Well, the critical verdict is in and it ain’t pretty, pardner. Our own Drew Taylor may have been even more scathing than many (his F grade review is here) but whatever debate there is around Seth McFarlane’s “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” which opens wide this weekend, seems mainly to be about arguing degree of badness; there are few really spirited defenses of the film as any actual good. In fact the one thing all reviewers appear to agree on is that ‘Million’ is no “Blazing Saddles.” Because Mel Brooks’ spoof does truly appear to be the sine qua non of comedy Westerns, the genre’s “Citizen Kane,” so to speak, so much so that almost everyone has namechecked it in talking about McFarlane’s folly, using it as a handy barometer by which to measure all of his film’s failings. Really, to read the current crop of commentary, you’d think no other comedy Western had ever been made.
In fact the genre is a relatively populous one, with a surprisingly long history. So while we’ll leave it to others to catalogue the better-known, more recent entries (oh what the heck: “Rango” and “Shanghai Noon” are good, “Maverick” is firmly middling, “Wild Wild West” is terrible) we’re going to go back and take a look at some lesser-seen films that will scratch the comedy western itch if you choose to avoid “A Million Ways To Die In The West.” Or if, as is probably more likely given the shitty stinking unjust world we live in, the film goes on to make a billion dollars and everyone sees it, at least you’ll have a range of options for negative comparison points beyond “Blazing Saddles.”
“Way Out West” (1937)
So we’re not going to suggest to anyone who has sampled and rejected the films of Laurel and Hardy before that this is going to be the one that changes their mind — their schtick is in full flow here right down to the frequent exasperated fourth-wall breaking — but those of us with hearts have a gentle little gem to treasure. Barely even qualifying as a feature by today’s standards (it’s just 63 minutes long) “Way Out West” finds Stan and Ollie inexplicably tasked with the important duty of delivering to sweet young Mary Roberts the news that her father has died, along with the deed to his priceless gold mine, now hers. Through their ineptitude, though, Mary’s grasping guardian and his showgirl wife find out and plot to steal the girl’s inheritance. And then, through their good-heartedness and imperviousness to being dropped from heights, half drowned, pursued with guns, tickled and kicked in the head, they get the deed back and all’s well that ends well. It’s not plot that you watch a Laurel and Hardy movie for. Really a loose assemblage of sketches, some of which work better than others (the mule/pulley moment is probably our favorite pratfall) and jokes that manage to feel fresh despite the fact we’ve heard them repeated a thousand times thereafter (“Is he dead?” “I hope so, they buried him.” and “What did he die of?” “Of a Tuesday. Or was it Wednesday?” are practically call-and-response catechisms by now), what makes this duo’s films so endearing now is their unquestioning innocence. Compared with the crudity and deliberate scatology, potential racism and reported self-aggrandizement of McFarlane’s approach, this is an entirely inoffensive film, from back when “inoffensive” wasn’t pejorative. Even the many sizeist humiliations visited upon Ollie are justified by that character’s eternal pomposity and misplaced self-regard. Oh and if you ever come to our wedding, be warned, we’re not doing the “Thriller” dance, we’re gonna do this spontaneous shuffle routine instead:
“Destry Rides Again” (1939)
Less an out-and-out spoof than an archetypal Western directed with a very frothy touch by the insanely prolific George Marshall (who would also direct the inferior Audie Murphy remake “Destry” in 1954), “Destry Rides Again” is marked out mostly by its terrific casting. The supporting players are uniformly terrific (especially Mischa Auer as Boris and the great Charles Winninger as the cuddly town souse-turned-sheriff), but it’s a film that’s sold on its leads, and James Stewart gets an almost iconically perfect early role (the same year as “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington“) as Destry, the mild-mannered pacifist whom everyone underestimates. However it’s Marlene Dietrich who really surprises; a star whose icy, ambivalent persona had seen her box office appeal decline in the mid-30s, here she takes a most atypical role as the trash-talking, hard-drinking, grifter saloon gal Frenchy. To see Dietrich off her pedestal, out of her tuxedo and sculpted hairstyle, and decked out in ruffles, ribbons and ringlets instead is already surprising, but the bawdiness she brings to the role is quite revelatory, and very good fun. The story is set in a town overrun by bad guys who appoint the local drunk as a sheriff in order to continue getting their evil way, but he turns the tables by recruiting the son of legendary gunslinger Destry Sr. as his deputy. But when Destry Jr. shows up, refusing to wear a gun and instead solving disputes by trotting out one of his many little homilies, all of which start with “I used to know a fella once who…” he’s a figure of fun to the ne’er do wells, and until they cross him irrevocably, he seems ok with that. Frenchy, of course, is a bad girl who only needs to fall for a good guy to discover the good inside herself, and Dietrich really sells her character, exuding a much earthier sex appeal than the usually ethereal star did pretty much anywhere else. In fact, she and Stewart apparently had an affair during the shoot, with the gossip going that Marshall had to call cut at one particular juncture when Stewart became too visibly… excited. And it also spawned one of Dietrich’s most enduring hits in “See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have”— pretty much the anthem of the hard-living fallen woman with whom we so identify.
