A History of the Comedy Western #2: 1930s-40s
The Fighting Parson (1930)
A Harry Langdon short for Hal Roach. A western town is expecting one “Fighting Parson” to arrive on a stage coach to help clean up their town. Coincidentally, traveling musician Harry arrives on an empty coach (it was robbed) so they all assume it’s him. This being one of Langdon’s first talkies, it showcases many of his old vaudeville skills we didn’t get to hear in the silents, e.g., he plays and sings “Frankie and Johnny” on banjo and he does a dance. And despite the fact that he is not really the Fighting Parson, he does manage to clean up the town.
Girl Crazy (1932)
A Wheeler and Woolsey comedy, based on a Broadway show but altered considerably. (I toyed with including their first vehicle Rio Rita here as well, but its Mexican setting was contemporary and mostly non-comical; the boys carried the comical sub-plot. Comic relief in westerns is a whole ‘nother post).
Girl Crazy has a contemporary setting as well, but the western and comedy elements are merged, thus it qualifies. It is set in the town of Custerville, Arizona . Woolsey and his girl (Kitty Kelly), two down and out vaudeville performers, are called out west to run a casino. To get there they take Bert Wheeler’s taxi — all the way. Wheeler’s troublesome kid sister (Mitzi Green) stows away to come along for the ride. The town folk are going to lynch them at first until they are saved by a busload of chorus girls bound for the night club/dude ranch, which is run by a New York playboy (Eddie Quillan) who has been sent west to stay away from girls! He falls for Dorothy Lee, the unofficial third member of the Wheeler and Woolsey team. Along the way there is much nonsense about running Wheeler as a patsy in the highly lethal job of sheriff. The story was later remade in a very different version 1943 starring Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. HONORABLE MENTION: Wheeler and Woolsey’s movie Diplomaniacs released in 1933, has a first act set on an Indian reservation, but the film is more a political satire than a comedy western.
Make Me a Star (1932)
The highlight of this adaptation of Merton of the Movies is a “movie within the movie” , a hilarious western parody starring Stuart Erwin — who is deceived by Joan Blondell and Sam Hardy into thinking he is appearing in a straight western. Ben Turpin as his co-star should have been the big tip-off!
The Gold Ghost (1934)
A Buster Keaton short for Educational. And we fudge a little to include this — it’s actually in the “ghost town” subgenre, a sort of hybrid of comedy western and spook comedy. Buster is a rich playboy whose father wants him to marry a certain girl. The girl hates him and loves his rival. Buster is depressed and goes for a ride in car. He winds up in the Nevada desert (he had started in Massachusetts). He finds himself in a ghost town called Vulture City, which has a real vulture!. He doesn’t notice it’s empty at first. He tries to check in to an abandoned hotel, and idly puts sheriff badge and gun on. Meanwhile a wanted gangster crashes his airplane nearby. Meanwhile Buster goes into the saloon, where the player piano starts to play. He encounters a ghost dance hall girl and a ghost outlaw. Then, some nearby prospectors strike gold. The town is suddenly over run with living humans and Buster tussles with some crooks who mistake him for an actual sheriff.
Saloon singer Mae West inherits an enormous ranch from her husband (murdered by rustlers on their wedding day) that turns out to have oil on it. The first few scenes constitute the bulk of the “western” element, from here it shifts to a melodrama comedy about an oil fortune, Argentine aristocrats and Mae’s efforts to fit in with cultured sells on Long Island. But the opening beats — definitely western!
Horse Collars (1935)
Beyond a shadow of a doubt, the Three Stooges hold the record for the most comedy westerns. I included as many as I could find in this and the next post. If I missed any please let me know! In this one they play three detectives (naturally all dressed in Holmesian deerstalkers) who come west to help young Nell retrieve the stolen deed to her ranch. They have a secret weapon (of sorts). Curly goes berzerk whenever he sees a mouse. Only cheese will calm him down, thus the refrain “Moe! Larry! The Cheese!”. This is a bit they would use in several of their films.
