A History of the Comedy Western #3: 1950s-60s
Punchy Cowpunchers (1950)
Surprise! The Three Stooges continue to dominate the field of comedy westerns for some time to come! In this one, they play wash-out cavalry soldiers assigned to go undercover as saloon waiters so they can foil a gang that has taken over a town. Christine McIntyre is a damsel in distress. By the 1950s you can see they are beginning to repeat themselves.
Merry Mavericks (1951)
The Three Stooges are falsely advertised to be three famous marshalls so as to rattle a murderous gang which has taken over a western town. To scare people away from the loot, one of the gang member’s masquerades as the headless ghost of an Indian. The middle part of the picture is a ghost comedy as the Stooges find themselves wandering around a “haunted house”. In the end, Shemp learns the truth, knocks the “ghost” out, takes his place in the costume and knocks the rest of the gang out with his tommyhawk.
My Friend Irma Goes West (1950)
The second and last of the “Irma” pictures starring Marie Wilson, with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis again part of the ensemble. This one is a contemporary western comedy so we give it honorable mention. The gang goes out west to Las Vegas to pursue show biz opportunities. When Irma gets kidnapped and held for ransom, Lewis goes in disguise as an “Indian” to rescue her.
The Tooth Will Out (1951)
The Three Stooges again! This one is actually an extended out-take from Merry Mavericks, expanded to fill out a short. Apparently in the previous film they had originally gone undercover as dentists. Here, they wash out and a number of restaurant jobs so they enroll in dental school. When they complete the course, the instructor (Vernon Dent) suggests they set up practice in the far west. Which they do…the rest is more of a dental comedy than a comedy western.
Gold Raiders (1951)
Interesting hybrid of B movie western and a Three Stooges picture. In addition to the Stooges it co-stars George O’Brien, Lyle Talbot and Fuzzy Knight. The plot is the standard hokum. O’Brien is an insurance salesman in the old west! But he gets roped into adventure because he insures gold shipments which need protection. As security guards he hires medicine show con men the Three Stooges! Talbot leads a gang of robbers, as is the custom, going incognito as a solid citizen. The Stooge’s slapstick business is sort of shoehorned in here, seemingly merely tolerated by the rest of the cast who are trying to tell a real story.
Skipalong Rosenbloom (1951)
In this obscure western parody out of shape Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom is recruited to be the sheriff of a town to foil the dastardly Butcher Baer (fellow ex-boxer Max Baer). The cast also includes Jackie Coogan, Fuzzy Knight and the vaudeville team of Shaw and Lee. The movie is quite hard to see nowadays (I’ve not seen it) but you can learn about it in this terrific article by Jonathan Rosenbaum.
Son of Paleface (1952)
Though directed by the great Frank Tashlin, this sequel to The Paleface is not nearly as great as the original. Hope plays the son of the hero of the last movie, a Harvard educated dude in white ducks and an automobile. The deceased father has been revised to being (or seeming to have been) an actual frontier hero, one whose shadow the son must now live under. (I’ve never quite understood the appeal of such heros. Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton often played them. I find it very hard to root for spoiled young rich boys, and it is a flaw in this film). Jane Russell returns as his love interest, although oddly she has nothing to do now with Calamity Jane. Roy Rogers plays a law man. There are several extremely embarrassing musical numbers—you could with justification call this a musical. Some of the jokes are very funny. Many more are embarrassing hackwork.
Shot in the Frontier (1954)
This parody of the recent hit High Noon, pits the Three Stooges against the Noonan Brothers, who are out to kill the Stooges for marrying girls they felt were their’s.
Pals and Gals (1954)
This late Columbia Three Stooges short is a re-make of the team’s earlier Out West with the incorporation of some of the business from Goofs and Saddles. A portion of the film is made out of stock footage.
Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis’s penultimate picture together casts them as the sons of two ranchers who were killed by bad guys out west. Raised in the east, the two now want to prove themselves. Martin is a successful rodeo competitor; Lewis wants to be but is too inept. The two end up foiling a gang of masked bandits. The most memorable thing about this picture is the title song, by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen. It’s directed by Norman Taurog.
The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw (1958)
Directed by Raoul Walsh and a far cry from his landmark The Big Trail! A comedy western, and a great idea for a film although very weakly realized. Kenneth More plays a British inventor and heir to a gun factory. He decides to make good by traveling to the American west. Surely they’ll want to buy his guns there? The film’s humor stems from the fact that he is a stereotypical Englishman — everything is proper, he never gets ruffled, and he honors tea time at 4 o’clock. This sense of propriety (and naivete, which has him walking right up to dangerous characters and giving them a piece of his mind), the fact that he says he is in the “gun business”, and he wears an invention that drops a derringer out of his sleeve into his hand whenever he wills it, have the whole town thinking he is a tough and formidable guy, and they make him sheriff. He ends up bringing about peace between rival gangs, and making friends with nearby Indians. The bulk of the movie, however, seems concerned with his romance with inn-keeper Jayne Mansfield, who spars with him and has several musical numbers. The two marry in the end
Alias Jesse James (1959)
Norman McLeod’s last movie (although he continued to direct television after this) and Bob Hope’s last comedy western. One of the last times you see Hope as a cowardly goofball, as opposed to the uptight businessman/ dad he would play through the 1960s, although he’s already beginning to slow down some. He plays a life insurance salesman in the old west — who accidentally sells some life insurance to Jesse James! His boss forces him to follow James out west and protect his life; meanwhile the outlaw uses Hope as a patsy and he is danger of losing his life. I was surprised to find it very funny in spots, and most valuable perhaps is the finale, where several major western stars of the day (plus Bing Crosby) make cameos during a big shoot out. Hope would seldom be this goofy again.
I am tempted to call this movie best non-spoof comedy western. It’s definitely John Wayne’s best comic performance, although that’s not saying much. His comic scenes in John Ford’s and his own movies are usually irritatingly bad, just self-conscious and clumsy. Here it’s a bit of self-mockery and works really well. His comical foil is Maureen O’Hara, his traditional leading lady, also here at her best. Like Wayne, she is not really an actress but more a force of nature. Very little real subtlety. But neither does a freight train possess much subtlety and it can be beautiful nonetheless. O’Hara seems to me the person the phrase “you’re beautiful when you’re angry” was devised for.
In the film, Wayne plays the title character, and the founder of the fictional town that also bears his name. He is a big man in every sense of the word. The whole town loves him, not just because he is the most powerful man in town but because he is a straight up guy to boot — and nice. He lets Mexican kids climb up his trellis. His best friend is the Jewish merchant from town. His ranch is in the Cherokee Strip and they are about to let settlers in (it’s the 1895 run), but his run-ins with them are all humanitarian. Unlike a neighboring rancher he doesn’t vow to “run ‘em out”. He explains to them that the land they’ll be getting is bad. And he stops the lynching of an Indian by settlers. He even hires one of the young settlers (played by his actual son Patrick Wayne) for a cowhand, and his beautiful mother (Yvonne DeCarlo, va va voom) for a cook.
McLintock’s utopia is upset when his wife (O’Hara), from whom he has been separated for two years, returns to town from back east. She wishes to prevent their daughter (Stephanie Powers, again with the va va voom) from moving back home. The wife and daughter are both snobs, despite the wife coming from the same upbringing as McLintock did it. She puts on airs, bosses people around. The fact of the couple’s separation seems to recall their earlier film together Rio Grande, as does the fact that they really love one another. Bit by bit O’Hara starts to melt as she begins to remember who she is. (This is egged along by an astounding Taming of the Shrew scene, where McLintock pursues his wife through the town in her underwear. She and one of the town prostitutes are dunked in a water trough, in a somewhat problematic and sexist scene that climaxes with a good, hard spanking. Meanwhile the daughter falls in love with the ranch hand and they live happy ever after. There must be ten recognizable character actors from westerns in the film, including Strother Martin as a dude Indian agent in spectacles. Jerry van Dyke as the daughter’s dude boyfriend from college who does a hilarious cakewalk “it’s the latest thing!” A minor classic of the genre.
