A History of the Comedy Western #4: 1970s-1980s

This is part four of a five part series. For part one, covering the years of silent comedy, go here.  For part two, covering 1930s and 1940s, go here. For part three, covering the 1950s and 1960s, go here.

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The Cheyenne Social Club (1970)

A squaresville comedy western, starring Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda and directed by Gene Kelly.

The plot is: Stewart and Fonda are a couple of cowboys in an outfit that apparently employs geezers to do demanding physical work. Stewart gets a letter that says his no-good brother is dead and has left him some property. They ride all the way from Texas to Cheyenne, and learn that the property is a whorehouse, run by madam Shirley Jones. Stewart is appalled, tries to unload the whorehouse, but the law won’t let him. The town turns against him. A roughneck beats up Jones. Stewart kills him in a gunfight. Then a bunch of his relatives show up and Fonda and Stewart kill THEM in a fight. Then more relatives are coming. Stewart signs the whorehouse over to Jones and the two men head back to  Texas.

For a sex comedy, The Cheyenne Social Club is mighty prissy for even 1970. The film is lightly humorous, but very slight and doesn’t feel like enough of an event somehow. It strives mightily to trade in on the public’s affection for Stewart and Fonda as beloved Hollywood actors, right down to have them banter about their real life identities as a republican and a democrat.It feels a lot like some of John Wayne’s last movies, very much out of step with the times. Stewart in particular seems too old for the part he is playing, his lanky body now sagging in fifteen places like melting paraffin. It’s maybe one of the more comedic roles he had been called upon to do in decades, in some ways having more in common with his work in the thirties than his later westerns.  At any rate, it might have been a better role for a young Gary Cooper, whose persona to my mind always contained a certain stiffness around women.

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Dirty Dingus McGee (1970)

The Chairman of the Board as you’ve never seen him — and afterwards you’ll wish you could burn the sight from your retinas. The 60s-ish Frank Sinatra plays the titular Dingus in a Beatle wig and a mouthful of flashy dentures. A character who might be at least passable with a Michael York or Albert Finney in Tom Jones mode. Here it as disturbing as Mae West in Sextette. The character is a sort of unwashed, semi-retarded naïf. When George Kennedy is your foil and you’re about evenly matched you know you’re in trouble. Kennedy is made sheriff of a town that has a cathouse madame (Ann Jackson) for a mayor. Kennedy keeps trying to catch Dingus for various infractions, and Dingus, stupid as he, is keeps outwitting him. The movie is full of infantile double entendres (“you forgot your cock!”) and farcical bedroom encounters. Harry Carey Jr has a small role (unrecognizable in a beard). Jack Elam plays a John Wesley Harding who has nothing to do with the real one. Worst, it’s yet another of those films that refer to “Indians” with no tribal affiliation, e.g. “Indians are attacking! ”— one of my litmus tests for a worthless western.

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Cockeyed Cowboys of Calico County (1970)

Blacksmith Dan Blocker (Hoss from Bonanza) spends his life savings on a mail-order bride but makes the mistake of paying in advance. She never shows up. He is so despondent he plans to leave the western town he lives in (the experience has been humiliating) but the town needs his blacksmithing skills so they persuade dance hall girl Nanette Fabray to portray the missing wife. The whole town has to conspire to prevent him from knowing the truth. This is essentially a sit-com length plot, stretched out to three times that. What keeps it going is all the character actors playing the town. It’s actually a throwback to Esssanay’s old Snakeville series, an effective comic idea that has been done surprisingly infrequently. In the cast are Jim Backus, Henry Jones, Mickey Rooney, Wally Cox, Jack Elam, Stubby Kaye, Noah Beery Jr, Iron Eyes Cody, and former western star Don “Red” Barry. 

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The Over the Hill Gang Rides Again (1970)

This movie is actually better than its predecessor. Funnier jokes! And  it has an actual star (as opposed to a half dozen sidekicks) at its center: Fred Astaire joins Walter Brennan, Edgar Buchanan, Andy Devine, and Wills this time. The gang reunites to save their buddy (Astaire) from a hanging, but are saddened to learn that they are too late. But then they discover the hanged man was an impostor. Astaire, who is now a drunk, is made marshall of the town. He cleans himself up, and his friends backs up all his plays without him knowing it. He develops a kind of false confidence. He romances a dance hall girl (Lana Wood), but she lets him know the others have been backing him. He goes back on the bottle. A gang of bandits comes in to do a robbery. The heroes fight them off (including Astaire). A nice little family film.

