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)

Total Pageviews

Sunday, May 21, 2017


"It would seem that the western, telling its story in terms of action rather than dialogue, should have been relatively unconcerned about the mechanical problems of sound .... [But] because of many actual and alleged problems, including most specifically the recording of the camera's own operational noise, the camera became rooted to the ground and housed in small 'sweat boxes.'

"In the first year or two of sound, the western didn't seem important enough to justify the necessary effort.  Like the big elaborate swashbuckler, it was considered a dead relic of the silents and of no major commercial value." -- William K. Everson, A Pictorial History of the Western Film

The humble B-western dominated western filmmaking in the silent era, just as it did during the first two decades following the advent of sound.

There were some silent westerns produced to appeal to adult audiences, those starring William S. Hart, for example, or directed by a young John Ford, but the biggest star of the era was Tom Mix, whose fast-moving, action-filled films were geared to a younger audience.


Mix and Tony

But since westerns were by their nature outdoor films, the coming of sound, and its crude sound equipment, meant that most productions would be filmed indoors and consequently the western would be at a disadvantage.

This was true even after IN OLD ARIZONA (Fox, 1928) proved that sound movies could be filmed outdoors.  However, even this film was unavoidably stilted and static because of the problems presented by the sound equipment which dictated that the camera had to remain stationary much of the time.

Warner Baxter is the Cisco Kid in IN OLD ARIZONA
Despite the success of the film, the major studios tended to shy away from outdoor pictures. Under the best of conditions, it was still a cumbersome process when compared to filming on a sound stage.  As it turned out, it would be the Poverty Row studios that rushed in where the majors feared to tread.

Many of them didn't even own a sound stage and didn't possess the necessary financial wherewithal to rent one. For that reason, among others, B-westerns flooded the market.  Many of them were so crudely done and amateurishly acted and unintentionally laughable that they are extremely painful for even lovers of western films to watch today.

But the equipment improved and the films began to slowly but surely improve as studios such as Republic and Monogram began to produce superior B's and some of the majors also got back into the business of making quality B-westerns.

And as equipment improved and logistical problems were worked out the majors also began to film A-westerns geared to adult audiences.  It was still a slow process, however, and did not build up a head of steam until the landmark year of 1939.

As Les Adams and Buck Rainey noted in their detailed study of western movies, Shoot-em-Ups, the years from 1933 to 1937 were boom years for the B-western programmer, but not so much for the A-western.  In fact, almost 500 of the 530 western features shot during the period were B-westerns.

What follows are some of the significant sound A-westerns made prior to 1939, beginning with, naturally:

IN OLD ARIZONA (Fox, 1928)

DIRECTOR: Irving Cummings and Raoul Walsh;  WRITERS: adaptation by Tom Barry based on O. Henry's short story, The Caballero's Way; CINEMATOGRAPHER:  Arthur Edeson

CAST:  Warner Baxter, Edmund Lowe, Dorothy Burgess, Henry Armetta, Frank Campeau, Tom London, J. Farrell MacDonald 

Warner Baxter is the Cisco Kid, a Robin Hood type who robs the rich and gives to the poor.  In O. Henry's short story the Kid was actually an Anglo, but Baxter plays him as a Mexican, unconvincing accent and all, and in the many Cisco Kid films (and TV series) that followed, he would never return to his original Anglo status. 

In the second year of the Academy Awards the film was nominated for five Oscars out of a possible seven.  However, Baxter's award for Best Actor was the film's only winner.  Despite the award it is difficult today to watch his attempt to portray a Latin outlaw without cringing at its stereotypical nature.  Neither his performance nor the film has stood the test of time.

"[It] was of its time -- a romantic triangle melodrama with a gloomy ending." -- Brian Garfield, Western Films: A Complete Guide

"[It] was hardly a super-western but was certainly one of style and importance.  Microphones hidden under prairie scrub and foliage enabled naturalistic sound effects to be picked up, and even more than the gunshots and the galloping hooves, the sound of frying bacon impressed itself on viewers and showed that the realistic quality of sound was perhaps just what the western needed. -- William K. Everson, A Pictorial History of the Western Film

"Novelty of first major sound western and first talkie to take microphones outdoors has long worn off, leaving only a stilted performance led by Baxter's dubious Oscar winner as the Cisco Kid." -- Leonard Maltin

THE VIRGINIAN (Paramount, 1929)

DIRECTOR: Victor Fleming;  PRODUCER:
B.P. Schulberg;  WRITERS:  screenplay by Howard Estabrook based on novel by Owen Wister;  CINEMATOGRAPHER: J. Roy Hunt;  Assistant Director: Henry Hathaway;  Dialogue Coach: Randolph Scott

CAST:  Gary Cooper, Walter Huston, Mary Brian, Richard Arlen, Chester Conklin, Eugene Palette, Victor Potel, Ernie Adams, George Chandler, Bob Kortman, Ethan Laidlaw, Lee Meehan, Jack Pennick, Randolph Scott, Charles Stevens

TRAMPAS (Walter Huston):  "Well, who's talkin' to you?"

