Saturday, July 31, 2010

Saturday matinee: Border Feud (1947)

Lash LaRue          Marshal Cheyenne Davis
Al St. John           Sheriff Fuzzy Q. Jones
Ian Keith              Doc Peters
Bob Duncan         Jack Barton

Story                    Joseph O’Donnell
Screenplay           Patricia Harper
Director               Ray Taylor

Get your popcorn and go to the rest room now before the show starts, so you don’t miss an exciting minute of this one.

Opening montage. There’s exciting music, and we quickly find out that there’s a fierce feud going on between the Condons and the Harts over the Blue Girl Gold Mine. Newspaper headlines flash by, and there’s constant gunfire. Bang-bang-bang.

Men on horseback chase a wagon until it goes over a cliff into the water. A man is shot from a horse and rolls down a steep embankment. In a night-time scene, men behind rocks are shooting at another horse-drawn wagon. We see it roll into town, the driver hunched over, hit. One man falls from the speeding wagon and the wagon goes over a cliff and crashes in a cloud of dust. Crash!

First scenes. A sign tells us that we’re at the Mesa City sheriff’s office. It’s a closeup of the sheriff facing a concerned Cheyenne, who sits across from him, “You walked right into the trap I baited for you, Cheyenne.”

Cheyenne says, “It’s not the first trap I’ve sprung or I escaped from, Sheriff.”

The Sheriff says, “You’ve reached the end of your rope.”

Turns out they’re playing checkers, and the Sheriff wins the game. Ha-ha.

A bright lamp is glowing over the table and there is a pair of longhorns mounted on the wall behind them. Two men have been watching the game. Cheyenne is wearing his black shirt. He looks confident, barely smiles. He’s been winning every match until now.

There’s a letter just arrived on the stage from Sheriff Fuzzy Jones in Red Gulch, Nevada. Fuzzy says the Condons and the Harts are feuding and he’s asking for help. When the Sheriff hears Fuzzy is in Red Gulch, he says he’s just picked up a killer by the name of “Tiger” who was on his way there to make trouble. He was carrying a letter introducing him to a Jack Barton.

Cheyenne gets up to leave for Red Gulch. He’s dressed completely in black, with a black hat. He has two pistols in his silver-studded holsters and gun belt.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Casual Friday

Clouds are kind of rare during the high summer here. I ran for my phone to take this picture of a buttermilk sky on Monday. The palm tree is my neighbor’s, who explained to me once that palm trees are really a highly evolved form of grass. (I'd fact-check that first before I'd pass it on.)

Palms are water-loving plants and only one species is native to the Coachella Valley. Over in Palm Canyon, near Palm Springs, you can see the last of a forest of them that thrived here when the climate was more tropical. This is not one of them.

Anyway, clouds don’t go unnoticed in the desert, especially when they block the sun a little and you can feel the temperature drop several degrees. Which is welcome in July when the day-time highs can be way over 100.

These days I’ve been mentally in Montana, reading B. M. Bower’s enjoyable novel Chip of the Flying U, published in 1906. She arrived there as a teenager with her homesteading relatives in 1889, when Great Falls was being built. And I’m remembering a car trip through that part of Montana two summers ago.

I drove north through the Smith River Valley, and approaching Great Falls I took these pics of ranch and farmland. It was May and still early spring, so the trees look leafless. (The sign in the field, if you can't read it, says, "God Bless Montana.") Then I came out onto this vast treeless tableland, which is sewn to wheat. That ridge of mountains in the distance is so typical of central Montana. You seldom get out of sight of them somewhere in the distance.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Book: The Cowboy Humor of Alfred Henry Lewis, part 3

Today I play Word Detective and offer a glossary of the colorful and whimsical language used by the Old Cattleman in Alfred Henry Lewis’ sketches from Wolfville, his fictional town in southeast Arizona, circa 1880.

I had to search high and low for the meanings of most of these terms. Ramon Adams’ The Cowboy Dictionary was a help, and where that reference failed, I went online and found many at Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang and Some just plain threw me.

I’ve attempted to create some order by putting them in groups. If reading a glossary is not your idea of fun, here are a few words to whet your curiosity: larrup, jodarter, fan-tods, air-tights, clanjamfry, ranikaboo, pirooting, bazoo, dornick, hewgag, skew-gee, and wamus.

cooper = to spoil, ruin
crawfish = to back down, renege on a previous statement
dragging a rope/lariat = said of a woman on the lookout for a husband
drop one’s watermelon = make a serious mistake
lam = beat, thrash
larrup = strike, thrash
saw off = dispose of

Complementary terms
coony = sharp-witted, shrewd
jodarter = something or someone unsurpassed
sand = courage

brunkled up = uncomfortably confined
fan-tods = nervous upset, fits

Death and dying
beef = kill (for food)
peter = die
quit out = die
too dead to skin = dead for a long time, unquestionably dead

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Book: The Cowboy Humor of Alfred Henry Lewis, part 2

My commentary continues for those who haven’t read enough about this entertaining example of early 20th century American humor.

About cowboys. The name of this collection is somewhat misleading. Lewis’s stories are not about cowboys. They take place mostly within the city limits of Wolfville and rarely venture out to the open range.

Wolfville is, in fact, a mining town, and you might mistake it for another famous mining town in southeastern Arizona – that being Tombstone. However, while Doc Holliday might show up at the dance hall in Wolfville (and does), there’s no reference to others whom history tells us took up residence in Tombstone. There are no Earps or Clantons or anyone much resembling them. There’s an OK establishment, but it’s a hostelry, not a corral.

