The Western Parody as a Subgenre

Ironically, the Western parodies exhibit their own recycled conventions and clichés. An examination of Go West (Edward Buzzell, 1940), Cat Ballou (Elliot Silverstein, 1965), Blazing Saddles (Mel Brooks, 1974), Rustlers' Rhapsody (Hugh Wilson, 1985), and Shanghai Noon (Tom Dey, 2000) will illustrate the variety of Western parodies and their similarities. When these parodies are examined together, patterns begin to emerge. These patterns indicate that the Western parody is in itself a generic form. Most Western parodies, in the act of mocking Western codes, end up creating their own set of generic codes to which they more or less adhere. In the act of parodying Western clichés, these films tend to reinforce the ideas that are already present in Westerns, but they do so in a new way.

Go West

The Marx Brothers film Go West is important because it is a transitional Western parody. The film is focused largely on the Marx Brothers and their comic personae, but there is also evidence of a more systematic parody of the genre. The film satirizes everything from saloons to shoot-outs, even though the plot follows a fairly standard formula. It centers around a young couple whom the brothers help to protect from an unscrupulous saloon owner—who wants to strike it rich by stealing the deed to their land and selling it to the railroad. The basic comic premise of the film exploits a common conflict in Westerns— a clash that occurred when easterners came west. Typically, the easterner sticks out because his attitudes and beliefs are unsuited to the new environment. In this case, the easterners stand out even more because they are the Marx Brothers. Far from falling into the clichés of the Western, however, the brothers' parody constantly overpowers generic expectations.

The film takes place relatively late in the Marx Brothers' career and in some ways is more indicative of its time than it is of their unique style of humor. In 1940, when the film was released, the nation was still trying to recover from the Great Depression. Film, like every other industry, had taken a beating, and the Marxes' film Duck Soup (1933), which is today considered one of their best, fared poorly at the box office. The Marxes had subsequently gone through a significant upsurge in popularity after their association with MGM and its producer Irving Thalberg. Thalberg had revamped the brothers' pictures after Duck Soup to tone down their idiosyncratic humor and strengthen the story line, a tradition that continued in Go West. Although the film was only a modest success, it spoke to the issues of the era. The film's thin plot focused on a rags-to-riches story of a young couple who sell their land to the railroad. This dream of rapid financial turnaround was still one that would have resonated with contemporary audiences. On a more basic level, though, the underlying structure of the Marx Brothers' film humor had changed: the wild anarchic humor of the late twenties and early thirties was traded in for tamer humorous digressions from the plot. As Andrew Bergman notes of comedies during this period, they tend to be constructive as opposed to their destructive predecessors (133). The tamer humor of the Marxes in this film builds on (or at least does nothing to detract from) the desire of a nation to restore faith in its institutions.

Cat Ballou

Elliot Silverstein's Cat Ballou, starring Jane Fonda and Lee Marvin, was released in 1965 and more seriously adheres to Western codes than most Western parodies. One reason that this film tends to play the genre mostly straight may be that it is an adaptation of a serious novel, The Ballad of Cat Ballou (1956), by Roy Chanslor. In the film, Cat Ballou's father is murdered for not selling out to the railroad, and she becomes an outlaw, forming a gang to get her revenge. The film follows a fairly conventional plot but plays up its comic possibilities. While the film is at times serious, it does not strive for gritty realism, remaining situated firmly within the comic mode. The dance scene in the film is a good example of this comic restructuring of the Western; while the scene is no doubt an homage to John Ford, the film uses the dance in a very different way. Ford's sequences tend to interrupt the main narrative in films like My Darling Clementine (1946), but in Cat Ballou the dialogue and action during the dance forward the plot and set up some important later developments (such as Cat's meeting the villainous sheriff for the first time and her enlisting the two inept outlaws to protect her father). In addition, Ford's dances underscore themes such as community, harmony, and civilization, but the dance in Cat Ballou ends in a brawl, with everyone, including women and children, participating in the uproar. This is a clear comic inversion of Ford's established codification of the dance and hints at the violence and unrest occurring in the 1960s.