Whoops, I’m an Indian (1936)
See? What’d I tell ya? The Three Stooges are a trio of cheating gamblers, who must flee Lobo City after Curly is caught using a shoe magnet to control a roulette wheel. They paddle out to the woods in sped-up canoes and disguise themselves as Indians. Unfortunately, Curly has chosen to dress as a squaw, which proves most inconvenient when a roughneck comes to their camp and falls in love with him. The two are all set to be married when Curly’s wig slips and they are on the run again. In the end, they think they have escaped — but it turns out they have locked themselves into the town jail.
Goofs and Saddles (1937)
In this one, the Three Stooges play Buffalo Bilious (Curly), Wild Bill Hiccup (Moe) and Just Plain Bill (Larry), three undercover scouts for the US cavalry sent out to foil a bunch of cattle rustlers. (What does the army care about rustlers? Never mind, just go with it). When their carrier pigeon is intercepted and their identities revealed, they flee on a covered wagon. But the bad guys catch up to them and a shoot-out ensues. Fortunately, Curly creates a makeshift gatling gun out of a meat grinder, and the rustlers are soon dispatched.
Way Out West (1937)
Laurel and Hardy classic; one of the best known of the comedy western genre. This charming genre spoof has Stan and Olllie delivering the deed to a mine to a young girl (Rosina Lawrence), only to be swindled out of it by an unscrupulous saloon keeper played by Jimmy Finlayson, and his cohort the dance hall girl Lola (Sharon Lynn).
The movie contains one of my favorite moments of cinema, and (as an abject lesson) it has nothing to do whatever with the plot. The boys are passing by the front of the saloon, hear some music (sung by the Avalan Boys), and just start dancing. Sometimes this little scene makes me laugh; sometimes the beauty of it just shakes me. The moment evolves so organically and naturally, as if it were the most logical thing in the world. Then they go about it with a kind of dignity and majesty, with steps both simple and beautiful, yet ridiculously elaborate for something that is theoretically improvised (in the context of the story). And it is important enough to them that they do every last step, even as the world is going about its business on the street around them.
Destry Rides Again (1939)
Another great screenplay template; one of the most magical of all Hollywood films. Seems very much informed by screwball comedy, feels very Capraesque (it was directed by George Marshall). A comedy western with a serious plot (which it takes seriously) in an age when westerns weren’t very serious! Screwball/Capra feeling reinforced by the cast: Jimmy Stewart (not yet identified with westerns) and a bunch of familiar comical character actors (I’m looking at you, Mischa Auer!)
The fictional town of Bottleneck is ridiculously wild at the outset. Complete chaos: Sodom and Gomorrah. Marlene Dietrich is “Frenchy” the dance hall girl. She sings songs with witty lyrics by Frank Loesser: “Little Joe”, “See What the Boys in the Backroom Will Have” and others. In the opening scene, there’s a poker game. A farmer bets his whole farm and then frenchy abets a cheat, spilling coffee in his lap so they can switch cards on him. The guy tells the sheriff. The sheriff confronts the guys and gets killed. The mayor, a tobacco chewing crook, is in the pocket of the gang. He appoints the town drunk (a former deputy) as sheriff as a patsy (Charles Winninger). He decides to fool them by doing a good job, so he sends for the son of his old sheriff, a man who has the reputation of cleaning up Tombstone: Destry (Stewart).
When Destry arrives he makes a terrible impression: holding a canary cage and a parasol for a lady, telling folksy stories. One of the most awesome scenes ever: when he disarms the gang leader (Brian Donlevy) coolly by telling him he doesn’t carry guns. confuses him, even scares him for a minute, seems like a standoff. Their laughter is nervous at first, but Destry becomes a laughing stock nonetheless. At first he seems a sort of Holy Fool, like Dostoievski’s The Idiot. Destry is Christ-like, peaceful, pacifistic, gentle, and unafraid to seem ridiculous, because he is so secure in the knowledge that his way is right.
