THE AMERICAN WEST (mostly): Fact and Fiction (mostly fiction)

"NOBODY GETS TO BE A COWBOY FOREVER." -- Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) in MONTE WALSH (NG, 1970)

Sunday, September 18, 2016

HILLBILLY ELEGY: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance

hill-bil-ly (noun)
a term used by people from the country to describe themselves with pride, but used by others as an insult for people whom they regard as ignorant and unsophisticated

el·e·gy (noun)
a mournful or reflective poem

I am a hill person. So is much of America’s white working class. And we hill people aren’t doing very well….Americans call them hillbillies, rednecks, or white trash. I call them neighbors, friends, and family. – J.D. Vance

J.D. Vance grew up in the town of Middletown, Ohio. However, his grandparents were originally from Jackson, Kentucky, a coal mining town in the Appalachian area of the state, and had migrated to Middletown in 1947 so that his grandfather could take a job in the Armco steel mill. Their move was part of a large wave of migration from the same region to the same area and for the same reason. He says that he lived in Middletown, but his heart was always in Jackson, an area that he often visited with his grandparents when he was a youngster, and that he considered himself to be a hillbilly.

At first the migrants fared much better than they had in the areas they had left. They worked hard, of course, but their jobs required no education and little technical skill and their union insured that they were paid well and that their fringe benefits were substantial.

But then came globalization, automation, conglomeration, de-unionization, and things went south for the whole Midwest, literally in some cases, and a region that once led the world in industrial production became known as the Rust Belt.

Vance begins his book with a confession:

I find the existence of the book you hold in your hands somewhat absurd. It says right there on the cover that it’s a memoir, but I’m thirty-one years old, and I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve accomplished nothing great in my life….The coolest thing I’ve done, at least on paper, is graduate from Yale Law School, something thirteen-year-old J.D. Vance would have considered ludicrous….I have a nice job, a happy marriage, a comfortable home, and two lively dogs.

So I didn’t write this book because I’ve achieved something extraordinary. I wrote this book because I’ve achieved something quite ordinary, which doesn’t happen to most kids who grow up like me. You see, I grew up poor, in the Rust Belt, in an Ohio steel town that has been hemorrhaging jobs and hope for as long as I can remember. I have, to put it mildly, a complex relationship with my parents, one of whom has struggled with addiction for nearly my entire life. My grandparents, neither of whom graduated from high school, raised me, and few members of even my extended family attended college. The statistics tell you that kids like me face a grim future – that if they’re lucky, they’ll manage to avoid welfare; and if they’re unlucky, they’ll die of a heroin overdose, as happened to dozens in my small hometown just last year….

I want people to understand what happens in the lives of the poor and the psychological impact that spiritual and material poverty has on their children. I want people to understand the American Dream as my family and I encountered it.”

The book has become a publishing sensation. Just type in the author’s name or the title of the book in Google and you will see what I mean. Political conservatives love it because Vance, a conservative Republican, lays a lot of the blame for the ills of the Rust Belt citizenry on the lack of individual initiative and responsibility. While he admits globalization and automation have played a role, and that government policies might help a little, he also believes that “the problems were not created by the governments or the corporations or anyone else. We created them, and only we can fix them.” By “we,” he means the very people whose lives have become unmoored by political and economic forces and who face uncertain futures.

Some of his solutions strike me as being overly simplistic. For example, he says that those who have no future in the Rust Belt should go where the jobs are. After all, that is what his grandparents and many others did when they left Kentucky and migrated to Ohio. And there have been many other mass migrations through the years in which people who experienced economic dislocation pulled up stakes and headed west or north in search of a better life.

But those people had a chance of purchasing cheap farm land or finding good unskilled jobs that paid well. Today, however, neither the cheap land nor the unskilled jobs exist. Both are gone. What good does it do one to go where the good jobs exist if one has neither the education nor the skills to get one?

But I heartily agree with one reviewer who wrote that Vance chooses “to adopt a tone of thoughtful reflection with a genuine desire for mutual understanding – almost a lost art in this soundbite-talking-head age" and another reviewer who wrote, “Mr. Vance doesn’t have all the answers. But he’s advancing the conversation.”

Vance is a good writer and a natural born storyteller – and what an inspirational and touching personal story he has to tell. He has lived an amazing life in which he has overcome tremendous obstacles that the vast majority of people have never confronted or even imagined. And against all odds, seemingly insurmountable, he has achieved the American Dream. At one point he admits “I am one lucky son of a bitch.” Well, yes, he is, but sometimes we make our own luck and his life is exhibit number one.

Monday, September 12, 2016

TRIALS OF THE EARTH: The True Story of a Pioneer Woman by Mary Mann Hamilton

One of my favorite novels of last year – or any year, for that matter – was The Tall Woman by Wilma Dykeman.  Set in the Appalachians in North Carolina it is the story of one woman’s struggle to cope with the trials and tribulations of a pioneer woman during the Civil War and its aftermath.
Recently, I finished Trials of the Earth about another pioneer woman and I was struck by the similarities between the two stories.  However, there is one big difference: Trials of the Earth is not fiction.

It is rather amazing that it was ever published.  The book’s serendipitous path to publication began in the early ‘30’s when a young Mississippi writer, Helen Dick Davis, first met Mary Mann Hamilton (1866-ca. 1936), who was living nearby in her daughter’s home.  After they became friends, Davis became enthralled by the stories that the older woman told her about her life as a pioneer wife and mother who spent many years cooking for boarding houses located in lumber camps in the Mississippi Delta.
Davis encouraged Hamilton to write down what she remembered about those experiences.  At first Davis resisted but eventually relented and became obsessed with getting it all down on paper.

