A History of the Comedy Western #1: Silents


The roots of the comedy western genre are surprisingly early.  Casual movie fans are apt to think the genesis might lay with Laurel and Hardy’s Way Out West (1937) or, God forbid, Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles (1974). But actually it can be traced all the way back to the birth of narrative film. There have been dozens of them over the past century. Indeed, what I initially envisioned as a single blogpost has turned into a five part series.

Thank Broncho Billy Anderson, America’s first cowboy star, whose career dated from 1903’s The Great Train Robbery. In 1907, Anderson co-founded Essanay Studios and in 1911 they launched the popular “Snakeville” series, the star of which was Augustus Carney, portraying one “Alkali Ike.” Snakeville was a fictional rural town in the American southwest, and in 1911, despite the presence of the occasional car or telephone, that was still a milieu that we today think of as a western. By 1912 Alkali Ike was such a hit with audiences that Carney went over to Universal Studios for twice the salary, becoming Universal Ike.


Algie the Miner (1912)

A Billy Quirk comedy for Solax studios. Quirk plays a “nance” who wants to marry a girl, but her father is scornful. He writes out a paper that says “if this boy becomes a man in one year he can marry my daughter”. Algie agrees. He goes west to become a miner, dressed in hilarious western gear. The idea of this overtly swishy boy going west conjures  Oscar Wilde — it can’t be a coincidence that he’s named Algie. The western guys laugh at him at first. They give him a bigger gun, he faints. Gradually he changes. He gets new clothes, he drinks, works in the mines, and gets tough. Then he and his friend come back east m(you have to use your imagination. The “western” exteriors are clearly New Jersey. He is now so rough and ready that everyone is terrified. The father is forced to let him marry the girl. Variations on this plot of course were later used by Fairbanks, Keaton and Lloyd (see below).


The Tourists (1912).

This was one of Mack Sennett’s last comedies for Biograph before starting his own landmark studio, Keystone. In the film, a small group of travelers de-trains at a desert stop in order to visit a local southwest Indian reservation. The entire plot consists of Mabel Normand flirting with the “Big Chief” to such an extent that by the film’s end, “Mrs. Big Chief” and all the other Navaho women chase her and her company back to the train with tomahawks! It seems that even other women don’t like a woman with a big personality. The Tourists was improvised at an actual reservation, using actual local Native Americans as extras.


Fatty and Minnie-He-Haw (1914)

The title virtually says it all if you really use your noggin. The formula is essentially “Fatty Arbuckle meets Indian Squaw” (the latter’s name being a play on Longfellow’s Minnehaha). How does it come about? Arbuckle stows away on a cross country train, is discovered by the conductor, and is then thrown off in the middle of the desert. He is about to die…until he is rescued by Minnie, who was played by an actual Cheyenne from Canada whose real name was Minnie Devereaux, although she was generally billed as Minnie Ha Ha, Minnie Prevost or Indian Minnie. Minnie appeared in several other movies over the next decade, most notably Mabel Normand’s 1918 Mickey. The comic idea underlying the premise of this film is not unlike the appearances of Babe London in comedies. The plot is that Minnie wants Fatty to be her man, the comedy arising from her unsuitability or undesirability as a mate, which is taken for granted. Little is made of the reverse (the undesirability of Arbuckle), which surely must be be equally true.


A Movie Star (1916).

Mack Swain (often billed as “Ambrose”) was a very funny, capable comedian, but this movie is really a split reel idea (five minutes) as opposed to the two reeler it is stretched into. Swain plays an unlikely movie star, who goes to a cinema and rakes in all the attention from the ladies in the room. It is the film-within-the-film everyone is watching that’s a western and rates this short’s inclusion here. When the western is over, Mack is flirting with women, and then his battle-axe wife (Phyllis Allen) shows up with kids and leads him away by the ear.


