Friday, December 31, 2010

Photo-finish Friday: LAFD

Recently on a side street in Los Angeles, I looked up to see this gathering of firefighters on the roof of an apartment building. There were two mobile units on the ground, one of them with a ladder extending to the roof, so I'm guessing that's how they got up there.

It was an animated discussion, with apparent differences of opinion that went on and on. But I couldn't hear a word. Another firefighter was on the street impatiently pacing back and forth. If he'd looked more approachable, I would have had the temerity to ask what was going on. So all I have is this curious photo, and no story that goes with it. You get to make up your own.

PFF is the great idea of shutterbug, Leah J. Utas.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Top 10 list #4

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been slowly catching up on classic film-noir movies I’ve mostly never seen. I was around when they were new in the 1940s and 50s, but they weren’t meant for kids. I remember seeing Sunset Boulevard at the age of nine with my movie-fan parents and being thoroughly disturbed by it. I still am.

Nowadays, I enjoy these films for the way they offer the audience a vicarious walk on the wild side. They are Hollywood’s idea of an amoral universe (to the extent permitted by the Production Code, of course). I also enjoy the black-and-white visual style, where every Venetian blind casts its shadow. Here are 10 of the best ones I saw this year.

The Dark Corner. Lucille Ball headlined this 1946 Henry Hathaway film. She plays the smart secretary of a private eye (Mark Stevens) with a prison record, set up not once but twice for a murder he didn't commit. Set in New York, with documentary footage, the film also stars William Bendix and Clifton Webb.

The Killing. Sterling Hayden stars in this 1956 Stanley Kubrick film about a career crook with a complex plan to rob a racetrack. Jim Thompson co-wrote the screenplay and noir is pushed to the limits with inventive cinematography, location shooting, and a pounding soundtrack.

The Killers. This 1946 adaptation of Hemingway's 1927 short story of the same name has an insurance investigator (Edmund O'Brien) solving the murder of a former prizefighter (Burt Lancaster) who has run afoul of a "double-crossing dame" (Ava Gardner). Dark, cynical vision provided by German director Robert Siodmak.

Night and the City. Great cinematography in this 1950 classic starring Richard Widmark as a con man on the run during an action-packed night in London. Gene Tierney co-stars, with an excellent British supporting cast. Directed by Jules Dassin, himself on the run from the Hollywood blacklist. Exciting and grim.

Crossfire. A murder mystery directed by Edward Dmytryc, the entire story taking place in one night. Pipe-smoking Robert Young as a police detective sets out to solve the murder of a Jewish man after he befriends some soldiers in a bar. Nominated for an Oscar in 1947 for its frank treatment of anti-Semitism. Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan, and Gloria Graham also star.

Double bill: They Live by Night. Farley Granger and Cathy O'Donnell team up in this 1948 film to play a Bonnie-and-Clyde pair of bank robbers in the South. They appeared together again in Side Street (1950), where Granger is a part-time NYC letter carrier who swipes 30 grand and gets into big trouble.

Odds Against Tomorrow. Harry Belafonte, Robert Ryan, and Ed Begley plan a bank job that goes awry. Deals frankly with racism as Ryan and Belafonte strike sparks off each other. Shelley Winters co-stars. Striking location photography and great jazz score by John Lewis. Released in 1959.

Criss Cross. Burt Lancaster and Yvonne DeCarlo play a former married couple rekindling an old passion when she marries slick heavy Dan Duryea. All goes south when the two men try to rob an armored truck. Great footage of Los Angeles in 1949.

Kiss Me Deadly. Ralph Meeker plays Mickey Spillane’s PI Mike Hammer in this 1955 classic from Robert Aldrich. Opens with that iconic image of Cloris Leachman flagging down a car barefoot on a lonely stretch of road. Never lets up, all the way to the apocalyptic ending.

