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Wednesday, January 6, 2010

THE SHAKIEST GUN IN THE WEST -- movie review by porfle

(This is part three of my look at the "Don Knotts Reluctant Hero Pack", a two-sided DVD containing four of Don's best-known movies: THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN, THE RELUCTANT ASTRONAUT, THE SHAKIEST GUN IN THE WEST, and THE LOVE GOD?)

The years 1966-68 saw the appearance of three Don Knotts comedies in quick succession--THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN, THE RELUCTANT ASTRONAUT, and 1968's THE SHAKIEST GUN IN THE WEST--each of which dealt with Don's nervous-guy character by placing him in hazardous situations that forced him to somehow overcome his natural cowardice. In the latter entry, he was swept all the way back to the rip-roarin' Old West of 1870, complete with gunslingers, outlaws, and marauding Indians. Which, I would think, would be a pretty nerve-wracking place for a coward to be.

Don plays Jesse W. Haywood (a nod to Don's actual name, Jesse Donald Knotts), a dentist whose dream is to spread dental health throughout the West. After a rib-tickling main titles song by The Wilburn Brothers, the film gets off to a rousing start as we see Jesse trying to examine a fiercely-unwilling patient, Miss Stevenson, during his final "pass-or-fail" dentistry exam, which turns into a UFC-style fist-flying brawl. "How's it going, Haywood?" asks rival dental student Phelps ("Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman"'s Greg Mullavey, in one of this film's few running gags), to which Jesse responds "Fine...just fine" even as his fingers are being chomped. Once he gets his diploma, he bids a tearful farewell to his mother (Ruth McDevitt), then hops a train and it's westward ho.

Meanwhile, the notorious bandit Penelope "Bad Penny" Cushings (Barbara Rhoades) has just been captured after a long career of cattle rustling, stagecoach robbing, etc. But the sheriff (Ed Peck) offers her a deal--she must go undercover and travel West on a wagon train suspected of carrying smugglers who are supplying rifles to the Indians, and if she discovers their identity and nabs them, she'll get a pardon. But there's a catch--no unaccompanied women are allowed on the wagon train, and the agent who was to pose as her husband (John Wayne stock player Ed Faulkner) just got killed. So she needs to find a husband fast. Guess who she picks? Right--the duded-up, derby-wearing "tender ninny" (as she sneeringly refers to him during their first encounter), Jesse.

Her seduction of Haywood, when she comes to him for a feigned dental complaint and lets her cleavage do the talking, is still high on my short list of things that jump-started my puberty. Whether dressed in denim and rawhide and packing six-guns, or tarted up like a dancehall girl, Barbara Rhoades made my hormones yell "Yee-haaa!" But enough of my personal problems...

On the way West, the wagon train is attacked by Indians. Penny secretly disposes of them all, but Doc Haywood mistakenly thinks he's the big Indian fighter. So as soon as they get into town, he buys the standard black gunfighter outfit and goes swaggering around, revelling in his new status as a dead-shot Indian fighter. But the rifle smugglers (Don "Red" Barry and "The Addams Family"'s Uncle Fester, Jackie Coogan) hire a feared gunfighter named Arnold the Kid to challenge Doc Haywood to a shootout. Can you guess what happens?

Finally the truth comes out and Jesse realizes he's been duped, which leads to a great "Don gets drunk" scene in the local saloon. But just as things look their worst, Penny is kidnapped by the rifle smugglers and taken to a nearby Indian camp, and Jesse realizes he's her only hope. So he sobers up, straps on his six-gun, and goes to her rescue, resolving to save her from the bad guys even if it means dressing up as an Indian maiden and getting hit on by some horny Indian dudes. And when she finds out how brave he really is, Penny at last finds herself smitten by the "tender ninny", giving hope to all of us nerds who always dreamed of having the hottest babes in school fall for us somehow.

Once again, the cast is populated with familiar faces. Jim Begg of THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN reappears as a deputy who lives for excitement ("I just love this kinda stuff!" he exclaims in another running gag). The great Carl Ballantine ("McHale's Navy") and a surprisingly-young Pat Morita play storekeepers who cheat Jesse out of his every last cent as he attempts to equip himself for the journey West. Frank McGrath of THE RELUCTANT ASTRONAUT reappears as one of the people on the wagon train. MASH's William Christopher shows up as a hotel clerk, Eddie Quillan (the elevator operator from THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN) is a train porter, and Burt Mustin makes his third straight appearance in a Don Knotts comedy. Legendary character actor Dub Taylor even shows up as Penny's outlaw accomplace early on, before he decides to go to Boston to open up a little dress shop.

As in Don's previous two flicks, James Fritzell and Everett Greenbaum ("The Andy Griffith Show", THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN, THE RELUCTANT ASTRONAUT) are involved in the screenplay, along with Edmund L. Hartmann and the redoubtable Frank Tashlin, in this update of Bob Hope's classic comedy THE PALEFACE. Vic Mizzy is on hand once again to provide an appropriately lighthearted musical score. THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN'S Alan Rafkin ably directs. And aside from Fritzell and Greenbaum, the "Andy Griffith Show" connection here includes an appearance by Hope "Clara Edwards" Summers.

A worthy addition to the Don Knotts oeuvre, THE SHAKIEST GUN IN THE WEST is an endlessly fun romp that should please his fans. It's Don Knotts at his best, and that's pretty much as good as it gets.

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