“Cat Ballou” (1965)
If you only watch one comedy western this weekend, and already know “Blazing Saddles” backwards, we’d love to nudge you in the direction of this Jane Fonda-starrer. Genuinely funny, surprisingly exciting, and marked by great musical interludes courtesy of Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye, and an Oscar-winning, brilliantly self-parodic dual role from Lee Marvin, “Cat Ballou” is for our money possibly the pinnacle of the subgenre’s softer side (Mel Brooks’ film is a lot more scathing). Fonda is undeniably cute and spunky as the good girl on her way to a schoolteacher job when circumstances force her instead into the life of an outlaw gang leader, but we were always vaguely let down that she didn’t get to do more Calamity Jane-ing on her own account and that her major contribution to the climax is to get dressed up as a prostitute. But we’re quickly distracted from such thoughts by Marvin stealing every single scene like the bandit he plays. His taciturn bad guy, Tim Strawn sports a silver prosthetic nose, scowls a lot and dresses all in black, while the good guy version, Kid Shelleen is a drunkard one-time sharpshooter who now can’t get his gun out of its holster without his pants falling down. Marvin has sinister down pat, but its his timing and way with physical comedy as Shelkeen that is the film’s chief pleasure and the source of most of its snort-inducing moments, and yet he’s also charming in the role; a buffoon with soul. Built around a standard Western plot involving a li’l lady hiring a gunslinger to exact revenge on the men who killed her father, the film does gently subvert archetypes in that it’s the usually helpless little blonde who ends up becoming the leader of the outlaw gang, and having a song written exaggerating her great and fearful deeds. But that’s about as much of a claim for political progressiveness as we can make for “Cat Ballou,” which is ultimately just a breezy, fun ride that shouldn’t be too heavily overthought. Try the terrific theme song on for size below, but one word of warning: you’ll have the “Cat Ballou, Cat Balloo-oo-ou” chorus stuck in your head for days afterward. Or possibly decades, if our experience is anything to go by.