THE VIRGINIAN (Gary Cooper):  "I'm talkin' to you, Trampas!"

TRAMPAS: "When I want to know anything from you, I'll tell ya, you long-legged son-of-a-...."

THE VIRGINIAN:  [Trampas stops talking abruptly as the Virginian's pistol is pressed against his abdomen.]  "If you want to call me that, smile!"

TRAMPAS:  "With a gun against my belly, I -- I always smile!"
[He grins broadly.]

Owen Wister's seminal western novel is perhaps the most famous ever written. It was so popular that it was twice produced as a play and has been the basis for six films, including two during the silent era.  And then there was the popular TV series that ran for nine seasons from 1962 to 1971.

The 1929 film is known primarily for the above scene and the exciting shoot-out conclusion.  An early talkie, it is generally considered to be a classic film and easily the best production of the story.  It also made Gary Cooper a leading man though real stardom would have to wait a few more years. 

"[It] remains a classic: the essential western, still vital, still funny and moving by turns .... Cooper's performance ... still impresses, but Huston and Arlen aren't far behind ... THE VIRGINIAN is fun, and very good; possibly we may never come nearer to the ultimate western." Brian Garfield, Western Films: A Complete Guide

".... stiff but interesting western, salvaged in good climactic shoot-out." -- Leonard Maltin

".... verbose, slow and unlikely .... The film's slowness is a direct result of the new slower pace sound brought to the cinema." -- Phil Hardy, The Western


DIRECTOR: King Vidor;  PRODUCER: King Vidor; WRITERS: dialogue by Laurence Stallings, et al. based on book by Walter Noble Burns, The Saga of Billy the Kid; CINEMATOGRAPHER: Gordon Avil;  TECHNICAL ADVISER: William S. Hart

CAST: Johnny Mack Brown (as John Mack Brown), Wallace Beery, Kay Johnson, Wyndham Standing, James Marcus, Russell Simpson, Roscoe Ates, Warner Richmond, Hank Bell, Chris-Pin Martin

The story of Billy the Kid had been filmed a couple of times during the silent era, but by the dawn of the sound era he had become an almost forgotten historical character.  That all changed in 1926, however, with the publication of Walter Noble Burns' pseudo-biography, The Saga of Billy the Kid, which was not as much a biography of historical Billy as it was of the legendary Billy.  The bestselling book effectively resurrected Billy from the dustbin of history -- or at least the legendary version, the tragic hero, the misunderstood one who was a victim of circumstances.

Johnny Mack Brown ... brought athletic ability and a pleasing personality to the role of Billy, although it was Wallace Beery as Pat Garrett who gave the best performance, a surprisingly underplayed piece of acting for such an extrovert player and an equally surprising underwritten role. -- William K. Everson, A Pictorial History of the Western Film

William S. Hart served as technical adviser to the film and this no doubt added an air of authenticity to the production.  And so did the fact that the film was shot on the actual locations of the Lincoln County, New Mexico conflict.

However, the old cowboy actor had to be displeased with the happy ending that was added to the film, one that allowed Billy to ride across the border to enjoy a peaceful life with the woman he loved.  At least that is what happened in the version released in the U.S.; the film distributed in Europe included the historical ending in which Garrett shot and killed Billy.  One supposes that the producers didn't think U.S. audiences would be willing to accept such a tragic conclusion.

It was hoped by all concerned that the film would make a star of Brown and it did, but not the kind that he or the studio envisioned.  

What he did eventually become, after being demoted to Poverty Row for a time, was one of the most pleasing and most durable of all the B-western stars, spending most of his career at Universal and later Monogram.

