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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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.

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