As you may have gathered from my hearty endorsement of Airplane! I enjoy movies that make fun of movies, particularly when they star people who are staples of the genre being mocked. If Airplane! is the king of disaster movie parodies, its western sibling is director Burt Kennedy’s 1969 laughfest Support Your Local Sheriff.
As is appropriate for a parody, especially one written by a man (William Bowers) who received an Oscar nomination for co-writing The Gunfighter (my recommendation here) the plot is recycled from a thousand other oaters. A lawless gold rush town is afflicted with vice and violence until a handsome stranger named James McCullough (James Garner) rides in and shows some facility with firearms. Mayor Perkins (Harry Morgan) sees a man crazy, er, brave enough to become the town sheriff, including facing down the patriarch of the powerful Danby family (Walter Brennan). And would you believe Perkins has a strong-willed Calamity Jane-esque daughter (Joan Hackett) who takes a shine to our hero? Skewering of every trope of the genre ensues.
James Garner’s easygoing charm is an enormous asset here. Watching him you realize (as he did) that he was so much more made for this kind of role than dead serious westerns like Hour of the Gun (which I don’t recommend) Garner’s tough enough to bring the action scenes across and romantic enough to make his scenes with Hackett endearing. But most importantly, his resolute unwillingness to take himself entire seriously makes this movie really funny. He gets superb comic support from the usually intense Bruce Dern as one of the dull-witted Danby clan (as the father befuddled by his many disappointing offspring, Brennan is also a joy).
You will recognize almost all of the supporting players (certainly including Morgan) from other cowboy films. But the cast member with perhaps the most cred to make this movie is Jack Elam. Indeed, it would be a tough trivia challenge to name a TV western in which Elam never appeared (Gunsmoke!, Bonanza, The Virginian, High Chaparral, Wild Wild West, Temple Houston, Laramie, Cheyenne, Lawman, and Rawhide are among the many wrong answers available). Here, he turns his usually-menacing bug eyes and thick eyebrows into comic jewels in the well-worn role of “drunken wretch who redeems himself through law enforcement”. He mugs a bit, but like when Leslie Nielsen does it in the Airplane and Naked Gun films, it generally works.
The movie is not quite as funny as Airplane!, in part because the script isn’t as consistently hilarious and in part because of the passage of time. If you’ve never seen classic movies like My Darling Clementine, Rio Bravo, and Winchester ’73 (and sadly, most people these days haven’t) some of the jokes don’t land as well. But that won’t stop this film from being fun for western-naive viewers, because it’s just too good-naturedly silly not to like.
p.s. Most of the same people got together again to make another film in this vein with new characters (so strictly speaking, not a sequel), which is nearly as entertaining: Support Your Local Gunfighter.