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Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971)

A sequel of sorts I guess to Support Your Local Sheriff, directed also by Burt Kennedy and  also starring James Garner but sharing no other characters…and since THIS character isn’t really a character it’s hard to say what the continuity is. Garner skips out on a marriage to a madam, his pockets full of money. He gets off the train in a town called Purgatory, which appears to be populated entirely with familiar character actors. Harry Morgan returns, but as an entirely different character from the first movie. Here, he is a mine owner. His daughter Suzanne Pleshette is a wild hellion who shoots up the town. Morgan competes with another mine owner (John Dehner) to reach a mother lode of gold. First everyone mistakes Garner for a famous gunfighter who has been summoned to provide muscle by one mine company against the other. After a certain amount of business about this, Garner claims the gunfighter is Jack Elam, who just happens to be in town rolling his eye. After a certain amount of business about that, the real gunfighter (Chuck Connors) comes to town. There is a showdown, which garner subverts by riding to it on a mule laden with dynamite. The mule bucks and carries Garner into the bank. Explosion. The mother lode is discovered. Then Garner (who has twice lost all his money at roulette) wins a big stake and marries Pleshette.

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Lock Stock and Barrel (1971)

Fairly tedious tv movie comedy western starring a very young, long haired Tim Matheson as a dirty smelly farm kid. He elopes with girl (Belinda Montgomery). The girl’s father Jack Albertson is in hot pursuit. They get separated when he has to stay aand work for a farmer who sent the pursuers in the wrong direction. He falls in with some rough soldiers (Neville Brand et al)  and wins all their money at poker. They turn the tables , take all his money, and send him on his way. He catches up with his wife and finds her with the man the soldiers are chasing (Claude Akins). The guy is full of crap, flattering them, he wants to travel with them. He’s wanted for a murder which he says was self defense. The soldiers arrive, which scares the guy off. The soldiers are too interested in the wife, so Matheson keeps them at bay with his rifle until they leave. Next they are menaced by a mountain lion. Once the creature is dispatched, the father and brother catch up with them again and then they are saved by Akins, who holds the men at gunpoint. The title comes from a line in the film “We are married, man and wife; lock stock and barrel”. The father relents and leaves with kind words. Then Akins and the couple learn that they each have deeds for the same plot of land, sold to them by a crooked “reverend” (Burgess Meredith). They assume they’re not really married since the preachjer was bogus, then they lose a lot of their belongings crossing a rickety bridge. They fight and separate. He spens a night with a widow at her ranch although he doesn’t sleep with her. The next day he finds the girl working as a dance hall girl. The young man and akins finally go to stake their claim. The preacher talks a good line. Then the soldiers show up to get Akins, etc etc. I confess that I lost in this rambling movie interest after this.

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Evil Roy Slade (1972)

A made for tv comedy western produced and written by Gary Marshall, directed by Jerry Paris, starring John Astin. As you can imagine, it’s frequently very stupid and frequently very funny. It is especially interesting that it predates Blazing saddles, because much of the humor is of a similar type. A bit of an all star cast, with the never-funny Mickey Rooney as the villain,  Henry Gibson  in a thankless role as a henchman, Edie Adams as dance hall girl, Dick Shawn as a singing transvestite marshall, Pat Morita as his Asian servant, Dom Deluise as a 19th century shrink, and Milton Berle as his girlfriend’s relative, who tries to make the hero reform by hiring him as a shoe salesman. (Penny Marshall has a walk-on as a bank teller. They didn’t have female bank tellers back then, but whatever.)

