Burt Kennedy’s Support Your Local Sheriff! is an often hilarious western comedy from 1969. The movie features a screenplay by William Bowers and takes a zany, kitchen sink approach to the genre. There’s a clip-clopping score by Jeff Alexander that adds to the fun with its sheer gall, plus the Harry Stradling Jr. cinematography captures town life in all its fist-flying ridiculousness.
It’s interesting to note that Support Your Local Sheriff! came out around the time of a “mild recession” in the United States, with the end of one of America’s longest and largest periods of economic expansion coming to an end by 1968. Inflation was climbing, which gives special bite to Bowers’ great inflation gag in the movie, and budget deficits from the Vietnam War were coupled with interest rate increases.
In this context, it makes a certain kind of sense that the discovery of gold in a grave by Prudy Perkins (Joan Hackett) would send the people of Calendar into a frenzy. The settlement is driven nuts, with the mayor Olly (Harry Morgan) watching as the town is sent into a spiral of violence and chaos. The robber-bandits are taking over, with the Danby clan setting up shop.
Enter Jason McCullough (James Garner), a man on his way to Australia. He’s interested in getting in on the gold rush, but he also wants a job and he elects to become the sheriff. His calm demeanour helps his handle his business and he soon has a run-in with the Danby family. He puts Joe Danby (Bruce Dern) in a makeshift jail and eventually takes on the entire clan with a mix of gumption and psychology.
Garner is the ideal man for the job. He has a sort of clean-cut countenance and he never loses his cool, but he’s also clever in the ways of self-preservation. His conversations with Prudy see growth from a force of hysterical misunderstanding, while his dealings with the Danby boys require a soft touch. All the while, Garner never quite turns the part into a grinning archetype.
Hackett’s Perkins is an adorable wild child. She gets into mucky brawls and can swing a slab of lumber, plus she has no qualms about leaping into an open grave when she spies her golden fortune. Later, she tries to escape a bad situation by climbing into a tree in her pajamas. She’s a perfect, alchemic match for the square-jawed sheriff.
The rest of the cast balances out nicely, with Morgan bringing his recognizable voice and Jack Elam earning his stripes as Jason’s deputy Jake. Walter Brennan has a funny and unfussy turn as the frustrated patriarch of the Danby family. Watch his face after his idiot son Tom (Gene Evans) asks him if he’s been touching up his hair again.
As is generally the case, the little bits of clever banter work better than the broad-stroke comedy. That doesn’t mean Support Your Local Sheriff! stands as an understated film, though, and there are moments when the big stuff lands with a satisfying bang. The eventual firing of the street’s cannon is a wonder in spite of the fact that everybody sees it coming.
But it’s this western’s defiance of the genre’s often exaggerated masculinity that works wonders, like when Jason decides that the only sensible thing to do with all them Danby lads riding into town is to get the hell out. Prudy, far from being the typically deferential dame, agrees with him. Running away is the mature idea. Well, Jason can’t have that.
Support Your Local Sheriff! doesn’t go all-out in its send-up of western tropes, but it is a gleeful and relatively gentle western comedy. And it’s funny. Garner is a delight in the lead role, Hackett is cute as the rumpled and muddy love interest and the supporting characters are torn from a how-to manual. Kennedy’s romp is all in good fun and that’s mighty fine.