Seth MacFarlane’s recent comedy A Million Ways to Die in The West may have been gunned down at the box office, but that’s no reason to give up on having a laugh at the expense of the Western genre. Here are ten films guaranteed to tickle your funny bone.
The General (1926)
Amazing what time can do for public and critical opinion. When originally released, The General performed poorly at the box office and reviews were mixed to poor with Variety saying, “far from funny.” Now considered Buster Keaton’s greatest film, it was ranked #18 by the American Film Institute on the 100 best American movies of all time. Based on an actual incident that occurred in 1862—the Great Locomotive Chase—this film version involves Union spies stealing Keaton’s beloved locomotive called The General (and also the woman he loves) and his lone mission to steal it back. Buster did most of his own stunts, which still astound a century later. A classic not to be missed.
Cat Ballou (1965)
Catherine Ballou (Jane Fonda) hires Kid Shelleen (Lee Marvin) to protect her ranch and later avenge her father’s death. Only the intoxicated gunslinger is far from what she expected. Hilarious scenes include Kid’s inability to hit the broadside of a barn and his pants falling down when he shoots. In his Academy Award acceptance speech, Lee Marvin said, “I think, though, that half of this belongs to a horse somewhere out in San Fernando Valley,” in reference to the horse he rode in the movie that played a drunk as well as he did. Trivia: Singer Nat King Cole was ill with lung cancer during the filming of his part as a narrating bard. He died four months before the film was released.
The Shakiest Gun in the West (1968)
A remake of 1948’s The Paleface which itself was a remake of the Buster Keaton original of the same name. Who says Hollywood is hurting for ideas, right? Actually, more like they know a successful cash cow when they’ve already milked it twice before. I’m sure I’m in the minority here, but because I prefer Don Knotts to Bob Hope, I feel this is the definitive version with more laughs per scene. Plot: Jesse Haywood (Knotts) graduates dental school and immediately finds himself hanging a shingle in the Old West. My favorite scene comes at the start when in order to complete his studies he has to get a female patient, who’s twice as big as the pipsqueak Haywood, to open her mouth.
Support Your Local Sheriff! (1969)
Gold is discovered during a funeral and soon a little spot of a town becomes a rousing free for all with gamblers, drifters, miners, and anyone looking to get rich and raise hell. Into the midst rides Jason McCullough (James Garner), a peaceful cowboy who is just passing through or thought he was. He quickly goes broke in the over-priced town and accepts the job as sheriff after proving his skill with firearms. Though he doesn’t necessarily need gunplay—he throws rocks during a street showdown, plugs a gun barrel with his finger (“He stuck his finger in the end of your what?”), and keeps a man in jail with a chalk line and clever use of psychology. A hilarious supporting cast includes Harry Morgan, Walter Brennan, Joan Hackett, Bruce Dern, and Jack Elam. Note: Two years later, director Burt Kennedy reteamed with Garner and many of the supporting actors for the similarly styled, “Support Your Local Gunfighter!”
The Cheyenne Social Club (1970)
John O'Hanlan (Jimmy Stewart) gets something called The Cheyenne Social Club bequeathed to him by his less than respectable brother who has died. O'Hanlan and his partner Harley Sullivan (Henry Fonda) are used to working the range and are shocked to learn they have inherited a brothel with a full complement of prostitutes. They decide to convert the house of ill repute into a boarding house though the women and town citizens are against the plan. A major part of the joy of this film is seeing two veteran actors playing off each other to perfection. This was Fonda’s and Stewart’s fourth and final film together. I remember it being a big deal when this was shown on cable in the early days: the clean-image Jimmy Stewart acting in such a bawdy film. Though it is quite tame by today’s standards.
My Name is Nobody (1973)
A Western comedy film with a few scenes directed by the master of the Spaghetti genre, Sergio Leone. Jack Beauregard (Henry Fonda) is a famous gunslinger who just wants to retire into peace but a gang of 150 bandits calling themselves The Wild Bunch are gunning for him. A likeable 'Nobody' (Terence Hill) idolizes Beauregard and wishes to have a reputation similar to the legend and plans to use the aging gunfighter to that advantage. Nice homage occurs early on when Nobody reads a headstone to which he tells Beauregard, “Sam Peckinpah. That’s a beautiful name in Navajo.” Trivia: The title of the film refers to the reply Odysseus, hero of Homer’s the Odyssey, gave when Polyphemus the Cyclops asked his name.
Blazing Saddles (1974)
This box office smash was high on satire and irreverence. So many classic moments from the campfire scene and too many beans to Mongo punching a horse. My favorite moment is Clevon Little (“The sheriff is near!”) taking on a whole town of racists with just his wits. “Oh, baby, you are so talented,” Little sighs, “and they are so dumb!” Trivia: Other proposed titles include Tex X (playing off the Black Muslim leader Malcolm X), Black Bart and Purple Sage. Allegedly the title Blazing Saddles came to director Mel Brooks while he was taking a shower. Geez, I will have to Google and find out how he came up with the name Spaceballs.
Back to the Future Part III (1990)
Because the second film was such a dark, unfunny turkey, many tend to forget the third in the time travel series that features Marty McFly and Doc Brown going back to the Old West is equal to the first for belly laughs. Plot has Marty, in 1955, discovering that Doc is trapped in 1855. He takes his trusty DeLorean time machine back only to find himself in the middle of the United States Cavalry pursuing Indians. The DeLorean's fuel line is torn and after he meets up with Doc they devise a plan to get the time machine repaired and up to the needed 88 miles per hour speed for time travel by commandeering a locomotive. Trivia: Look fast for rock stars ZZ Top in a small cameo performance.
City Slickers (1991)
Three men confronting various mid-life crises of their own decide to rough it and reconnect with their inner manhood on a two-week cattle drive to Colorado led by razor-tough Jack Palance who won an Academy Award for best supporting actor. There are many endearing scenes, like Curly (Palance) and Mitch (Billy Crystal) delivering a pregnant cow's calf and crossing a treacherous river. An unnecessary and bland sequel followed three years later. Trivia: Originally Palance had to back out because of another commitment and the role was offered to Charles Bronson who allegedly balked at the idea of the character dying.
A chameleon (Johnny Depp) becomes stranded in the Mojave Desertand faces almost certain death until he accidentally knocks down an empty water tower that crushes a hawk who’d been terrorizing a local town. Now calling himself Rango, he becomes the sheriff. But with the dangerous bird of prey out of the way, many of the inhabitants worry the gunslinger Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy) will return. One of those animation films, this one from Nickelodeon, that adults can enjoy just as much as (or more than) the kids.
Those are a few of my picks. I’m always looking for a good laugh and I know I’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg. Maybe you can name for me some Western comedies that you’ve enjoyed.