Four for Texas (1963)
A Rat Pack western! Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra are the stars, and the film is mostly a non-comical western. We give it honorable mention in this post, because the film contains a brief scene featuring the Three Stooges as a trio of pornographic portrait painters. This is the fourth incarnation of the comedy team, with Curly Joe DeRita as the third stooge.
The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao (1964)
Technically a children’s movie (one of the weirdest children’s movies ever made) George Pal’s bizarre vision is set in a western town in the early 20th century and mains a whimsically humorous tone throughout. Arthur O’Connell plays the typical land-grabbing western villain whose heart is changed when the magic Chinese circus of Dr. Lao comes to town. Lao, and the all the exhibits in his freak show, are all played by Tony Randall, who is far too strange an actor to ever be anyone but himself, creating (in combination with the Oscar nominated make-up effects) nightmarish effects. The yellowface is offensive to us nowadays of course; but the rest of his characters are hair-raising enough in their own way. And the interludes with all these various characters take us outside the plot for such long stretches it inhibits the momentum of the film, making it nearly unwatchable. But of course I can never turn away from such spectacles.
The Outlaws is Coming (1965)
This is the last Three Stooges movie, not including the terrible (and non-slapstick) 1970 tv pilot Kook’s Tour. At this stage, Moe Howard was 68 years old — it was time to hnag up his spurs (but he actually never did. Ten years later when he died he was still trying to get another Stooges feature off the ground). In this last hurrah, the Stooges and a pre-Batman Adam West come west to save the buffalo from an evil villain who plans to take over the west by eliminating the Indians’ principal game, causing them to go one the warpath. I’m sure no one has ever made this observation, but this is the exact same plan that Charles Manson would attempt to put into effect three years later, substituting the Indians with African Americans. I wonder what films they were showing the inmates at that prison….?
Cat Ballou (1965)
I’ve always thought this popular movie is not nearly (in fact not at all) as funny as it tries so desperately to be. It has that energy I so hate from musicals of that period: a lot of pedestrian jokes, sold with a hyperactive soundtrack and aggressively “comical” performances by performers who aren’t primarily comedians. At rise, Cat Ballou (Jane Fonda) is about to be hung. Flashback to what brought her there: it’s 1895. She returns to Wyoming from finishing school on a train, where she encounters a couple of outlaws, one of whom hides out in her berth for a while before jumping off the train. (The other is his uncle Dwayne Hickman, dressed as a priest) I’ve always thought this scene (in the berth) promised a better movie, a sort of reverse Tom Jones with a female lead. I still contend that that would have been a better movie, and Jane Fonda would have been perfect for it: a sort of naïve sexual magnet. (I guess we’ll have to settle for Barbarella.) Anyway, she gets to her father (John Marley)’s ranch. It and he are in a bad way. A company is harassing him to move off his ranch so they can open a slaughterhouse. He is fighting it. They hire some muscle.
Now we get to the keystone of the film: the irritating, talentless, and unaccountably Oscar-winning Lee Marvin plays duel roles: 1) the company’s bad-guy muscle, who dresses all in black and has a metal nose like Tycho Brahe; and 2) the old time good-guy gunslinger (and dime novel hero) whom Cat hires to help her father, who turns out to be a broken down drunk. Then the bad guy kills her father. This turns out to be Cat’s call to adventure. She and her quartet of buddies (the two bumbling outlaws, the drunken gunfighter and a groovy, articulate Indian kid who worked for her father) go to Butch Cassidy (Arthur Hunnicutt)’s Hole in the Wall to hide out and cook up a train robbery, which they proceed to execute, robbing the villainous company’s payroll. Then the drunken gunfighter sobers himself up for a showdown with the guy with metal nose (his brother) and he kills him. The company is bringing in bad guys from all over the country to get them now. So Cat dolls herself up like a hooker and seduces the head of the company (an English lord) and tries to get him to sign a confession. When he doesn’t, she kills him. Back to present. She is about to be hung. Her buddies free her.
