Seth MacFarlane and Charlize Theron Saddle Up: Can the Western Survive?

Seth MacFarlane and Charlize Theron Saddle Up: Can the Western Survive?
Life Before Django: Cleavon Little in “Blazing Saddles”

Seth MacFarlane is close to casting Charlize Theron in his upcoming comedy Western, The Hollywood Reporter has revealed. The director of “Ted” and this year’s Oscar host, MacFarlane has co-written “A Million Ways to Die in the West” with his “Ted” collaborators Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild.

The Reporter disclosed in December that it will be “a Blazing Saddles-style movie – meaning a Western with contemporary humor, with one undercurrent being just how dangerous and painful life really was in the late 1800s.”

Given that “Django Unchained”’s jokey Klan scene is reminiscent of Mel Brooks’s in “Blazing Saddles” and that Jamie Foxxs black gunfighter Django sartorially echoes Cleavon Little’s sheriff, it would appear that the Western parody is a mineable sub-genre once more. Brooks even thinks that “Django Unchained”’s use of the “N” word can pave the way for his planned “Blazing Saddles” Broadway musical.

“A Million Ways to Die” sounds like a bizarre mash-up of the Bob Hope Technicolor Western comedy “The Paleface” (1948) and Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” (1992). The Reporter says it’s about “a sheepish farmer who chickens out of a gunfight and sees his girlfriend leave him. When he meets the wife of a notorious outlaw who offers to teach him how to shoot, the farmer at first sees a chance to win back his love but slowly falls for the woman.

“Complications ensue when the outlaw returns and reclaims his woman.”

The comedy Western emerged around 1915 when Tom Mix and Hoot Gibson began offering lighter alternatives to the dour Westerners played by William S. Hart and Harry Carey; by 1920, the flamboyant and often hilarious Mix had overtaken Hart as the biggest box-office cowboy. Also in the silent era, Buster Keaton lampooned the Indian captivity myth in “The Paleface” (1922) and the cowboy’s obligatory manliness in “Go West” (1925).

Corrupt saloon culture was no match for Laurel and Hardy’s innocence, stupidity, and song-and-dance skills in “Way Out West” (1936), arguably their best full-length talkie. W.C. Fields and Mae West’s teaming on “My Little Chickadee” and especially the Marx Brothers’ “Go West” (both 1940) trashed the genre’s dignity, as did Abbott and Costello in “Ride ’em Cowboy” (1942). Another saloon Western (one based on a Mix talkie), George Marshall’s “Destry Rides Again” (1939), with James Stewart as a pacifist sheriff and Marlene Dietrich as the chanteuse who loves him, satirized the tropes of 1930s Westerns, though it can also be taken straight.

After “Paleface” Potter and his offspring (both played by Hope) had added cowardice to the greenhorn’s resumé in “The Paleface” and “Son of Paleface” (1952), it was inevitable that Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis would bring their urban shtick out West. With Martin cast as Lewis’s protector, “Pardners” (1956) typically drew on the laidback machismo of the former’s persona and the childishness of the latter’s.

It was in the 1960s that the Western spoof came of age. “Cat Ballou” (1965) demolished the gunfighter image via Lee Marvin’s drunken Kid Shelleen (before redeeming it) and “The Shakiest Gun in the West” (1968) was a remake of “The Paleface” starring Don Knotts; both films satirized John Ford’s last Western masterpiece, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (1962), in which Marvin played the vicious Valance.

The era also produced a series of louche comedy Westerns starring members of the Rat Pack or James Garner, among them John Sturges’s “Gunga Din” remake “Sergeants 3” (1962) and Burt Kennedy’s “Support Your Local Sheriff!” (1969), “Dirty Dingus Magee” (1970), and “Support Your Local Gunfighter” (1971). Robert Aldrich cast Dino and Frank Sinatra in “4 for Texas” (1963) and – foreshadowing “Blazing Saddles” – Gene Wilder in “The Frisco Kid” (1979). Some of these could have been transplanted to modern Las Vegas.

Kennedy’s films, not without substance, elicited the comic skills of the character actor Jack Elam, a veteran of “High Noon” (1952) and “The Man From Laramie” (1955), who was simultaneously appearing in spaghetti Westerns. Elam’s Dali-esque visage and general scurrilousness symbolized the transition of the Western from a celebration of the myth of conquest to a repository of self-consciousness. (Elam had appeared in the 1952 robbery drama “Kansas City Confidential,” which influenced Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs” 40 years later; how sad they never worked together in the brief time they overlapped in Hollywood.)

“Blazing Saddles,” which arrived in 1974, was and remains the acme of vulgarity and bad-taste racial humor, the point being, of course, to debunk racism. Despite that aim, Brooks’s film, together with Paul Bartel’s camp “Lust in the Dust (1985), pulled the Western down to its lowest level. Tarantino’s post-modernist approach has controversially raised it up again. Will Seth MacFarlane shoot it in the back and remove its boots?