Comedic actor Don Knotts is a face that is likely recognizable to all Americans, if only through pop cultural osmosis. As Barney Fife, the deputy on The Andy Griffith Show, he became a household name. As the show gradually started to wane towards the end of the 1960s, Knotts was made the comic lead of a number of films.
Directed by Alan Rafkin, The Shakiest Gun in the West finally dares to do what The Andy Griffith Show would not: give Don Knotts a loaded gun. The results are as comic as expected.
He’s dangerous, all right, just not for the reason anybody else thinks.
Knotts stars as Dr. Jesse Haywood, a Philadelphia dentist who decides to ply his trade out west, which is “crying out for dental care”. He’s the familiar comic, inept, nervous Don Knotts persona, and completely out of place in the Old West. But circumstances bring him the company of Barbara Rhoades as “Bad Penny” Cushings, a former outlaw now trying to win a pardon by doing a job for the federal government. She’s on the trail of a pair of gun-runners who are selling firearms to the Indians.
You say that like it’s a bad thing.
Most of the humor in the film comes from the interactions of Knotts and Rhoades. Because of the circumstances behind their meeting, Haywood thinks Penelope has romantic feelings for him; she doesn’t, but his belief is deliberately instilled by her. What’s less deliberate is his and the wagon train’s belief that he is a world-class gunfighter, based on a few incidents and accidents. Watching Don Knotts swagger around like an Old West bravo is hilarious in and of itself, and when it’s coupled with his vocal mannerisms, it’s even funnier. Rhoades’ hot/cold seductress/gunslinger act is highly entertaining as well.
One of the big tests for whether a comedy has staying power is whether or not a scene can get a laugh a second time. Although this is the first time I have seen The Shakiest Gun in the West in full, I did catch one scene from it before, and remembered it ahead of this viewing. It’s a scene which parodies the frequent “How many shots does he have left” situations in western films. Even having seen it before, it still got a laugh out of me, especially as the townsfolk try to work it out en masse.
Although the film primarily relies on its two leads, Jackie Coogan and Donald Barry provide a fair amount of humor through their own interchanges as the Reverend Gant and his “minion” Basch (“Lovely couple”, Haywood says.) Barry is appropriately bombastic, and Coogan is great as the put-upon Basch, who gets several laughs. Even the minor characters are usually entertaining; Jesse’s time in Philadelphia is limited, and none of the other characters from those scenes continue on, but the whole sequence is comic greatness. The townsfolk that Jesse meets and the other people on the wagon train are just as colorful. The Indians are, of course, stereotyped, but considering most of the white people are as well, it doesn’t come across as ignorant or malicious, but just as serving the comedy. It doesn’t matter what function a character serves in the story, as far as the film is concerned their primary function is to make the audience laugh. And they’re all successful at it.
There have been a number of comedic westerns over the years, some of them good and some of them not. The Shakiest Gun in the West is easily one of the good ones.