Before he became an out-and-out “swashbuckler” Douglas Fairbanks was best known as the star of light rom-coms and action-comedies, although they didn’t have those words then, with plots that generally cast him as rich young men who are required to summon physical heroism to save the day and win the girl. Several of these have a western slant.  In Manhattan Madness (1916), he plays a young westerner who bets his New York friends that nothing exciting will happen to him while he is in the city (as compared with the riding and roping fun to be had back home). He is of course immediately entangled with crooks and kidnappers (a development which turns out to have been an elaborate prank arranged by his friends). In  The Half Breed (1916) he plays the titular character, who lives in a tree in the forest. The crux of the film is whether to marry the “bad girl” from the faro parlo, or the “nice girl” he has rescued from a group of drunken Indians.  In perhaps his most famous film from his comedy period Wild and Wooly (1917), Fairbanks plays the son of a railroad tycoon who’s obsessed with the Wild West. When Pater wants to build a spur line to an Arizona mine, he sends the boy as his advance man to investigate. The town folk, seeking to impress the kid, put on an Old West charade so their modern town will seem more like what he expects. Meanwhile a crooked Indian agent and his hotel clerk lackey conspire to do actual crimes while Fairbanks is distracted with fake ones. Naturally he surprises everyone (including himself) by solving all and saving the day.


Harold Lloyd  made several comedy shorts that show the influence of Fairbanks, including several comedy westerns. In Two Gun Gussie (1918), Harold is a piano player in a saloon who is mistaken for a wanted desperado. Bebe Daniels plays a Salvation Army missionary he must rescue from the actual bad guys. In Billy Blazes, Esq (1919), a bunch of bad guys shoot up a town and chase sheriff Snub Pollard away. The villain (Noah Young) tries to evict a girl (Bebe Daniels) and her father (and possess the girl). Billy Blazes (Lloyd) is the hero, the sort of man who is so perfect he can make a cigarette with one hand, and bounce a match off the ground to light it. Billy saves the day, marries Bebe and they raise a family. An Eastern Westerner(1920) is one of the more overtly Fairbanks-esque of Lloyd’s comedies. He plays a wild, partying rich boy whose father sends him out to work on his uncle’s ranch for a little lesson in character-building. The film turns into a comedy western, with Harold the big time “dude”. Everyone he encounters is a matter of fact bully. A villain (Noah Young) tries to force an innocent girl (Mildred Davis). And there is a gang of Ku Klux Klan-like masked vigilantes. Harold takes them all on singlehandedly, outfoxes them, and gets the girl.


Out West (1918)

We meet Buster Keaton  in a saloon, wearing a black top hat. A guy cheats him at cards. Buster shoots him and drops the corpse through a special trap door. Meanwhile Fatty Arbuckle is riding the rails – in the tank car of the train, chest high in water. He crawls to the top and out, and men at the caboose shoot his butt pursue him along the top of the train. He disconnects the caboose. The train comes back and picks it up. He jumps off. Now he is stranded in the desert desert. He drinks the entire contents of a (real) watering hole. Indians come, shoot his butt with arrows. Back in town, Al St. John and his gang holds up the saloon. Arbuckle tumbles in and knocks them over, then chases them off. He now becomes the bartender. St John comes back in without his robber disguise and causes more trouble. Fatty hits him on head repeatedly with bottle — doesn’t work. Shooting also doesn’t work. Then they tickle him and throw him out. Bandits revenge. They kidnap girl (Alice Lake) and flee to a house at edge of cliff. The heroes free her and then throw the house over the cliff with St. John still in it!. The film was written by Natalie Talmadge, who would later become Buster Keaton’s wife.


 The Round Up (1920)

Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was one of the first of the slapstick comedians to make it up from the rough and tumble world of comedy shorts to the headier world of features.  The Round Up, a comedy western, was a very well thought out “next step” vehicle for Arbuckle. He plays a baby faced sheriff named Slim who is frequently ridiculed for his size. The idea of an overweight sheriff is natural fodder for comedy, but it also becomes an opportunity for pathos, and the film makes some attempt to touch the heart strings. “Nobody Loves a Fat Man” bemoans our lonely hero. Poor Roscoe has it bad for a girl named Echo (Mabel Julienne Scott) but alas she loves another. And Wallace Beery is the evil “half-breed” villain. So while Arbuckle splits his pants and falls down and breaks things a lot, he gets to be the hero and save the day.