“Goin’ South” (1978)
Twelve years before Doc Brown would travel back in time to fall for Clara, Christopher Lloyd loved and lost Mary Steenburgen in this curio from Jack Nicholson’s short directing back catalogue. The middle of only three directing credits he’s earned (the other two being “Drive, He Said” and “The Two Jakes,”) “Goin’ South” feels mainly like a star vehicle for Nicholson as an actor, giving him the kind of raffish rapscallion role he could do with his eyes closed (which they frequently are, or at least lazily slitted). He plays a third-rate thief called Henry Moon, who is saved from hanging by Steenburgen’s prim Julia, taking advantage of a town ordinance that states that a woman can save a man from the gallows if she’ll marry him and vouch for his behavior. Really wanting him as cheap labor for the goldmine she is working, Julia finds herself, of course, strangely drawn to Moon’s rumpled charms, even as he starts to fall for her starchy respectability (it’s a kind of “African Queen” vibe that evolves). But just as it seems love will conquer even Moon, his old outlaw buddies show up and he has a choice to make between staying with Julia or giving in to his worse nature and scarpering with her gold. Nicholson’s better in front of the camera than behind, with whole sequences feeling draggy and laggy in pacing, and many of the jokes being overplayed to the point that you can hear the echoes of whatever small titter they may have raised fade away to nothing, but there are still some funny moments, often as a result of the same directorial impulse that leads to its overindulgence elsewhere: Nicholson the director doesn’t try to reel in Nicholson the actor at all. And so he mugs and gurns and blinks and drawls his way through the film, sometimes amusingly, sometimes tiresomely, though with attractive cinematography from the great Nestor Almendros, and just enough quippy stuff like the scene below tipping the balance, the good largely outweighs the bad. And look out for Lloyd, Ed Begley Jr. and Danny DeVito all cropping up, as well as John Belushi (in his debut role, as was Steenburgen). None of them are given a thing to do, really, but they make for some engaging background color to Nicholson’s staggering, sweating, swearing ruffian.
It’s almost impossible to think of a more successful start to a career than the one that Lawrence Kasdan had: after selling the script for “The Bodyguard” (which then took more than a decade to get made), he got his first two screen credits on “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Raiders Of The Lost Ark,” before making his directorial debut with terrific noir “Body Heat,” followed by seminal reunion movie “The Big Chill.” His third feature as director, “Silverado,” is in some ways a combination of what came before, mixing the realistic and grounded character work of ‘Chill,’ with the rollicking adventure of ‘Raiders,’ making the tired Western genre feel fresh in the process. The extensive and somewhat convoluted plot sees four outcasts — Scott Glenn, Kevin Kline, Kevin Costner and Danny Glover — taking on a group of bad’uns in the town of the title, most notably rancher McKendrick (Ray Baker) and brutal sherrif Cobb (Brian Dennehy), while Jeff Goldblum, Linda Hunt, Rosanna Arquette, Jeff Fahey, Richard Jenkins and, in an impressively managed against-type part, John Cleese, make up some of the rest of the supporting cast. It’s not, strictly speaking, a full-on comedy, not a parody in the same way as some of these films, with a tone something closer to “Butch Cassidy” than “Blazing Saddles“— real stakes, and real drama, but with a light, comic feel for much of the film, even as it gets into the territory of revenge and racism. Much of that is down to the casting: Scott Glenn might be someone more obvious for this sort of thing, but people like Kline, Goldblum, Cleese and even, at the time, Costner (making his debut in the genre that he’s now most associated with) were more incongruous picks, and yet they work beautifully, bringing the West to life in a way that’s rare for even the better contemporary takes on the genre. It’s simply a pleasure to hang out with them, especially in these gorgeous environs (beautifully shot by John Bailey), and with the witty script by Kasdan (with his brother Paul). The director, with Costner, would return to the genre a few years later with the more somber, self-consciously serious “Wyatt Earp,” to lesser, if longer, effect, but this remains his most purely enjoyable contribution to the genre. If “Star Wars Episode VII,” which Kasdan has returned to co-write, is half as much fun as this, we should be in for a treat.
This is only the tip of a surprisingly large iceberg, and some other titles we considered were “Back the Future III” (mentioned in the “Goin’ South” segment above) about which some Playlisters may disagree but they’re not writing this so I can state for the record that it’s by far the worst film in the trilogy, and “The Frisco Kid” which features Gene Wilder and Harrison Ford as the mismatched central duo of a rabbi and an outlaw, involved in ethnically-inflected hi-jinks. “City Slickers” and its lesser sequel fit the bill, as does “Three Amigos!“. And Laurel and Hardy weren’t the only olden times comedy act to spoof the western — Buster Keaton and The Marx Brothers, did the same, both in films entitled “Go West.” Feel free to weigh in on your own favorites below.
— with Oli Lyttelton