Here’s another post in honor of Native American Heritage Month.
Because of the nature of this blog, a lot of these posts looking at negative stereotypes will be drawn from the silly slapstick comedies that are our usual fodder. And I’ve wanted to see this one for awhile. It was friend and editor Scott Stiffler who persuaded me to give Don Knotts comedy films a second look after not having watched them since childhood. And he did KNOTT steer me wrong (sorry). I’ve gone back and looked at The Incredible Mr. Limpit, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken and The Reluctant Astronaut and — may God have mercy on my soul — I find them all hysterically funny.
I expected The Shakiest Gun in the West to be intolerably corny…the comedy western is a much-hackneyed genre, after all. But there is so much in this film that revolves around Knotts’ well-established screen character, and the individual gags and bits are so hilariously executed that I haven’t much to say on that score besides “Ha, ha, ha.” (I watched it at 3:30am though, so I may have been giddy). The film is a re-make of Bob Hope’s The Paleface.
The film is oddly eloquent on the subject of gender roles and “manhood” in the Old West. Predictably Knotts is a coward, a recently graduated dentist and mama’s boy from Philadelphia. He decides to go West and immediately gets embroiled in a situation. A lady stagecoach robber (Barbara Rhoades) is offered an ultimatum by the federal marshall – be an undercover agent or go to jail. She opts to be an agent. Her mission is to find out who has been smuggling guns to the Comanches. When her male contact is killed, she grabs the nearest man – Knotts – and marries him so they can join a wagon train (with him as her beard). He has no clue about her real identity. Gradually he begins to accrue the reputation for being a hero, because in the heat of various fights the wife, a crack shot, bails him out, unbeknownst to him. In the end he learns the truth and is demoralized. But he has a chance to redeem himself. He goes undercover as a squaw (!) and rescues the girl from the tribe. He also befriends the Indians – Androcles style, when he fashions some dentures for the chief.
The Indians are of course treated disrespectfully, with no cultural specificity, they just sort of dance and whoop and grunt and growl. When Knotts goes undercover, they fail to notice that he is neither female nor Comanche mainly because they are drunk. But to give credit to the film-makers they are equal opportunity offenders. Pat Morita is in the film as a coolie, whose job is to kiss Knotts’s feet so flim flam man Carl Ballantine can sell him a wagon.
Part one of the film is here; you’ll find the remaining parts on youtube as well.
For more on silent and slapstick comedy don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc
For more on the history of show business consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.