But the storytellers don’t follow through on this idea (I’m not sure it’s ever really been done). As in Shane, High Noon, Angel and the Badman, Liberty Valance, etc. we quickly revert to the lesson that guns are the only way to get the job done. After assuring the sheriff that he is serious about staying here and helping, no matter what anyone thinks about him, we learn his secret. Out on the street, some ruffians are firing off their guns. Destry borrows their pistols for a second and demonstrates his aim, which terrifies them into submission. The main thrust of the story has to do with the principle guy snatching everyone’s farms so that he can charge cattlemen fees for passing through his property. Destry sets about foiling this plot, but more importantly wants to get to the bottom of the sheriff’s murder. When they find the body of the sheriff, he has what he wants, and sends for a federal judge so a proper trial can happen. There is a big shootout between the good guys and the bad guys, with the comical arrival of the women armed with kitchen and farm implements to stop the shooting. The head of the crooks gets shot. So does Frenchy, which is most convenient. She has been Destry’s love interest, with much sexual tension, and she begins to help him towards the end. But it wouldn’t be fitting for him to wind up with a “bad woman”. She is a sort of a “holy whore” worthy of Eugene O’Neill, and dies a martyr’s death. In the end, Destry will wind up with the sweet, wholesome girl he met on the stagecoach coming in. The town is now peaceful and law-abiding.
The first in the film series with Ann Sothern as wise cracking Brooklyn burlesque chorus girl Maisie. This one has a contemporary western setting: Maisie has to blow town quick and goes to take a job performing out west. When she gets there the job has folded, so she is stranded and has to stay with straight arrow ranch foreman Robert Young and his sidekick Cliff Edwards. She takes a job as a maid to the couple who own the ranch and tries to make a play for Young. Meanwhile, the newlywed wife of the ranch owner is a cynical sophisticate and clearly a gold-digger. She has a lover on the side whom she installs in an old cabin on the property. Maisie earns Young’s respect when she rescues the boss in a car accident, and they kiss and plan to marry. This purportedly light comedy eventually gets pretty dark when the guy who owns the ranch commits suicide and Young is accused of killing him. Maisie actually inherits the ranch!
Yes, We Have No Bonanza (1939)
A hilarious Three Stooges comedy, with the trio as singing waiters in a saloon, who devise a plot to marry three cowgirls by prospecting for gold. They actually find some, but it turns out to be the buried stash of some bank robbers. In one memorable scene, they think their mule “Yorick” has eaten all the dynamite.
I am a Marx Brothers fan but unfortunately this has to be rated as their worst film. They are fish out of water, and that might be fine in a comedy, but for the fact that the script and direction are all stinkeroo. It’s enlivened somewhat towards the end by some uncharacteristic physical gags devised by Buster Keaton and Frank Tashlin, but it’s too little, too late. For my extended rant on the sins of this picture, go here.
While now thought of as a comedy classic starring two Hollywood legends (W.C. Fields and Mae West), the reality at the time of its production and release was a cole slaw of complications(read much more about it here). In this film, Mae plays a Chicago saloon singer named Flower Belle who comes westward on the lam, all on account of her romantic involvement with a masked bandit. On the train she meets con man Cuthbert J. Twillie (Fields) whom she mistakes (thanks to his bag of counterfeit bills) for a moneybags. She “marries” him and they settle into Greasewood City. If Fields hopes to consummate the marriage (and he does) he is sorely disappointed. A goat shares his bed, while Flower Belle sees the Masked Bandit on the sly. (It’s okay. It turns out Fields and West aren’t married, after all. They guy who married them, played by the ubiquitous Donald Meek , merely LOOKS like a minister). Fields get busted when he is caught sneaking into Flower Belle’s room disguised as the Masked Bandit in order to get some action from his wife, even if he has to trick her. He is about to be hanged when Mae saves the day. Read my full post on the film here.
Buck Benny Rides Again (1940)
Fred Allen challenges Jack Benny (playing himself) to prove all his boasting on radio show about his adventures on his Nevada ranch, so he sets out to do so, taking his cast (Eddie “Rochester” Anderson“, Phil Harris, Dennis Day, Andy Devine) with him. This comedy was one of the top ten box office hits of 1940.
