Tag Archives: Western Comedies

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)

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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)

Damsel (2018)

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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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Gunless

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 2, 2014

Gunless—Paul Gross, Sienna Guillory, Dustin Milligan, Tyler Mane, Graham Greene (2010; Dir:  William Phillips)

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This is another western in which the beautiful hills and mountains of southern Canada stand in for… the hills and mountains of southern Canada?  Yes, this is a northern western, and a comedy.  And it’s pretty successful as a western comedy.  Now, this is a movie of which few have heard, so it didn’t make much of a splash on its initial release in 2010.  It opened 11th in Canada, and as a Canadian-funded, Canadian-set and Canadian-made film, it would have been expected to do as well there as it could anywhere.  Although it had a small budget ($10 million Canadian), it has good (not great) production values, decent writing, and, above all, good acting, especially in the leads.

As the film opens, a horse with a filthy rider sitting backwards and trailing a rope and branch slowly enters Barclay’s Brush, a town on the Canadian western frontier.  As the horse comes to a stop, the rider slides off the horse upside-down, and it is apparent that he is tied up.  After a brief conversation with a Chinese girl, he is extracted from his bonds and buys some bullets at the local store.  He comes from the States, where he was in the process of being hanged.  He is the Montana Kid. 

GunlessDirtyKid The filthy but possibly deadly Montana Kid.

Wandering back outside, he looks for his horse, which has disappeared.  It turns out the horse is with the local blacksmith, who is fixing it up.  There are words between the two, and the gunman calls out Jack the blacksmith (Tyler Mane), who doesn’t have a pistol.  After due consultation, a woman rancher, Jane Taylor (Sienna Guillory), offers the Kid a broken pistol in exchange for help putting up her windmill.  And a medical alert:  “Your bottom is bleeding.”   The doctor removes a bullet from the Kid’s gluteous maximus, free of charge.

The Kid (played by Paul Gross, who was brilliant in the Shakespearean comedy series Slings and Arrows on Canadian television) slowly gets to know the townsfolk, who are rather taken with him, partly because of his dime-novel notoriety and partly because they seem to be genuinely friendly, if a bit quirky.  The local Mountie constable, Jonathan Kent (Dustin Milligan), a very stiff and rulebound young man, comes round to meet the Kid and have him sign his ledger—with his real name, Sean Lafferty.  Kent’s cosmopolitan Indian guide Two Dogs (Graham Greene) has to redirect him a time or two.  The Kid is invited to dinner at the doctor’s house, and regales them with tales of his killings, eleven of them.  Everybody calls him Sean—a name he apparently hasn’t used for years. 

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Rapacious and loathsome bounty hunters, and N’kwala, otherwise known as Two Dogs.

Meanwhile, he’s on the lookout for pursuit from the States, bounty hunters who have been after him for ten years.  He plans to leave as soon as his horse is recovered, his deal with Jane is complete and he fulfills his obligations as a gunfighter by having it out with Jack the blacksmith.  Meanwhile, he attends an RCMP dance where Kent seems enamored of Jane, and the rest of the Mounties are not so enamored with the Kid.  As they try to intimidate him by beating him up, he is rescued curiously by the stiff Kent, who points out that the Kid has broken no laws and has no outstanding warrants in Canada, and that is not the Mountie way.

His clothes are being cleaned and repaired by the local Chinese tailor and laundryman, and meanwhile he’s wearing Chinese clothes around town.  He takes part in an evening of intellectual discussion about Aristotle led by the local schoolmarm, Alice.  And he thinks it’s time to leave when Jane shows signs of falling for him.

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Jack has repaired a broken piece of the pistol (a big old Navy .44) and given it to the Kid, even though he knows the Kid plans to use it to force him into a gunfight.  And the bounty hunters draw ever nearer and demonstrate their lack of character by gratuitously killing a dog.  The question is not really whether they’ll catch up, but what will happen when they do.

The shootout is surprising, as are Sean’s new philosophical misgivings about his lifestyle, apparently triggered by Aristotle.  As the movie ends, we see young Kent’s romantic attentions turning to Alice, the blushingly receptive schoolmarm.