In the preface to the manuscript Davis wrote in 1933:

When I began to beg her to write down the account of her life, if only as a record for her children and grandchildren, she did it just to please me.  She wrote it piecemeal at first, just scattered experiences, ten or fifteen pages at a time written with pencil on cheap tablet paper; stories of terrible floodwaters, cyclones, feuds to the death, escaped Negro convicts….

By spring of 1933 Mary Hamilton had given me 150,000 words on this book.  I have edited it, worked over it with her, and guided her in her choice of material, but I have in no case added to nor changed what she wrote….

I want to reassure the reader that my presence does not enter the book.  I have not touched her style, nor embellished her material.  It is a direct and simple autobiography.

Despite what Davis wrote, her editing task was monumental.  Hamilton had received practically no education and her spelling, grammar, and punctuation had to be corrected in order to make the manuscript readable.  But Hamilton’s voice comes through clearly; the storytelling is unpolished and unvarnished.

After my morning work of milking, churning, cleaning house, getting dinner and supper at one time, and cutting a dress for someone, I would help the children in the field all afternoon.  Then I would come in at sundown and milk, while Leslie [her young daughter] finished supper…. After we ate supper…while the children did the dishes, I started making a dress I had cut out that morning, and I never got up from the machine till that dress was finished.  Everyone I made meant a dollar cash…. I would make a dollar sewing almost every day.

Accidents, illness, and death were ever present in Mary Hamilton’s life.  And so were tornadoes, fires, panthers, bears, snakes, and even escaped convicts – and floods.  There is a harrowing account of her being trapped in a flood when the nearby Sunflower River overflowed its levee.

She found herself stranded with her small daughter and two month old baby on top of a stump located on a ridge with the rain coming down and the flood waters rising rapidly.  

It was midafternoon, and the water was up over the stump, lapping my feet. The old tree that I had been so afraid of in the morning was still standing.  Now I prayed it would fall on us, kill all three of us at once and end this suspense. About that time I saw the top kind of quiver.  I shut my eyes, clutched my children tight, and to myself said, “Thank God.”  It came down with a crash; cold water poured over us.  I opened my eyes.  It had missed us by a few feet….

Of course, I was glad it had missed us but disappointed to be facing again this slow sure death.  I could see no possible hope….

…[T]he only prayer I could think of to ask God was to let them die first so I could take care of them to the end.

There is even a mystery at the heart of Mary Hamilton’s account of the struggles and adversity that she and her family faced.  I’m not going to give that away.  But her dedication written in the front of the book serves as a teaser:

To my husband’s people
whoever they are,
and wherever they may be

The book was rejected by Little, Brown in 1933.  It resurfaced in the early ‘90’s when it was published by the University of Mississippi Press, but without the permission of Hamilton’s heirs.  After the heirs regained the rights to the book, and eighty-three years after initially rejecting it, Little, Brown published it.

Finally, this: 

A reviewer wrote in the New York Times that Mary Hamilton “was a fairly ordinary woman, but one whom necessity and native grit teased to a grand self-possession and authority.”

The hell, you say.  This was no ordinary woman; this was one tall woman. 

Thursday, August 25, 2016

MAN WITH THE GUN (Formosa/UA, 1955)

DIRECTOR: Richard Wilson; PRODUCER: Samuel Goldwyn, Jr.; WRITERS: story and screenplay by N.B. Stone, Jr. and Richard Wilson; CINEMATOGRAPHER: Lee Garmes

CAST: Robert Mitchum, Jan Sterling, Karen Sharpe, Henry Hull, Emile Meyer, John Lupton, Barbara Lawrence, Ted de Corsia, Leo Gordon, James Westerfield, Florenz Ames, Joe Barry, Claude Akins, Angie Dickinson

The film opens with Ed Pinchot (Leo Gordon) riding into the town of Sheridan.  

A boy's dog breaks away from him and begins to bark at the feet of Pinchot's horse.  Irritated, Pinchot pulls a pistol from his shoulder holster and shoots the dog.

While the boy kneels in the street, distraught over his dog, the gunman receives a warm welcome from Frenchy Lescoe (Ted de Corsia), the manager of the Palace saloon, who, like Pinchot, is employed by a land baron named Dade Holman (Joe Barry).  

Although there were a number of eyewitnesses, including the town marshal, nobody raises a hand, not even the marshal. This is a town that has a lot of problems.  What it needs is a town tamer.

And as luck would have it, one is about to ride into town.

Clint Tollinger (Robert Mitchum) has come to Sheridan because he has learned that his estranged wife, Nelly Bain (Jan Sterling), lives there.  Since leaving Tollinger she has made her living by managing a group of "dance hall girls" who are currently employed at the Palace saloon.

Sally refuses to talk to Tollinger or to tell him where their daughter is -- or anything else about her.  Despite her love for him, she had left with their daughter because she could no longer tolerate his dangerous occupation.

Town Tamer's estranged wife
Word gets around that Tollinger is a notorious town tamer who hires out his gun in order to establish law and order. After discussing the issue in a meeting, the town council persuaded by its president, blacksmith Saul Atkins (Emile Meyer), reluctantly hires Tollinger.

Lee Sims (Henry Hull), a man who lacks any semblance of courage or initiative is the town marshal.  One has to wonder how it is that a frontier town ever hired him in the first place. Furthermore, why did he take a job that was clearly beyond his means to execute? And why didn't he resign when the going got tough?  And why didn't the town council fire him after it hired Tollinger? I don't know why, but he remained in the office to the very end. 