The fact that the hero needs to reform at all is of course the angle of the picture. The hero is a villain. Astin is playing against type, and his performance is very broad. Since there really is no character for him to play (aside from gags about how nasty he is), there is a sort of black hole in the center of the picture. But there are funny gags. Dick Shawn sings very funny cowboy songs. His gang rides around on his wagon tooting a stolen train whistle. The hero makes an escape on a Shetland pony. Some of the gags are painful, e.g., the blacksmith is a black guy named Smith. The picture has no ending really — Slade merely escapes

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Three Musketeers of the West (1973)

A hilarious spaghetti western comedy. Lots of slapstick. A rough similarity to The Three Musketeers, Dartagnan is Dart, Jr. who comes from Cheese Valley (where they make stinky cheese and have a big slapstick cheese fight in the opening scene) and wants to become a Texas Ranger. He rides with 3 rangers McAthos, Portland and Aramirerez. They are after a stolen gold shipment headed for a Mexican revolutionary general. Along the way they start helping a lady doctor with a shipment of medicine. It turns out the doctor is the smuggler and the wagon contains the gold. But not before there is A) a hilarious barroom brawl; B) for some reason they wind up in a Chinese village and have a martial arts brawl; and C) they have a fight on a train with a bunch of circus clowns. In the end they wind up with the revolutionary army and we are promised more adventures.

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The Brothers O’Toole (1973)

A fairly lame western comedy starring John Astin (in two roles)and Steve Carlson as his younger brother. The best thing about it is the lingo written for Astin as a a con man, but though his speech is florid…nothing happens with it, he does no cons or swindles and never even convinces anybody of anything. He gets mistaken for a desperado (also played by Astin) and sits in jail and then has a trial. There is almost no plot and the movie is almost entirely inert. Eventually it is learned that the town’s mysterious name Molybdenum (which is pronounced as Molly Be Damned by some, and others cant pronounce it at all) is actually an element used to produce steel and the town is rich in it, and most of the people in town own stock in the local mine. Also in film is Jesse White as the mayor, Lee Merriwether as the desperado’s wife, and Hans Conried as an industrialist named Brigadier Vandergeld.

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Dusty’s Trail (1973)

A tv sit-com by Sherwood Schwartz, of Gilligan’s Island and The Brady Bunch fame.  For Dusty’s Trail, Schwartz essentially just took the characters from Gilligan’s Island and transplanted them to the Old Weston a perpetually lost wagon train. Of the old cast, apparently he was only able to get Bob Denver, who played “Dusty” a distinctly Gilliganesque bumbling mule skinner. For the “Skipper” equivalent, apparently Alan Hale, Jr. was unavailable, so Schwartz did the next best thing — he cast Forrest Tucker of F Troop in the Skipper-like leadership role. And the rest? A group of familiar character actors portraying a rich banker and his wife, a farm girl, a schoolteacher and a dance hall girl. (Sound anything like a millionaire and his wife, a farm girl, a professor and a movie star?) And instead of racist depictions of South Sea Islanders we get racist depictions of American Plains Indians that are SO out of step for 1973 that it’s mind-boggling. It’s “how, Ugh” stuff, but several years after landmark shifts in Native American characterization like Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man (1970).

In short, Schwartz barely lifted a finger in the generation of this “new” idea, he just took old Gilligan’s Island scripts, crossed out “island” stuff and wrote in “western” stuff. I had never even heard of it until I found a bootleg DVD in the 99 cent bin a few years ago. And naturally watched every single episode (there are 26 of them. My favorite is the one in which Forrest Tucker dresses in drag. Oh, it’s disturbing, alright, plenty disturbing)

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Blazing Saddles (1974)

Mel Brooks spoof of westerns is certainly one of the most famous and successful comedy westerns of all time. I have grappled for years with why it doesn’t work for me (whereas it seems to work for almost everybody else. If this entry offends you, please feel free to skip it!). The main trouble, I think, is that Brooks doesn’t seem to understand, know, or appreciate westerns. Time has shown that what he understands best is musical comedy and burlesque-style black-out sketches. Hence the perfection of the film and stage vehicles The Producers, and isolated numbers like “The Inquisition” section of The History of the World, Part One. (Or the Roman section of that film which he stole entirely from Eddie Cantor’s Roman Scandals, a fact no one seems to have noticed) Blazing Saddles is reputed to “send up” the  western genre without any understanding of it, nor does it make any intelligible satirical comment on the white man’s treatment of blacks, Indians, etc, all for the same reason.