Oh yes, and as a narrative device the movie memorably features the singing balladeers Stubby Kaye and Nat King Cole.
One of my favorite “classic era” sit-coms. The show is a VERY knowing parody of John Ford’s cavalry pictures, down to every detail. Forrest Tucker and Larry Storch as frontier cavalry men, with Ken Berry as their bumbling commander, and (during the first season) Edward Everett Horton as an Indian named Chief Roaring Chicken. Old time serial western star Bob Steele as an old fighter from the Alamo. Is it a coincidence that Tucker’s character is named O’Rourke—the name Henry Fonda’s character mistakenly calls one of the main characters in Fort Apache? I think not. And Tucker had starred in many B movie westerns himself. Read my more extensive blogpost on F Troop here.
The Wild, Wild West (1965-1969)
Another of my favorite tv shows as a kid. A bizarre mix of spy stories (then VERY much in vogue in both film and television) and westerns. Robert Conrad and Ross Martin as two secret service men in the Grant administration with amazing gadgets and disguises and a very cool credit sequence. They travel on their own private train. A proliferation of steampunk inventions by both good guys and bad guys. Cartoonish Supervillains. Pirates, big game hunters, etc, often disfigured or freaks, missing an eye, a hand, a leg.
The best villain of them all is Migelito Loveless, a genius dwarf…mad scientist (who has somehow already single-handedly invented all of the major inventions of the twentieth century several decades early) and is also a musical and artistic genius. The actor who played him Michael Dunn was extremely talented — a very good actor, he could even sing, and co-wrote some of his scripts. Loveless’s assistant, a giant named Voltaire, was played by Richard Kiel, a.k.a “Jaws” from the James Bond pictures.
Another of my favorite actors Victor Buono played a Chinese villain named Wing Fat. The show was anachronistic in numerous ways, notably in attitudes towards sex. The pompadoured James West exceeds even James Bond in somehow making time with every beautiful woman five minutes after meeting her — and this in the Victorian Era. Also, he goes shirtless…and many of the women wear sleeveless or strapless gowns. Never!
I recently re-watched some episodes after a break of several decades and found the star Robert Conrad to be just creepy and oily. The sex stuff is weird, but he is also a jerk, unlikable, not charming. He gives a fake, mirthless laugh when Ross Martin’s Artie tells a joke. He’s all sex and violence. I vastly prefer Ross Martin’s ham actor — but I always did, and it shouldn’t be surprising! This show was made into an awful film in the 1990s – -we’ll cover that two posts from now.
A Big Hand for the Little Lady (1966)
I found this movie highly irritating, possessing a smug tone that thinks its vastly funnier than it actually is, with an icky moral universe and a twist I saw coming halfway through. There is a high stakes poker game than that five richest men in Texas partake of. A family comes to town: Henry Fonda, Joanne Woodward and a kid who looks like he could never be their kid, (one of the early clues). Fonda insuates himself into the game and has a heart attack with his life savings on the table, forcing the wife to take the hand. The town banker (Paul Ford) loans her the money she needs to win the game, using the money as collateral. Jason Robards and a bunch of recognizable character actors are in the game. Burgess Meredith is the town doctor. It all turns out to be a con, with the banker and the doctor in on it, and an ironic coda with her playing cards again, she’s really a gambler named Ruby. Cameos by Chester Conklin and Mae Clarke are among the saving graces!