At any rate, Sims deputizes Tollinger and tells him that he is on his own. Tollinger makes it clear that he wouldn't have it any other way.

There is a subplot involving young Jeff Castle (John Lupton) who attempts to homestead on a plot of land that the greedy rancher Holman claims but does not have title to, but nevertheless attempts to control through intimidation and other illegal means.  Jeff is engaged to Saul Atkins daughter Stella (Karen Sharpe; not to be confused with Karen Steele).  Although Stella is opposed to the whole notion of violence, even for a good cause, she eventually finds herself drawn against her will to the gunfighter, even though she dislikes his methods.

Tollinger holds a slice of green tomato pie as he talks with (L-R) Jeff Castle, Stella Atkins, and Saul Atkins

And of course as in all of the town tamer westerns the business element begins to complain that Tollinger's methods are too harsh and are having the effect of driving business away. We knew that was going to happen -- and so did Tollinger.

Dade Holman, whose ominous shadow hovers over the town, is not seen until the closing scenes.  He is described to Tollinger as being a reclusive fat man who stays close to his ranch home, and has not been seen in town for several years.  He nevertheless controls the town and the surrounding area by employing gunfighters such as Pinchot to carry out his wishes.  He also owns the Palace saloon, which is managed by Lescoe.

Well, push comes to shove, as one would imagine -- especially after Tollinger nails up notices forbidding guns within the city limits, including the extremely harsh warning that violators will be shot.

It isn't long before he makes his point by shooting the Harkness brothers, two henchmen in the employ of Dade Holman, who refused to obey the rule. 

In response to the killing of the brothers and the weapons ban, four more of Holman's men ride into town looking for a showdown with Tollinger.

They are led by Jim Reedy, the hombre in the big hat, portrayed by a young Claude Akins in an uncredited role. Uncredited, because he isn't going to be in this picture for very long.

Tollinger gets the drop on the four and kills the gent on the left who draws his gun on him.

Reedy has a trick up his sleeve -- er in his big hat.  But he doesn't fool Tollinger and when the smoke clears Holman has lost another man.

That's four.

There are several gimmicks involving guns in the film: Pinchot carries his gun in a shoulder holster; Reedy has one hidden in his hat; and Tollinger carries an extra gun in his belt.

Tollinger, a two-gun man with one holster.  Why?  Beats me.

Along the way Tollinger learns a terrible secret and we learn why he became a town tamer, a man who always uses his gun on the side of law and order -- at least as he saw it.  And, of course, there must be a final shootout involving Tollinger and Pinchot and Holman.  

Dade Holman comes to town

When the smoke clears and the dust settles Tollinger has killed six men. That's pretty good work for just a few days when one considers that Wild Bill Hickok killed a grand total of six during his lifetime and Wyatt Earp accounted for three. Of course the cinematic Hickok and Earp killed many, many more than that. 

As you can tell, there isn't much originality in the plot.  It was done before and would be done again.  In fact, in many ways it combines elements of THE GUNFIGHTER (Fox, 1950) and WARLOCK (Fox, 1959) as well as a number of other films.  And it is true, that given everything that had transpired, the conclusion does fall a tad flat. However, a strong cast and excellent black-and-white-photography make it well worth watching.

Practically the entire film takes place in the town. But I like the town.  It has an authentic look and feel -- at least much more so than the typical western movie town.  According to sources, the film was shot on the Samuel Goldwyn lot, but I don't recall ever seeing the location in any other film. 



Robert Mitchum (1917-1997) began his movie career in 1942-43 by playing bit parts in the Hopalong Cassidy B-western series.  A gang henchman at the beginning he eventually landed a few sympathetic roles in the series.  At the same time he was cast in extra and bit parts in other films.

As luck would have it, RKO had lost its two reigning B-western stars -- first George O'Brien and then Tim Holt -- to military service during World War II.  In 1944, the studio signed Mitchum to a seven year contract to take their place and planned to star him in a series of B-Westerns loosely based on Zane Grey stories.

He starred in two -- NEVADA (1944) and WEST OF THE PECOS (1945) -- and was very good in them.  The two earlier series with O'Brien and Holt had been superior and it appeared that the studio had another winner.  But it was not to be.  These two films were the actor's only starring roles in B-westerns.  

Fate intervened again when, on loan-out, Mitchum was cast in an important role in William Wellman's WWII film, STORY OF G.I. JOE (UA, 1945).  It was a success, garnering four Academy Award nominations, including Mitchum as Best Supporting Actor. Ironically, it was his only nomination, but it meant that he would not become a famous B-western star.  No, instead he would become a famous movie star. And by the way, at the time of his nomination Mitchum was also in the military, having been drafted near the end of the war.

After the war, Tim Holt would return and resume his role as RKO's B-western star and Mitchum would go on to bigger and better things.  His deep voice, physical appearance, and sleepy-eyed demeanor made him perfect in the noir dramas that became his specialty. During that period he also starred in one classic western, BLOOD ON THE MOON  (RKO, 1948), which possessed many of the noirish qualities that characterized his other films. 

In 1954, Mitchum and the studio parted ways.  MAN WITH THE GUN was his first post-RKO film.

Jan Sterling and Paul Kelly in a scene from THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY

Prior to her role in MAN WITH THE GUN, Jan Sterling had appeared in two westerns. The first was an uncredited role as Flo, a saloon girl, in GUNFIRE (Lippert, 1950), a B-western starring Don "Red" Barry. In 1953, she was cast as a tomboy in love with Buffalo Bill (Charlton Heston) in PONY EXPRESS (Paramount, 1953). The first film did nothing to advance her career and the second, a weak film about the beginning of -- you guessed it -- the pony express -- didn't do much for her cause either.