The Westerner (1940)
Absolutely magic, a perfect movie directed by William Wyler. It deserves to be revered as a classic but somehow has fallen by the wayside. It’s more of a western comedy/ melodrama but there is a tone to it that makes me want to include it here, and both Gary Cooper and Walter Brennan are playing their “A” game, rocking their symbolically freighted characters, with much comedy resulting. Brennan won best supporting actor Oscar for his portrayal as Judge Roy Bean. This is one of the great characters and characterizations in all Hollywood cinema, Brennan’s best work. He has created a human being, who actually seems to exist independent of the cinematic machinery. His work is that thorough: funny, tragic, full of detail and just simply HIM. Gary Cooper is also wonderfully cast as a drifter accidentally arrested on a charge of horse stealing, who is dragged into hanging judge Bean’s saloon/courtroom. He talks his way out of his pickle by claiming to know actress Lillie Langtry (Bean’s obsession) personally. Along the way he sort of gets to be Bean’s friend, gradually trying to get him to be less favoritistic toward the cattlemen in their war with farmers. In the end, though, Bean, a stubborn, one-track-mind type of character, orchestrates a bloody violent war against the farmers, burning down all their crops and houses and killing people. The farm girl Cooper loves associates him with Bean, so he has to take action. He rides to the city where Bean is going to see Langtry perform (he has bought up every ticket), and catches him there. A shootout in the theater. Bean’s last vision is of Langtry. Cooper goes back, marries the girl, and they start again.
Gold Rush Maisie (1940)
The third in Ann Sothern’s series. Maisie’s car breaks down in the Arizona desert on the way to a show date. She spends a scary night in a ghost town, in a house with a couple of mean crooks, then gets involved with a family in a phony latter day gold rush. Slim Summerville plays a grumpy old man.
Rockin’ Thru the Rockies (1940)
The Three Stooges plays frontier guides who are leading an all female performing troupe named Nell’s Belles through the Rockies to their date in San Francisco. They are menaced by Indians, but they have also lost their horses so they are forced to spend the night in a cabin and are snowed in, where they nearly starve because a bear has run off with their food. Sound bleak? Well there is a section of the film where Curly annoys Moe by barking like a dog in his sleep.
Go West, Young Lady (1941)
Penny Singleton of Blondie fame is a gal from back East named “Bill” who shoots as well as any man. Ann Miller is Lola, the jealous dance hall girl. Glenn Ford is the new sheriff, caught between these two hellcats, and having to clean up the town besides.
Ride ’em Cowboy (1942)
Abbott and Costello are a couple of vendors at a Long Island rodeo and accidentally hide out in a train car…bound for the far west! En route, Costello accidentally shoots an arrow into a teepee, which the local Indians interpret as a proposal of marriage…to (surprise) a homely squaw. Couldn’t see that coming! It’s practically it’s own subgenre. Ugly guy pursued by ugly lady — and we only notice how ugly the lady is! At any rate these antics must vie with an exceedingly boring main plot concerning Dick Foran as a lying writer of western novels, and his boring efforts to land a boring cowgirl (Anne Gwynne). This kind of crap mars every single one of Abbott and Costello’s movies, but it’s like pulling teeth to get any classic comedy fan to admit their movies all suck. On the bright side, this movie does feature Ella Fitzgerald singing “A Tisket, A Tasket”, and that’s the sort of thing that make a movie worth watching for about five minutes.
Cactus Makes Perfect (1942)
The Three Stooges acquire a map to a lost gold mine out west. On the way they have a run in with prospectors (Vernon Dent and Ernie Adams) with whom they eventually have a battle with lit sticks of dynamite. The Stooges are presumably brothers in this film; their mother is played by (male) character actor Monte Collins.
Phony Express (1943)
Sheriff Snub Pollard needs help ridding the town of Peaceful Gulch of its criminals. He brings in the Three Stooges. The bank gets robbed from right under their noses (right behind their backs actually) by the town’s main culprit (Bud Jamison). But they eventually recover the loot.
Belle of the Yukon (1944)
I hope it won’t be considered inflammatory if I call this movie an amazing, gorgeous exercise in gay kitsch. It’s sort of more a musical comedy than a western. It’s set at a saloon in Alaska during the gold rush. Charles Winninger owns the saloon, Dinah Shore is his charmless daughter who sings some boring songs. Randolph Scott is Honest John a gambler and con man. Gypsy Rose Lee, his dance hall girl girlfriend tries to reform him. The market for this film was definitely not men, at least not conventional ones. It even has a fashion show sequence. But the costume and set design is so over the top the film has to be watched, if just for that alone.
