From the first scene of Support Your Local Sheriff!, I thought of one thing: Blazing Saddles. Mel Brooks lifted the tone of the frontier townspeople scenes, just giving them ribald dialogue. In Sheriff, the humor poked at the Western stereotypes is smarter and funnier. The characters themselves are–in character–aware of the absurdities of the genre (without having to drive off set). It’s surprising, as Sheriff is on DVD, no one else has ever made this observation about the two films….
Sheriff sets itself firmly in a traditional Western context with its cast. In addition to having Walter Brennan in it, it has Harry Morgan and Jack Elam. Seeing Brennan do comedy is a wonderful sight. James Garner is great in the lead and he just walks through the film. It keeps him busy and keeps him funny and Sheriff reminded me there once was a Western comedy genre. The Western used to be such an American film staple, it had room for its own subcategories. The Western–with a reusable set–used to be enough. Get some actors, a script, and you could turn out a good (but not great) film. Kevin Costner basically followed that principle when he made Open Range, only applied his more developed reasoning of the genre to the principle–and he made a great film there.
Maybe no one ever recognized Sheriff because it’s a comedy, not a spoof. You’re laughing at the characters and situations or along with the characters, not along with the actors and there’s a substantial difference. Since it is a comedy, Sheriff has a number of nice character relationships going. Actually, all of the character relationships Garner is involved in (with his boss Morgan, his sidekick Elam, nemesis Brennan) are great. More, there’s the romance with Joan Hackett, who’s hilarious as Morgan’s clumsy daughter. Her scenes with Garner have this playful dialogue where each statement goes through an examination by the other character then a reexamination by the original speaker. It’s hard to explain, but it’s quite funny. Also funny is Bruce Dern as Brennan’s dimwitted son who sets off the film’s series of events. I never knew Dern could be so funny. He should have gotten an Oscar for it.
Support Your Local Sheriff! operates on a level anyone with a reasonable knowledge of Westerns can understand (you need to know Walter Brennan and recognize Jack Elam). Or maybe not. My fiancée doesn’t know Walter Brennan’s Western films (I don’t think), but she did recognize Jack Elam, and she was laughing throughout….
Directed by Burt Kennedy; produced and written by William Bowers; director of photography, Harry Stradling Jr.; edited by George W. Brooks; music by Jeff Alexander; released by United Artists.
Starring James Garner (Jason McCullough), Joan Hackett (Prudy Perkins), Walter Brennan (Pa Danby), Harry Morgan (Olly Perkins), Jack Elam (Jake), Henry Jones (Henry Jackson), Bruce Dern (Joe Danby), Willis Bouchey (Thomas Devery), Gene Evans (Tom Danby), Walter Burke (Fred Johnson), Dick Peabody (Luke Danby) and Chubby Johnson (Brad).