However, the next year after PONY EXPRESS she received great critical notices for her performance in the John Wayne airplane disaster film, THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY (Warner Brothers). It was for that film that she was nominated for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress. It would be her only nomination.


Henry Hull (1890-1977), as Sheridan's incompetent marshal, gives a surprisingly restrained performance in MAN WITH THE GUN. Surprising, because he could chew scenery with the best of them.

His long and successful acting career began on the stage in 1911 and in the movies in 1917.

Although he did not appear in a lot of western films, he did have an important role in one classic. In JESSE JAMES (Fox, 1939) he portrayed Major Rufus Cobb, a frontier newspaperman and friend of the James brothers, a role he repeated the following year in the film's sequel, THE RETURN OF FRANK JAMES (Fox).

Two years before MAN WITH THE GUN, Emile Meyer (1910-1987) gave his most memorable performance.  It was as cattleman Rufus Ryker in SHANE  (Paramount), a man not unlike Dade Holman, that most western movie fans remember him.  Perhaps not as evil as Holman, Ryker nevertheless also opposed homesteaders settling on land that he claimed but had no legal title to. And he hired a gunfighter, too, one even more lowdown and mean than the character portrayed by Leo Gordon in this film.  Jack Palance was terrific in the role of the gunfighter.

John Lupton (1928-1993) is best remembered for co-starring with Michael Ansara in the TV series Broken Arrow.  The series was based on the movie of the same name which in turn was based on Gilbert Arnold's novel, Blood Brothers.

However, Lupton would not want to remembered, I am sure, for his starring role in the western-horror film, JESSE JAMES MEETS FRANKENSTEIN'S DAUGHTER (Embassy, 1966).  And neither would the late Jim Davis, who was also in the film.  Those must have been lean times for the two actors. 

Karen Sharpe (B. 1934) appeared in three films with her mentor and friend Jan Sterling. One of them was THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY, for which Sterling received her only Academy Award nomination and Sharpe received a Golden Globe Award for "New Star of the Year."

As a result, Sharpe was signed to a contract by Batjac, John Wayne's new production company.  It was on loan-out that she appeared in MAN WITH THE GUN, her only western feature.  During the decade she gravitated to TV where she appeared in many western episodes and in 1959-60 she co-starred with Don Durant in the western series Johnny Ringo, which was cancelled after one season.

In 1966, she married producer Stanley Kramer and subsequently retired from acting and moved into the production end of the business.

It is a well-documented fact that part of Robert Mitchum's appeal was his bad-boy reputation, partly based on the fact that early in his career he spent a few months behind bars due to a marijuana possession charge.

However, his reputation pales in comparison to that of Leo Gordon (1922-2000).

After receiving an undesirable discharge from the military, Gordon was shot by the police during an attempted hold-up of a bar and its patrons.  His conviction earned him five years in San Quentin.

Nevertheless, he eventually broke into acting and in a forty-year career appeared in more than 170 movie and TV productions.  Despite dropping out of school in the eighth grade, Gordon became a screenwriter and provided scripts for a few movies and many TV shows and even wrote a novel.  He attributed his ability to write to the years he spent behind bars reading every book in the prison's library.

Don Siegel, who directed him in RIOT IN CELLBLOCK 11 (ironically, partly filmed in San Quentin), once said that Gordon "was the scariest man I have ever met."  Gordon used that impression and an imposing physical presence to become one of the best brutal heavies to appear on film.  After all, he did shoot a boy's dog in the opening scene of MAN WITH THE GUN.  No villain could top that -- not even Jack Palance.

But neither Gordon nor Mitchum could have been all bad.  Both actors were married only once.  Mitchum's marriage lasted fifty-seven years until his death in 1987 and Gordon and his wife had been married fifty years when he died in 2000.  

Claude Akins (1926-1994) made his screen debut in an uncredited role as Sgt. Baldy Dhom in the WWII classic, FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (Columbia, 1953). In 1959 he had an important part in RIO BRAVO (WB, 1959) and a year later he gave what was perhaps his finest performance when he portrayed Ben Lane, Randolph Scott's nemesis in COMANCHE STATION (Columbia). 

And finally, you might recognize the actress who had a small part as Kitty, one of the "dance hall girls, a role for which she received no billing.  Angie Dickinson (B. 1931) would have to wait until the end of the decade for her breakthrough role in RIO BRAVO, in which she portrayed a female gambler named "Feathers."  


MAN WITH THE GUN was Samuel Goldwyn, Jr.'s (1926-2015) first film as a producer.  Like his father, he preferred to independently produce his films.  In fact, this project was filmed by his Formosa Productions company and distributed by United Artists.  Although he never ascended to the status of his legendary father, he did enjoy a long, successful career as a producer who specialized in offbeat films.  

He is especially remembered for giving Julia Roberts her big break in MYSTIC PIZZA (Samuel Goldwyn Co./1988).  It was also in that film that Mark Damon made his debut.  

Goldwyn wasn't the only rookie involved in MAN WITH THE GUN.  It also marked the directorial debut of Richard Wilson (1915-1991).  In addition to directing, Wilson, who was also a screenwriter (and actor and later producer), co-wrote the story and screenplay for the film.

His co-writer was N.B. Stone Jr. (1911-1967).  Stone wrote mostly for television and in fact provided only one other movie story and screenplay, but it was a beauty.  The film was RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY (MGM, 1952).  There is much speculation, however, that director Sam Peckinpah, a former screenwriter himself, was responsible for some major script rewrites.