And while we’re on the subject of real people, the Old Cattleman has in fact made the acquaintance of Tom Jeffords of Tucson, who helped broker a peace treaty with the Apaches (a topic covered in the review of Broken Arrow, which appeared here previously). He finds Jeffords a bit odd, but doesn’t dislike him.
But he doesn’t have much to say about cowboys. Most of what the book has to say about them is in an opening essay ("Some Cowboy Facts," from Wolfville Nights) in which Lewis speaks in his own words. And he doesn’t contribute a lot that we don’t already know.

They were out on the trail for months at a time, he notes, and generally comported themselves professionally while on the job. A trip into town, however, when the work was done, was opportunity to cut loose and spend every cent of a cowboy’s pay. Which could take one or two weeks.

The money went for liquor, gambling, and any other form of “action” (unspecified). Only a handful of rules required enforcement: 1) no insulting the ladies, 2) no use of firearms indoors, 3) no riding your horse indoors, and 4) no riding your horse on the sidewalks.

If there’s a theatre in town, a cowboy might smuggle a rope into a show and lasso a female performer from the stage. Afterward, should she be willing, said cowboy may escort her to the dance hall where they’ll dance until dawn.

Cowboys were fiercely clannish, looking after their own, from setting their broken bones to springing them from jail if need be. They could squander their earnings on a few luxury items, like fancy hatbands, spurs, saddle, and leggings.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Book: The Cowboy Humor of Alfred Henry Lewis, part 1

Tag line for today: I read old forgotten books so you don’t have to.

This will be one of those multi-part posts, because old books about the West are a big interest of mine. I know that enough is too much, but I want to share here whatever patience permits. Today’s book is a 1988 anthology of sketches written by Alfred Henry Lewis (1855-1914), selected from his books Wolfville (1897), Wolfville Days (1902), and Wolfville Nights (1902).

Who the heck was Alfred Henry Lewis? Lewis comes out of a 19th-century literary fraternity of writers called local colorists. I’m already in deep water here because I have only a scattered knowledge of American literary history. But I can say this:

If you’ve read Mark Twain, you’ve encountered this kind of writing. Think of Huckleberry Finn. It can be nostalgic and sentimental or humorous and satirical. It’s typically written in a regional dialect and intent on preserving a passing way of life, usually rural.

Alfred Henry Lewis (left) comes along at the tail end of that whole tradition. He grew up in Ohio, practiced law in Cleveland and then fled to the West for a time in the 1880s. He worked as a cowboy on ranches in New Mexico and Colorado and as a freighter on an overland line from Las Vegas, New Mexico, to the Texas Panhandle and between there and Dodge City.

Returning to the Midwest, he took up residence in Kansas City. There he began publishing stories in the newspapers about a mythical Arizona town called Wolfville. They were so popular he was soon earning $15 a week writing for the Kansas City Star, and he quit practicing law to devote the rest of his life to writing.

Besides his many Wolfville sketches, he was a fiercely partisan political writer and a friend of William Randolph Hearst. He also had the acquaintance of Teddy Roosevelt and Bat Masterson. He was hugely popular, and readers of western fiction apparently ranked him with Owen Wister and O. Henry.

He is  unknown today.

Which is unfortunate, because he is genuinely entertaining and a window into that period of American social history and the American West in particular.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Book: Breaking Smith’s Quarter Horse

Three years ago, I read a collection of Paul St. Pierre’s stories, Smith and Other Events about a collection of ranchers and Indians living in “Cariboo Country” of central British Columbia. The quirky ironies and self-deprecating humor of the stories I can only describe as “Canadian.” I finally got my hands on a novel by the same author, Breaking Smith’s Quarter Horse, published in 1966. It is more of the wonderful same.

Smith is by his own description a small rancher, with  horses, Herefords, and hayfields in a mountainous area known as the Chilcoton, where there are two seasons – winter and August. Smith is married to a not so long-suffering wife, Norah.

They have four sons, Sherwood, Rooosevelt, Exeter, and John, the first three named by Smith himself. It is winter, and the oldest two are away at boarding school. The third is off somewhere waiting for an itinerant dentist. Only the youngest, an infant, is at home.

It is the 1950s and the Smiths live by what even then would be considered primitive standards. Part of the house is the ranch’s original log cabin, and you climb a ladder to get to the upstairs. There’s no electricity or mail delivery. The radio is broken.

The title of the book is ironic. While it begins with Smith’s intention to gentle a quarter horse, the story doesn’t get around to it until the last page. Before that comes a long, narrative digression that involves the surrender of a member of a local Indian tribe for murder, the subsequent trial, and Smith’s futile attempts to “mind his own business” and not get involved.

This is a laugh-out-loud book that never insults the characters that get tangled up in its comedy of errors. Impervious to the insistence of others that he is “smart,” Smith knows that he’s just an ordinary man trying to make a living from ranching – against all odds. When his wife suggests he might have better success if he read up a little on the subject, he tells her, “Hell, I’m not running this place half as good as I know how to already.”

Only the self-important get pilloried. The Crown Counsel, attempting to get a murder verdict, fares not so well, as do unnamed civil servants and officials all the way up through the Royal Mounted Police to the upper echelons of power in Ottawa.

Based in Vancouver, St. Pierre had a varied career as a journalist, police commissioner, playwright, and politician, serving for a time as a Member of Parliament. Based on his stories and characters, his series “Cariboo Country” ran on CBC from 1959-1967. Committed to a degree of accuracy, it was filmed on location and featured Native Americans like Chief Dan George in key roles. St. Pierre received the Western Writers of America Spur Award in 1984.

First published in 1966, Breaking Smith’s Quarter Horse is now sadly out of print, but copies can be found at online booksellers. The same is true of the equally enjoyable Smith and Other Events.