Girl Rush (1944)
Singularly weak comedy team Alan Carney and Wally Brown give their take on the comedy western. They are a couple of vaudeville performers in a San Francisco saloon. Frances Langford as a dance hall girl. There is a gold strike . They lose all their customers, so they head to the strike to try to make their own claim. They stop at a hotel and learn that the place is all men. One of them is a very young Robert Mitchum in one of his first film roles – he is the straight lead. The boys are dispatched to bring back all the dance hall girls as brides. Among the many problems is that the there is a faction of bad guys in the town who want to see it fail so the town will be all lawless. They solve the problem in one big final set piece….a bunch of men come back to town in drag. A bit goes on for awhile, and then the jig is up and then they brawl. The movie has all the obligatory comedy western bits: a hanging bit. a bear bit. a skunk bit. And SEVERAL gay bits. The end is a recap of the beginning, They do another number. Another strike, the house empties out again.
Along Came Jones (1945)
A terrific movie, written by Nunnally Johnson. Very similar in tone to screwball comedy. Gary Cooper is a dumb cowpoke; William Demarest his wisecracking buddy. They ride into a town and are mistaken for a ruthless robber (Dan Duryea) and his crazy uncle. A series of misunderstandings reinforce this impression, and it is helped along by Loretta Young who is Duryea’s girlfriend (although she’s fast losing taste for her nasty man, and is falling for Cooper). Cooper adapts a swagger, very comical. Soon everyone is pursuing the innocent Cooper: a posse, bounty hunters, and Duryea himself. At one point Demarest is shot and we fear a tragic ending, but he pulls through in the end. Cooper musters the courage for a duel with Duryea we know he will lose, but the girl bails him out, shooting Dureya through the forehead. Passionate kiss at the end. Another unjustly forgotten classic!
Rockin’ in the Rockies (1945)
The Three Stooges are ALMOST the stars of this feature, which seems like an attempt to craft a full-length vehicle for the team more like those enjoyed by the Ritz Brothers and Abbott and Costello. Moe “helps” his cousin (Jay Kirby) run a ranch; Larry and Curly are a couple of drifters with gambling winnings. They and some pretty girls (for some reason) make a hash of the cousin’s ranch as they try to prospect for gold and make it to Broadway (just go with it). Meanwhile I guess we’re also supposed to care what happens to the cousin and his ranch.
Pistol Packin’ Nitwits (1945)
The Three Troubledoers (1946)
The Three Stooges are three drifting cowboys who arrive in the town of Deadman’s Gulch. Curly is elected sheriff when the boys foil one Badlands Blackie from his attempts to coerce the lovely Christine McIntyre into marrying him. She vows she’ll marry Curly if they rid the town of Blackie. The Stooges do — but her father vows he’ll die before he allows her to marry Curly either. They oblige by throwing a lit stick of dynamite at him.
Out West (1947)
Re-make of Pistol Packin’ Nitwits, starring the Three Stooges. Shemp has now replaced Curly in the team. When a doctor (Vernon Dent) informs him he has an enlarged vein, he decides to go west for his health, bringing Larry and Moe with him. When he arrives at a western town he informs a local crook named “Doc” about his “large vein” and is misinterpreted to mean he possesses a vein of gold. Learning the man is a crook, the team schemes to poison him with a deadly potion. As in all films of this type, the guy doesn’t get poisoned, he just wants a glass of water — it’s as though he has eaten a jalapeno. meanwhile Larry gets locked up in the basement, and the team rescues him from the bad guys.
Bowery Buckaroos (1947)
A Bowery Boys comedy. The fact that Sach (Huntz Hall) is reading a western comic at the top of the film should be the tip-off that all that follows will be a dream — but me, I can be a little slow on the up-take. While the guys are sitting around the soda shop Louie (Bernard Gorcey) sings a western song called “Louie the Lout” and the suddenly a sheriff rides in on a horse and says that Louie is wanted for a murder committed 20 years ago. The guys decide to head west to clear his name. It’s a good thing this was made by Monogram Pictures – they’re all set up to turn this into a Monogram western! The plot all has to with a gold map etc. They draw the map (which is on Louie’s back) onto Sach’s back. This is the last of the Bowery Boys films to feature Bobby Jordan who got tired of having only a half a dozen lines per movie.
