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)

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Thursday, September 12, 2013

ERNEST HAYCOX (1899-1950) -- Western Storyteller

Young Ernest Haycox

his first published novel (1929)

Robert L. Gale wrote in Twentieth-Century Western Writers (St. James Press, 1991), "[m]ore than any other 20th-century writer, Ernest Haycox changed the formulaic Western novel into one featuring complex heroes, contrasting heroines, and varied themes."  Western novelist D. B. Newton wrote that  Haycox made the Western respectable.  While historian Richard Etulain, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on Haycox, gives the writer credit for creating a "Hamlet-hero" who is a "reflective and analytical protagonist who often had to choose between two women, dark and light, as they moved toward resolution of their own lives."  Almost invariably, the protagonist was initially attracted to the wrong woman, but just in time was able to rectify his mistake.

Throughout his years as a writer, Haycox made a sustained effort to improve upon what he had produced in the past.  And his career is one of continuous advancement, one in which the quality of his storytelling greatly increased over the years, to the point that it could be said that he re-invented the genre.  He began writing stories much like the formulaic stories of Zane Grey and Max Brand, but soon began to experiment with new techniques in which he stretched the conventions of the formula.  Although he never advanced to the literary status of a Wallace Stegner or A.B. Guthrie, for example, he did bridge the gap between those worthies and early novelists such as Grey and Brand.  In the process, he became the most imitated of all the Western novelists.

Despite his death a few days after his fifty-first birthday, he published two dozen novels and over 250 short stories. Among his fans were Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein.

He was born in Portland, Oregon in 1899 and it was there that he lived most of his life and did most of his writing.  In 1915, claiming he was 18-years old, he joined the Oregon National Guard.  He was only fifteen.  His unit was sent south of San Diego to guard against any excursions by Pancho Villa and his band.  Pancho never showed and the unit returned to Oregon and Haycox re-entered high school.  Two years later, the unit was mobilized when the United States entered World War I.  Still only 17-years old and a senior in high school, he and his unit sailed to Europe.  Although he never experienced combat, he did rise to the rank of sergeant before being discharged.

After pursuing a number of livelihoods, commercial fisherman in Alaska for one, he enrolled at the University of Oregon in 1920, majoring in journalism.  While a student, he also began to write fiction that aroused little interest in the publishing industry.  Finally, in 1922, he sold his first story, receiving thirty dollars for his efforts.  By the time he graduated a year later he had sold several more stories.

Upon graduation, he became a police beat reporter for a short time, while continuing to write fiction.  Deciding that he needed to leave Portland in order to jump start his writing career, he took a train to New York.  While en route, he met Jill Chord who was on her way to attend art school in the big city.  They married in 1925.

Haycox determined rather soon after his arrival that New York was not the place for him.  Homesick and broke he returned to Oregon in 1925.  It was there that his fortunes as a writer began to improve.

After seeing a number of his short stories published, his first novel, Free Grass, was published in 1929 after first being serialized in the pulp magazine, West.  In 1931, he broke into the "slick-paper" magazine trade when he and Collier's entered into an agreement whereby it would be given the first opportunity to publish his stories.  For the next dozen years, nearly all of his output was serialized in that publication, including fourteen novels and nearly a hundred short stories.  After appearing in Collier's, the novels were published in book form.

Although Haycox had a story in Collier's almost every week, the magazine was guilty of one grave misjudgment when it passed on Bugles in the AfternoonThe Saturday Evening Post quickly agreed to publish the serial, which resulted in Haycox having stories running simultaneously in both publications.  Furthermore, Bugles in the Afternoon is now considered to be his greatest novel.

Haycox's greatest novel

Appearing in Collier's in 1937 was a short story that would become one of the writer's most famous stories.  The title was Stage to Lordsburg.  In 1939, it became the basis for John Ford's STAGECOACH, one of the most famous Western movies ever filmed.  It was also the first Haycox story to be adapted for the screen.  In the same year, another story, Trouble Shooter (1937), became the basis for Cecil B. DeMille's epic film, UNION PACIFIC.