Picture credits:
1) Cariboo Country,
2) Paul St. Pierre,

Coming up: Review of The Cowboy Humor of Alfred Henry Lewis

Saturday, July 24, 2010

National Day of the Cowboy

Today, July 24, 2010, is National Day of the Cowboy. A while ago, I invited western writers and fans of western writers to observe the day here at Buddies in the Saddle with a Fictional Cowboy Hall of Fame. I asked everyone to consider the novels and short stories they’ve read and to say a few words about the one character they believe best exemplifies the Code of the West.

Here’s what they had to say:

ChuckTyrell over at Outlaw Trail said...
 “I have to vote for Will Penny. The movie was based on one segment of a series called The Westerner. Sure shows the loyalty and honesty of the cowboy. According to Wikipedia, Heston said it was his favorite film, bar none, and that means he rated it higher than The Ten Commandments or Ben Hur. That's saying a lot for Will Penny.”

Will Penny was a creation of writer-director Tom Gries, who contributed to a good many TV westerns, like “The Westerner” and “Wanted: Dead or Alive,” plus a few films, starting with a B-western, The Bushwhakers (1959). After Will Penny (1968), he directed 100 Rifles (1969) and Breakheart Pass (1975).

David Cranmer over at Education of a Pulp Writer said...
 “Interesting that my mind wanders to Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. Interesting because Earp was not a fan of the term cowboy and hunted a group of them during his famous ride. But for books, the latest Robert B. Parker series featuring Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch sum up the code you speak of.”

Known maybe best for his crime fiction character Spenser in a series of at least 40 novels, and made into a successful TV series “Spenser for Hire” (1985-88), Robert B. Walker also wrote this series of Cole and Hitch westerns: Appaloosa (2005), Resolution (2008), Brimstone (2009), and Blue-Eyed Devil (2010). These came at the end of a long, award-winning career. Parker died in January of this year.

Walker Martin said...
“I vote for Hashknife Hartley, a character invented by long time western author, W.C. Tuttle. Hashknife was a rangeland detective who often worked for such organizations as Cattlemen's Associations. He appeared as the lead character in dozens of stories, serials, and books, mostly from such pulps as ADVENTURE, SHORT STORIES, WEST, and WESTERN STORY, during the 1920 through 1945 period. He certainly observed all the tenets of the Code of the West.”

W. C. Tuttle (1883-1969) sold 1000+ magazine stories and dozens of novels, almost all of them westerns. Hashknife Hartley and Sleepy Stevens were among his best known characters. He can be heard here reading two of their stories, recorded for radio broadcast in or about 1950. If you enjoy old radio drama, you’ll love these.
 Tuttle also wrote screenplays – gives him story credit for more than 50 films, mostly in the 1920s. His last credit there is for an episode of the TV series, “Cheyenne” in 1958, called “Noose at Noon.”

Gary Dobbs, over at The Tainted Archive said...
 “I'd vote for Edge - the series character from George Gilman - he may in fact be an anti-westerner but they were damn exciting books.”

Gary has been talking up the Edge series recently and reprinted an interesting interview with author George Gilman at his blog. If you want to get the story behind the creation of Edge, the interview starts here

Friday, July 23, 2010

Casual Friday

In the nine weeks I’ve been around here I haven’t said much about myself. Three months ago, before this blog got started, being a “blogger” was not even a remote idea. Ten years ago, I’d been a web consultant, with a site and a monthly online newsletter called “Say What You Mean on the Web.”

The many hours that went into that enterprise were enough to dampen any wish to be online again. Anyway, I’d taken a job teaching full-time and I didn’t have a big enough head to wear two hats.

But teaching gave me an opportunity to pursue another interest, the American West and the cowboy. Like many grown men, this had been an interest that goes back to boyhood.

This summer was the first one in decades that I’d stuck to a promise to “take some real time off.” In May, I went horseback riding for four days in the southern Sierras (the banner photo of the grassy hillside above was taken near Caliente, California, on the way to the ranch). After that, my wife and I relocated to our house in the desert in the Coachella Valley, to read and write and just take it easy.

But by that point, I had come upon Laurie Powers’ book about her grandfather, and some googling led me to her blog. From there it was a slippery slope. Buddies in the Saddle came into being almost before I knew it. The summer turned into a virtual sojourn online.

During these nine weeks, far out in the deserts of Riverside County, I’ve discovered another country. It’s a place where some very generous and friendly folks have found each other through a mutual enthusiasm for pulp and genre fiction, westerns and the American West. They’re folks who are also both readers and writers, and lest there be any doubt about this, writers are the greatest people to hang around with.

It’s taking time to get used to being here, learning the customs, the etiquette, and the potential of the medium. It’s also been gratifying to be so warmly welcomed. Rich Prosch, a fellow former Nebraskan, invited me to do a guest post for his My Personal West series. We settled on a video I’d done about the Nebraska Sandhills, which can be seen at his site, Meridian Bridge.

Patti Abbot got me to contribute to her last round of Forgotten Books. And it would be a lie if I said it didn’t please me to be “followed” by others whose blogs I admire and to have readers leave appreciative comments.

The point. Finally, getting around to the point of this ramble, writing a blog has helped me focus my own curiosity about the West. For one thing, there’s that ongoing and shifting balance between myth and reality. Writing about western movies with historical connections has led to research that’s taught me more about western history.

Also, reading more of the fiction written in the shadow of The Virginian, I’m learning how several early western writers in a short span of years helped the genre to evolve. That this was during Teddy Roosevelt’s years in the White House is no small part of the picture. After Jefferson’s purchase of Louisiana a century before, TR arguably did most as an American president to redefine the West of both myth and reality. He didn’t get his face on Mt. Rushmore for nothing.