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The Kid, back at his cleaned-up gunfighting best. Or is he?

The humor is dry Canadian, not broad Mel Brooks.  This might be the closest thing to the Support Your Local Sheriff movies made by James Garner in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  It’s not as quickly paced as those, and the humor is quieter.  The pacing and the tone are not perfect.  It should have a better title.  Given Canadians’ sensitivities about their larger neighbor to the south, you can see why a Canadian production would not want to call itself The Montana Kid.  But that is its title in Australia, and it works better. 

With all this, Gunless is very worth watching.  It depends on Gross’s ability to project confused decency under filth and to develop believably and sympathetically, and he is charmingly up to the task, even if he occasionally mutters his lines.  His horse performs well as a confidante with a mind of his own.  And Sienna Guillory is fine as the feisty rancher Jane, with a lovely British accent.  This movie deserves to be much more widely seen.  Be sure to watch the outtakes with the credits; they contain some dubious language that was missing from the film, though.  Filmed at Fort Langley, British Columbia.  Short, at 89 minutes.  The DVD of this film was recently (Dec. 2013) on sale at Amazon for $3.62, and it’s hard to beat that.

It may or may not be significant that the writer-director of this movie is William Phillips.  That is also the name of a man in Spokane in the 1920s and 1930s who was rumored to have been Butch Cassidy, returned from Bolivia and not killed by the Bolivian army.

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William Phillips of Spokane, and William Phillips of Canada.  What is the beard hiding?

For a younger Paul Gross in a made-for-television romance set in modern Alberta, see Getting Married in Buffalo Jump.

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Destry Rides Again (1939)

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 6, 2013

Destry Rides Again—James Stewart, Marlene Dietrich, Brian Donlevy, Mischa Auer, Charles Winninger, Irene Hervey, Samuel S. Hinds, Jack Carson, Una Merkel (1939; Dir:  George Marshall)

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Another one of the really good westerns from 1939, which was as good a year for westerns as it was for movies generally.  Although it has a large and excellent cast, it depends principally on the two biggest names, James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich, and how they work out things between them.  With both this and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, 1939 was a good year for Stewart, playing Thomas Jefferson Destry in one and Thomas Jefferson Smith in the other, both in obvious appeals to old-fashioned patriotism.  It was Stewart’s first western and the last for eleven years, until he hooked up with Anthony Mann for 1950’s Winchester 73, well after World War II.

Bottleneck is a corrupt town run by Kent (Brian Donlevy in his smooth bad-guy mode), owner of a huge saloon where the principal entertainment seems to be provided by Frenchy (Marlene Dietrich in the first of her three westerns), not that she has a great singing voice.  The local mayor Hiram J. Slade (Samuel S. Hinds), constantly chewing tobacco, is in Kent’s pocket.  And Kent is busily collecting deeds to a strip of land across the valley (by means of rigged card games and other similarly unscrupulous methods), so he can extort a toll from drovers of cattle herds wanting to cross.  Once the local sheriff in Bottleneck was Tom Destry, who moved on to Tombstone, leaving behind deputy Washington Dimsdale (Charles Winninger), now a drunk reduced to cadging quarters and drinks in Kent’s saloon (like the character Dude in Rio Bravo twenty years later). 

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Mischa Auer, James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich

As the movie opens, Kent, with Frenchy’s help, cheats yet another ranch owner out of his land at cards and kills Sheriff Keough.  Mayor Slade cynically appoints Dimsdale, the town drunk, as the new sheriff.  However, Dimsdale sobers up and sends for Thomas Jefferson Destry, Jr. (James Stewart), who is said to have cleaned up Tombstone after his father was shot in the back there.  Destry arrives on a stage in the company of a hot-headed rancher, Jack Tyndall (Jack Carson), and his sister Janice (Irene Hervey), only he doesn’t wear a gun—says he doesn’t believe in them.  He’d rather whittle napkin rings.  He manages to deal with several near-crises without guns, and develops what appears to be an interest in Frenchy.  He pauses long enough to demonstrate an uncommon skill with a handgun in target practice, although to the viewer the casual way Destry handles a pistol (slinging it carelessly at the target) seems unlikely to be accurate.  There’s a truly impressive barroom fight between Frenchy and Lily Belle Callahan (Una Merkel)—right up there with other great fights in westerns.