Carry On, Cowboy (1966)
Part of the British “Carry On” series (which I’ll undoubtedly blog about in future). There’s very little that Blazing Saddles does that this movie didn’t do earlier. A steady stream of verbal and visual jokes, twists on the genre in Mad magazine style. It is quite hilarious…the jokes are very “music hall” just as Mel Brooks’ are very “burlesque”. Jim Dale is a sanitation engineer named Marshall, who accidentally gets hired to be the marshall of violent Stodge city and “clean it up”. The villain is a guy named Rump-o. The story, such as it is, requires Marshall to man up and act like an actual marshall in order to defeat Rump-o. He’s nervous enough about having to fight the villain, but all the gorgeous dance hall girls and prostitutes want to make love to him too. And Jim Dale is the man for this kind of comedy.
Waterhole #3 (1967)
I can’t account for why this film is so astoundingly obscure. It is typical Hollywood fare, seems to have a normal budget, it’s not terrible or even irritating as I suspected (except possibly for the too present Roger Miller ballad that announces each scene, obviously inspired by the device in Cat Ballou). All I can think is the movie’s non-descriptive title makes everyone not only instantly dismiss it but instantly forget it.
It’s sort of racy, comedy western directed by Blake Edwards, definitely an attempt to replicate the success of Cat Ballou. At the very least, this movie should be studied in women’s studies courses — it is astoundingly, even infuriatingly, sexist. The hero (James Coburn) rapes the daughter of a sheriff (Carol O’Connor), and she of course kind of likes it. And the men all chuckle over this event thoughout the movie. O’Connor is more mad about Coburn’s theft of his horse than the rape of his daughter. You could make the interpretation that it’s satire about sexism, I guess. But I am familiar with Blake Edwards and the tastes of this era. It’s the Sexual Revolution. The idea is “What’s so bad about a little whoopee?” Coburn calls the rape “assault with a friendly weapon”. This icky attitude may be why this movie is dead and buried.
Anyway, the plot is a sort of imperfectly realized “zany farce”. Three guys steal a cache of gold from the army. Claude Akins is the inside man, a sergeant. James Whitmore is his commander). Another is Timothy Carey (that really weird character actor from Paths of Glory). They take a shoemaker (whose store they use to break into the army vault) as a hostage. Coburn kills the third partner in a gambling dispute and finds the map for the gold. Encountering sheriff O’connor (and his deputy Bruce Dern), he locks them in their own jail cell in their underwear, rapes the sheriff’s daughter and steals the horse. O’Connor catches him just as he finds the gold at water hole #3. Then there’s a bunch of back and forth as the gold keeps changing hands. At one point even the shoemaker (who now wants to marry a madam played by Joan Blondell) makes off with it. In the end, Coburn gets it, heading into Mexico, with everyone else on his tail. The plot is good, but Edwards, who is supposed to be good at this sort of thing (farce) actually isn’t. Think of how well Bogdonavich did with What’s Up, Doc?. Knowing what’s possible, Edwards’ limitations are glaring. Still I didn’t hate this one as much as I hate most of his movies.
The Ballad of Josie (1967)
A feisty feminist western comedy of sorts with Doris Day in one of her last film roles as a Wyoming frontier woman who accidentally kills her abusive husband and has to maintain the ranch on her own, antagonizing the cattle men around her by raising sheep, and then antagonizing them even more by becoming a suffragrette! Women got the right to vote in Wyoming in 1869, btw — long before most of the U.S.
The Shakiest Gun in the West (1968)
Some people write this movie off as just a rip-off of The Paleface. But really, if we’re going to play that game and only embrace the “original ones”, we’d only look at about four comedy westerns instead of the scores we are treating in this series. And at the moment, I happen to be in a place of maximum Don Knotts appreciation; I’m not really in a “hatin’ on Knotts” place at the moment.
