The sleepy western town of Calico is abuzz with news that Charley (Dan Blocker), the big, kindly if socially-inept local blacksmith sent a year's savings back East for a mail-order bride. Everyone gathers at the train station to see Charley greet his wife-to-be. Only for the poor man to be left heartbroken when she does not come. So humiliated is Charley he decides to leave town. Fearing the town will be paralyzed with the loss of their one and only blacksmith, Sheriff Staunch (Jim Backus) hatches a plan to have 'saloon girl' (classic western talk for prostitute) Sadie (Nanette Fabray) pass herself off as Charley's intended. The ploy works well enough but before long Sadie starts to feel guilty about conning goodhearted Charley. Further complications arise when her violent boyfriend Roger Hand (Jack Cassidy) returns to town, forcing the locals to think fast.
Dan Blocker's first lead role in a feature film was sadly also his last. Beloved by television viewers as burly, big-hearted Hoss Cartwright on long-running western show Bonanza he succumbed to a pulmonary embolism two years after the release of Cockeyed Cowboys of Calico County, aged just forty-three. In real-life Blocker, who taught history in high school, held a degree in English literature and was studying for his PhD, was far from the simpletons he portrayed on screen. Here his skill as an actor is well evident as he wrings a fair measure of pathos from his role as a lovelorn oaf. Unfortunately despite a likable lead and the sterling efforts of a (mostly) committed cast The Cockeyed Cowboys of Calico County is a comic dud. Things get off to a promising start striking the right tragicomic note and investing our sympathy in poor, sweet-natured Charley. Yet once Sadie agrees to play along with the ruse (solely, she claims, to put the stuck-up local ladies' noses out of joint) the plot inexplicably runs out of steam. Comedy westerns are a notoriously tricky genre to pull off. This has none of the charm of Cat Ballou (1965) nor subversive wit of Burt Kennedy's two ingenious James Garner vehicles: Support Your Local Sheriff! (1969) and Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971). Nor indeed the flat-out hilarity of Bob Hope's numerous outings in the genre, particularly Son of Paleface (1952).
Ranald McDougall, the prolific screenwriter behind among others Mildred Pierce (1945), Cleopatra (1963) and Jigsaw (1968), strives for pathos with a love story where two lonely social misfits with low self-esteem find solace in each other. The film has the benefit of a folksy western milieu very similar to that found in television westerns like Bonanza along with an array of familiar comedy character actors. Among them Jim Backus (the voice of Mr. Magoo!), Wally Cox, Mickey Rooney, Stubby Kaye, a scene-stealing Jack Elam as a comically near-sighted bounty hunter and the talented but tragically ill-fated Jack Cassidy. The cast lend the film what energy it has although, curiously, the one actor out of step with the material is Nanette Fabray. Not only does the script make it hard to warm to the sour, under-motivated Sadie, Fabray's indifferent interaction with Blocker saps its emotional core.
Lethargic pacing and a plot that takes forever to connect the dots also conspire to let the film down. It is possible McDougall realized the premise was too thin to stretch out to a movie as midway through shooting he handed directing duties to television stalwart Anton Leader, whose only other feature film credit was sci-fi horror Children of the Damned (1964). Whoever wound up shooting the bulk of the movie made surprisingly little out of some promising comic ingredients. Instead the film falls back on trite slapstick involving drunken clowning at the local saloon, an uncooperative horse named Lightning Bolt and Elam's amusingly antisocial antics in a failed attempt to galvanize a listless affair. A great shame. Dan Blocker fans would be better off checking out his earlier made-for-TV western Something for a Lonely Man (1968) where the star also played a downtrodden small town blacksmith. Talk about typecasting.