"The slow film is rather talky but it recaptures the legend of Billy the Kid very nicely .... The movie conveys an overpowering flavor and sense of history, in terms of time and place, rather than the facts ... and the movie was shot on actual locations at a time when they hadn't changed perceptibly." Brian Garfield, Western Films: A Complete Guide

" ... the photography is good, but always naturalistic, the characters drab in dress, the buildings ramshackle, the streets dusty .... its script is frankly untidy, yet the film is quite certainly the best and most convincing of all the Billy the Kid sagas." -- William K. Everson, A Pictorial History of the Western Film

"[It] is undeniably faithful to the look of the old West, despite its big budget and romantic plot." Phil Hardy, The Western

"Realistic early talkie western ...; some performances seem highly dated today." -- Leonard Maltin 

THE BIG TRAIL (Fox, 1930)

DIRECTOR: Raoul Walsh;  PRODUCER: Winfield R. Sheehan;  WRITERS: screenplay by Marie Boyle, Jack Peabody, and Florence Postal based on story by Hal G. Evarts;  CINEMATOGRAPHER: Lucien N. Andriot and Arthur Edeson

CAST: John Wayne, Marguerite Churchill, El Brendel, Tully Marshall, Tyrone Power, Sr., Charles Stevens, Chief Big Tree, Ward Bond, Iron Eyes Cody

"The most important picture ever produced" was apparently not a unanimous opinion.

Great pains were taken to give this wagon train tale an authentic look, but the film is severely hampered by a B-western script and Wayne's lack of experience as an actor.  "The most important picture ever produced" was a failure at the box office where it really counted.

Much has been written about this film due to the fact that it provided John Wayne with his first important role. THE VIRGINIAN made Gary Cooper a leading man, but BILLY THE KID failed to do the same for Johnny Mack Brown. And Wayne, like Johnny Mack, would be relegated to B-westerns, but finally, unlike Johnny Mack, he would finally escape in 1939 when John Ford chose him to star in STAGECOACH (UA, 1939)  

But even then, like Cooper before him, the film made him a leading man but true stardom would have to wait several years, in his case, almost a decade, until Howard Hawks cast him in RED RIVER (UA, 1948).  The actor's long and fruitful association with John Ford began after that and eventually he became the biggest star of them all, especially in, but not restricted to, western films.

In a perverse way the failure of THE BIG TRAIL may have worked in
the actor's favor. Those years at Monogram and Republic starring in B-westerns are where he finally learned his craft.

Click on the picture below and you will see why he had much learning to do:

"THE BIG TRAIL was a surprising box office failure .... Wayne ... is more than adequate in the lead .... The sequences of the wagons fording rivers and being manhandled up mountains and the action scenes are both realistic and visually breathtaking." Phil Hardy, The Western

".... an outstanding early sound epic .... But ... the authenticity of detail and the sweep of history was somewhat let down by a standardized 'B' plot ...." William K. Everson, A Pictorial History of the Western Film

"The script is poor, but so is Wayne's acting; he is wooden at best, and embarrassingly inept at worst." -- Brian Garfield, Western Films: A Complete Guide

"Epic western may seem creaky to some viewers, but remains one of the most impressive early talkies, with its grand sweep and naturalistic use of sound." -- Leonard Maltin


DIRECTOR: Wesley Ruggles;  PRODUCERS: William LeBaron and Wesley Ruggles;  WRITERS: dialogue by Howard Estabrook based on novel by Edna Ferber;  CINEMATOGRAPHER: Edward Cronjager;  SECOND UNIT DIRECTOR: B. Reeves Eason

CAST: Richard Dix, Irene Dunne, Estelle Taylor, William Collier, Jr., Nance O'Neil, Roscoe Ates, George F. Stone, Stanley Fields, Edna May Oliver, Bob Kortman, Frank Lackteen, Ethan Laidlaw

CIMARRON is primarily noted for two things: 1) it was the first western to win an Oscar for Best Picture (the second to win the award was DANCES WITH WOLVES [1990], fifty-nine years later) and 2) the Oklahoma land rush scene staged by the incomparable action director B. Reeves Eason.
It was reported that the land rush scene took a week to film, utilizing 5,000 extras, 28 cameramen, 6 still photographers, and 27 camera assistants.

Unfortunately, as critics have noted the land rush is the most exciting thing about the film and it occurs at the beginning.  After that, it is unsurprising that the film had a tendency to lose its momentum.

However, it was nominated for seven Oscars and won three (Best Picture, Art Direction, and Best Writing Adaptation).  Both of its stars, Richard Dix and Irene Dunne (her film debut), were nominated for their performances but neither won.