The parts that work best in this film are Brooks’ own role as Governor (heavily burlesque inflected), and the performances of Harvey Korman and Madeline Kahn (whose centerpiece is, again, a musical number). For me, the best part of the whole movie is when it unravels at the end, and the cast runs cavorting through studio sound stages, where they disrupt the shooting of what? A Hollywood musical. And of course, the title song (sung by Frankie Laine) nails it.

The rest is occasionally dreck — in the case of the much beloved “baked beans/ farting interlude”, quite literally. The rest of the cast seems at sea, neither playing it straight in the Zucker Brothers fashion (which I think might be the preferred technique) nor as funny as Brooks, Korman and Kahn. They seem ill at ease with all the use of the N word, which makes it doubly hard to laugh at from this historical vantage point. (This might have been addressed, ironically, by making the film more realistic, which would also have reinforced the social point, using a wide variety of disparaging euphemisms, insulting names, etc for black people.

The N word seems there just for shock value, which would have made more sense if the original star and co-writer (Richard Pryor) had come along for the ride. He undoubtedly would have been among the hilarious handful in the movie — in fact, would have been the centerpiece of the film. Instead, we have the singularly weak Cleavon Little, which in the end, ironically, strikes me as a basically racist (safe) choice. Pryor would have been a out-and-out comedy threat, in the time honored tradition of Chaplin and the Marx Brothers. Little is no more a threat than Stepin Fetchit and company, despite the fact that he occasionally ridicules such old school Uncle Toms here. He is no improvement. The deck is stacked on the side of the white people. (Brooks has demonstrated his latent racism on other occasions — maybe most heinously in the form of the black character in Robin Hood: Men in Tights).

Also weak here is the usually superlative Gene Wilder. He decides to play against type here. Originally cast in Harvey Korman’s role (which would have been appropriate) he opted instead to play the gunslinger. What the hell he is doing with this performance is to me the central enigma of the movie. Wilder is at his best with his signature hysteria, either losing his shit or just barely holding in an outburst. Here he decides to be ridiculously relaxed. Is he a stoner? Is he gay? What is the point of the portrayal? Is he commenting on some other actor, some other type? If he is, I don’t recognize it.

But above all, though countless reviewers have commented on how expertly Brooks sends up westerns, I don’t see it — and I have seen 800 westerns. If anything, it seems of a piece with the decadent, slapdash, late westerns of its own era. There are a thousand little rich details (and major, core elements) I can think of that are missing. Even  F Troop is a better western spoof than Blazing Saddles. 

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Posse (1975)

An extremely interesting artifact, both thought-provoking and entertaining. Kirk Douglas produced, directed and stars in this political satire/ western. Influence of spaghetti westerns, and possibly Robert Altman here. It’s certainly a much better film than Altman’s Buffalo Bill and the Indians. Douglas plays a vain, strutting marshall who’s running for senate. His vanity is justified in some ways. He’s very good at his work. But his character is fatally flawed, as we shall see. The only thing between him and a career of perfection is the fact that bank robber Bruce Dern is still at large. After a couple of very memorable, clever set pieces, Dern is caught…and, again very cleverly, we watch as he contrives to escape, and manages to do so. Just as the hero proves to have faults, Dern’s robber eventually becomes sort of likable, at least to the characters in the story. In the end, Dern kidnaps Douglas and demands an immediate ransom of $40,000, the amount he lost from his bank robbery. Douglas orders his posse to go get the money—and they do, by looting the town and killing one of its leading citizens. THEN, the posse joins up with Dern (they’d earlier learned that Douglas wasn’t going to retain them on staff when he became a senator…instead they were to get railroad jobs at a cut in salary). Douglas has in a single instant lost all political goodwill, all possibility of the senate seat that seemed assured, and he is completely alone in the world. It is clearly an allegory about Richard Nixon. Very well made— so odd for it to be this obscure.