I’ve read Wister, Andy Adams, Alfred Henry Lewis, and Dane Coolidge from this period. Next up is Clarence Mulford, B. M. Bower, O. Henry, and the first novels of Zane Grey. I would not be at this point without the daily discipline of writing a blog and the encouragement of other bloggers.

A confession. Finally, for those who have read this far, I have a confession to make. Film noir is a favorite movie genre of mine, and the enthusiasm for noir fiction here got me to try my hand at it. You can find a sample, “All She Wrote” by J. Conrad (that’s me), at A Twist of Noir.

So that’s my “casual Friday.” There will be more of these, as I return to the classroom in the middle of August. I start with a two-day microseminar for incoming freshmen about the American Cowboy in Myth and Reality. Then I teach Advanced Writing to 57 juniors and seniors until December.

Reading and commenting on all those student papers is time consuming and sometimes tiring. Blogging will have to take a back seat, but if I can mix a metaphor, I will do my best to keep my oar in here.

Coming up: National Day of the Cowboy and the Fictional Cowboy Hall of Fame

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The True Story of Jesse James (1957)

Watching this Nicholas Ray film about Jesse James, you can see Rebel Without a Cause coming around the corner. Jesse and his brother Frank were, of course, rebels with a cause, but Ray portrays them as a couple of misunderstood boys from next door.

The film actually hews fairly close to the story of Jesse (Robert Wagner) and Frank (Jeffrey Hunter). The James family were Southern sympathizers living in Missouri during the Civil War.

During that war, the population of Missouri was torn between Union and Confederate supporters. Even though Missouri had been admitted to the Union as a slave state, it tried to remain outside the conflict by remaining “neutral.”

Still, it provided material aid and sent troops to each side. Guerilla gangs sprang up, attacking Union troops. Frank and then Jesse joined them, and a continued state of civil animosity continued long after Lee’s surrender. It had been neighbor against neighbor and remained so, as we see in the film.

When the war was done, Jesse and James seem to have resumed the lives they had lived outside the law. According to the film, they take to robbing banks to “liberate” Yankee money and get themselves back on their feet financially. The film portrays Jesse as bringing the gang together for their first bank job, but history suggests that Younger and his brothers had been operating already on their own before teaming up with the Jameses.

Myth vs history. While the film simplifies and no doubt misrepresents the formation of the James-Younger gang, much is uncertain from history, and what is known is too complicated for a 90-minute movie. But there’s at least an attempt to provide coherence without venturing too far from the facts.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Fort Apache (1948)

I put off watching this John Ford classic until after I’d seen Broken Arrow (1950), which is on a similar subject, relations between the U.S. government and the Apaches.

The two films have several things in common. Both portray Cochise and his tribe with some historical honesty. Both films were received well by critics when they were new. Both have become somewhat dated, though John Ford fans may dispute that. Both stories get into trouble at the end.

First off, I liked Fort Apache much more than I thought I would. As Captain York, John Wayne has the kind of role I enjoy seeing him in – a man who mixes humor, strength, and good sense. He’s a man’s man. More avuncular than paternal. He’s the moral center of the movie who knows the Apache and doesn’t want a fragile peace to be undone.

Henry Fonda’s Col. Thursday is the perfect opposite. He’s first of all a bitter man, angry that after his Civil War service he was demoted and sent to this god-forsaken outpost on the Arizona frontier. He’s also a heavy-handed commanding officer, a martinet who expects unquestioned obedience to all his orders. It doesn’t matter that many of them are wrong-headed.

What makes Thursday not just overbearing but despicable is his use of authority to further his career ambitions. He will stop at nothing, even when it means certain death for himself and his men in a “last stand” reminiscent of Custer.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Broken Arrow (1950)

Broken Arrow was a milestone in the portrayal of Native Americans in Hollywood westerns. Credit for that goes to the writers and to actor Jeff Chandler, who played the famous Apache chief, Cochise.

I had steered clear of this movie for years because of the casting of Chandler, another white actor in the role of an Indian. The big surprise when I finally saw it was that Chandler walks away with the movie. The calm dignity of his performance rarely betrays a hint of either stereotyping or sentimentality. You watch him and say to yourself, “This was a man.”

Screenwriter Albert Maltz based his script on Elliott Arnold’s well researched, Blood Brother, published in 1947. This historical novel recounted the friendship between Cochise and an American, Tom Jeffords, played by James Stewart in the film.

This was another surprise. I didn’t know until I did some reading that there was an actual Tom Jeffords (1832-1914), who with the help of an actual U.S. Army general, Oliver Howard, brokered a peace treaty with Cochise in 1872. Never mind that the treaty was broken a few years later, after the death of Cochise. But it brought an end to years of bloody hostilities between Apaches and white settlers in southeast Arizona.

So the film is a happy meeting of history and myth. Here are two men who seem to walk straight out of legend. The scale of their personalities and depth of character seem larger than life. Yet they lived, and their story is a matter of history.

A word of credit also goes to director Delmer Daves, who directed a number of westerns, including my personal favorite, the original 3:10 to Yuma. With this film he helped James Stewart make a career shift into playing roles in westerns. He also surely shares the credit for Jeff Chandler’s performance. Talk about a career shift, Chandler and his distinctive voice had been known by millions for his role in the radio comedy “Our Miss Brooks,” where he played a bashful biology teacher.

Meanwhile, Daves makes beautiful use of the location shooting in Arizona, filling the CinemaScope screen with striking, colorful visuals. Plus, he has an eye for realistic details, like Stewart’s sweat-stained hat.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Professionals (1966)

This popular film from the mid-1960s put together three big stars along with Woody Strode as a kind of A-Team sent into Mexico to retrieve a kidnapped wife. Lee Marvin, an artillery expert, leads the group. Burt Lancaster is a dynamiter. At one time, both fought with the revolutionary forces (there were several, Villa, Zapata, and others). Both have become disillusioned and a bit cynical.