In some ways, however, Cat Ballou is more of a throwback to the relative calm and tranquillity characteristic of America in the 1950s, when the nearly eponymous novel was written. The film is not controversial or shocking; indeed, it was tame enough to be one of the highest-grossing films of 1965, in competition with such popular productions as The Sound of Music, Doctor Zhivago, and That Darn Cat. Mainstream film was still largely tame and family-oriented despite changing circumstances in society. The relatively low-key portrayal of violence in this film (a central element of the Western) is an interesting indication of a view of violence in popular culture that would shortly and irreversibly change. The film hints at some of the currents of society. Cat's role as a proactive woman (and the central character of the film) who makes a rapid transition from uptight schoolmarm to sexy outlaw parallels some of the changes in the image of women during the sixties. The Native American character, Jackson (Tom Nardini), is portrayed in a positive—albeit somewhat peripheral—role, showing some of the advances that minorities were making in mainstream culture. In addition, the negative portrayal of traditional authority figures, such as the sheriff, and the role of outlaws as heroes, although not innovated by Cat Ballou, points to the deterioration of faith in the establishment. The comedic tone of the film keeps these ideas from becoming overbearing, but the criticism, nevertheless, is present.

Blazing Saddles

The Western parody that is widely considered the magnum opus of the genre is Mel Brooks's Blazing Saddles, a film that systematically dissects nearly all the clichés and the very premises of the form. The film follows Bart, a black man (Cleavon Little), as he is elevated from railroad worker to sheriff of Rock Ridge, a small Western town sitting along the planned route for the railroad. The townspeople have demanded a sheriff for protection from outlaws (who are really employees of the railroad company that wants their land). The villains get Bart appointed as sheriff, hoping that the racist townspeople will be further disheartened and abandon the town. For his parody, Brooks uses every gag and trick in the book and even invents some as he goes along: no conventions are sacred, and no joke too easy or too obscure. The last sequence of the film, in particular, is notable for its deconstruction of the Western. As townspeople and bandits brawl, the camera pulls back to reveal the studio lot where the film is being shot. The combatants break into sets for other genre productions and eventually, in a self-reflexive moment, the villain and the two heroes end up in a movie theater watching the film Blazing Saddles.

Although Blazing Saddles is specifically a parody of the Western, it is also a product of its time. The film's deconstructionist techniques reflect the widespread turmoil of a nation dealing with Vietnam and Watergate. Just as people were questioning the things they once thought were fixed, Brooks questions and undermines every established convention of the Western. Borders become thin and even nonexistent, as previously separate genres such as the Western and the top-hat musical literally collide in a violent encounter. The film foregrounds the racial tensions that are still prevalent in society and shows the world as a nonsensical place where nothing, not even the myth of the Western, which society has created for itself, has any real meaning. While critics have suggested that the film was the final statement on the Western myth (Rushing 22), it is evident by the number of popular and critically successful Westerns and Western parodies since Blazing Saddles that the genre remains viable.

Rustlers' Rhapsody

Perhaps the most unduly overlooked Western parody is director Hugh Wilson's Rustlers' Rhapsody. The film appears to have garnered relatively little critical or popular attention when it was released in 1985 and remains insignificant in the video market even though it is a complex and well-constructed parody of the "singing cowboy" Western. There are several possible reasons for the film's relative obscurity. One may be its rather narrow focus on the singing cowboy films, films starring Gene Autry or Roy Rogers that celebrate honest living and a moral code that keeps them in the West to do good. Because Rustlers' Rhapsody addresses this particular (and no longer popular) subgenre, many viewers have not been able to appreciate the subtle undermining of generic conventions.

Rustlers' Rhapsody identifies itself with the singing cowboy subgenre by introducing the hero (Tom Berenger) as "Rex O'Herlihan the Singing

Rustlers Rhapsody Outfits
Rex O'Herlihan (Tom Berenger) as the singing cowboy from Rustlers' Rhapsody.

Cowboy"; indeed, he often introduces himself in this way and even signs a letter home to his mother as "The Singing Cowboy." (The opening voice-over narration also specifically references the singing cowboy movies.) The clear-cut conventions of the singing cowboy movies are central to the film. There is no trace of the later development of the Western antihero, with his questionable morals. Rex is as squeaky-clean as any Boy Scout and adheres closely to the rules of his role laid out in the singing cowboy films and in the mythology surrounding the character such as that found in Gene Autry's "Ten Commandments of the Cowboy":

1. A cowboy never takes unfair advantage—even of an enemy.

2. A cowboy never betrays a trust.

3. A cowboy always tells the truth.

4. A cowboy is kind to small children, to old folks and to animals.

5. A cowboy is free from racial and religious prejudices.

6. A cowboy is helpful and when anyone is in trouble he lends a hand.

7. A cowboy is a good worker.

8. A cowboy is clean about his person and in thought, word and deed.

9. A cowboy respects womanhood, his parents and the laws of his country.

10. A cowboy is a patriot. (quoted in Rushing 18)

Examples of Rex's adherence to this code are numerous: He never draws first, even when his life is in danger. He shoots bad guys only in the hands. (His target practice consists of shooting wooden cutouts of hands holding guns.) He helps others, going so far as to point out to the bad guys that they could accidentally shoot each other when they surround him. He even rescues a cat from a tree. Rex is also a clean and snappy dresser who does his own washing and ironing and has a wagon that serves no other purpose but to carry his immaculately clean wardrobe. He, in short, embodies all the ideals of the singing cowboy in a highly exaggerated manner.

