Classic Film Review: Garner, Hackett and Elam urge us to “Support Your Local Sheriff!” (1969)

One reason I avoid any Twitter, Facebook etc. “Name one movie you’ve watched more than five times” meme in its many forms is simple mathematics. There are scores upon scores of movies I’ll stop to watch a bit of while channel surfing, and far too many that I’ve seen more times than I can count.

“Support Your Local Sheriff!” is a genuine guilty pleasure, a reminder that a “classic” doesn’t have to be a masterpiece. It’s a perfectly crafted amiable Western farce from the late 1960s that was so popular it spawned a sequel — “Support Your Local Gunfighter” — which for my money, is even funnier and aging even better.

It’s a cinematic time capsule, a dash of Old Hollywood just as New Hollywood was cleared for takeoff.

James Garner and Joan Hackett were the stars. But damned if every character actor still holding a SAG card, many of them Golden Age of Hollywood veterans, didn’t draw a check to populate this blend of Western lore and TV and film Western tropes, ripe for a poke in the ribcage.

Harry Morgan and Kathleen Freeman, the venerable Henry Jones and Oscar winner Walter Brennan, future Oscar nominee Bruce Dern and fellows with “faces” — Willis Bouchery, Gene Evans, Walter Burke and Dick Peabody– all show up, shaved or unshaved, wearing hats and duds they could’ve used in a dozen other films. Each does what she or he is known for — the diminutive Morgan bellowing, Freeman screeching, Brennan scowling. And the result just tickles more with the passage of time.

The great service to the cinema that star/producer Garner and director Burt Kennedy do in the film is giving veteran bit player Jack Elam, who often played shifty (and wandering) eyed heavies, a co-starring role. Playing perfectly credible, befuddled comic relief, he parlayed his turn in both of the “Support Your Local” films into a persona transformation, from “High Noon” henchman to lovable “Old West town character.”

The story is an upending of the “town tamer” trope that so many Westerns popularized. Garner plays Jason McCullough, a dashing saddle tramp “just on my way to Australia” who stops in a town turned violent and wild thanks to a gold strike. He samples the local mayhem, and inflation, and takes the only job advertised that seems suitable — sheriff.

Morgan, Jones, Burke and Bouchery play the cagey town fathers who try not to let on how deadly the place really is, and what happens to everybody who takes the job of sheriff.

Hackett (“Will Penny,” “Only When I Laugh”) plays Prudence, “Prudy,” the mayor’s willful, ill-tempered and accident-prone daughter, who reluctantly accepts the wary attentions of the “handsome” stranger with the wry wit and way with a gun.

And Elam is “the town character” promoted to deputy when he refuses to let Jason get gunned down by the henchmen of murderous screw-up Joe Danby (Dern at his whiniest). That means Pa Danby (Brennan) will have to intervene, and a real OK Corral showdown is in the offing. Or so you’d think.

The script and Garner do their damnedest to show Jason as an unflappable, confident and faintly contemptuous anti-hero. He may be as base and greedy as everybody else. He’s got gold fever, after all. And he’s lazy (“prospecting” is hard work, which he passes on to his deputy). But when it comes to these yahoos he’s surrounded by, he’s droll. Very droll.

“What’s your name?” “Jason McCullough. What’s yours?” “Joe Danby. And you had better REMEMBER it.”

“Oh, I’ll remember it, Joe. That’s about all I’m gonna do the rest of my life is go around rememberin’ your name.”

Garner’s comic Western chops are a lot more polished here than he was on TV’s “Maverick” a few years prior. It’s a performance laced with cocksure glowers and testy comebacks, the best of them exchanged with Dern, who has never been funnier on screen.

The gags in this oater are time-tested and could easily have been groaners. But Garner and director Kennedy — he did John Wayne’s “The War Wagon” and “The Train Robbers,” as well as “Dirty Dingus McGee” — make every quip perfectly-timed, every sight gag hilariously simple.

And Elam, standing in the spotlight for one of the few times in his long and storied career, just sparkles in support, his every gesture a carefully considered and clumsily comical exaggeration.

Westerns were pretty much done by 1969, thanks to decades of over-exposure on screen and on TV. The only films to break through in the genre were typically mold-breaking ultra-violent Italian productions starring Eastwood or directed by Peckinpah, or the last roundups of John Wayne.

“Support Your Local Sheriff!” also broke the mold, and lives on, mainly as a grand G-rated comic celebration of the Western “types” it affectionately sends up and the character actors who made such films the cinematic comfort food of generations.

Rating: G, with lots of gunplay, smoking and whisky sipping.

Cast: James Garner, Joan Hackett, Jack Elam, Walter Brennan, Kathleen Freeman, Harry Morgan, Henry Jones, Walter Burke, Willis Bouchery, Gene Evans, Dick Peabody and Bruce Dern. A United Artists release on Amazon, many other streaming platforms.

Credits: Directed by Burt Kennedy, scripted by William Bowers.

Running time: 1:32

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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1 Response to Classic Film Review: Garner, Hackett and Elam urge us to “Support Your Local Sheriff!” (1969)

  1. DG Bennett says:

    You are right. It one of the few westerns I watch falling asleep to. Love it when the hitmen try to take Garner out. And yes, the sequel is just as good. Elam is hilarious

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