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The Apple Dumpling Gang (1975)

A pretty tough pill to swallow. Disney “comedy” aimed strictly at children — and children from 30 years ago at that. Echoes of The Courtship of Eddie’s Father: Bill Bixby is a gambler who is tricked into taking care of three orphans in fictional Quake City, California. The supposedly worthless mine they inherited turns out to contain gold. Suddenly they’re rich. Bixby marries a Calamity Jane like female stage driver in order to take care of the kids. David Wayne plays her southern gentleman father. Harry Morgan is the town sheriff.  David Tomlinson (Mr. Banks in Marry Poppins)  is the town banker. Painfully unfunny, mechanical comic relief by Don Knotts and Tim Conway who try to do crimes, including stealing the gold, but bungle every attempt. A gang of genuine crooks, led by Slim Pickens, heats things up a trifle. A relative comes to claim the kids. The kids encourage the two clowns to steal the gold so they can have their family back. Slim Pickens, dressed as a reverend, robs it first. The kids are kidnapped. There is a hair-raising chase in a fire wagon — a fancy type this small town would never have. Bill Bixby fights Slim Pickens in rapids. The movie has a wacky but inappropriate bluegrass soundtrack.

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Rancho Deluxe

An Altmanesque countercultural hippie comedy, about a couple of ne’er-do-wells who become rustlers so they “don’t fall asleep”. Jeff Bridges is a bored rich boy, Sam Waterston is an Indian named Cecil. The setting is latter day Montana. They keep escalating pranks on local a cattleman (who formerly owned a string of hairdressing shops in Schenectady with his wife Elizabeth Ashley) until they become full fledged rustlers, with Harry Dean Stanton and another dude as inside men. The film is leisurely moving in the style of that time. Much cannabis influence. And the irritating thesis (so common at the time) that free-spirited youth are justified in committing all manner of crimes so long as they do it to capitalist assholes. But it has its moments.

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Goin’ South (1976)

A very funny comedy western and a special treat for Jack Nicholson fans, for he not only stars in this film but he directed it as well. Nicholson plays a guy who about to get hung but then is saved at the last minute by a local ordinance from the Civil War days that says a man can be freed if any eligible woman in the town wants to marry him. Mary Steenburger offers to do it, mostly so she can use him as slave labor to work the gold mine on her land. Other characters include Christopher Lloyd and John Belushi as deputies (Belushi as a Mexican — boy, how I miss him roles like this, offensive as it is). Danny Devito and some others play Nicholson’s old gang. (Clearly Nicholson had bonded with Lloyd and Devito on the set of the previous year’s triumph, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). There are a couple of distasteful rape scenes played for comedy which really don’t make the grade today, but otherwise, it’s mighty enjoyable A buddy picture, with the prim virgin Steenburgen and the stinky, bearded roughneck Nicholson growing on one another until they are a bona fide couple. Ed Begley, Jr.’s in it too as a fellow “gallows groom”.

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The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox (1976)

George Segal and Goldie Hawn. A comedy western that follows the It Happened One Night double chase formula. She’s a prostitute on a mission to marry a rich Mormon; he’s a good looking card cheat who’s hooked up with her because she stole the money he stole from some bank robbers. While his name is “Molloy”, Segal’s character is extremely Jewish. When you factor in the fact that he’s constantly smoking a huge cigar, it’s very like having George Burns or Georgie Jessel in the movie. The script and comedy are mostly annoying. Segal’s character is creepy and sleezy (the creators seem to think he’s simply cute and loveable) and I’ve never cared much for Goldie Hawn aside from her Laugh-In character (although I do find it amazing that she did this picture the same year as Foul Play. She was really on a roll briefly). Naturally over the course of the film they fall in love. They actually abandon their plan. He’s shot up and we think he will die, but mostly because he thinks he will die. She goads him back to life. The film is mostly significant because of the influence of Blazing Saddles in it. While it functions on its own terms as a “real” comedy western, i.e. we care (or are supposed to care) about the characters and plot, it also plays with the genre. Segal whistles to call his horse, and makes references to the way other cowboys do things in movies. There is a lot of Jewish stuff, including a whole scene where the two characters crash a Jewish wedding in San Francisco in order to escape. Early on , Goldie has a British music hall number that’s clearly influenced by Madeline Kahn’s in Blazing Saddles. Lastly, Bobby Vinton sings a Sammy Cahn song over a romantic MOS segment that is clearly meant to parody the “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” scene in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The other notable element is a surfeit of 70’s era profanity.