The following is a listing of the films that were based on Haycox's stories:

STAGECOACH (Wanger/UA, 1939)
Director: John Ford;  Producer: John Ford;  Writers: screenplay by Dudley Nichols based on Ernest Haycox short story, Stage to Lordsburg;  Cinematographer: Bert Glennon

Starring: Claire Trevor and John Wayne

This is the most famous, as well as the greatest film to be based on a Haycox story.  But John Ford's direction has more to do with the film's success than the Haycox short story on which it was based.

Director: Cecil B. DeMille;  Producer: Cecil B. DeMille;  Writers: screenplay by Walter DeLeon, C. Gardner Sullivan, Jesse Lasky, Jr., and Jack Cunningham based on Ernest Haycox novel, Trouble Shooter;  Cinematographer: Victor Milner

Starring: Barbara Stanwyck and Joel McCrea

This was an epic blockbuster and DeMille's best sound Western.  However, it is weakened by a poor performance by Miss Stanwyck that is only partly offset by good performances by McCrea and Preston.

SUNDOWN JIM (Fox, 1942)
Director: James Tinling;  Producer: Sol M. Wurtzel;  Writers: screenplay by William Buckner and Robert F. Metzer based on Ernest Haycox novel of same name;  Cinematographer: Glen MacWilliams

Starring: John Kimbrough

John Kimbrough was a football All-American and star of Texas A&M's national champions in 1939.  Fox starred him in this film and one more the same year.  He then served in the military during WWII and after his discharge played three seasons of professional football, but never appeared in another film.  He is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame.

(L-R) William Lundigan, Donna Reed, Ann Ayars, Lloyd Nolan

Director: Richard Thorpe;  Producer: Samuel Marx;  Writers: screenplay by Maurice Geraghty based on Ernest Haycox short story, Stage Station;  Cinematographer: Sidney Wagner

Starring: Lloyd Nolan, William Lundigan, Donna Reed

Lloyd Nolan starring in a Western?  What could be worse?  How about one starring Nolan and William Lundigan?  Well, at least it was over in 66 minutes.

(L-R) Randolph Scott, Ann Dvorak, Edgar Buchanan
Director: Edwin L. Marin;  Producer: Jules Levy;  Writers: screenplay by Harold Shumate based on Ernest Haycox novel, Trail Town;  Cinematographer: Archie Stout

Starring: Randolph Scott and Ann Dvorak

Randolph Scott and Edgar Buchanan, not to mention Rhonda Fleming and Lloyd Bridges -- now that's much, much better.  Although this is only a fair-to-middlin' Western, it is at least getting closer to what Haycox put on paper.  

Director: Jacques Tourneur;  Producer: Walter Wanger;  Writers: screenplay based on Ernest Haycox novel of same name;  Cinematographer: Edward Cronjager

Starring: Dana Andrews, Brian Dovlevy, Susan Hayward

The Oregon location photography by Edward Cronjager is breathtaking.  Dana Andrews, in one of his very best performances, leads a talented cast.  Once again, as so often in his stories, Haycox's hero must decide between two women, after prematurely choosing the wrong one.  

Brian Garfield in his review of the film had this to say: "[It] is the only movie to have rendered on screen a reasonably true reflection of the spirit and feeling of Ernest Haycox's storytelling, right down to his poetic and fascinating dialogue.  His prose is lyrical and unique; somehow this film captures it."

You can read Colin's great review of the film over at RIDING THE HIGH COUNTRY .

MAN IN THE SADDLE (Columbia, 1951)
Director: Andre deToth;  Producer: Harry Joe Brown;  Writers: screenplay by Kenneth Gamet based on Ernest Haycox novel of same name;  Cinematographer: Charles Lawton, Jr.

Starring: Randolph Scott, Joan Leslie, Ellen Drew, Alexander Knox

This is one of the better film adaptations of an Ernest Haycox novel.  According to Brian Garfield, it is second only to CANYON PASSAGE, but a distant second.  And like that film, it is also an example of Haycox's protagonist being attracted to the wrong woman, but after he sees his error, he chooses the right one.