Lee Garmes (1898-1978) was one of Hollywood's legendary cinematographers, one who was particularly adept at shooting films in black-and-white.  It is that and some interesting camera angles that make up two of the strongest features of MAN WITH THE GUN.   

Saturday, August 13, 2016

COME WINTER by Douglas C. Jones

"It was late April and there had been a hard little rain in the afternoon, then clearing, the clouds running off toward White River in the east and the sun coming through ebullient blue sky from the Indian Territory.  It was that magic time in the Ozarks when everyone leaned forward, expecting the next instant to hear larks or see north-migrating yellow warblers."

Ozark scene in N.W. Arkansas near setting of Come Winter
Reconstruction has ended and Roman Hasford is returning home to take charge of the family farm in northwestern Arkansas.  His father has entered the early stages of dementia, brought on by his horrifying experiences during the Civil War, and his mother is no longer able to cope with the burdens of caring for him and the farm.

Roman had left the farm after his father had returned from the war.  He made his way to Leavenworth, Kansas where through skill, hard work, a little luck, and good connections he amassed a sizeable fortune, even though he was still only in his twenties.

This was his second trip back home, but the first had been for only a short spell. He had not returned alone that time, but brought with him a little black-eyed girl named Catrina Peel, who had endured an abused existence at the hands of a no-account father.  Leaving her under the care of his mother, Roman returned to Leavenworth to tie up the loose ends that would allow him to settle permanently near Gourdville, the town closest to the Hasford farm.

Now he is returning, and not alone this time either.  With him are two people: Orvile Tucker, an ex-slave who is a blacksmith and the "best horse man" Roman has ever known; and Elmer Scaggs, an illiterate, unintelligent, but extremely loyal friend and employee, who "protected Roman Hasford from hurt, from bullies, as if Roman was a little boy on a school ground...."

"But Roman didn't just settle down.  He bought that old limestone building on the north side of the town square, and men went to work there with lumber and brick and mortar and glass to make a bank out of it, some said the second bank in the whole state of Arkansas, the first being down in Fayetteville, established only the year before.  And the word went out that a man could borrow money in that new bank in this money-starved country.  With appropriate interest."

The bank allowed Roman to become a power broker in his community and the surrounding area, not just because he possessed the means to influence events through his control of his neighbor's financial prospects, but because he was also able to dictate what individuals occupied what political offices.

"Then came the day that Roman married the little black-eyed girl....

"Almost everybody who counted in the county came.  It was springtime and the black locusts along Wire Road were in bloom.  Everything smelled like honeysuckle, and there were already larks calling from the fields across the road....

"As soon as the 'I now pronounce you man and wife' part was said, Catrina Peel Hasford went into the house and up to her loft room and stayed there the rest of the day."

Roman had returned home.  He had wealth, power, and a wife.  But what did it all mean?  And how would it all end?

"But in winter the colors died and the smells dried up.  The only place such things were sustained was inside snug walls.  The orange flame of the fireplace, the aroma of roasting chicken or frying ham creating a sense of well-being, sheltered from the great world beyond the frozen windows.  Outside, it was bleak, making the inside all the more safe and comfortable.

"So things that happened in the outside world, beyond those sheltering walls, were always remembered as harsher and more bitter than they would have if they'd happened in the spring, summer, or fall.

"And the trouble came back in winter."


"The story has all the elements of classic tragedy leavened with a bittersweet humor and wit that is quintessentially American....A master storyteller is at work here, offering a singular and knowledgeable vision of the nation's final frontier days." -- Publisher's Weekly

"Fine Adventure -- the history is rich, the story is intriguing, the characters are real.  Jones' corner of Arkansas is becoming one of the most skillfully and attractively documented places in America." Kirkus Review

"Come Winter includes a townful of characters, with women as tough as the men, building fortunes in new businesses where the railroads reach. Mr. Jones has created real people in a sympathetic story...." Herbert Mitgang, New York Times

Friday, August 12, 2016

WINDING STAIR by Douglas C. Jones

"Jones has taken believable crimes of a real gang of desperadoes from the 1890s, has surrounded the real criminals with fictitious lawmen, and given them a fictitious trial before the real 'hanging judge,' Isaac Parker....None of the moral forces of The Ox-Bow Incident perhaps -- but a gritty, lovingly etched Western-crime re-creation." -- Kirkus Review

Winding Stair takes place in Fort Smith, Arkansas and the Indian Territory (later Oklahoma) during the 1890s when the U.S. Federal Court for Western Arkansas, with Judge Isaac "The Hanging Judge" Parker at the helm, also had federal jurisdiction over much of the Indian Territory.

Federal courthouse in Fort Smith as it appeared in 1890 and today

Reconstructed gallows at Fort Smith

Young Eben Pay is reading for the law in the U.S. Attorney's office in Fort Smith when a gang of five murderous thieves, rapists, and killers (loosely based on the Rufus Buck gang) go on a killing and raping rampage in the Territory.  Deputy Marshal Oscar Schiller invites Pay to go along in an effort to capture the gang.

As events unfold Pay becomes much more personally involved than he had planned.

The reader is also introduced to Marshal Schiller's Osage tracker, Joe Mountain. The marshal, Joe, and Eben made subsequent appearances in other Jones' novels.

"Jones relies on none of the usual Western trappings; he eschews stereotypes....The historical research is seamless -- the story never slows down to admit dull exposition.  Winding Stair convinces, utterly, that this is how life must have been in that place at that time...a significant and highly entertaining contribution to the popular literature of the American West." -- New York Times

Saturday, June 25, 2016

WYATT EARP: Frontier Marshal by Stuart Lake, The Final Chapter

Part I can be read here and Part II here.  

