It's hard not to like James Garner. He ambles on the screen with that easygoing walk and crooked smile and charms the sox off the audience. And he gets to use all his charm -- and then some -- in the comedy western Support Your Local Sheriff.
The setup is simple: Gold is discovered in a frontier town. Jason McCullough (Garner), who is "just passing through on my way to Australia," is persuaded to become sheriff and clean up the town. McCullough may be the fastest gun in the west (though he doesn't think that means very much). But he is smarter than anyone else in the town, especially Pa Danby (Walter Brennan) and his son Joe (Bruce Dern).
Director Burt Kennedy and screenwriter William Bowers were old hands at making westerns, so knew enough about the genre to play with all the cliches. For instance, when McCullough arrests Joe for murder, there's one problem: there are no bars on the jail. McCullough draws a line with chalk where the bars should go, then drips red paint. When he brings Joe in, he tells him to stay behind the line. "Are you crazy?" asks Joe. Then he sees the red paint. "What is that red stuff all over the floor there?" "Uh oh," says McCullough. "That's the poor fella that crossed the line earlier today." Joe stays put.
And when Pa Denby goes to spring Joe, McCullough faces him with a ploy directly out of Bugs Bunny.
Similarly, McCullough's demonstration of his shooting ability for the town fathers will bring you a smile whenever you think about it.
The role seems tailor-made for Garner, and he makes the most of every line and situation, with a straightforward charm that cuts through the plots others have for him.
Just as impressive is Jack Elam as his deputy Jake, who has just been promoted from shoveling horse... working around the stable. This was a milestone part for Elam; prior to it, he usually played heavies and henchmen. The movie helped start a second career as comic sidekicks (even starring in a TV show The Texas Wheelers). He makes a perfect foil to Garner.
Walter Brennan is always worth seeing, and Bruce Dern is good as the especially dumb Joe. Joan Hackett plays Garner's love interest, who keeps trying to impress the sheriff, but ends up taking pratfalls each time. (The title, by the way, is a parody of a bumper sticker slogan of the time, Support Your Local Police, used by people who weren't happy with the social changes of the 60s.)
Kennedy, Garner, and Elam collaborated for Support Your Local Gunfighter. It's not a sequel -- the characters are different -- but it has the same easygoing comic charm. Kennedy also did one of the better made for TV movies, Shootout in a One-Dog Town and kept active directing (mostly westerns) until his death in 2001.
Support Your Local Sheriff! is among the best and wittiest of all comedy westerns and well worth seeking out.
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