Ray Milland and Forrest Tucker
Director: Roy Rowland;  Producer: William Cagney;  Writers: screenplay by Daniel Mainwaring based on Ernest Haycox novel of same name; Cinematographer: Wilfred M. Cline

Starring: Ray Milland, Helena Carter, Hugh Marlowe

It is unfortunate that Haycox's greatest novel was made into a mediocre film, but that is what happened.  The biggest problem is the casting of Ray Milland in the lead.  An otherwise fine actor, he was never very believable in Western roles.  Forrest Tucker was good and Hugh Marlowe even better, but Sheb Wooley as Custer?  I don't think so.

Director: Harold F. Kress;  Producer: Hayes Goetz;  Writers: screenplay by Jerry Davis from Ernest Haycox short story, Stage Station;  Cinematographer: John Alton

Starring: Gilbert Roland, Glenda Farrell, Robert Horton

This is a re-make of the studio's APACHE TRAIL, which was filmed ten years earlier.  It is an improvement, if only for Gilbert Roland replacing Lloyd Nolan in the lead role.

STAGECOACH (Fox, 1966)
Director: Gordon Douglas;  Producer: Martin Rackin;  Writers: screenplay by Joseph Landon based on Dudley Nichols 1939 screenplay and Ernest Haycox's short story, Stage to Lordsburg.

Starring: Bing Crosby, Ann-Margret, Alex Cord, et al.

Why a re-make of the 1939 classic?  Beats me.

Two more of Haycox's novels, The Border Trumpet and Alder Gulch, were optioned but never filmed.  It was reported that the latter was to be directed by Anthony Mann with James Stewart as the star.  It is unfortunate, because the result might have been a major Western film. 

In the postwar years, Haycox grew weary of the restrictions that magazine publishers and the serialized novel placed on him.  And though he always scoffed at the idea of wishing to write literary novels, he did once admit in a moment of candor that he hoped he would be remembered and that he didn't believe that what he had written to that point in his career would make that possible.  Canyon Passage, published in 1944, was his final serialized novel.

Beginning with Long Storm (1947), Haycox moved away from the traditional Western adventure that had made him a popular writer, and moved toward more panoramic, more sweeping -- yes, more literary  historical novels set in the West.  He was not happy with the results of his first effort, but did feel that he was moving in the right direction.

After the publication of Long Storm, Haycox began a new attempt to write "an important novel," but he struggled to finish it.  It was The Adventurers, which was not published until 1954, four years after his death.

Next was Haycox's most ambitious novel, The Earthbreakers.  The setting is Oregon's Willamette Valley in 1845.  Apparently, he intended it to be the first of five novels dealing with the different stages of Oregon's historical growth and development.  Perhaps he had in mind something similar to A.B. Guthrie's series of novels that covered the West's various historical stages, beginning with the mountain man and ending with the contemporary West. We will never know for sure, for Haycox died in 1950 a few months after two unsuccessful cancer surgeries.  The Earthbreakers was published two years later. 

What we do know is that Haycox would have continued to experiment and he would have taken his novels to the next level had his premature death not robbed him of so many creative years.  And we also know that he is remembered.


  1. Although I've never read the book, I wrote a piece on CANYON PASSAGE the other day - a wonderful film.
    Actually, the only book by Haycox I own is RIM OF THE DESERT - I plan to seek out a cop of BUGLES IN THE AFTERNOON at some point though.


  2. Here's the irony. I was getting ready to do a review of CANYON PASSAGE the other day. On that day I checked out your site as I do every day and saw that on that very day you had posted a review of the film. So I changed course and decided to write about the novel's author and I intended to link to your review. I'm glad you commented because it reminded me that I need to do so.

    I have been a big fan of Haycox for many years and I agree with you that CANYON PASSAGE is a wonderful film.


    1. Gee, sorry if I stole your thunder on that one. You put together a great post here anyway - very informative. And thanks for the link!


  3. No apologies necessary. You wrote a great review and saved me some work.


  4. My new book on Ernest Haycox, entitled ERNEST HAYCOX AND THE WESTERN, has just been published by the U of Oklahoma Press. Sept 9, 2017

    1. Hi Dick,

      Will you be speaking in the Tulsa area anytime soon?