Well, the critical verdict is in and it ain’t pretty, pardner. Our own Drew Taylor may have been even more scathing than many (his F grade review is here) but whatever debate there is around Seth McFarlane’s “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” which opens wide this weekend, seems mainly to be about arguing degree of badness; there are few really spirited defenses of the film as any actual good. In fact the one thing all reviewers appear to agree on is that ‘Million’ is no “Blazing Saddles.” Because Mel Brooks’ spoof does truly appear to be the sine qua non of comedy Westerns, the genre's "Citizen Kane," so to speak, so much so that almost everyone has namechecked it in talking about McFarlane’s folly, using it as a handy barometer by which to measure all of his film’s failings. Really, to read the current crop of commentary, you’d think no other comedy Western had ever been made.
In fact the genre is a relatively populous one, with a surprisingly long history. So while we’ll leave it to others to catalogue the better-known, more recent entries (oh what the heck: “Rango” and “Shanghai Noon” are good, “Maverick” is firmly middling, “Wild Wild West” is terrible) we’re going to go back and take a look at some lesser-seen films that will scratch the comedy western itch if you choose to avoid “A Million Ways To Die In The West.” Or if, as is probably more likely given the shitty stinking unjust world we live in, the film goes on to make a billion dollars and everyone sees it, at least you’ll have a range of options for negative comparison points beyond “Blazing Saddles.”
“Way Out West” (1937)
So we’re not going to suggest to anyone who has sampled and rejected the films of Laurel and Hardy before that this is going to be the one that changes their mind — their schtick is in full flow here right down to the frequent exasperated fourth-wall breaking — but those of us with hearts have a gentle little gem to treasure. Barely even qualifying as a feature by today’s standards (it’s just 63 minutes long) “Way Out West” finds Stan and Ollie inexplicably tasked with the important duty of delivering to sweet young Mary Roberts the news that her father has died, along with the deed to his priceless gold mine, now hers. Through their ineptitude, though, Mary’s grasping guardian and his showgirl wife find out and plot to steal the girl’s inheritance. And then, through their good-heartedness and imperviousness to being dropped from heights, half drowned, pursued with guns, tickled and kicked in the head, they get the deed back and all’s well that ends well. It’s not plot that you watch a Laurel and Hardy movie for. Really a loose assemblage of sketches, some of which work better than others (the mule/pulley moment is probably our favorite pratfall) and jokes that manage to feel fresh despite the fact we’ve heard them repeated a thousand times thereafter (“Is he dead?” “I hope so, they buried him.” and “What did he die of?” “Of a Tuesday. Or was it Wednesday?” are practically call-and-response catechisms by now), what makes this duo’s films so endearing now is their unquestioning innocence. Compared with the crudity and deliberate scatology, potential racism and reported self-aggrandizement of McFarlane’s approach, this is an entirely inoffensive film, from back when “inoffensive” wasn’t pejorative. Even the many sizeist humiliations visited upon Ollie are justified by that character’s eternal pomposity and misplaced self-regard. Oh and if you ever come to our wedding, be warned, we’re not doing the “Thriller” dance, we’re gonna do this spontaneous shuffle routine instead:
“Destry Rides Again” (1939)
Less an out-and-out spoof than an archetypal Western directed with a very frothy touch by the insanely prolific George Marshall (who would also direct the inferior Audie Murphy remake “Destry” in 1954), “Destry Rides Again” is marked out mostly by its terrific casting. The supporting players are uniformly terrific (especially Mischa Auer as Boris and the great Charles Winninger as the cuddly town souse-turned-sheriff), but it’s a film that’s sold on its leads, and James Stewart gets an almost iconically perfect early role (the same year as "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington") as Destry, the mild-mannered pacifist whom everyone underestimates. However it’s Marlene Dietrich who really surprises; a star whose icy, ambivalent persona had seen her box office appeal decline in the mid-30s, here she takes a most atypical role as the trash-talking, hard-drinking, grifter saloon gal Frenchy. To see Dietrich off her pedestal, out of her tuxedo and sculpted hairstyle, and decked out in ruffles, ribbons and ringlets instead is already surprising, but the bawdiness she brings to the role is quite revelatory, and very good fun. The story is set in a town overrun by bad guys who appoint the local drunk as a sheriff in order to continue getting their evil way, but he turns the tables by recruiting the son of legendary gunslinger Destry Sr. as his deputy. But when Destry Jr. shows up, refusing to wear a gun and instead solving disputes by trotting out one of his many little homilies, all of which start with “I used to know a fella once who…” he’s a figure of fun to the ne’er do wells, and until they cross him irrevocably, he seems ok with that. Frenchy, of course, is a bad girl who only needs to fall for a good guy to discover the good inside herself, and Dietrich really sells her character, exuding a much earthier sex appeal than the usually ethereal star did pretty much anywhere else. In fact, she and Stewart apparently had an affair during the shoot, with the gossip going that Marshall had to call cut at one particular juncture when Stewart became too visibly… excited. And it also spawned one of Dietrich’s most enduring hits in “See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have”— pretty much the anthem of the hard-living fallen woman with whom we so identify.