Dix would go on to star in 18 other westerns, but except for one comedic contemporary western, this would be the only one for Dunne.

It was also the year's biggest money maker at the box office, but because of its expensive production costs it still lost money.  

"The opening spectacle -- the Oklahoma land rush -- is tremendous and it's a solid empire-building movie about the conversion of Indian Territory into the state of Oklahoma and the subsequent building of oil fiefdoms ..., it's soap more than horse opera ... it leaves quite a lot to be desired for modern audiences, and with the climactic land rush at the beginning rather than the end, it has nowhere to go but downhill." -- Brian Garfield, Western Films: A Complete Guide

"... it tended to be bogged down in character studies and had the structural flaw of presenting its highlight -- the massive Cherokee Strip land rush sequence at the beginning of the picture .... the film was well-served by Richard Dix and Irene Dunne in the leads [and] many good supporting performers .... " -- William K. Everson, A Pictorial History of Western Film

"Though Ruggles' spirited direction seems dated now, the outdoor scenes still remain impressive." -- Phil Hardy, The Western

" ... it dates badly, particularly Dix's overripe performance -- but it's still worth seeing." -- Leonard Maltin

LAW AND ORDER (Universal 1932)

Based on W.R. Burnett's novel, Saint Johnson, the film is a thinly disguised fictional treatment of the events leading to and including the shoot-out at Tombstone's O.K. Corral.  It stars Walter Huston as a Wyatt Earp-like character with Harry Carey filling the role of the Doc Holliday-like character.

I earlier reviewed the film and if you wish you can read it here.

THE TEXAS RANGERS (Paramount, 1936) 

DIRECTOR: King Vidor; PRODUCER: King Vidor: WRITERS: screenplay by Louis Stevens from a story by King Vidor and Elizabeth Hill based upon data from Walter Prescott Webb's book, The Texas Rangers; CINEMATOGRAPHER: Edward Cronjager 

CAST: Fred McMurray, Jack Oakie, Jean Parker, Lloyd Nolan, Edward Ellis, Benny Bartlett, Fred Kohler, George "Gabby" Hayes, Stanley Andrews, Irving Bacon, Hank Bell, Neal Hart, Charles Middleton

Three desperadoes (L-R): Fred McMurray, Jack Oakie, Lloyd Nolan; two will eventually go straight.
What a pleasant surprise!  It is a much better film than the attention it has received would indicate.  I had read about it, but had never viewed it until recently.  It wasn't because I didn't want to, it was because I couldn't locate it. But what I had read in works dealing with the history of the western, with one exception, had never given the film much more than a  brief mention.

The exception is A Pictorial History of the Western by William K. Everson.  Everson writes:

"By far the best of Paramount's quartet of mid-thirties epics was THE TEXAS RANGERS and indeed, despite its weaknesses, it is still one of the most enjoyable Paramount super-westerns from any period.  It was directed by King Vidor in 1936, his first western since BILLY THE KID [1930], and a much more polished if gripping work .... [T]he script ... was not ambitious enough ... ostensibly based on Texas Rangers records, but actually it seems to consist of well-known Ranger incidents ... fused with a very standard "B" picture plot which constantly threatens to reduce its epic stature.

"[B]ut Vidor fills his film with enough incident, action, and well-developed characters for these flaws to matter too much.

"Even though not a classic, [it] is an exhilarating western with a refreshing schoolboy vigor."

By the way, the other three Paramount super-westerns that Everson alludes to and ranks below THE TEXAS RANGERS are: THE PLAINSMAN (1936), WELLS FARGO (1937), and THE TEXANS (1938).  Two of them are coming up next and I plan a complete review of THE TEXAS RANGERS in the near future.

Fred McMurray: outlaw?

McMurray and Oakie: Rangers or outlaws?

Gabby: crooked judge?

THE PLAINSMAN (Paramount, 1936)

DIRECTOR: Cecil B. DeMille;  PRODUCERS: Cecil B. DeMille and William H. Pine; WRITERS: screenplay by Waldemar Young, Harold Lamb, and Lynn Riggs; CINEMATOGRAPHER: Victor Milner;  SECOND UNIT DIRECTOR: Arthur Rosson

CAST:  Gary Cooper, Jean Arthur, James Ellison, Charles Bickford, Helen Burgess, Porter Hall, Paul Harvey, John Miljan, Fred Kohler, Harry Woods, Anthony Quinn, Francis McDonald, George "Gabby" Hayes, Fuzzy Knight, Stanley Andrews, Francis Ford, Irving Bacon, Hank Bell, Monte Blue, Lane Chandler, Bud Osborne, Charles Stevens, Chief Thundercloud, Hank Worden