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Destry (James Stewart), Frenchy (Marlene Dietrich) and Kent (Brian Donlevy) get acquainted in Kent’s saloon.

Meanwhile, Destry looks into the disappearance of former Sheriff Keough, and even manages to discover the sheriff’s body.  Mayor Slade appoints himself the judge, while Destry and Dimsdale secretly send for a federal judge.  When Kent and Slade find out about the federal judge, a war breaks out and Destry is forced to put on his guns.  Dimsdale is killed, and the forces of right and justice attack Kent’s saloon.  Both sides are blasting away when the saloon is invaded by the town’s women (marshaled into action by Frenchy), wielding brooms and such.  Both sides hold their fire and the women appear to be winning the battle in the saloon.  Kent sneaks a shot at an unaware Destry, and Frenchy redeems herself for all her shady dealing when she takes the bullet for him.  (This is the way both this and Rancho Notorious end, with Marlene Dietrich taking a bullet for somebody else to redeem herself for her nefarious misdeeds.)  At the end, Destry’s romantic attentions seem to be turning to Janice, less overtly interesting than the deceased Frenchy but much more appropriate for Destry.

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Frenchy (Marlene Dietrich):  She knows what the boys in the back room will have.

It’s engaging and almost great, but it has a kind of Capra-esque sentimentality and shows its age a bit—more than, say, Stagecoach or even Dodge City from the same year.  The tone is wryly comic (except for the occasional death) with Stewart’s Destry, and more overtly with Mischa Auer as Boris Stavrogin, a Russian dominated by his wife (Una Merkel) to the extent that everybody calls him by the name of Callahan, who was her prior husband.  He’s there for comic relief, mostly effective.  It’s not that easy to pull off, but it flows pretty smoothly here.  In some ways, one can see Support Your Local Sheriff from 30 years later as an attempt to do the same thing, although it’s not exactly a remake.  Some of the humor dealing with roles of the sexes seems a bit outmoded.  Destry’s aw-shucks demeanor and interminable stories about a feller he once knew somewhere are almost as tiresome to his fellow characters as they are to us.  Brian Donlevy is at his nefarious best, the same year as he played another of his memorable villains:  the evil Sergeant Markov in Beau Geste.  This was remade twice in the early 1950s, with Joel McCrea and again with Audie Murphy, but this second version (after a 1932 Tom Mix original) is much better than either of those—or the original, for that matter.  Nobody much remembers the 1959 musical comedy Broadway stage production with Andy Griffiths. 

Director George Marshall (The Sheepman) was a journeyman who started in the age of silents and ended up doing television in the 1960s.  He was not particularly known for westerns.  Lyrics to songs, including “See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have” (one of the most effective musical interludes ever in a western), were by Frank Loesser.  In black and white.  “Suggested by” a story by pulp writer Max Brand.

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North to Alaska

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 10, 2013

North to Alaska—John Wayne, Stewart Granger, Capucine, Ernie Kovacs, Fabian (1960; Dir:  Henry Hathaway)

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This “northern” is fueled by sexual tension and fights, most of them of the rollicking variety complete with lots of mud and cartoon-like twittering noises when somebody gets punched.  That is, it has an overlay of comedy.  The story owes a lot to earlier movies about claim-jumping in Alaska, such as The Far Country and The Spoilers.

The plot has former Washington logger and now Alaska miner Sam McCord (John Wayne) heading south from Nome to buy heavy mining equipment and bring back for his partner George Pratt (Stewart Granger) the supposed Pratt “fiancée” Jenny, whom George hasn’t seen in three years.  Their mining claim is now producing gold richly enough to afford both.  In Seattle, McCord finds that Jenny is working as a domestic and is now married to a butler; but in a house of ill repute he also finds the elegant Michelle Bonet (Capucine) and decides to bring her back for George.  Michelle, also known as Angel (the backstory for the French actress in this film is that she’s from New Orleans, thus accounting for the accent), is more interested in McCord himself, who, although loudly anti-marriage, generally treats her like a lady.