Stuart Lake's best-selling "biography" of Wyatt Earp spawned four Hollywood movies, all produced and/or distributed by Fox studios, as well as a hit TV series.


DIRECTOR: Lew Seiler;  PRODUCER: Sol M. Wurtzel;  WRITERS: screenplay by William Counselman and Stuart Anthony based on Stuart Lake's book, Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal; CINEMATOGRAPER: Robert Planck

CAST: George O'Brien, Irene Bentley, George E. Stone, Alan Edwards, Ruth Gillette, Berton Churchill, Ward Bond, Russell Simpson

Wyatt's widow Josephine threatened to sue Fox for $50,000 charging the studio with producing an unauthorized portrayal of her late husband.  The studio responded by changing the name of the main character to "Michael Wyatt."

George O'Brien, who had been an important leading man during the silent era, starring in a number of films directed by the young John Ford, became one of the more talented actors to specialize in B-western series during the 1930's. In fact, leading up to his starring role in FRONTIER MARSHAL, he was Fox's reigning B-western star and had been starring in that studio's B-western series since the beginning of the sound era.  

FRONTIER MARSHAL was much like the films O'Brien had been starring in and was very much a B-western.  Despite the film's source material it wasn't given any special treatment and was simply considered to be just another entry in the O'Brien series.  After all, most of the scripts for the superior series were based on stories by Zane Grey and Max Brand, two writers who were a lot more famous than Stuart Lake.            

Doc Holliday, portrayed by Alan Edwards, had to also undergo a name change and thus became "Doc Warren."  His illness was changed from tuberculosis to a heart condition.  As per usual in the four films there is a "good" girl (Irene Bentley) and a "bad" girl (Ruth Gillette; but with a heart of gold, of course).

Ward Bond has a role in three of the four films, playing decidedly different characters in each.  Here he is hardnosed troublemaker that Wyatt must corral. 

The chief villain is portrayed by Berton Churchill, who is not only a crooked mayor, but also a crooked banker.  That's not a good combination.  Churchill would play a similar character five years later by attempting to abscond with his bank's deposits in John Ford's Stagecoach (UA).
George O'Brien


"'Frontier marshal,' being a frank melodrama, does not bother about plausibility, and one gathers that it was produced with the adapter and the director having their tongues in their cheeks." -- Mordaunt Hall, New York Times

"Fox gave it a fair budget but it was inferior to the earlier, and similar, 'Law and Order.'"* -- Brian Garfield, Western Films: A Complete Guide

*You can read my review of LAW AND ORDER here.


DIRECTOR: Allan Dwan;  PRODUCER: Sol M. Wurtzel;  WRITERS: screenplay by Sam Hellman based on Stuart N. Lake's book, Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal; CINEMATOGRAPHER: Charles G. Clarke

CAST:  Randolph Scott, Nancy Kelly, Cesar Romero, Binnie Barnes, John Carradine, Edward Norris, Ward Bond, Lon Chaney, Jr., Chris Pin-Martin, Joe Sawyer, Charles Stevens, Hank Bell, Si Jenks, Tom Tyler, Harry Woods

Once again Josephine Earp threatened to sue Fox, but settled for $5,000 when the producer agreed to remove Wyatt's name from the title of the film; as though that made any real difference since Scott's character in the film would still be called Wyatt Earp.  But $5,000 did make a difference when it came to soothing Josie's proprietary concern about how Wyatt was to be portrayed on the screen.  Besides, as Wyatt himself complained during the couple's years in California, Josie was seriously addicted to gambling -- horses being her weakness -- and, unlike Wyatt, she wasn't very good at it, and $5,000 would surely come in handy.

The film is a step up from the 1934 version in that it had a longer running time, a more competent director, and a bigger and overall better cast, and a more adult script.  It was an ideal vehicle for Randolph Scott and represented the kind of medium-budget western that he would specialize in for the rest of his career, films that filled in the space between the B-western series films and the bigger budget A-westerns.

This time Wyatt is an ex-army scout who is given the job of Tombstone's marshal when he subdues drunken Indian Charlie (Charles Stevens) who is shooting up the town.  (The scene would be repeated in MY DARLING CLEMENTINE [Fox, 1946] with Stevens portraying the same character and with Henry Fonda doing the honors.)  And on this occasion, Ward Bond is the cowardly marshal who refuses to confront Charlie and consequently loses his job.  (Unlike poor Charlie, Bond would finally be given a sympathetic character to portray in CLEMENTINE.)      

Even though Wyatt's name is retained in this one, for some unfathomable reason (to me anyway) Doc Holliday (Cesar Romero) becomes "Doc Halliday."  Did the Holliday family include someone who threatened to sue the filmmakers?  If so, somebody forgot to tell whoever was responsible for editing the trailer.

The narrator of the trailer clearly identifies Doc as Doc Holliday.  But in the scene shown here that follows, in which the marshal and the mayor are discussing Doc, he is called Doc Halliday.  That is also the way he is listed in the credits.

And once more, Doc is a surgeon, rather than a dentist, from Illinois (instead of Georgia), who must operate on a young Mexican boy who is accidentally shot during a street fight.  I should also add that Romero is surprisingly good in the film.  Personally, I rank his performance above that of Victor Mature in the more celebrated MY DARLING CLEMENTINE.