Gary Cooper is Wild Bill Hickok, Jean Arthur is Calamity Jane, James Ellison is Buffalo Bill Cody, and Cecil B. DeMille is in charge of what was his first western epic.  The film should have benefited from its big budget, but it didn't always. The director always preferred shooting his epics indoors and never liked spending much time on location, to the detriment of this film and others he helmed.  Consequently, the film is marred by phony studio "exteriors," back projection shots, and actors riding mock-up horses. In fact, most of the outdoor scenes, and not just the action scenes, were shot by second unit directors, in this case, Arthur Rosson.

Wild Bill gets the drop on crooked gambler

But the audiences of the '30's didn't seem to mind and it was a popular, if not critical, success.  And the good cast is able to overcome its shortcomings to some degree and the end result is entertaining.

Jean Arthur is Calamity Jane

James Ellison is Buffalo Bill Cody

And, by the way, Porter Hall is Jack McCall, the dastardly coward who dispatches Wild Bill in a Deadwood saloon, shooting him from behind, of course. Oh, and another thing, if you are interested in the true history of the three principal characters it would be best to look elsewhere.

"... for all its attention to petty historical detail ... it plays fast and loose with history .... Slow moving and overly romantic by modern standards in its depiction of westward expansion, [it] remains an entertaining spectacle." -- Phil Hardy, The Western

"[W]hile a big popular success, it was hardly a good picture.  Its script was heavy-handed and obvious, and far too much of the film was spoiled by DeMille's over-fondness for shooting as much of his pictures as possible within the confines of the studio.  Nevertheless ... the production as a whole was big and certainly entertaining." -- William K. Everson, A Pictorial History of the Western Film

" ... performances by most of the players are spirited.  But its juvenile, an overblown programmer.  [It] isn't much of a movie but it did establish Cooper as the archetypal western hero." -- Brian Garfield, Western Films: A Complete Guide

"Typical DeMille hokum, a big, outlandish western .... About as authentic as BLAZING SADDLES [WB, 1974], but who cares -- it's still good fun." -- Leonard Maltin

WELLS FARGO (Paramount, 1937)

DIRECTOR: Frank Lloyd;  PRODUCERS: Howard Estabrook and Frank Lloyd; WRITERS: screenplay by Paul Schofield, Gerald Geraghty, and Frederick J. Jackson based on story by Stuart N. Lake;  CINEMATOGRAPHER: Theodor Sparkuhl

CAST: Joel McCrea, Bob Burns, Frances Dee, Lloyd Nolan, Ralph Morgan, Johnny Mack Brown, Porter Hall, Robert Cummings, Harry Davenport, Frank Conroy, Peggy Stewart, Ernie Adams, Hank Bell, Lane Chandler, Richard Denning, Jack Perrin, Hal Taliaferro, Harry Woods

Joel McCrea and Frances Dee were Mr. and Mrs. McCrea in real life.  

There's a lot of soap in this hoss opera, a nation-building epic about the formation of Wells & Fargo, Co. McCrea portrays a troubleshooter who is instrumental in the company's efforts to establish an overland freight and mail service. The film covers the years represented by the California Gold Rush, the Pony Express, and the Civil War. This requires the stars to age several decades and suffer through many trials and tribulations, including strains on family life, during those eventful times.

Before all is said and done the story evolves, make that devolves, into more of a costume drama than western adventure.  My advice is to skip this one and to watch Four Faces West, a much more satisfying western starring McCrea and Dee. 

However, WELLS FARGO was McCrea's first starring role in a western and there would come a time when he would devote his entire career to starring in the genre.  And those of us who love westerns (and that should be everyone) can grateful for that.

"[Joel McCrea] proved at home in the saddle here, and hence his selection as the star of UNION PACIFIC [Paramount] two years later ... but the film can be a bore unless you are in a tolerant mood." -- Brian Garfield, Western Films: A Complete Guide

" ... a long, carefully made, but stiff, dull and practically actionless movie, long on historical data, romance, and interior scenes, short on excitement and exteriors." -- William K. Everson, A Pictorial History of the Western Film

"Paramount's production values are solid enough, though Lloyd wisely eschews any crowd scenes, but the material doesn't stretch to the 115 minutes' running time." -- Phil Hardy, The Western

No comments:

Post a Comment