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Adios Amigo (1976)

Former football star and blaxploitation hero Fred Williamson wrote, produced, directed and starred in this reportedly terrible film, and Richard Pryor, then on the cusp of exploding into superstardom, co-starred as a favor.

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Hot Lead and Cold Feet (1978)

Better than average Disney family fare. Rather ingenious mix of The Comedy of Errors and The Tortoise and the Hare. Jim Dale plays a pair of twins who don’t know about each other. One is a rootin’, tootin’ shoot ’em up bad guy. The other is a Salvation Army preacher. He also portrays their father, who plays dead in order to test the boys. The founder of a town, he leaves his enormous wealth to whichever of the sons wins a deadly cross-country race through the wilderness, down rapids, up a mountain. The funniest scenes are when good brother Dale arrives in the town with his two obligatory orphan wards and schoolteacher Karen Valentine. The entire town is engaged in fistfights, robberies, shootouts, hangings etc. The other funny scenes are the Comedy of Errors ones…when everyone thinks good guy  Dale is his mean brother, giving him all sorts of deference much to his bewilderment (kind of like Along Came Jones). Darren McGavin is brilliant as the banker/mayor who conspires to bump off both brothers so he can have all the wealth for himself. To the consternation of many, good guy Dale holds his own through the race, mostly by accident. He ends up saving his bad brother’s life. Not surpisingly, In the end, the mean one is a bit more civilized, and the good one, a bit more assertive. In a sort of superfluous subplot, Don Knotts plays a sheriff and Jack Elam, a criminal he keeps trying to duel with.

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The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again (1979)

This sequel is more palatable then its predecessor. There is a greater emphasis on comedy without the saccharine cutesy kid plot. Don Knotts and Tim Conway now attempt to go straight but run afoul of crooks.  The purported stars are as tedious as ever, but the rest of the cast is rewarding. Kenneth Mars is a hilarious Wild Bill Hickok parody named Wooly Bill Hitchcock. Tim Matheson as a young cavalryman. Harry Morgan as a general. Roger C. Carme; (Harry Mudd from Star Trek) as a bank robber; Jack Elam one of the gang. Ruth Buzzi as an obnoxious old lady. On the lam from Mars, the two guys are enlisted into the army. They do a horrific drag turn as dance hall girls towards the end. The nice lieutenant who’s going to marry the general’s daughter turns out to run the smuggling ring; Tim Matheson emerges as the hero.

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The Villain (1979)

An atrocious comedy western by Hal Needham, the rocket scientist behind the Smokey and the Bandit and Cannonball Run franchises. Kirk Douglas is woefully miscast as a bumbling, Wile E. Coyote like bounty hunter, trying to kill sheriff Arnold Schwarzenegger (yes!) and the always sexy Ann-Margaret. When I say Wile E. Coyote, I mean Wile E. Coyote…the film literally recreates Warner Brothers cartoon gags in live action. But Douglas has no comic ability or knack and what’s the point of cartoon gags without cartoon exaggeration? The film also contains a thousand character actors, some of whom we laugh at, some we laugh with: Mel Tillis (who also supplies the movie’s lame soundtrack, and I think co-produced), Paul Lynde (as an Indian!) Strother Martin, Foster Brooks, Ruth Buzzi, Jack Elam. The film limps along from gag to gag for the duration and then suddenly ends out of left field. Ann-Margaret has been trying to shtup Schwarzenegger right along….and he must be gay because he’s not interested (some joke!) In the end, she simply decides to go with Douglas, who leaps around in fast motion like Daffy Duck in response. End of movie.