Coming up: back to the Old West

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Top-10 list #3

Today, I have a list of fiction and nonfiction books about the Old West that I read during the past 12 months. While I read and enjoyed various western genre writers, new and old, I wanted to give note here to the books I've learned most from:

Cattle, Horses and Men. First published in 1940, this memoir by John Culley is a rich source of detailed information about life in 1890s New Mexico, at a time when the ranch where he worked was the only fenced-in rangeland from there to the Canadian border.

Life in the Saddle. Well-written cowboy memoir, by Frank Collinson, who arrived in Texas as a teenager in time for the first cattle drives to Kansas. Also very informative about the life and work of buffalo hunters.

Heart’s Desire. This 1905 novel by Emerson Hough is set in a “quasi mining camp that was two-thirds cow town” in south-central New Mexico. It captures the spirit of an early western town in the years before exploitation by "Eastern capital."

An Obituary for Major Reno. This historical novel by Richard Wheeler tells the story of the Little Big Horn from the point of view of Major Marcus Reno, one of the commanding officers who survived, but whose life followed an unhappy course after the famous battle.

Pasó Por Aquí. This classic western tale by Eugene Manlove Rhodes was first published in 1926. It is set before the turn of the century in south-central New Mexico and offers a study of character as understood by the code of the West. Rhodes' earlier novels Bransford of Rainbow Range and Good Men and True are equally good.

The Outlet. This trail-drive novel by former cowpuncher Andy Adams was published in 1905. It’s a sequel to his Log of a Cowboy and dedicated to providing an accurate portrayal of a trail boss’s work. Plenty of suspense, too.

Wild West. Here’s another novel from a writer who knew cowboying from personal experience. Author Bertrand Sinclair portrays life on the open range of northern Montana, while his cowboy hero is on the trail of cattle rustlers.

To Hell on a Fast Horse. This is a nonfiction book by western historian Mark Lee Gardner, who gives a colorful and informative account of the Lincoln County War and the two men most remembered from it, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.

Chip of the Flying U. With this 1906 novel, B. M. Bower introduced readers to the bunch of hands at the Flying U ranch in northern Montana. Chip is a thoroughly likable hero, with a gift for painting, like Charles Russell.

The Cowboy Humor of Alfred Henry Lewis. This collection of stories was drawn from Lewis’ three books full of yarns from Wolfville, a fictional town in southern Arizona. Told by an old Texan, the Cattleman, they are an entertaining portrayal of frontier life.

Next time: top-10 classic film noir movies

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Top-10 list #2

Today, as promised, is my list of memorable films made in (what are to me) foreign languages. Again, it's a mix of old and new. I just happened to see them for the first time this year. They're in no particular order.

The Secret in Their Eyes. Suspenseful political crime drama from Argentina. Ricardo Darín plays a former cop still trying to solve a rape-murder thirties years in the past. Got the Oscar last year for best foreign film.

Romantico. This documentary puts a human face (and heart and soul) on the illegals that “show me your papers” laws are intended to identify and send back to Mexico. For anyone willing to set aside their fears or prejudices, the film provides an opportunity to experience U.S. immigration laws from the other side.

Departures. Moving and insightful Japanese film about an unemployed cellist who becomes a nakanshi, one who performs the ritual preparation of the dead for burial. Won an Oscar, in a previous year.

Seraphine. Beautifully made film with a compelling performance by Yolande Moreau as early 20th-century French painter Seraphine Louis. A housekeeper and laundrywoman, paid little for her services and regarded with disdain by her social betters, she creates inspired paintings that are both primitive and hallucinatory.

Lorna’s Silence. Best described as a docu-noir, this Belgian film by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes explores a criminal underworld that arranges marriages for the purpose of gaining citizenship. A well-meaning woman gets mixed up with some very scary types.

Close-Up. This docudrama by Iranian "new wave" director Abbas Kiarostami was shot in 40 days, using courtroom footage and reenactments with people playing themselves. It explores the nature of identity with the story of an ordinary man who gets involved with a family by letting them believe he is someone famous.

