Great humor bends our perceptions and sets them on end. It can satirize a genre or enhance the base story line of a particular project, but it always serves to underscore deep truths, often indomitable ones, and to confront and conquer our fears. If Westerns are horse opera morality plays, then humor, done right, underlines the point. It is hard to make funny work, harder to make it last. The following films, in one way or another, succeed. Listed by year of release.
Destry Rides Again (1939), directed by George Marshall, is the earliest entry on my list by far. Jimmy Stewart plays Thomas Jefferson Destry, Jr., a brave deputy marshal who recoils at the idea of using a gun, preferring his wits to stop trouble. His town is controlled by evil saloon owner Brian Donlevy and his girl, Marlene Dietrich. Including one of the greatest and longest saloon brawls on film, this picture tweaks every convention popular in Western storytelling, yet provides a satisfying and inevitable finish.
Cat Ballou (1965), directed by Elliot Silverstein, finds a young woman trying to protect her father’s ranch from those who murdered him. To do so she hires a professional gunman, but what she gets is a terrible drunk -- and twin to the head bad guy! Lee Marvin plays both roles while Jane Fonda is Catherine, who becomes outlaw Cat Ballou. Marvin won an Oscar for his work, though he admitted a great debt to his horse.
Waterhole #3 (1967), directed by William A Graham -- who knew that robbery, rape and murder could be funny? In “The Magnificent Seven” James Coburn played a super cool, super quiet, ultra deadly gunman. He began playing against that type for laughs with this film, where everybody is out for themselves and the lines between right and wrong aren’t just blurred, they’ve been erased. As everyone hunts for a hidden cache of gold, Coburn seduces the comely daughter of the local sheriff, who is far from unwilling, but claims rape when he spurns her, in the end, what really matters is love, but getting there is hilarious. And a bit of gold doesn’t hurt. Or, as Roger Miller sings: “It’s the code of the West -- do into others before they do unto you.”
Paint Your Wagon (1969), directed by Joshua Logan, is a gender role challenging musical western starring Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood as the two men Jean Seberg loves. Marvin? Eastwood? Musical? ‘Nuff said. Still not convinced? Watch the sequence where all that undermining the town for easy gold dust just collapses on itself, or listen to Marvin sing “Wand’rin’ Star.”
Support Your Local Sheriff (1969), directed by Burt Kennedy, stars James Garner as (yet again) a clever and brave man pressed into service as a lawman to tame a town that literally sprang into existence overnight when one of its citizens discovered gold at a funeral. Immediately it becomes a wild and drunken mess. With a gang bent on controlling the town and townsfolk who are reluctant to support their sheriff, Garner and his reluctant deputy (an amazing Jack Elam) -- and the girl whose discovery started the whole thing -- have to face down the gang by themselves. They do it with a cannon, a great bluff, and sheer courage.
Cheyenne Social Club (1970), directed by Gene Kelly. Cowhand Jimmy Stewart inherits a piece of property. Henry Fonda rides all the way to Wyoming with him, for 1,000 miles, and never stops talking. That alone is funny, given that Stewart is the one known for protracted monologues and Fonda better for laconic observation. Once they get there these two relatively innocent cowboys find they have to run and protect a brothel full of heart-of-gold but very sexy women. A sweet, funny film.
Little Big Man (1970). Arthur Penn brilliantly brought Thomas Berger’s novel to the screen, with Dustin Hoffman incredible at portraying Jack Crabbe from a tender age to 212 years old. This film is hard to call a comedy because it is a very serious-minded film that relies on great humor to illustrate its story. Jack Crabbe is not a mover. He is a witness. He is our eyes on the beauty and humor of one culture facing extinction and on the brutality and dark humor of the culture bent on replacing the first. Even so, his mere presence alters the paths of others.
Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971) reunites Burt Kennedy with James Garner and Jack Elam in a very different but equally funny story. This time Garner is a con man who passes Elam off as a vicious gunfighter while Garner tries to amass a fortune playing roulette.
Skin Game (1971), directed by Paul Bogart, is a brilliant film about two con men, James Garner and Ossie Davis, who run a clever con in the 12857 border states. Davis pretends to be Garner’s slave, whom Garner sells. That night, Davis escapes or Garner breaks him free, and the two pocket the money and head to the next town. It gets complicated when one mark refuses to let go. The film relies on humor to challenge our perceptions and preconceptions about race, stereotypes, slavery and racism (then and now).
Blazing Saddles (1974). Many, including my wise brother-in-law David, believe that Mel Brooks’ raucous send-up of the standard single good guy against a mob of outlaws to save the town plot actually destroyed the Western as an American art form. Brooks left nowhere else to go. From having a clever, funny and handsome leading man who happened to be African American and wore a white hat (Clevon Little), to a gunfighter so fast you never see him draw (Gene Wilder) to beans around a campfire, to the crazy fistfight that crosses over into a Busby Berkley musical, Brooks pulled out all the stops. Throwing subtlety out the window, Brooks created arguably one of the funniest films of all time.
If anyone is keeping score, Jimmy Garner appears in three of the ten films, while Jack Elam, Jimmy Stewart and Lee Marvin appear in two each.