The hero's relationship to the villain is also simplistically portrayed, as in earlier Westerns. In the film, the forces of evil are represented by not just one but two evil colonels (Andy Griffith and Fernando Rey) who team up to defeat Rex. Rex must oppose them because good must fight evil, and in that conflict, the hero must always defeat the villain. The humor relies on the assumption that both the audience and the film's characters are aware of the generic clichés. For example, characters are introduced by type—the town drunk, the evil cattle baron, the prostitute with the heart of gold, and the like. Rex states that each western town is identical, and to prove his point he accurately predicts that they have "a very pretty, but somehow asexual schoolmarm."

Rex is not the only one aware of the conventions of the Western. The two evil colonels in Rustlers' Rhapsody recognize that they cannot beat Rex for the simple reason that he is "good" and they are "evil." To beat Rex, they decide to hire another "good guy," the idea being that the "goodest" good guy will win. Bob Barber (Patrick Wayne), the other "good guy," dresses in white and informs Rex, "In order to be a good guy you have to be a confident heterosexual." This encounter creates a problem for Rex because he is not confident in this area of endeavor. He still lives the code of the Western that enjoins him to protect women, but not become involved with them to the point of losing his individuality (Rushing 23). Rex suffers from a lack of confidence but is eventually able to defeat the enemy through his recognition of the conventions of the genre. (He knows that his sidekick is likely to be shot, so he protects him with a bulletproof vest.) Rustlers' Rhapsody, through its manipulation and reversal of the generic codes of the Western, creates a very effective and self-reflexive parody.

Released during a period of relative stability and prosperity, Wilson's 1985 film takes a complicated look at what is initially portrayed as a simpler time. Rustlers' Rhapsody pokes fun at the simplistic conventions during the era of Gene Autry and Roy Rogers that separate good from evil, white from black (or in 1985, by extension, white from red). While there was no doubt an attempt to portray red communists as the men in the black hats at the time, Wilson's film shows in a comedic fashion that things are never so simple. The switch of the film from black and white to color at the beginning emphasizes the increased complexity of the modern era. In addition, two seemingly good guys end up on opposite sides of the conflict; the one who is finally revealed to be the bad guy is the one serving selfish interests and not the good of the people. Rustlers' Rhapsody also foregrounds gender and sexuality, another major preoccupation of the 1980s. The film implies that the colonel played by Griffith is a homosexual, and it constantly calls into question Rex's sexuality through his choice of wardrobe and his somewhat ambiguous relationship with women. While these commentaries are mostly gentle, they do comment on some of the societal and cultural currents of the time.

Shanghai Noon

Tom Dey's film Shanghai Noon is an interesting departure from many of the other Western parodies. Like Cat Ballou, it attempts to play the story relatively straight, but it also serves as a vehicle for Jackie Chan's kung fu comedy, providing for dynamic interaction between two sets of conventions and clichés: the West and the Far East. The cultural conflict and interplay are a fresh addition to the Western parody genre.

Shanghai Noon also consciously transposes the Western by showing a markedly different landscape. While ostensibly set in the American West, it was filmed in Alberta, Canada, showcasing green, mountainous landscapes rather than John Ford's arid Monument Valley. This setting, combined with the location shooting in the Forbidden City in China, lends a very different feel to the film. The film also highlights the humorous interactions that can occur when two cultures meet; the misunderstandings and comical moments suggest a pleasant way of resolving cultural differences in a world that is increasingly internationally oriented. The eventual reconciliation and friendship between the Chinese and Western characters show an exciting, yet peaceful, outcome for a world straddling a new millennium. This film perhaps represents an evolution in the Western parody that treats the Western humorously but modifies it in a way that breathes new life into the genre by examining and incorporating the elements of another culture and tradition.

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Responses

  • taimi
    How is the movie Cat Ballou considered a western parody?
    8 years ago
  • clizia barese
    What makes cat ballou a parody of a western?
    8 years ago

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