"The Shakiest Gun in the West" was one of the feature film Don Knotts starred in for Universal after leaving his role as Deputy Barney Fife on "The Andy Griffith Show"- a role that saw him win multiple Emmy awards. Released in 1968, the comedy is as plain vanilla as all of Knotts's Universal flicks, as it's family friendly throughout. There is one unusual aspect to this production, however, in that it is a remake of the 1948 Bob Hope comedy hit "The Paleface". Directed by Alan Rafkin, who helmed Knotts's first film for Universal, "The Ghost and Mr. Chicken", "Shakiest" follows the formula that Knotts knew his fans wanted to see. He always played essentially the same character- a likable nerd with a lack of self-esteem who blunders into becoming a local hero only to be discredited and shamed. The conclusion of every Knotts film finds him performing some act of extraordinary courage that results in him becoming a legitimate hero and winning the girl, as well. Oh, yes, there's usually a scene in which Knotts's character ends up getting very drunk, thus allowing Knotts to slip and slobber, much to the delight of his audience. Although the original film was written for Bob Hope, a few tweaks by long-time "Andy Griffith Show" screenwriters Jim Fritzell and Everett Greenbaum easily convert the story into a suitable vehicle for Knott's signature nervous guy persona. Both Hope and Knotts excelled at playing cowards. Hope would respond to dangerous situations with a string of quips delivered with the rapidity of a machine gun. Knotts, however, would fall physically and mentally into a virtual nervous breakdown. The result was always amusing and Knotts lived by the adage "If it ain't broke, don't fix it". Audiences- especially in rural areas- made his modestly-budgeted feature films very profitable.
"Shakiest" opens in Philadelphia in 1870. Knotts plays Jesse Heywood, a dental student who must complete an examination on a patient in order to get his degree in dentistry. Unfortunately, the patient is a woman who refuses to open her mouth. Jesse tries to cajole her with childlike sweet talk but when she still refuses, the situation turns into a physical battle royal with both of them engaging in a knock-down wrestling match that starts the film off on a very funny note. Jesse then decides to follow the advice of Horace Greeley and "Go West, young man." Presuming there is a dearth of available dentists in the newly-settled territories, the meek city slicker joins a wagon train (after being bilked by used-wagon salesman Carl Ballantine). A simultaneous plot line revolves around Penelope Cushings (Barbara Rhoades), a vivacious redhead who also happens to be a notorious bandit. When federal agents catch up to her, she is offered a deal: she can avoid a jail sentence if she acts as an undercover agent for the government and joins the wagon train to find out who among the passengers are intending to smuggle a cache of rifles to the Indians. At the last minute, the agent who was to pose as her husband is shot dead, leaving her with a dilemma: no single woman can be unaccompanied on the wagon train. Desperate, she uses Jesse as a pawn, fawning over the incredulous newly-minted dentist who can hardly believe his good fortune. Within hours they end up getting married but the minute the ink is dry on the license, Penelope gives a cold shoulder to her new husband. (The only sexually suggestive aspect to the film revolves around a running gag of Jesse being increasingly frustrated by his wife's stalling techniques when it comes to consummating their marriage.)
Once the wagon train is on the move, Penelope snoops around for the gun smugglers, who turn out to be a phony preacher (Donald Barry) and his partner (Jackie Coogan) who are secreting the weapons inside cases marked as containing bibles. Along the way, Jesse allows his wagon to fall behind the others and it is attacked by Indians. In mounting a seemingly futile defense, he is shocked to find that he has killed a dozen of his attackers, not realizing that the deadly shots were actually fired by Penelope. When word gets out of his achievement, Jesse is hailed and feted as a hero. The legend is reinforced when he is challenged by a notorious outlaw, Arnold the Kid (Robert Yuro), who is also slain in a gundown with Penelope secretly firing the fatal shot. (Shades of "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance"!) Ultimately, Jesse learns the truth and courageously admits to his fellow travelers that he really isn't a hero. He is rewarded for his honesty by being shunned and mocked. His misfortune continues with the admission by Penelope that she was only using him as part of her cover operation. The dejected Jesse is at a low point in his life when Penelope is kidnapped by the gun smugglers and brought to the Indian camp. Determined to save her, Jesse manages to locate the camp and infiltrate it while dressed as an Indian maiden(!). Needless to say, he finds his inner strength and in acts of courage saves the day and redeems his reputation.
"Shakiest Gun" is a strong vehicle for Knotts and it benefits from a
fine supporting cast topped by the charismatic Barbara Rhodes. Like all
of Knotts's films, it's peppered with appearances by wonderful
supporting actors. In addition to those previously mentioned, look out
for Edward Faulkner, Ed Peck, Frank McGrath, Pat Morita, Dub Taylor,
Vaughn Taylor and Hope Summers. Composer Vic Mizzy, a main staple of the
Knotts films, provides his usually jaunty score and there is a catchy
main title theme that plays over the creative opening credits. Knotts is
as funny as ever in a role that fits him like a glove. Even the
normally staid New York Times critic Vincent Canby agreed. Although
making a bizarre comparison between Knotts's physical appearance and
that of the fetus seen at the end of "2001: A Space Odyssey", Canby did
acknowledge "It's good, simple low comedy...and seeing it is like being
transported back to a small-town movie house 30 years ago."
Universal has provided an excellent transfer for its Blu-ray release, but as usual, no bonus extras.
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