The Paleface (1948)
Bob Hope classic directed by Norman McLeod. Hope’s cowardly, lecherous character was never in finer form than in this film; when I last saw it a few years ago I don’t think I ever once stopped laughing during the entire movie. The film has Jane Russell as Calamity Jane, working undercover for the federal government to catch a gang of gunrunners to the Indians. She hooks up with cowardly frontier dentist Hope and masquerades as his wife, building up a reputation for him as a tough, unbeatable fighter. As in the best Hope vehicles, he rises to the occasion in the end—with the predictable climax with the two of them tied to burning stakes.
The Native Americans, sadly, are little more than plot points however, the usual obstacles to be overcome…though on the plus side there are a couple of real Native Americans in the cast, Chief Yowlachie and Iron Eyes Cody (okay so Cody was fake, but the producers THOUGHT he was real!):
The Dude Goes West (1948)
An innocuous family comedy. Not too funny and it doesn’t have much of a plot. Seems like an attempt to craft the same kind of vehicle for Eddie Albert, that Hollywood frequently made with Bob Hope, Danny Kaye, and Red Skelton. But Albert’s not as funny as those guys. He plays a gunsmith from Brooklyn who goes west to make his fortune. He falls for a girl and proves to be a terrific marksman. He helps her protect a deed to a mine. Indians are encountered.
Two Guys from Texas (1948)
One of many sequels to Two Guys from Milwaukee starring Dennis Morgan and Jack Carson, very much in the vein of Hope and Crosby pictures. In this one, the boys’ car breaks down in the desert, causing them to work at a local dude ranch. When their car is stolen as a getaway vehicle for a robbery, they must clear their names. The picture also features Dorothy Malone, Forest Tucker and Fred Clark.
We give this one honorable mention. It’s a serious John Wayne western, but it co-stars Oliver Hardy! Hardy is predictably terrific as the sidekick, a job he took reluctantly while Stan Laurel was laid up with an injury. (There was actually a kind tradition of casting former silent comedians as western sidekicks in the studio era: Al St. John and Slim Summerville among them) It’s plain from his performance that Hardy was always above all what he considered himself — an actor (as opposed to a clown). And there’s a difference. Groucho Marx, for example, was a terrible actor. Hardy is so great, it’s a pity he didn’t do much more stuff like this. To make it doubly interesting, Wayne is the dominant partner here. Hardy is the Sancho Panza part, the fool, the Laurel. It’s surreal, and most rewarding, to see Hardy out of his usual context. And the other plus is that it had been a decade since Hardy’s last good movie, and five years since his last picture with Laurel…just one last gasp (not including the egregious Utopia). And does he fall off his horse? What do you think? Everyone ought to see this. Read more about it here.
The Beautiful Blonde of Bashful Bend (1949)
Hilarious and criminally underrated Preston Sturges comedy western, shot in color. It stars Betty Grable, in the best performance I’ve seen her give. In the film she seems as good as Betty Hutton, whom the part really seems written for (she’d earlier starred in Sturges’s masterpiece The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek). The Beautiful Blonde essentially has the plot of Chaplin’s The Pilgrim, with a gender switch. A dance hall girl (Grable) gets into trouble (she keeps shooting the same judge in the butt) so she as to flee. She and her friend (Olga San Juan) arrive at a distant town and assumes the role of a schoolteacher. Much hilarity! Especially with two retarded schoolboys, one of whom is Sterling Holloway. Her love interest is bad boy Cesar Romero. She is eventually returned to her town, but up to her old trouble again. Much smarter and satirical than your average comedy western (Sturges’s stereotype defying treatment of San Juan is just one example). And it’s a great showcase for his comedy chops, being as it is a parody. Sturges’s work after the mid 40s is almost always written off. This movie proves the injustice of that assessment.
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 Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc