Funeral sequences are a mainstay of the western genre because they give us a chance to peer inside of characters and examine the time and place that is the west. It can be tough, hard, and most certainly brutal. Support Your Local Sheriff is a barrel full of fun because it takes many of these set pieces and subverts them for the sake of humor.
It opens with one of these typical solemn wakes for a man that no one seems to know or care much about. All too soon everyone is distracted by a speck of gold and mayhem commences. It sets the tone for the entire film and the people we will soon become acquainted with. All the action is wonderfully exaggerated by a frantic harmonica-laden score with jaw harp included. It’s twangy madness that works to a tee. But enough of that.
The mining town of Calendar is a wild, untamed place built for the sole purpose of mining. The rough and tumble Danby Family seem to have a monopoly on the gold trade controlling the only road out of the town. It’s a big mess.
That’s the climate that Jason McCullogh walks into (James Garner) on his way to Australia. After seeing Joe Danby (Bruce Dern) kill a man, he decides to sign on as the town’s sheriff. Town “mayor” Olly Perkins and his entourage are surprised that any person would want to take the job, but after seeing Jason’s marksmanship they giddily agree. Quickly he astutely breaks up mud fights, puts Danby in jail and finds himself a deputy in Jake (Jack Elam).
Most of the rest of the film follows Pa Danby (Walter Brennan) and his two nitwit sons as they try and get their equally dumb baby brother out of prison. It’s followed by a long line of hired gunman who all fail out knocking the sheriff off. Jason also has encounters with Perkins’ often ditsy daughter Prudy (Joan Hackett). It would be wrong to say that Prudy is the only whimsy one, because it feels like everyone in town has a screw loose, from the hero to the villains.
That’s what makes Support Your Local Sheriff so appealing. James Garner is as charming a wisecracker as ever, but on a whole, this film is full of comedic misunderstandings, caterwauling, and stupidity with an ignoramus around every corner. There’s a jail without bars, villains who are wimps, a girl who hides in a tree and lights herself on fire, even a protagonist who seems bent on heading off to the real frontier in Australia. What?
Thus, this rewriting of your typical western trope of a man taming the west works out quite well and in many ways feels like a precursor to Blazing Saddles. It was a lot of fun to have two personal favorites in James Garner (The Rockford Files) and Harry Morgan (MASH) in a film together. Joan Hackett was a lot of fun too. I really want to see more with her (ie. Will Penny, The Last Sheila).