomas Milian, Jack Palance)

Trinity Is Still My Name (1971, Terence Hill, Bud Spencer)

Life Is Tough, Eh Providence? (1972, Tomas Milian)

Man of the East (1972, Terence Hill)

My Name Is Nobody (1973, Terence Hill, Henry Fonda)

A Genius, Two Friends and an Idiot (1975, Terence Hill, Patrick McGoohan)

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Animated Western Comedies

Two-Gun Mickey (Disney cartoon short, 1934)

Egghead Rides Again (Warner Bros. cartoon, 1937)

Scalp Trouble (Warner Bros. cartoon, 1939)

The Lone Stranger and Porky (Warner Bros. cartoon, 1939)

El Gaucho Goofy (Disney cartoon short, 1942)

Buckaroo Bugs (Warner Bros. cartoon, 1944)

Hare Trigger (Warner Bros. cartoon, 1945)

Bugs Bunny Rides Again (Warner Bros. cartoon, 1948)

Pecos Bill (Disney, 1948)

Dude Duck (Disney cartoon short, 1951)

Drip-Along Daffy (Warner Bros. cartoon, 1951)

Puny Express (Warner Bros. cartoon, 1951)

Deputy Droopy (MGM, 1955)

The First Bad Man (MGM, 1955)

Wild and Woolly Hare (Warner Bros. cartoon, 1959)

Horse Hare (Warner Bros. cartoon, 1960)

Fievel Goes West (1991)

The Road to El Dorado (2000)

Spirit:  Stallion of the Cimarron (not so much a comedy, 2002)

Home on the Range (2004)

Rango (2011)

Cinderella Once Upon a Time …in the West [also Cendrillon au Far West and Cinderella 3’D] (2012)

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  • UKMikey

    Evil Roy Slade, 1972.