|Jean and Lite|
This was B. M. Bower’s 15th novel, and like her The Phantom Herd a year later, it draws on her knowledge of the movie business. Sixteen-year-old Jean Douglas, the title character, is a no-nonsense daughter of a Montana rancher, Aleck Douglas, who in the opening chapters is wrongly found guilty of murder and sent to prison. With the help of a ranch hand, Lite Avery, she spends the rest of the novel finding the real killer.
Help also comes in the form of a movie company from Hollywood, which hires her as the stunt double for the leading lady of an action-packed western. Able to ride, rope, and shoot with ease, Jean also contributes ideas for making the film more realistic. Before long she is dreaming up scenarios for a Perils-of-Pauline style serial, with herself in the starring role.
With the money she’s earning, she hopes to hire a criminal lawyer who can, with enough evidence, get her father released from prison. In particular, she intends to hunt down a cowboy who left by train for parts unknown on the day of the murder. It’s believed that he was headed for the Klondike. Meanwhile, a mysterious intruder has been entering the Douglases’ deserted ranch house in the middle of the night, apparently in search of something.
|Roundup, Great Falls, Montana, c1890|
Style and structure. All this makes for a curious blend of genres, as the novel is in part a murder mystery, a south-of the-border adventure, a love story, and a star-is-born story about the movies.
Readers curious about on-location movie shoots during the Silent Era will learn a few things about the realities of film production, when cameras were hand-cranked and a director shouted instructions to actors while scenes were being played out.
The director in this case is Robert Grant Burns, whom Jean privately disparages for his poor knowledge of the West, his lack of original story ideas, and his dictatorial manner. All is forgiven, however, when she sees her first Jean of the Lazy A movie at a picture palace in Los Angeles:
Jean in the loge gave a sigh of relaxed tension and looked around her. The seats were nearly all full, and everyone was gazing fixedly forward, lost in the picture story of Jean on the screen. So that was what all those made-to-order smiles and frowns meant!
And she marvels at how Burns’ roughshod style of filmmaking and the exaggerated acting demanded from his actors has produced such a smoothly vivid and seductive illusion.
Romance. Not a great deal is made of this, but a long friendship between Jean and a cowboy, Lite Avery, blooms into affection—and then love—as they work together to get her father released from prison. Lite’s feelings for her are tender and protective, rather like an older brother’s, and Bower’s treatment of their emerging love is so little dramatized that it fades into the background as Jean is reunited with her father:
Tall and gaunt and gray and old; lines etched around his bitter mouth; pale with the tragic prison pallor; looking out at the world with the somber eyes of one who has suffered most cruelly,—Aleck Douglas put out his thin, shaking arms and held her close. He did not say anything at all; and the kiss she asked for he laid softly upon her hair.
Wrapping up. Bower’s family had come as homesteaders to the Montana frontier in 1889, when she was still a teenager. Married to another young homesteader, she moved to Big Sandy, 80 miles northeast of Great Falls. This was cowboy country, and Big Sandy was a cow town with a regular population of about 100 people.
|Still from Chip of the Flying U (Tom Mix, center)|
In 1904, she sold her first novel to Street & Smith’s The Popular Magazine, and by 1914 she was getting writing credits for films of her novels and stories. Her Chip of the Flying U (1906) came to the screen that year, with Tom Mix as Chip. Bower eventually settled in Los Angeles. Thirty-eight of her 66 novels are set in Montana, many of them about the cowboys of the Flying U Ranch. FictionMags Index lists over 175 titles of her short- and long-form fiction published in a range of magazines.
Jean of the Lazy A is currently available online at google books and Internet Archive, and in eook and paper formats at amazon, Barnes&Noble, and AbeBooks. For more of Friday’s Forgotten Books, click on over to Patti Abbott’s blog.
BITS reviews of B. M. Bower novels:
Frontispiece by Douglas Duer
Coming up: Western movie themes