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Partners Sam McCord (John Wayne) and George Pratt (Stewart Granger).

Meanwhile, sleazy gambler Frankie Cannon (Ernie Kovacs in a rare but very effective movie role) has gained control of the town’s largest saloon/hotel and has started an underhanded operation to take over other people’s claims, including the McCord-Pratt claim.  Cannon and Michelle also have a past relationship, which Cannon would like to resume.

On McCord’s return to Nome, the differing aims of McCord and Bonet eventually surface, while McCord and Pratt defend their claim against Cannon and fight between themselves.  Pratt’s younger brother Billy (played a bit broadly by the singer Fabian) is more a distraction than necessary to the plot.  One is tempted to attribute his presence in this movie to that of another teen idol, Ricky Nelson, in Rio Bravo a year earlier.  Neither conflict (McCord-Bonet and McCord/Pratt-Cannon) is all that serious, and the ending is fairly predictable.  The sub-conflicts (McCord-Pratt over Bonet and Bonet with her own past) also work themselves out well enough.  You can tell this movie was made in the early 1960s because the alleged prostitute Michelle never actually sleeps with McCord and thereby regains her long-lost status as a “good girl.”  It’s hard to imagine a current filmmaker playing the relationship that way.  

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Ernie Kovacs as sleazy gambler/claim jumper Freddie Cannon.

The movie, while not in the very top level of John Wayne westerns, takes its time developing the plot and is pleasantly watchable.  The commercial success of the movie was apparently attributed to the exuberant fight scenes.  This led to the making of the similar McLintock! a few years later, which had no discernable plot but good muddy fight scenes and a feisty romantic relationship.  The theme song here, as performed by Johnny Horton, was a popular hit in its time and might be second only to Tex Ritter’s High Noon theme among sung musical themes for westerns.  The experienced and versatile director Henry Hathaway had his roots in silent movies and was capable in a variety of genres, including westerns (Rawhide, Garden of Evil, How the West Was Won, True Grit).  He made 31 westerns in his lengthy career.  

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Pratt, McCord and Michelle argue things out.

Incidentally, one of the ways Hathaway held down the budget in this movie was to shoot most of it around Point Mugu in southern California, rather than on location in Alaska.

This film is part of a modest tradition of good westerns that were set in the Alaska gold rush days of the end of the 19th century.  They include The Spoilers, a much-remade film in the first half of 20th century, the 1942 version of which has a legendary fight scene featuring bad guy Randolph Scott and good guy John Wayne; The Far Country (Anthony Mann-James Stewart); and White Fang, based on the Jack London novel (featuring Klaus Maria Brandauer and a young Ethan Hawke).  Soapy Smith was an actual con man who, under a cover of respectability, for a time took control of the corrupt civic government and police in Skagway, Alaska, during the gold rush.  Several of these northerns feature a version of the real-life Smith character (Kovacs here, John McIntire in The Far Country, Randolph Scott in The Spoilers) and strong, sympathetic female saloon owners (Marlene Dietrich and Anne Baxter in different versions of The Spoilers and Ruth Roman in The Far Country).

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The Hallelujah Trail

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 4, 2013

The Hallelujah Trail—Burt Lancaster, Lee Remick, Jim Hutton, Donald Pleasance, Brian Keith, John Anderson, Pamela Tiffin, Robert WIlke, Martin Landau (1965; Dir:  John Sturges)

HallelujahPosterhallelujahSpan

Director John Sturges was good with large-scale action material in 1960s films like The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape.  Although lighter in emotional content than those epics, The Hallelujah Trail was a similarly large-scale production under Sturges’ capable direction.  He had also demonstrated a high degree of skill with smaller-scale 1950s westerns like Escape from Fort Bravo, The Law and Jake Wade, Last Train from Gun Hill and Gunfight at the OK Corral.