Robert Ryan is the horse wrangler, and Woody Strode is skilled at archery. All these actors have lengthy western credits. Writer-director Richard Brooks was better known for dramas like Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Sweet Bird of Youth. The following year, he’d hit a homerun with In Cold Blood. But he seems right at home with this western adventure.

The structure of this film is almost exactly like Garden of Evil (1954), reviewed here. There’s a perilous journey by a small group of men who perform a mission and then return to safety with a band of adversaries in hot pursuit. A woman joins them, but this time only on the return trip.

Like that movie, most of the action takes place outdoors – about 95%. This time, it’s the arid terrain of northern Mexico, where it’s hot in the day and cold at night. There are desert, rocks, sand, and slot canyons. A movie like this makes the frontier town settings of a film like The Proud Ones, reviewed here last time, hardly qualify as westerns.

The film was, in fact, not shot in Mexico but in Death Valley and Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Saturday matinee: Hopalong Cassidy in FORTY THIEVES (1944)

Get your popcorn and go to the rest room now, because you don’t want to miss a minute of this one.

The story begins. There’s exciting music, and we quickly find out that Hoppy is a town sheriff and he’s been bringing in the outlaws, one bunch after another. Newspaper headlines trumpet his successes with exclamation marks!

Deputy California Carlson is doing one of his comic routines as he stands on a stack of boxes beside a sign: “Re-elect Hopalong Cassidy for Sheriff.” He practices delivering a speech to an imaginary audience (well, there's one kid watching) but loses his balance and falls into a horse trough. Ha-ha-ha! Hoppy and Deputy Jimmy Rogers come along and laugh, too.

Fresh out of prison, here comes bad guy Tad Hammond. Serving 20 years for rustling cattle and now out on parole. He doesn’t like Hoppy and makes no bones about it. “My trigger finger doesn’t itch anymore,” he says, “except when I see you.”

Inside the saloon, Hammond is persuading saloon owner Jerry Doyle to run against Hoppy for sheriff. Doyle looks like he could be a nice guy, but Hoppy has been keeping the town too law-abiding, which cuts into his business.

Hammond says he’ll bring in his old gang members from where they’ve been hiding out in Indian Territory. There are 40 of them. That’s where they got the name for the movie. Together, they’ll run Hoppy out of town.

Next thing, we see all of them getting together on their horses. It’s Election Day and they’re going to foil it up, which they do. They spread a rumor that the election has been postponed and do other things. Finally they’re stuffing the ballot box when nobody’s looking.

Friday, July 16, 2010

The Proud Ones (1956)

Robert Ryan was a helluva actor. He was especially good at portrayals of tormented men able to fly into a murderous rage. Howard Hughes put him opposite cool, unflappable Robert Mitchum in noir classics like Crossfire (1947) and The Racket (1951). He’s also good as a rogue cop in On Dangerous Ground (1952).

Here he plays a marshal in a western town, tormented again, this time by an incident he didn’t handle well in the past. He “ran away” after shooting down a man everyone believed was unarmed. Now, as chance would have it, the man’s son (Jeffrey Hunter) has shown up in town, and it’s not clear what the young man’s intentions are.

The town seems to be somewhere in Kansas in the early days of the cattle drives. The first bunches of trail cowboys are arriving, and business is already booming. Prices on consumer goods are doubling, and a big new saloon opens up with tables for gambling. The owner, Barrett (Robert Middleton) is a smiling but tough businessman and keeps a few goons on the payroll to intimidate anyone who gives him trouble.

Virginia Mayo is the feminine presence, the keeper of a hostelry. You get the idea from the staff and some asides that not so recently they were all working as prostitutes. Serving up steak and potatoes is apparently more lucrative.

Mayo is Ryan’s sweetheart, and early in the film he somewhat indirectly pops the question. Looks like she’s been waiting a long time for it. But the ring he’s bought her has to go back to the jeweler because it’s too small, which could be a bad sign. Soon after, in an exchange of gunfire in Barrett’s saloon, the marshal sustains a head wound that causes his vision to go haywire at inopportune moments. Luckily he finds a nearby frontier ophthalmologist who seems to have an uncommon knowledge of optic medicine. But the symptoms persist.

Fast forward. So that’s the set-up. And when we get to the last reel, Jeffrey Hunter has signed on as deputy, having overcome his distrust of Ryan. One of Barrett’s goons has been shot dead trying to kill Ryan. And when an altercation over some cheating at Barrett’s saloon ends in the demise of a customer, the marshal tosses three of the employees into jail.

Alas, a deputy (Walter Brennan) is killed during a daring jailbreak, and there’s a final shootout in a hay barn. The voice of reason (as women usually are in westerns), Mayo wants Ryan to come to his senses and get out of harm’s way. But he tells her, “I’m not a coward. A man can’t live a lifetime being ashamed.”

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Book: Man From Wyoming

I picked up this novel by Dane Coolidge mainly because of Jon Tuska’s introduction, written in 2000. Tuska is co-author of The Encyclopedia of  Frontier and Western Fiction. There’s not much been written about Dane Coolidge, and I wanted to see what Tuska had to say.

I’d also read two of Coolidge’s early novels, Hidden Water (1910) and Bat Wing Bowles (1914), the one that got me interested in Coolidge in the first place. Man From Wyoming was first published in 1924 as The Scalp-Lock, and then revised and renamed for publication in 1935 in the pulp magazine Western Novel and Short Stories. I wanted to see if and how Coolidge had matured as a writer. (The edition I’m reading was published in 2001.)