I found this movie quite funny, and unexpectedly 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 (a prologue is set back east). He decides to go “west” (just where he winds up is unspecified—some western town). He gets embroiled in a situation: a lady stagecoach robber (whose father Dub Taylor retires to open a Boston dress shop) 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 whom 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. Many good character actors in it: in addition to Dub Taylor, there’s Jackie Coogan, Carl Ballantine, Pat Morita and many others whose faces I recognized but names I don’t know. Many, many good comedy bits and gags. 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 taking that into consideration, Don Knotts gives a funny performance.
The Over the Hill Gang (1969)
A cute rated-G type tv movie light comedy-western with a lot of stars, directed by the one and only Jean Yarbrough. A town has a crooked mayor (the inescapable Edward Andrews). The crooked sheriff is played by Jack Elam. The crook judge is Andy Devine. And they have a few thuggish deputies. Ricky Nelson (somehow looking ten years younger than he had in Rio Bravo ten years earlier), the newspaper editor, is also running for mayor. He is being coerced by the town fathers. His father in law Pat O’Brien, a former Texas Ranger shows up. O’Brien calls up his old squad, consisting of Walter Brennan, Edgar Buchanan (a character actor I REALLY love) and Chill Wills. They are of course all codgers and not up to the task any more. (This is supposed to be intrinsically funny somehow.) Brennan tries a duel with one of the bad guys — gets humiliated. They resolve to use their wits instead, employing psychology, and getting the three town leaders at each others throats, and getting all the deputies to either flee or shoot each other. But the mayor is onto their plan. He hires some serious thugs. Somehow or other (I’m not really clear how), the old guys scare the bad guys in a shoot out, and they leave town. Another interesting feature of the film is that Gypsy Rose Lee plays the over the hill dance hall girl. The movie ends on a very nice last shot — the three heroes each take a different road on a three-way fork.
Support Your Local Sheriff (1969)
This and the Over the Hill Gang are good examples of the western form in its decadence, apparently quite exhausted. The Over the Hill Gang at least has a good original angle, the idea of senior citizen cowboys. This one has the same light Sherwood Shwartz level tone, but no angle at all, just a vehicle for James Garner, a tribute to Walter Brennan, and a handful of feeble comical ideas. Garner seems to be reviving his Maverick persona, a very likable, laconic, cheerful and cool character, who delivers even insults affably. That is the germ of an idea that could be quite funny with a stronger script. It’s a sort of variation of Gary Cooper’s character, although Garner’s character travesties “innocence”, whereas Cooper’s is actually innocent.
The story begins with a terrific idea, wasted in this story because superfluous: a funeral which breaks out in a melee when gold is discovered in the freshly dug hole. A wild boomtown results (cheesy art direction — looks like a toy town). Town fathers are led by Harry Morgan as Mayor. They need a sheriff and Garner rides into town and takes the job. He keeps claiming that he’s just passing through on the way to Australia, and he demonstrates that he is such a good shot that he can shoot a hole through a thrown washer (a small metal ring, ya damn fool, not a washing machine). He also coolly dispatches any bad guys he needs to.
Such a character is usually given a backstory. None here. why does he have these skills? We don’t know. He’s just some perfect guy. The main force of evil in the town is Walter Brennan, who reprises his Old Man Clanton persona from My Darling Clementine: he has a gang of wild sons, one of whom is Bruce Dern. The bulk of the film centers around Garner arresting Dern for murder and placing him in a jail with no bars (they haven’t arrived from the store yet) and guarding him from several onslaughts of Brennan’s people. (This is what I think of as the Rio Bravo plot. Another Hawks tribute is a reference Brennan makes to his false teeth, which reminds us of Red River). Also, Garner makes Jack Elam, the “town character” a deputy, another Hawks gimmick. He romances Joan Hackett, Morgan’s daughter, an extremely crazy, accident prone, feisty girl, perhaps the script’s most interesting and promising idea, also squandered. (Note: Hackett had also been in the western Will Penny.) It ends with garner dispatching about 15 bad guys, and an epilogue about him marrying the girl and becoming governor.
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