The plot involves the coming together of several parties with disparate aims in the fall of 1867.  Frank Wallingham (Brian Keith) leads a wagon train of liquor bound from Julesburg to Denver, trying to make it before the anticipated long, harsh Rocky Mountain winter sets in.  Oracle Jones (Donald Pleasance), an alcoholic seer, advises the Denver Citizens’ Militia, a group of miners who want to make sure that the booze gets through.  Cora Templeton Massingale (Lee Remick) shepherds a group of temperance women who want to see that the liquor doesn’t arrive.  Chiefs Five Barrels (Robert J. Wilke) and Walks-Stooped-Over (Martin Landau) head a band of Indians who are after the liquor, rifles or anything else they can get.  And Col. Thaddeus Gearhart (Burt Lancaster) commands the cavalry protecting the liquor caravan from Indians and the temperance women from who knows what.

hallelujah-oracle Oracle Jones has a vision.

The indications are that it will be a long, severe winter in Denver, and through a series of oversights and mishaps, the town is almost dry just before winter sets in.  During the first half of the movie, the motivations and undertakings of the various parties are set up, with some character development, including a bit of interesting sexual tension between Col. Gearhart and Mrs. Massingale (a widow).  At the start of the second half the parties converge in the middle of a large sandstorm where none of them can tell what’s going on.  The “battle” in the sandstorm is expertly staged and edited, and entertainingly presented.  A truce is eventually arranged, at which all parties (including aggrieved and activist Irish teamsters), agree to the deal brokered by Gearhart and then start out to subvert the agreement immediately.  In the end, nobody really gets what he wants, and everybody sabotages everybody else.  The liquor sinks into a bog, Mrs. Massingale hooks up with Gearhart, and the winter in Denver proves to be one of the mildest ever.

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Mrs. Massingale invades the colonel’s personal space.

The cast is excellent, especially Lancaster and Remick in the central roles.  Brian Keith’s Republican booze merchant gets a little tiresome, but that’s the way his role is written.  Donald Pleasance is memorable as Oracle Jones, whose visions are fueled by alcohol.  The Indians (clearly played by non-Indians) are very politically incorrect these days.  And Jim Hutton and Pamela Tiffin are duly attractive as the young lovers with competing loyalties.  Veteran character actor John Anderson has one of his best roles ever as Gearhart’s gruff, long-suffering sergeant.  Character actor John Dehner provides excellent straight-faced voice-over narration from time to time, although he’s uncredited.

Some will be put off by the comic alcoholic Indian stereotypes, played by white character actors (Robert Wilke, Martin Landau).  But everybody in this movie is a stereotype:  the stiff authoritarian cavalry commander, the clueless sergeant, the heedless and hormonally-driven young lovers, the alcoholic miners, the Irish teamsters, the humorless temperance women, the Republican businessman.  The humor comes from the collision of all these stereotypes and their respective agendas, with no really serious casualties.  Most of them (including the Indians) have to bend their agendas in some way, and the working out of those agendas provides the entertainment.

hallelujah-injuns Supervising ersatz Indians.

Although the movie is a long one (it was shown with an intermission during its theatrical release), in the end it doesn’t have much substance.  It’s just enjoyable light entertainment, with an excellent cast.  It could have been more tightly edited, and it would have been just as enjoyable.  The fine musical score is provided by Elmer Bernstein.  Sturges himself didn’t think this was among his best work. It was shot in 70mm widescreen format, and looks good on large modern televisions.

For Burt Lancaster in another comedic western role, see him as mountain man Joe Bass in The Scalphunters (1968), with Ossie Davis.

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Cat Ballou

Nicholas Chennault ~

Cat Ballou—Jane Fonda, Lee Marvin, Michael Callan, Darryl Hickman, John Marley, Tom Nardini, Reginald Denny, Bruce Cabot, Arthur Hunnicutt (1965; Dir:  Elliot Silverstein)

The movie is schizophrenic, mostly a comedy but with some very serious elements.  Musical narration is provided by troubadors Nat King Cole and Stubby Kay as Professor Sam the Shade and The Sunrise Kid, kind of a western Greek chorus.  Although the Cat Ballou of the title is Catherine Ballou, a recently-graduated schoolteacher played by Jane Fonda, this is actually an ensemble comedy dominated in some ways by Lee Marvin, who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his performance(s) in this film. 