Tuska says Coolidge is interesting for the way he kept pushing the genre he helped invent in new directions. And there’s a lot that’s unconventional about Man From Wyoming. For starters, the main character, Clayton Hawks, is by temperament not a man of action. He is almost too indecisive for a western hero.

Meanwhile, Coolidge has really stacked the cards against him. A man with a Boston background, he arrives in Wyoming to find out why his father’s ranch is losing money. Several hundred steers have disappeared, and rustlers are suspected. It turns out that the manager of the ranch, William Bones, is a crook, and all the cowboys are doing the rustling.

To make matters worse, Hawks’ fiancĂ©e, Penny, does him wrong by falling big time for the charms of the head rustler, Jim Keck. When Keck and his men are fired, Penny takes off with him.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Rodeo movies

I’m probably missing some, but there have been darn few movies about rodeo. Taking them one at a time, I’ll share what I can about the ones I’ve seen.

J. W. Coop (1971)
This film was written and directed by Cliff Robertson, who also plays the title character, a rough stock rider just released from serving nine years in prison. Coop has not only missed a big chunk of what might have been a prize-winning career in rodeo. He missed the 1960s, too. Walking confidently from prison in a fresh pair of Lee jeans and a black Stetson, he finds himself in a different America than the one he left.

He’s not long on the road before a peace-and-love hippie girl befriends him, introducing him to soy nuts and talk about the environment. (He’s already been stopped by a patrolman for the gross polluting old Hudson he’s driving). Hitching rides with truckers, he gets an ear full of right-wing politics and devotion to big-ticket consumer products.

Worse yet, rodeo itself has changed. Riders now “specialize” in their events, and the high-flyers literally fly their private planes between rodeos, to take in two and three a day. It’s become a big-money business. Coop gives it a shot anyway, never daunted by the odds, and we follow him on the circuit all over the Southwest.

The film was shot at actual small and regional rodeos, winding up at the National Finals in Oklahoma City. (This was before the move to Las Vegas.) Robertson got real rodeo cowboys to play themselves in the film, including Larry Mahan, who was then a World All-Around Rodeo Champion. Also Myrtis Dightman who was a Champion Afro-American Bull Rider (see above).

The rapid, telephoto montages of cowboys riding and being thrown, with a spirited music track, make rodeo seem all non-stop excitement. In reality, there are often long waits between rides, which are themselves hard to see well from the grandstand. You find yourself restlessly drifting toward the beer tent.

The movie is very much a product of its time, with Vietnam-era social comment that we also get in Easy Rider (1969), Zabriskie Point (1970), and M.A.S.H. (1970). Robertson is enjoyable as the easy-going, indomitable, small-town Texas rodeo cowboy going for the brass ring – all the way until the last reel, where reality finally catches up with him.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Gunfighter (1950)

In spite of turning 60 this year, this western has aged well. Its story successfully mixes irony, melodrama, realism, suspense, and humor. Direction and cinematography are also first rate. You can tell it was a project everyone believed in.

Gregory Peck plays the gunfighter of the title, Jimmy Ringo, a man in his mid-30s who’s been on the run since his gang broke up a few years back. He’s quick on the draw and has a reputation for having killed up to 50 men who’ve tried to outgun him.

When he shows up in his hometown of Cayenne, New Mexico, he causes a considerable stir. The schoolhouse empties as the boys gather outside the saloon to catch a glimpse of him. Having had such a celebrity as a customer, the saloon keeper (Karl Malden) expects his business to boom. An aspiring gunfighter (Skip Homeier) is eager to become known as “the man who shot Jimmy Ringo.” Meanwhile, the father of one of Ringo’s alleged victims gets out his shotgun to avenge his son’s death.

Ringo’s reason for being there is to see the woman he left behind (Helen Westcott) and the eight-year-old boy who is their son. Given his frame of mind, he seems to sense that his life may soon be over and he wants to make amends. As he waits for her in the saloon, he is reminded of how his life might have been different.

An old friend and partner in crime is now the town marshal (Millard Mitchell), and a young rancher comes in for one - just one - drink. When he leaves, he has revealad himself as the hard-working, enterprising, and optimistic solid citizen Ringo could have become.

But Ringo’s time is running out in more ways than one. In the opening scenes of the film, in a different town, he’s challenged by another young man with a gun (Richard Jaekel), who winds up spread eagled and lifeless on a barroom floor. Ringo has to make a quick departure, the boy’s three brothers in hot pursuit.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Rawhide (1951)

Here’s another Henry Hathaway film with Susan Hayward. Like Garden of Evil (1954) it was also filmed entirely on location, this time in the Alabama Hills near Lone Pine, California.

This was one of Susan Hayward’s first big films. Glamorous and tough, she demonstrates again that she can hold her own in a roomful of men without being shrill, hysterical, or totally off-putting. Not given to warmth or smiles, she’s no ice queen either. She’s got time for a male who’s man enough for her, but it’s been a while since one of those came along. That’s the situation in Rawhide anyway.

Aristotle would have approved of the film’s structure. It takes place in 24 hours, and there’s a single setting, a remote relay station on the mail run between San Francisco and St. Louis. There’s an eastbound stage in the morning and a westbound stage at night. Young and handsome Tyrone Power and his grizzled boss (Edgar Buchanan) man the station, providing a cooked meal for passengers and crew, and a team of six fresh mules for the coach.