Larry Semon - exhibitorsherald12exhi_0_1201

The Fall Guy (1921)

A Larry Semon short — one of my favorites. of his.  Oliver Hardy plays a robber who holds up a bunch of people, then takes off in his car, a little roadster. He is followed by sheriff Frank “Fatty” Alexander. They get to a farm, and Alexander’s car starts to buck like a bronco, throws him. Hardy meanwhile changes into a  disguise, becomes “Gentleman Joe” in a top hat and tails. Elsehwere we meet Larry and a guy riding in car, drawn by a mule. We come to the obligatory mule-kicking…the guy flies all the way through the air and hits a cliff face. After much trouble, they get their car going and drive it right into the middle of a saloon. Hardy is going to shoot him, then hang him. Semon agrees to shoot himself. He has all sorts of problems achieving it. Then a dance hall girl rescues him. They flee. Hardy pursues.  Next, a segment where a malevolent car gets cartoon eyes (headlights) and mouth (grill) and chases Semon, just like Herbie the Love Bug. Semon escapes. Next, a guy in the bar hands out reward posters for Hardy, identifying him as the robber. Hardy happens at that moment to be robbing the bar. Everyone runs over to catch him but he escapes. Semon traps Hardy and the car in a shed. Hardy simply drives, dragging the shed along with him. Larry pursues on foot, climbing atop. The posse follows behind. The shed with a car inside approaches the edge of a cliff. Semon lassos a telephone pole and swings off in nick of time. Hardy, the car and the shack all sail off the cliff and crash at the bottom. Semon goes to embrace his girl and falls in the obligatory 8 foot deep mud puddle.


Whirl o’ the West (1921) 

A Snub Pollard short for Hal Roach. Snub plays a big city dude who comes to a western town. He is without his trademark walrus mustache in this film mustache — he is actually kind of handsome! He befriends a girl (Marie Mosquini) and a little African American boy (Sunshine Sammy). Then the whole town tries to lynch Snub. The friends make their escape on a stage coach. Not much of a movie!


The Paleface (1922) 

In this western parody Buster Keaton  plays an innocent butterfly collector who accidentally walks onto an Indian reservation whose inmates have vowed to “kill the next white man [they] see”. The natives are treated sympathetically (they are being swindled by unscrupulous agents, a common western theme) though they are a bit on the “how, ugh” side and want nothing more than to burn Buster to a crisp at the stake. Although he hilariously bests them at one point by pulling up the stake he is tied to and bonking his captors on the head with it while he is still trussed up. In the end Buster saves the day and as his reward picks out a pretty “Indian squab” of his own, kissing her passionately on the lips…for two years! This is racially progressive stuff for 1922, so bravo, Buster.


The Pilgrim (1923)

Charlie Chaplin’s  The Pilgrim is essentially a remake of his earlier pictures Police and The Adventurer, fleshed out with an exotic locale (south Texas) and a high concept premise: escaped criminal Charlie masquerades as a clergyman in a small western town in order to evade the law. When his old cellmate shows up and robs the old lady he boards with, Charlie heroically retrieves the money. Still, the law insists on punishment. The sheriff offers him a choice: back to jail, or freedom in Mexico – which appears to be a hotbed of rampant violence. Out of the frying pan, into the fire. Charlie ends the film by making his usual exit down the trail, this time with one foot in each country.  In later years, Chaplin went back and wrote a score for this film, including an adorable cowboy theme song, which I think of as an indispensable part of the experience.


The Bad Man (1923) 

This “laughable thriller” (according to the poster), based on a Broadway play, mixes elements of satire with its conventional western elements. It tweaks the news of the day, being a thinly veiled parody of the doings of Pancho Villa and stars Holbrook Blinn, Jack Mulhall, and Harry Myers (from Chaplin’s City Lights). 


Yukon Jake (1924)

A hilarious Ben Turpin comedy, directed by Del Lord, later responsible for many a Three Stooges short, this movie goes right for the funny bone, making full use of the comedy potential of Turpin’s famous cock-eye, western genre conventions, fur hats, snow, and bears. Commentators usually write about Chaplin’s The Gold Rush (1925) as though it had happened in a vacuum, his inspiration coming primarily from stereopticon slides he saw of Alaskan prospectors. But I frankly find it difficult to believe that Chaplin was unaware of Yukon Jake, or of Buster Keaton’s The Frozen North, made in 1922. Yukon Jake made have also influenced the W.C. Fields short The Fatal Glass of Beer, which repeats the gag of having a tiny sled dog dangling from its traces.