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The Frisco Kid (1979)

A terrific idea wasted. Gene Wilder as a rabbi in the old west — how could it lose? It does, on just about every level. It fails as both a comedy and as a western. The premise is that it’s 1850 and that Gene Wilder is hired from his village in Poland to be the rabbi for a congregation in San Francisco. When he gets to Philadelphia, he has missed the boat (the best way for getting cross country at the time) and so must go by land. He has mishaps along the way: some guys steal his money and dump him off in western Pennsylvania. He is nursed by some Amish people. Then he hooks up with Harrison Ford, a bank robber, who sees him across the continent. Indians, mountains, deserts, etc. They become friends. When they get to the coast they encounter the bad guys from the beginning of the film and have a run in. The Rabbi takes a life. In the end, he becomes the rabbi AND runs the last bad guy out of town, AND marries a pretty girl.

The arc of the story is fine. Here’s where it fails. Director Robert Aldrich, usually a workmanlike director of action films and the like,  has a tin ear for comedy. He has what I think of (rightly or wrongly) as a German sense of humor — a weird lack of compassion. I felt this above all in the early scene where the rabbi is stripped, beaten and thrown off the back of a wagon. It is played for wacky comedy, as though we are supposed to laugh along with the thugs who are doing this cruel thing. And while the scene comes across as anti-Semitic I think that’s accidental. The real issue is a lack of sensitivity which would make one notice the wrongness right off the bat. The whole movie is like that: very clumsily and clunkily — indifferently — shot and edited. Wilder’s performance, though humorous and touching, is lost and wasted.

Equally unforgivable is the historical ignorance that subtly undermines the whole thing. We are accustomed to westerns taking occasional historical liberties. In such cases however we get the sense that the authors have at least had a grammar school education in American history and are simply toying with facts to make a better story. Here, it seems like the writers have not only never been near a classroom but have probably never seen a western! Set in 1850? They did this I guess because the “gold rush” is on, presumably the motive for lots of people going west. Since it plays no role in this story, they should have thrown it out and set it at a later date because every single aspect of the production has more to do with the 1870s or ’80s, from the clothes they are wearing, to the fact that the rabbi is familiar with western lore and “cowboys”, to the fact that San Francisco is already a big flourishing city with a fancy hotel (the boom only started in 1849). Furthermore, along the way, they are attacked by some vague group of people called “Indians” See above for my problem with THAT. It’s rare to find film-makers so slipshod and inexpert that they wouldn’t identify what tribe was attacking, and that they wouldn’t put some knowledge of the tribe into to the supposedly knowledgeable character’s (Harrison Ford’s) mouth. “Indians”! What is that? It’s like saying “Europeans”!

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Draw! (1984)

Kirk Douglas as an aging desperado on his way to Mexico to retire when he finds himself holed up in a hotel room with a beautiful blond hostage (Linda Sorenson). James Coburn, the drunken ex-sheriff who was his nemesis back in the day, is hired to take him down. I’ve not seen this one; copies seem a little hard to come by.

Rustlers'_Rhapsody

Rustler’s Rhapsody (1985)

Tiresome, witless “comedy” that’s supposed to parody westerns of late ’30s through ’40s. Never mind the fact that by 1985 the clichés the movie parodies would only have been appreciated by senior citizens — it’s also not funny. It keeps calling attention to the clichés, but with no real “joke” attached. There is a lot of gay humor, poking fun of the overly costumed, virginal hero Rex O’Herlihan the Singing Cowboy (Tom Berenger) as well as the cattle baron villain (Andy Griffith). The presence of Griffith is to me an indication of how hard-up (and ignorant) the era is. “Country” and “Western” had long since split, but some people are tone deaf to the difference. This is true of the casting of the North Carolinian Griffith (who was never associated with westerns) and of the horrible orchestration of the cowboy songs in the movie, which are made to sound like they come from modern Nashville. Apparently because the writer couldn’t think of enough comic material to be gleaned from ’40s westerns (I can think of enough for five pictures) he includes digs at spaghetti westerns, too. The film was badly directed (shot-wise for comedy) by its screenwriter Hugh Wilson. And everbody’s hair is way too fucking long if this is supposed to represent a 1940s vision. Marilu Henner is the dance hall girl (thankless), Patrick Wayne, a rival, and G.W. bailey,Bthat distinctly unlikable guy who played Rizzo on M*A*S*H is the town drunk/sidekick. Is there anything good about the picture? Well, yes— there is a very impressive dancing horse. I’m quite in earnest. I’d watch that horse dance again any time.