Hayward, in a hurry to get to St. Louis, is told she has to get off the stage because there is a band of escaped prisoners on the loose. They’ve already robbed one coach and killed the driver. Company rules require her to stay behind because she’s traveling with a small child. Before long, the escaped prisoners show up, and the three adults and child are taken hostage. The rest of the film is about how they get themselves out of this situation alive.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Book: Fiddleback

This collection of essays by Owen Ulph (1914-2003) couldn’t be summed up in 500 words, or even 5,000. It’s an extended corrective for every book and movie ever produced about cowboys – an attempt to measure the cowboy’s “true stature.” It’s based on Ulph’s own experience riding with an outfit on a ranch in central Nevada during the 1940s and 1950s.

Ulph was English-born and an academic, with advanced degrees in European history from Stanford. He taught at several colleges and universities in the West, most notably at Reed in Oregon. While his analysis of the cowboy is academic in its depth, it is totally unacademic in its spirit.

Simply put, Ulph loved working cowboys. He admired their independence and a way of life that was at one with the hard physical labor of working cattle outdoors and on horseback. He admired the advanced degree of intuitive intelligence developed on the job by a top hand.

Debunking the myths. A large part of his analysis is devoted to debunking myth and dismantling the cowboy stereotype from the movies. Cowboys, he says, have little to do with guns and fistfights. They seldom develop sentimental attachments to their horses and rarely ride just for pleasure. As a rule, they are not drinkers. They don’t trust the government or any government official or program. They also lack faith in the law. “Anytime you hang your hat on a peg of the law,” one of them says, “don’t expect it to be there when you get back.”

Neither do they believe in “bad luck.” It’s a sign, instead, of a cowboy’s stupidity or bad judgment. They do, however, believe in “good luck,” which when it happens is underserved, a gift of grace. Though while generally not believers in God, they do believe in the Devil.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Garden of Evil (1954)

The more I watch old westerns, the more I appreciate that they were made for grownups. The kids in the audience were there to learn, not to be entertained. If they paid attention, they’d learn how adult men and women behaved, for better or worse. There was excitement at appropriate intervals – for the kid in everyone – but the meaning of what came in between was chiefly for the adults, and for kids to ponder.

Garden of Evil is maybe a strange name for a western. But given to a story of how greed, self-interest, and sexual desire get people into trouble, it is not far off the mark. The set-up is simple. A woman enlists the help of four men to rescue her husband, who is trapped in a gold mine deep in the mountains of Mexico.

The men have been set ashore indefinitely after their ship founders on its way to the gold fields of California. There’s Gary Cooper, a man of few words who reveals only that he’s been a sheriff. There’s a talkative gambler, played by Richard Widmark, who befriends him.

Tagging along is an impulsive and quick-tempered younger man played by Cameron Mitchell. Joining them is a tall, dark, and handsome hombre played by Mexican actor Victor Manuel Mendoza. He and Cooper converse in Spanish, and with your Spanglish you can easily follow along. (The ubiquitous Whit Bissell was apparently not available for this film.)

The woman (Susan Hayward) packs a pistol and means business. She is Anne Baxter’s counterpart all over again (see my review of Yellow Sky), better dressed but holding her own against a tag team of men. When the Mexican hombre secretly leaves marks along the trail to the gold mine, she gets rid of them. When the “youngster” makes a pass at her, she puts up a good fight.

Risk factors. A real test of everyone’s mettle comes early in the trip as they ride a narrow trail along the face of a cliff. It’s unnerving enough for someone with acrophobia like me, but they have to leap their horses across a place where the ledge has fallen away completely. That’s where I would have turned back. But nobody does.

The risk factor is ramped up by the presence of “hostiles,” referred to as Apaches in the film. There’s not much evidence that Apaches ventured this far into subtropical Mexico, so you may have trouble taking this as seriously as the film’s characters. But no one seems to have told the Apaches. They eventually show up anyway. And wearing Mohawk haircuts.

The DVD commentary notes that the original script, called The Fifth Rider, was set in Arizona. Then Darryl F. Zanuck decided that Mexico would make a more picturesque location for a widescreen western. The Apaches seem to have come along for the ride.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Celebrate National Day of the Cowboy

National Day of the Cowboy comes this year on Saturday, July 24, 2010. I’m inviting western writers and fans of western writers to observe the day here at Buddies in the Saddle with a Fictional Cowboy Hall of Fame.

Novels and short stories about the West have helped preserve the values observed in the Code of the West. I’d like everyone reading this to recall the most memorable cowboy characters that western writers have created. And I’m asking you to say a few words about the one character you believe best exemplifies the Code of the West.

Here’s a list of some of the tenets of the Code:
  • Don't inquire into a person's past. Take the measure of a man for what he is today.
  • A cowboy doesn't talk much. He saves his breath for breathing.
  •  Do not practice ingratitude.
  •  Complaining is what quitters do, and cowboys hate quitters.
  •  Always be courageous. Cowards aren't tolerated.
  •  A cowboy always helps someone in need, even a stranger or an enemy.
  •  Give your enemy a fighting chance.
  •  Real cowboys are modest. A braggart is not tolerated.
  •  A cowboy is loyal to his "brand," to his friends, and those he rides with.
  •  Honesty is absolute. Your word is your bond, and a handshake is more binding than a contract.
  •  Live by the Golden Rule.
You will find more at the legendsofamerica website.

All nominations for Fictional Cowboy Hall of Fame will be assembled and posted here at Buddies in the Saddle on National Day of the Cowboy, July 24, 2010.

Please join in
Describe a character from a western novel or short story you believe best exemplifies the Code of the West. Word length is not important, but 50-200 words are about right. Include the name of the character, the author and the title of the novel or short story, along with the reason for your choice.

Post your nomination as a comment below. Deadline: July 20, 2010.

Photo credit:

Coming up: Reviews of Garden of Evil and Rawhide

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Book: Hidden Water, part 2

A few more things to say about Dane Coolidge's first novel Hidden Water (1910).

