I’m a fan of the western genre who likes his westerns played straight. Sure, there are comedic westerns that work, flicks like Blazing Saddles and the Three Amigos to name a couple, but for the most part….meh. While not a classic, 1969’s Support Your Local Sheriff! has plenty of positives, especially for a western comedy.
Following a gold strike, the town of Calendar, Colorado sprouts up almost overnight. The town founders can barely keep up with the ever-growing town as prospectors, gamblers, drifters, troublemakers, bandits and cowboys rule the town. Then, one day an amiable drifter named Jason McCullough (James Garner) rides into town and takes the unwelcomed job as sheriff. He’s on his way to Australia but figures he could use the work in the meantime. His first job? Arrest Joe Danby (Bruce Dern) for murder, a shooting Jason saw happen in the saloon. Joe’s father, Pa Danby (Walter Brennan), rules over the territory though and rounds up all his family to go rescue his son. Jason has to start figuring what to do; keep up with the job or bail and head for Australia.
By 1969, the western genre had changed courtesy of the spaghetti western and released the same year, The Wild Bunch. Things were darker, bloodier, more violent. ‘Sheriff’ avoids those changes, going for a lighter tone in a story that loosely resembles the 1959 classic Rio Bravo (and also has touches of High Noon). A veteran of the genre, director Burt Kennedy handles things well, adding some excellent humorous touches along the way without being too heavy-handed. It’s got the look of a TV western, but it’s fun throughout, clocking in at 92-minutes with an episodic storyline. It was followed up two years later with a like-minded, sorta unofficial sequel, Support Your Local Gunfighter!
In the late 1960s, Garner was a frequent star in westerns, including Hour of the Gun and Duel at Diablo and even ventured into spaghetti westerns with 1971’s A Man Called Sledge. He’s perfect casting to play Jason, an amiable drifter with a somewhat cloudy past who is nonetheless lightning-fast with a gun but doesn’t like to use the gun if necessary. He stands by what’s right and has plenty of good ideas to keep folks on their toes. Garner plays the material straight, his charming on-screen presence underplaying scenes that could have been easily overplayed. He delivers lines with such ease, stealing his scenes with an impressive supporting cast. Garner manages to put a new, different and funny spin on that archetypal western character, the drifter riding along from town to town. Credit to Garner for an excellent leading role.
In the romantic lead department, Joan Hackett plays Prudy, the daughter of the town mayor (an excellent Harry Morgan). They’ve got some chemistry — Garner and Hackett — but the scenes feel a little forced, slowing down an otherwise fast-moving story. So often cast as a shifty-eyed, murdering back-stabber, Jack Elam steals the movie as Jake, Jason’s unlikely deputy. Quick with a gun and quick with a solid one-liner, Elam and Garner are perfect together, the duo returning two years later in ‘Gunfighter.’ Henry Jones, Willis Bouchey and Walter Burke round out the town board, the pleasantly corrupt folks running the town with Morgan’s Mayor Olly Perkins. Brennan looks to be having a ball as Old Man Danby, Dern, Gene Evans and Dick Peabody as his dim-witted sons.
The problem too often with comedic westerns is that they’re simply trying too hard for the laughs. ‘Sheriff’ has those moments, a slapstick fist-fight in a muddy street notably early on. Its strongest moments are those instead that underplay the moment. Jason’s jail doesn’t have bars installed yet, but he convinces Dern’s Joe Danby to stay in the cell just the same. Sick of showdown after showdown with hired guns, Jason starts to throw rocks at a rival gunfighter. In the midst of a gunfight, Jason spectacularly finds a way to get across a street unscathed in a scene that always, always makes me laugh. The movie is full of those little moments that bring a smile to my face with ease.
A lot to like here, from the cast that looks to be having a ton of fun, notably Garner, Elam and Brennan with Dern stealing his scenes as well. The humor and comedy is perfectly played in this lighter-hearted western that manages to push a lot of the right buttons. I’m not a comedy western fan, but this one is a winner.
Support Your Local Sheriff! (1969): ***/****