The western genre is almost as old as movies themselves, gunslingers riding through a town in a blaze of glory, bar room brawls, and steely eyed duels across dusty streets. Silent films depicted the tumbleweed revolution in the early years on film becoming an instant hit among audiences looking for heroes. The western movie really benefited from the introduction of sound; gunshots startled audiences, horses galloped through the auditorium, and signature orchestral music signified bad guys. Evolving from singing cowboys, mystery men saving townsfolk to harsh bounty hunters deploying massacres, to this day, serious westerns fade in and out of fashion.
The western comedy is horseplay of a different kind which is exploited to the limit with the new release, A Million Ways to Die in the West. From the warped mind of Seth McFarlane, one-time Academy Award ceremony host, creator of TED and animated television hit Family Guy, comes his very own Blazing Saddles for the new millennium.
An interesting cast includes Liam Neeson, Charlize Theron, Giovanni Ribisi, Amanda Seyfried and Seth himself taking the triple reins of leading man, writer, and director of this rambunctious adventure.
The premise of a cowardly farmer taking a fancy to a striking new woman in town until her shoot first, talk later husband strolls into the saloon looking for trouble is really just a reason to string together multiple offensive sight gags and outrageous situations.
Amongst the regulated action set pieces of western clichés mixed with sexual innuendo are song and dance routines. One in particular is a riotous Broadway-inspired number in a saloon led by stage veteran Neil Patrick Harris. The comical show-tunes are good enough to be a top selling soundtrack.
The western comedy is nothing new in Hollywood, the lighter side of the Wild West has been endlessly explored in a variety of hit and miss attempts. The first one that comes to mind for many is Blazing Saddles from Mel Brooks. Now considered a classic, it was a flop on initial release, Warner Bros Pictures was nervous about much of the content especially the cowboys around camp fire eating baked beans scene that has since become part of cinema folklore.
Blazing Saddles made fun of race and various touchy issues, but other than the studio suits, nobody complained too loudly as it was co-written by Richard Pryor, a table turning comedian of the time. Now a different world, so depending how you look at it, despite the violence during Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained made light of similar issues, and it ‘did’ cause controversy.
Earlier than that were various parodies of the genre; some worked, some did not. Best known for his breakthrough in spaghetti westerns, Clint Eastwood wasn’t scared to lighten up from his redefining man with no name success. Audiences were shocked in Paint Your Wagon when Clint sang solo and in duet with Lee Marvin, rolling around on a grassy knoll sharing the same girl. He also starred opposite Shirley Maclaine in Two Mules for Sister Sara, developing a lighter side to his tough persona falling in love with a nun on the run from outlaws only to be a bordello harlot. Fellow hard man of the era Charles Bronson tricked audiences in From Noon Till Three, downplaying his role of a bank robber who after a tryst with a beautiful woman writes a book during a time which everyone thinks he is actually dead.
Basically what was a Magnificent Seven satire minus four, Three Amigos had Martin Short, Steve Martin, Chevy Chase playing a trio of actors from the silent era of theatrics into combative Mexico helping a needy town from ruthless bandits.
From the unlikely director of Police Academy is the little seen Rustlers Rhapsody. With a similar premise to Three Amigos, Tom Berenger is the old school squeaky clean singing cowboy going about his business wearing pastel tassels in a dangerous town complete with town drunk side-kick. Patrick Wayne, the son of The Duke himself makes an appearance during the final stanza of this underrated film.
Support Your Local Sheriff is a personal favourite, cleaner than Blazing Saddles, it’s still non-stop hilarity with James Garner in rare form.
The popular City Slickers was a modern western comedy showcase for Billy Crystal that won co-star Jack Palance an Oscar; he celebrated by doing one armed push-ups and made an appearance in the sequel.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid remains one of the best lighter westerns ever made combining romance with action all bound together by two best friends bickering over everything and anything, including who jumps first in that famous cliff top scene.
Italian production They Call Me Trinity, made slapstick stars of blue eyed rock jawed Terrence Hill and his big bear partner Bud Spencer was more ravioli than spaghetti western but spawned a series of sequels of cult status.
Australia’s own Paul Hogan unsuccessfully tried his hand at his own western in 1994’s Lightening Jack, featuring a charming Hogan and his mute sidekick played by a pre Jerry Maguire Oscar winning Cuba Gooding Jr. It was embarrassingly unsuccessful at the box office upon release and ravished by critics. Hogan actually put the film on the stock exchange during production in an effort for added funding, offering a chance for anyone to be a shareholder in order to gain in the spoils if it became a blockbuster. It remains out of copyright on DVD.
Television show inspired Maverick was a much more intrepid cinema vehicle for an Australian star. Mel Gibson joined Jodie Foster and original Maverick James Garner on a romp around the card tables of the lawless land. Unfortunately another TV oater was not a hit but rather rejected from all concerned. What was supposed to be a comedy version of the hit show Wild Wild West was a cinematic stinker. Will Smith regrettably turn down the lead in The Matrix to do this chronic steam-punk style shocker. Half science fiction, half western comedy, reshoots had to be filmed for a coherent plot; it didn’t work. Even the theme song Smith warbled failed to make an impression on the pop charts. It did raise an eyebrow with local censorship receiving a PG rating in every state except for South Australia, where it was rated M due to a bare bottomed Salma Hayek, twice!. Over time the notorious ridiculous decision was over turned since gaining a PG all over the nation.
1953 saw rootin’ tootin’ shootin’ Doris Day sporting a confederate cap as Calamity Jane is a most famous western musical alongside another of the era with a female lead, Annie Get Your Gun.
While unintentionally amusing, one of worthy mention featuring twitchy trigger happy females is the appropriately titled Bad Girls. These silver-screen cowgirls are former prostitutes going south of the border (literally) for a revenge mission. Funny moments include hair never going out of place, slow motion glamour shots on horseback, tacky female eccentric dialogue and dead men lying on the ground still breathing – look closely. However, with Drew Barrymore and Madeline Stowe part of the posse, who cares?
Sadly the great John Candy made his final appearance in his only western role, Wagons East, which ironically was not funny at all.
From a classic Marx Bros holding together a runaway train in Go West, to raunchiness of a different kind in Lust in the Dust, to Johnny Depp’s cringe-worthy attempt as Tonto in The Lone Ranger, comedy westerns come in all forms. (For the record Depp is not that bad, just a weird naked Indian, similar to the random involvement of one in Wayne’s World 2.)
Among many references, A Million Ways to Die in the West acknowledges all of the absolute greats.
Considered a landmark film series in bending timelines, genres and comedic unconventional characters, Back to the Future Part 3 took on the western as a finale to hugely successful realms. The satire on everything the western frontier stood for has Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly part of an ongoing joke named Clint Eastwood in his hometown circa 1885. Hoping to change history so Doc Brown doesn’t get shot in the back, this high quality dazzling adventure breathed life into the flailing western genre during the 80’s. Back to the Future fans will be in for a magnificent treat much the same way Flash Gordon fans celebrated the homage to their icon in Ted.
Seth MacFarlane certainly knows his subject well in A Million Ways to Die in the West. Full of traditional clichés, robust identities, uncalled for sing-a-longs, profanity and yes, a town drunk, the cast are taking things seriously while chaos ensues around them. Forget your inhibitions, what else would you expect from a guy who made a lovable care bear teddy obnoxious?