The love story. Yes, like The Virginian, there is one. And it’s there, I suspect, for the same reason – to appeal to the tender-hearted in the audience. Wister gave us a schoolmarm from Vermont, you’ll remember. Coolidge gives us two women, Lucy and Kitty, from San Francisco, and he complicates their relationships with the two men, Hardy and Creede, in ways that would take paragraphs to sum up. Put simply, Kitty breaks both men’s hearts. Neither of them is able to see that she’s manipulative and self-centered.

Lucy is the patient, loyal friend, who young Hardy has to discover is his true sweetheart. Kind of a role switch from Wister, whose character Molly has to learn that the Virginian is her true sweetheart. Coolidge even borrows a scene from Wister when he has Lucy nursing our hero Hardy back to health after a trauma. For many modern readers, this thread of the story may be more cloying at times than the courtship of The Virginian and Molly.

The sentimentalizing of "true love" takes the narrative out of the real West of 1910. The women bring with them the mores and social customs of young middle-class city dwellers. Like Wister's Molly, they are fish out of water here. But unlike her, they do not yield to the realities of the frontier. While Molly comes to accept the hanging of horse thieves without benefit of trial, Coolidge's Lucy successfully prevents Hardy from using his gun against the sheep men.

Meanwhile, the book acknowledges that cowboys on the range go for months at a time without contact of any kind with women. When the visits of the two girls from the city get the cowboys on the roundup excited, Creede has to persuade them to stop singing bawdy songs. But Coolidge ventures no further into the landscape of the libido. That not a single prostitute is even remotely alluded to in this novel says how sexuality is being candy-coated for popular consumption. Like Wister, the language is correspondingly suitable for polite reading. Both cowboy heroes, the Virginian and Creede, stop before completing the phrase, “son of a ___.”

Politics. While The Virginian was dedicated to Teddy Roosevelt, a college friend of Owen Wister, Coolidge's novel is set squarely in the political climate of the TR administration. Coolidge notes early on that over-grazing of public lands can be prevented by declaring them federally protected forest reserves. Cattle and sheep grazing would be permitted then by license only.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Book: Hidden Water, part 1

Dane Coolidge’s first published novel, Hidden Water (1910), appears at an interesting point in literary history. It came right after the publication of The Virginian (1902), the first western novel to become a bestseller. And it came before the vast outpouring of western fiction that exploded into print and non-print media during the rest of the century.

Taking Owen Wister’s lead, Coolidge helped create this new genre. So did Zane Grey, whose first western novel, The Heritage of the Desert was also published in 1910, while Riders of the Purple Sage came two years later. Wister might have joined them, but he didn’t. After adapting his novel as a stage play – also well received – he seems to have lost interest in the West.

Coolidge and Grey represent two different impulses within the western genre – the wish to record the West as it really was and the irresistible romance of the Western myth. Coolidge leans toward historical accuracy, Grey toward myth. Given the greater appeal of myth, it’s not hard to understand why Zane Grey is remembered today and Dane Coolidge has been forgotten.

It’s worth mentioning western writer Andy Adams, also writing at this time. His Log of a Cowboy (1903) falls on Coolidge’s side of the equation. It’s a realistic portrayal of a cattle drive that some say was the inspiration for Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove (1986). Adams knew the West as a working cowboy and wanted it remembered as it was, not as it was being romanticized in Wild West shows and dime novels. Alas, Adams has been mostly forgotten, too.

So, as he worked in the shadow of Owen Wister’s achievement, it’s interesting to see Coolidge creating his own kind of western novel. It certainly borrows from Wister, but it has another kind of story to tell.

Plot and main characters. The plot is what would come to be known as the “range war.” Here we have cattlemen vs. sheep men in what was then present-day Arizona. We are west of Tucson and not far from the Mexican border. It’s desolate, arid, sparsely populated.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Dane Coolidge, western writer

In 1910, exactly 100 years ago, Dane Coolidge (1873-1940) published Hidden Water the first of over 50 western novels. Over three decades he also published countless short stories, appearing in Street & Smith’s The Popular Magazine, Western Story Magazine, and many others. For readers and writers of western fiction, Coolidge is interesting today for several reasons.

For starters, he grew up in the West, among the orange groves of Riverside County in Southern California. He was educated at Stanford University. And as a young man he did two (I think) cool things. He dropped out of Harvard graduate school because he found New England too dreary, and he married one of his Stanford professors he’d obviously taken a shine to.

Working as a field naturalist and photographer for museums, he knew the Southwest from firsthand experience. He knew flora, fauna, climates, landscapes, and the people who lived and worked in far-flung parts of the deserts, mountains, and ranch country. With his wife, a sociologist, he studied and wrote about Indian tribes. He had a similar interest in prospectors and mining.

He especially knew cowboys, from having worked around them. In addition to his novels, he wrote three nonfiction books about them, one of which is still in print: Texas Cowboys. You can find the other two at used booksellers: Arizona Cowboys and California Cowboys. His ear for language and his observation of social behavior make his books about cowboys richly detailed time capsules of the period.

Read a novel like Hidden Water and you are witness to the way cowboys talked, thought, and behaved in those years right after the turn of the last century. If you’re curious at all and not just reading for the plot, you’ll find yourself looking up words and idioms that crop up in their speech: coon-can, white ribbon boy, hello girl, sandsoap, congress shoes, Keno!, Digger Injun.

Being comfortable in polite company is called being parlor-broke. A man taking a risky swim across a river may say, “Born to be hung and ye can’t get drowned.” You may be surprised to discover that buttinsky is already being used in 1910 for an interfering person. Making hair bridles in Yuma meant doing time in the Territorial Prison – the same prison Ben Wade is headed for in 3:10 to Yuma.