Feature: Wild, Wild Westerns
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Wild, Wild Westerns

By D. Scott Apel

Sure, The Wild Wild West was top gun at the boxoffice, for a while. But long before Will Smith stepped into his boots, the comedy Western was an established tradition. And long before director Barry Sonnenfeld brought giant mechanical spiders to the Old West, weird Westerns were nothing new.

Check out some of these wild, wilder Westerns and prove it for yourself:

Support Your Local Sheriff (1968; MGM/UA; rated G) Drifter James Garner wanders into a town struck with gold fever and ruled by anarchy, and reluctantly takes the only job available: sheriff. Despite all laws of logic and sanity, his ingenious and outlandish peacekeeping techniques manage to work. Outrageous situations, memorable dialog and an unbelievable supporting cast -- including Harry Morgan, Joan Hackett, Jack Elam, Walter Brennan and Bruce Dern -- make this a witty wonder of how we wish the West had been won.

Cat Ballou (1965; RCA/Columbia; unrated) Lee Marvin won an Oscar for his portrayal of Kid Shelleen, the drunken gunfighter semi-sobered out of a sodden retirement to aid cowgirl Jane Fonda in her fight against greedy land-grabbers. The film is full of good-natured fun as Fonda and her inept band become reluctant outlaws, and -- as if the comedy weren't enough -- Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye provide some first-class balladeering to link sequences and relate the legend of Cat Ballou.

Rustler's Rhapsody (1985; Paramount; PG) Legend has it that between 1938 and 1947, "The Singing Cowboy" Rex O'Herlihan (Tom Berenger) cranked out 52 low-budget Westerns. But what would one of those old "horse operas" look like if it was made in today's self-conscious, postmodern world? Rex finds out when he suddenly realizes he's lived this same basic plot 52 times now. But, dang! Just when he starts to get a handle on this "self-consciousness thing," people start throwing him curves. An absurdly aware romp which might be dubbed Blazing Saddles for intellectuals. Speaking of which...

Blazing Saddles (1974; Warner; R) Madman Mel Brooks' broad Western send-up stars Cleavon Little as an unwelcome black sheriff and Gene Wilder as a rummy gunfighter who join "farces" to defeat crooked attorney "Hedly Lamar" (Harvey Korman). Insanity scatter-shoots from both barrels; if one gag is too dumb or gross for your tastes, don't worry; another will be along in a few seconds. As far as cliche-demolishing lampoons go -- and this one goes farther than any other -- Blazing Saddles is Number One, with a bullet.

My Little Chickadee (1940; MCA; unrated) Ahh, yes... W. C. Fields, master of innuendo, is teamed here with Mae West, its lascivious mistress. The thin plot concerns Mae as an outlaw demimonde and Fields' attempts to get back in the saddle again. The real fun, however, is in the performances; the two distinctive styles of sly dialog and delivery. Why don'cha come up and see it sometime?

Go West (1940; MGM/UA; unrated) The same year that Fields turned in his Western entry, the Marx Bros. also delivered one of their funniest films, Go West. The boys take their inimitable brand of verbal and visual chaos to the frontier, riding roughshod over cliches involving stagecoach rides, saloon scenes, gunfights and train chases. This becomes a much better and far funnier film if you just hit the fast scan button whenever the Marxes aren't on screen.


If you're looking for more than just laughs in a sagebrush saga, try renting one of the strangest Westerns ever made: movies so far off the beaten cattle trail that we've had to ride the wild frontiers of film to round 'em up for you. Saddle up, podnuhs, while we spur your interest to take a shot at how the West was weird:

The Oklahoma Kid (1939; Warner) Gangsters turn cowboy in this odd melodrama with Humphrey Bogart as the villain, all dressed in black, and Jimmy Cagney (looking like a mushroom in his 10-gallon hat) as the hero. The highlight is Cagney's musical number, accompanied by a honky-tonk piano and a six-shooter. Truly bizarre.

The Missouri Breaks (1976; CBS/Fox; PG) Montana, 1880: Ranchers hire a noted gunman (Marlon Brando) to stop the rustlers (including Jack Nicholson), and live to regret it, as the hired gunslinger is certifiably insane and dangerously unpredictable. According to legend, Brando and The Jackster abandoned the script about halfway through, which adds to the insanity -- and the fun. Joker Jack is, as always, super, and Brando is delightfully convincing as the eccentric "Regulator."

Billy the Kid vs. Dracula (1966; Video Yesteryear) The famous outlaw decides to settle down, only to discover that his intended is falling prey to an infamous vampire (John Carradine). This may be the only horror-Western ever made; even if it isn't, it's still the worst one.

Radio Ranch (1935; Video Yesteryear) Singing cowboy Gene Autry discovers a sinister, futuristic underground city and braves marching robots, ray gun shootouts and the sadistic Queen Tika to save the ranch. Perhaps Gene pioneered the politically-correct Western of the future: not Cowboys and Indians, but Cowboys and Robots.

Terror of Tiny Town (1938; Budget Video) Nothing special or unique here; just another typical all-midget Western. What? Yes, the short subjects finally get their own feature film, wearing one-gallon hats and sitting small in the saddle of their proud Shetland steeds.

Harlem Rides the Range (1939; Capt. Video) The all-black cast of this standard B-movie isn't as odd as it sounds: Several all-black Westerns were filmed in the late '30s, reflecting the historical fact that more than a third of all post-Civil War era cowpokes were black men. Even played straight, these films still look bizarre -- particularly here, where the singing hero is known as the "Bronze Buckaroo."

Johnny Guitar (1954; Republic) Where to go after all-midget and all-black horse operas? Who about an all-woman Western? This one comes close; there are men in the cast (including Sterling Hayden), but they play second fiddle to tough-talking, gun-toting she-males Joan Crawford, as a bar owner, and Mercedes McCambridge, as the landowner she shoots it up with. A Freudian frenzy of PMS run amuck, more appropriately entitled Blazing *itches.

The Fastest Guitar Alive (1968; MGM/UA) Roy Rogers and Gene Autry pioneered the "singing cowboy" gig; it was only a matter of time before a real singer stepped into a Western. Enter the late Roy Orbison, the best singer of the lot, but an actor with as much expression as a box of hair. You've heard of novelty records? This is a novelty movie.

Zachariah (1971; Warner) Don Johnson made his film debut in this wacky and wistful Western scripted by comedy troupe The Firesign Theatre (as "F. Scott Firesign"). The grand gimmick: It's an acid-head Western rendition of the late '60s cult novel Siddhartha by Herman Hesse. These boots were made for tripping?

D. Scott Apel is the former video columnist for the San Jose (CA) Mercury News, and is author of the video guide Killer B's: The 237 Best Movies On Video You've (Probably) Never Seen.

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August 15, 1999