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Lust in the Dust (1985)

A Paul Bartel (Death Race 2000, Eating Raul) comedy western, with a John Waters cast (Tab Hunter and Divine. Also Edith Massey was planned, but she died so they cast another old lady). Cast also has Cesar Romero and Lainie Kazin. The film is just about precisely what you’d expect. Bartel’s style of camp is to be self-consciously bad, but is infectious. Like when you go to a drag show at a cabaret, there is a joy in it that can only be found in amateur and community theatre productions. The whole cast is totally committed to this preposterous scenario which casts Divine and Lainie Kazin as sisters who were separated at birth, each of whom has a treasure map tattooed to her ass. Kazin is directed to be as much of a nightmare as Divine is. Hunter (doing a take on Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name) and Henry Silva (a leader of a gang of bad guys that includes a black, a Chinese man, and a little person) square off in search of the gold. The gold plot gets short shrift though, it’s really an excuse for all sorts of sexual shenanigans. In one of the film’s best recurring gags, Divine’s fat thighs break the neck of every man who goes down on her. There are two musical numbers — Divine’s is as bad as you would imagine; Kazin’s as good as you would imagine. Anyway, in its way, this movie is better at what it does than either Pale Rider or Silverado (or Rustler’s Rhapsody), also released that year. By the way, Lust in the Dust was the original title of Duel in the Sun. 

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Three Amigos  (1986)

Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, and Martin Short co-star in a film co-written by Martin and Lorne Michaels, and directed by John Landis. For some reason I was completely uninterested in seeing this movie when it came out. It may have been because I was disappointed in the sight of men I considered brilliant satirists behaving like much stupider comedians (another example would be the one where john candy and Eugene levy play security guards). But I watched it a couple of years ago and found it very enjoyable, with a strong comic premise. It is 1916. The three stars are the titular amigos, three movie stars of a western adventure series with a Mexican setting reminiscent of Zorro or the Cisco Kid. Suddenly out of work, the actors answer a summons for help from a Mexican village, thinking it is a mere request for a personal appearance. When they get down there, they are forced to fight an evil bandit and his large gang. The best comedy comes from the first two-thirds of the film when they don’t yet know their confrontations are for real. The last third is the “serious comedy” stuff…when they save the day etc. This is also played mostly for laughs and is weaker than it should be because there are no real emotional stakes. Landis seems to have phoned in his direction — a caring hand would have made a better picture out of this screenplay. The whole thing feels oddly impersonal…none of the the stars is precisely themselves — any competent comedians could have played these parts. This is not to say that it is not full of funny gags. The best bit has the three of them on a very artificial western desert set singing a cowboy number, accompanied by the local animals.

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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6 Responses to “A History of the Comedy Western #4: 1970s-1980s”

  1. If it’s any consolation, I’m not a huge fan of BLAZING SADDLES, either. I saw it for the first time a few years after it had garned so much box-office and publicity, and my first thought was, “What?” A lot of the so-called laughs are attributable to cheap curse words and strange non-sequitors (cows everywhere, ha ha). I’ve enjoyed it a bit more on multiple viewings but still wouldn’t rank it with THE PRODUCERS or YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN.

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    • we’re so on the same page, sir! The Producers and Young Frankenstein are pretty flawless, but Blazing Saddles is very hit or miss. I find it funny and all, but I just think it’s so over-rated! It needs to be taken down a peg or two

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  2. Thanks!

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  3. While The Frisco kid may not have been a laugh riot comedy film I enjoyed as a great buddy film regarding the friendship between Gene Wilder’s rabbi and Harrison Ford’s outlaw characters. The ending with Ford being best man at the rabi’s wedding was most heart warming indeed. ☺

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  4. western123 Says:

    Hi, somehting that’s bothered me as that I have never been able to identify a western comedy I wathed when I was a lad. The scene that sticks in memory is this small guy standing up to these tow large henchmen who keep shooting him, and he keeps on getting back up. The next scene the hero goes to visit the man who got filled with holes and his wife says he can’t have any water becaus eit just passes staright though him. Any idea what this film is? Thanks

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