The chief villain is a crooked saloon owner (weren't they all?) and is portrayed by the wonderful John Carradine who never disappoints.  Josie, as in Stuart's book, makes no appearance in the film since its setting is in Tombstone and Josie did her best to keep that part of her history hidden.  But there is the inevitable "saloon" girl (Binnie Barnes), who possesses a heart of gold, but one she does her best to hide beneath a rough exterior.  Her main competition in the romantic sweepstakes is the obligatory "good girl" portrayed by Nancy Kelly.

I'm going to give Brain Garfield the last word.  Here is what he said about the film in his book, Western Films: A Complete Guide:

"...filmed on the tenth anniversary of Wyatt's death, it began the movies' love affair with the Earps, and it's still highly satisfactory with all the traditional myths solidly in place.  At the time of its release it suffered from competition with the slew of blockbuster westerns that brought the genre out of the doldrums in 1939....But in retrospect FRONTIER MARSHAL stands up well against all of them.  It's still heartily entertaining."

Nancy Kelly and Cesar Romero  
Wyatt and Doc "Halliday" meet for the first time.

Fox's big-budget, blockbuster western of 1939 was the outlaw biopic, JESSE JAMES, starring Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda as Jesse and Frank James, respectively.  Besides starring in FRONTIER MARSHAL that year, Nancy Kelly, as Jesse's wife Zee and Randolph Scott, as the family's fictitious lawman friend, had important supporting roles.  And so did John Carradine.  He played "the dirty little coward," Bob Ford.



This is the most highly acclaimed Wyatt Earp movie ever produced.  But, no, it isn't any more historically accurate than those that preceded it.  It is, however, a classic western and one that I rank at the number 7 spot on my hit parade of favorite western films.

Rather than me having to repeat myself you can mosey over and read my review of the film here.

But in case you don't want to do that, I must repeat my favorite line from the movie, which is my favorite line from any western movie, and one of my favorite lines from any movie:

Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda): "Mac, you ever been in love?"

Mac (J. Farrell MacDonald): "No, I've been a bartender all my life."

POWDER RIVER (Fox, 1953)

DIRECTOR: Louis King;  PRODUCER: Andre Hakim;  WRITERS: screenplay by Geoffrey Holmes (Daniel Mainwaring) from a story by Sam Hellman based on Stuart Lake's book, Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal; CINEMATOGRAPHER: Edward Cronjager

CAST: Rory Calhoun, Corinne Calvet, Cameron Mitchell, Penny Edwards, Carl Betz, John Dehner, Raymond Greenleaf, Victor Sutherland, Ethan Laidlaw, Bob Wilke, Frank Ferguson, Hank Worden, James Griffith, Eddy Waller, Mae Marsh

For some reason the names were changed again.  It couldn't be because of any interference by Josie because she had died in December 1944 and thus had not been able to create problems for this film or the earlier MY DARLING CLEMENTINE.  Maybe the names were changed to protect the innocent.  

Even screenwriter Mainwaring got into the act by adopting the high-falutin' nom deplume Geoffrey Holmes.  He even went further by giving the Earp character the name of Chino Bull (!), while Doc Holliday became Mitch Hardin.

Or maybe the names were changed so that he setting could be shifted from the southwest to the Powder River country in Montana in order to allow for some beautiful location shots in Glacier National Park, a land far removed from Tombstone and the desert southwest.

At any rate, it is a big step down from MY DARLING CLEMENTINE or even the 1939 production of FRONTIER MARSHAL.  That isn't to say that it is a terribly bad film, but that it doesn't come up to the high standards set by the other two films.

Rory Calhoun made a boatload of westerns, all of them, much like FRONTIER MARSHAL (1939), falling into that space occupied by films that were characterized by budgets and production values that surpassed the B-western series film, but weren't quite comparable with the A-westerns.  However, this is not a put down, because some of the most entertaining and enjoyable westerns ever made fall into that category.

Calhoun is Marshal Chino Bull and Cameron Mitchell is Mitch Hardin, a surgeon who gave up his practice when an untreatable brain tumor caused him to blackout during a surgery.  As a result he left his home in Connecticut to travel to the West where he became a gunfighting gambler.  Of course, he has to redeem himself when he is forced to perform an operation -- this time on the good girl who is accidentally shot and seriously wounded.  That would be Penny Edwards. She had just finished a tour of duty as the stand-in for the pregnant Dale Evans in several entries in the Roy Rogers B-series at Republic.  

Corinne Calvet owns a saloon and by default that makes her the "bad" girl.

Calvet and Calhoun
The villains are a crooked saloon owner (I told you; they all are), portrayed by John Dehner, who was always a welcome presence in westerns, and his outlaw brother played by Carl Betz.  As far as I can tell, Betz only appeared in one other Western, that being CITY OF BAD MEN, made the same year and by the same studio.  Betz would later become best known for his role as Donna Reed's husband on TV's The Donna Reed Show.

Mitchell and Calhoun
Calhoun, Edwards, and Glacier National Park


"...the dull contrivances of the story extend to the acting in general, and the entire mess has been slung together under Louis King's direction with a smart-alecky indifference to   conviction....the as bad as it is baffling." -- H.H.T., New York Times

"A taut town western....Minor but enjoyable." -- Phil Hardy, The Western

"Cliches, standard character types, uninspired script and direction add up to a routine horse opera with an adequate cast." -- Brian Garfield, Western Films: A Complete Guide

The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp (ABC-TV, 1955-1961)

Wyatt Earp, Wyatt Earp
Brave and courageous and bold
Long live his fame and long live his glory
And long may his story be told
-- Wyatt Earp TV show theme song

The TV western entered adulthood in 1955.  Prior to that year TV westerns had been geared primarily for a juvenile audience.  But that year two new series debuted that were written for adults.  Ironically, both were about lawmen who were employed to enforce the law in Kansas cowtowns.