Go West (1925)

While among Buster Keaton‘s more personal films, aspects of Go West feel more like Chaplin or Lloyd. In this western comedy, he plays a drifter named “Friendless” who takes a job on a ranch, where he must prove himself amongst a bunch of mean and manly guys. His main attachment is to a cow named “Brown Eyes”. Yet certain aspects of the film are strongly Keatonesque. He takes the period detail very seriously. Unlike many comedy westerns, for example, Laurel and Hardy’s Way Out West (1938) or the Marx Brothers’ Go West (1940), Keaton makes a real effort to make the location look and feel accurate, which gives the film an entirely different sort of feeling. And the climax, a cattle stampede in the middle of downtown Los Angeles is quite typical of the man who had given us a hundred running policemen in Cops (1922) and dozens of brides in Seven Chances (1925).


The Gold Rush (1925)

Charlie Chaplin‘s masterpiece, set against the backldrop of the Alaskan gold rush of the late 1890s.  The inspiration for this film came to Chaplin from a stereopticon slide he saw while visiting Pickfair, the fabled home of Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. The shot (which Chaplin would recreate cinematically) was of a long line of hundreds of men trudging through the snow-covered Chilkoot Pass. This was an epic backdrop in which to place the Tramp.  Large scale films about punishing life in the wilderness were in vogue at the time.  Recent years had seen the success of Robert Flaherty’s Arctic documentary Nanook of the North (1922), major westerns like James Cruze’s The Covered Wagon (1923), and John Ford’s The Iron Horse (1924), as well as Erich Von Stroheim’s Greed (1924), which has its climax in California’s Death Valley, perhaps the least hospitable spot for life on the globe.  As a parlor socialist, Chaplin surely also knew the works of Jack London, who’d actually taken part in the Alaskan gold rush and written about it in works like The Call of the Wild, White Fang and the short story “To Build a Fire”. 1923 had also seen the first of many remakes of The Spoilers, an Alaskan gold rush yarn based on the 1906 novel by Rex Beach. And even some comedians had dabbled in the genre, namely, Buster Keaton’s The Frozen North and Ben Turpin’s Yukon Jake (1924). But only Chaplin could make starvation, cold and loneliness as funny as this. Read much more about it here. 


Zander the Great (1925)

Zander the Great is one of those omnipresent western/adventure/comedies of the silent era, with an all-star cast that includes Marion Davies, Holbrook BlinnHarrison FordHarry Watson (i.e. Musty Suffer)Harry Myers (City Lights)Emily Fitzroy (Way Down East), Hobart Bosworth, Richard CarleHedda HopperCarmencita Johnson, and a young Toby Wing, along with her sister Pat. Silent movie afficiandoes will tell you — that is a LOT of stars. It was written by Frances Marion, and directed by George W. Hill, who went on to helm Tell it to the Marines with Lon Chaney the following year, and later his best known classic Min and Bill (1930) with Marie Dressler and Wallace Beery.


Should Tall Men Marry? (1928)

The film is interesting for a couple of reasons. One is that it was directed by Louis Gasnier, who started out directing Max Linder comedies in Paris, directed the famous Perils of Pauline serials…and, as if this isn’t already a crazy enough combination of things, the B movie cult classic Reefer Madness. Also, this is Stan Laurel’s last solo film, i.e. the last film he ever made without Oliver Hardy as his partner. This too is interesting. Prior to their teaming, Laurel had the more flourishing solo career than Hardy. AFTER their teaming, Hardy was the only partner who did the occasional outside project, such as Zenobia (1938) and The Fighting Kentuckian (1949). The thinking was that, unlike Hardy, Laurel was wedded to a character that couldn’t function outside the partnership. Personally, I think that’s crap. We get a glimpse of Laurel’s range in A Chump at Oxford. He could have played anything. He (and more likely the producers) were just chicken.

Should Tall Men Marry? is a western parody. Laurel plays an apparently retarded cowhand (at one point he kisses a calf) who competes with other cowpokes for the hand of a country damsel named Martha. Her father is played by Jimmy Finlayson, who gets an extended comic sequence with a mule. At the climax, the villain and his gang kidnap the the girl and Fin and Stan come to the rescue, after much back and forth, mostly by clubbing  the bad guys on the head with boards. I hope I haven’t spoiled it for you!

For part two of this series go here. 

For more on comedy film history please check out my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etcchain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500


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