Cat Ballou 2 Jane Fonda as Cat Ballou

After an education in the east, Cat Ballou is returning by train to her father’s ranch in in Wolf City, Wyoming, in 1894.  On the train she meets Clay Boone (Michael Callan) in the custody of a sheriff, and Clay’s religious-minded uncle Jed (Dwayne Hickman), a couple of charming small-time criminal ne’er-do-wells who make an escape from the train.  Once home, she finds her father under threat by the Wolf City Development Company, owned by Sir Harry Percival (Reginald Denny), which wants his water rights for a large planned slaughterhouse.  He’s holding up all right, but she sees him threatened by silver-nosed gunman Tim Strawn (Lee Marvin).

All her father has for protection is Clay and Jed, neither of whom has ever shot at any one, and Jackson Two Bears (Tom Nardini), a good-natured but not very intimidating Sioux ranch hand.  So Cat sends for dime-novel gunman Kid Shelleen (Lee Marvin again), only to find upon his arrival that he is now a useless drunken sot.  Strawn easily kills Frankie Ballou (John Marley), and when Cat tries to get the sherriff’s help, she finds that Sheriff Ed Cardigan (Jay C. Flippen) is one of those providing Strawn with an alibi.  The community wants the slaughterhouse built.

cat-ballou-cast Planning a robbery.

Evicted from the ranch and filled with frustration, Cat and her gang retreat to Hole in the Wall, where a very over-the-hill Butch Cassidy (Arthur Hunnicutt) is a bartender.  They carry out a train robbery which nets them $50,000, much more than they expected.  Kid Shelleen has a moment of soberness, in which he returns to his former gunfighting self, dresses in his old gear, seeks out Strawn in a bordello and shoots it out with him.  As Shelleen describes it later to the gang, they are surprised to hear that Strawn was his brother.  We are less surprised, since both characters are played by Lee Marvin.

Determined to get Percival to sign a confession, Cat dresses as a lady of the evening and meets him on his special train car.  They struggle for her gun, Percival is shot, and Cat is sentenced to hang by the disappointed citizens of Wolf City, whose dreams of slaughterhouses and jobs are now gone.  Needless to say, the movie doesn’t end with Cat’s hanging.

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There are some serious themes, like hanging, the death of a major character, and the futility of dealing with a corrupt justice system.  The film tries mostly to slip by those, and the cast is quite charming.  It’s Lee Marvin who steals the picture in his dual role; he provides the most memorable images.  The scene in which the now-sober Kid Shelleen bathes and dresses in his gunfighting gear (complete with corset) aided by Jackson Two Bears and accompanied by toreador music is a gem.  As Cat and the gang make a getaway, the drunken Shelleen on a horse that appears equally inebriated covers the escape through what seems to be sheer ineptitude.  On accepting his Oscar the next year, Marvin was willing to share credit:  “I think half of this belongs to a horse somewhere out in the Valley.”

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Marvin and co-star, holding up a wall.  It took them an hour to get this still.

Young Jane Fonda is good, and the rest of the supporting cast (Michael Callan, Dwayne Hickman and Tom Nardini) are engaging as well.  There are some good lines and a fair amount of sexual innuendo, but the movie doesn’t really seem to care much about the romance element.

Occasionally the music telegraphs a little too strongly what we’re supposed to be feeling:  The immediately rollicking music when a fight starts tells us a little too quickly and heavy-handedly that we’re not supposed to take it seriously, for example, and the rattlesnake-like sounds when Strawn appears don’t really afford us the opportunity to make our own assessment of him.  He’s scary enough with just the silver nose.

Director Elliott Silverstein also directed A Man Called Horse a few years later.  Mostly his career was spent in television.  Maybe that accounts for the heavy-handed use of music, the charming but lightweight supporting characters and the easy but incomplete resolution.  Still, it’s fun to watch.

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Support Your Local Sheriff

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 29, 2013

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.

supportlocal1 Basically on his way to Australia.

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.

support2 Romancing the mayor’s daughter.

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.

support3 The town character takes a hand.

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.

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