Gunsmoke starred James Arness as a fictional U.S. marshal named Matt Dillion who combined his duties as a federal peace officer with those of county sheriff and town marshal.  How he did it, I'm not sure, but with only one part-time deputy he enforced federal, state, and local law.  But if TV viewers realized that that would have been an impossible burden, they didn't mind. The show was a big winner in the ratings and enjoyed one of the longest tenures of any program in television history.

For the 1957-58 season the program shot to the top of the Nielsen ratings and remained there for four consecutive years and for most of its long run it remained near the top.

The show originated on radio, starring William Conrad as Matt Dillion, and continued in that medium for some years after the TV series began.  Earlier I wrote about the radio show and you can read about it here.

Debuting four days earlier than Gunsmoke was The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, based on Stuart Lake's book, Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal.

Lake really hit the jackpot with this series.  Until her death in 1942, he had been forced to share the book's royalties 50-50 with Josie.  True, he had made money off the four Hollywood films, but nothing like what he would reap from the success of the TV show. Not only was it based on his book, but he served as an "expert" consultant and wrote a number of the scripts.  He even had final approval when it came time to cast the actor who would portray Wyatt.

The choice for the starring role was Hugh J. Krampe, Jr., who was born in Rochester, New York in 1925.  Well, it comes as no surprise that the actor is not known by his birth name but as Hugh O'Brian, the name he adopted when he began his acting career.

He first broke into the movies in 1950 when he won a supporting role in a Gene Autry B-western.  In the next five years he appeared in a variety of films, but primarily westerns.  He played John Ireland's brother in VENGEANCE VALLEY (MGM) in 1951 and one of the Devereaux brothers (Robert Wagner, Richard Widmark, Earl Holliman, O'Brien) in BROKEN LANCE (Fox).  That same year he signed with Universal and was featured in eighteen of their films during a three year period.  Two of those represented director Budd Boetticher's earliest efforts in the western genre: THE CIMARRON KID (1952) and THE MAN FROM THE ALAMO (1953). 

The character of Matt Dillion was strictly a fictional creation while Wyatt Earp was -- well -- in the TV series he was largely a fictional creation, too.  Of course the people in charge of the program -- including the star -- didn't want to think that or at least didn't want the viewer to think it.

The producer didn't lie when he said that the show's scripts stuck closely to the biographical details -- which were taken from Lake's book.  That was true enough, but begs the question of how accurate the biographical details in Lake's book might have been.  The word legend doesn't appear in the title of the series for no reason.

Hugh O'Brian and guest star Adele Mara

The series was a well-crafted, well-acted series and O'Brian was quite good in the role of the mythical Wyatt Earp.  The series was also characterized by a number of excellent character actors who had continuing roles in the series: Douglas Fowley (Doc Holliday); Paul Brinnegar (Jim 'Dog' Kelly, saloon owner and mayor of Dodge, before leaving the show to portray the cook, Wishbone, on Rawhide); and Morgan Woodward ('Shotgun' Gibbs, a fictional Earp deputy).

Morgan Woodward as "Shotgun" Gibbs
Douglas Fowley as Doc Holliday

But it is hard to swallow what the star had to say about the character he portrayed:

"With the exception of Stuart Lake, who wrote the book upon which our story is based, I don't think anybody is closer to Wyatt than I am.  Lake lived with Wyatt for four years (!!??) before Earp died, but I know a lot about Wyatt too.  I don't just mean facts, I mean what he stood for and what he'd do under certain circumstances."

Well, to begin with Lake never lived with Wyatt.  He only conducted a few interviews with him and they also exchanged some correspondence.  And if O'Brian did know a lot about Earp he never showed it, particularly when he claimed that Wyatt was in two hundred gunfights, but nevertheless killed only four men. The number of killings is close, but 200 gunfights?

Either O'Brian was making this stuff up or he had been duped by Mr. Lake. One indication that the latter was true is the fact that O'Brian carried not one, but two Buntline Specials, which he thought were replicas of what Wyatt had carried.  In fact, the special weapons were not created by Ned Buntline and the Colt Company, but by Lake's imagination.

The series moved Wyatt from one town to another over the course of its run -- from Ellsworth to Wichita to Dodge City to Tombstone -- which is a true picture of Wyatt's migrations.  However, the show made him the marshal who cleaned up each town, thus precipitating his move to the next wide-open boom town.

To repeat:  Wyatt Earp was never the marshal of any town.  He was never on the police force in Ellsworth at all, and he was the assistant marshal (chief deputy) in Wichita and Dodge.  He served briefly as a deputy marshal in Tombstone when the town marshal, his brother Virgil, deputized him and brother Morgan just before the confrontation at the O.K. Corral.

The show did not last as long as Gunsmoke, but neither did the other westerns that proliferated in its wake.  But it did okay in the ratings.  It finished in the top 20 Nielsen ratings during its four middle years, with its highest rating coming during its third season when it finished sixth.  

Ordinarily, I don't get on my soapbox when filmmakers and TV producers fail to adhere to the facts when they films stories based on actual historical figures and events.  It is only when the word "true" appears in the title or the producers claim that the story is based on "actual" events that I take issue.  Or in the case of Stuart Lake, when a writer says that he has not only written an authentic biography, but one that is based on countless interviews that he has conducted with his subject and the people who knew him -- and then proceeds to make up stuff.

I would have no complaint if the show's title had been The Legend of Wyatt Earp.  And, if so, this post would have been much briefer.