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu. This 2+ hour docudrama follows a single night in the life of a dying man in Bucharest as he attempts and finally fails to get help from a problem-ridden health care system. A fine, heart-felt, and honest film.

Ajami. Powerful film about a neighborhood in Jaffa where Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Israelis live uncertainly together. A drive-by shooting sets in motion a harrowing series of events with a tragic ending. Excellent performances by nonprofessional actors.

Welcome. Poignant and thoughtful film from France, set in Calais, where illegals gather in the hope of being smuggled into the UK. A swimming instructor befriends a 17-year-old Kurd, who wants to swim the Channel to rescue his girlfriend from an arranged marriage.

A Prophet. Gripping Oscar nominee from France, this 2.5 hour film follows the career of a young Arab man thrown into prison and adapting to a violent prison culture. Excellent performances and a story with many breathtaking moments.

Next time: Top-10 books

Monday, December 27, 2010

Top-10 list #1

Anybody familiar with this blog knows I’m not much for keeping current. I don’t get around to some new books and movies until 50 or 100 years later. So my end-of-the-year Top-10 lists are a mix of old and new.

I’ve got two movie lists, actually – English-language films and foreign-language films. Today, in no particular order, is my pick of the ones in English. A couple of them are oldies, and if True Grit isn’t on the list, it’s because I haven’t seen it yet. Look for it on my next year’s list.

Exit Through the Gift Shop. Enjoyably droll documentary from British street artist Banksy. A revelation if you know only a little about street art, and a wonderful send-up of the art world establishment at its commercialized worst.

Winter’s Bone. Striking for how really immersed this film is in its back-country milieu and backwoods folks’ extra-legal code of conduct. Good performances and a well-written script.

The Ghost Writer. Roman Polanski’s nifty homage to Alfred Hitchcock in this thriller with Ewan McGregor and Pierce Brosnan. Great cameo with Eli Wallach.

Don’t Let Me Drown. Nice little Romeo and Juliet love story set in post-9/11 Brooklyn, with totally plausible performances by its young bilingual actors. Director: Cruz Angeles.

The Last Station. The incomparable Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer in a historical domestic drama that is fascinating for its portrayal of the Tolstoys’ tumultuous marriage.

An Education. I enjoyed this mostly for its evocation of the London I first knew in 1964, before it became Americanized beyond recognition. Great cast and pleasantly entertaining.

Four Sheets to the Wind. A story of young Oklahoma Indians in a world that doesn't offer much of a place for them to fit in. Cufe, the central character is wonderfully played by Cody Lightning, who gives a thoughtful, quiet performance as a young man on the cusp of learning who and what he is. Director: Sterlin Harjo.

The Damned United. Enjoyable (and probably much fictionalized) biopic of Brian Clough (played by Michael Sheen) and his fruitless attempt to civilize the Leeds United football team in 1974.

The Exiles. Excellent docudrama about young Native Americans living in central Los Angeles circa 1960. The film vividly captures a time and place as it follows a half dozen characters during a night of bar hopping, cruising around town, and gathering on a hilltop overlooking the city for drumming and singing.

In a Lonely Place. Classic from 1950 with Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Graham in a story set in Hollywood. Qualifies as film noir, but reaches beyond the genre to tell a story of a screenwriter with an anger management problem. Director: Nicholas Ray.

Photo credit:

Next time: Top-10 foreign-language films

Friday, December 24, 2010

Photo finish Friday: Merry Christmas

It's finally here. The tree shines bright in the front windows again. It's been rainy and damp outside. Toasty inside. Drop by, if you can for a cup of good cheer.

And whatever you do, have yourself a merry little Christmas.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

3-minute western for Christmas

This is a reading from Mollie Davis' 1899 novel, The Wire-Cutters. The scene described is a Christmas party at the home of one of the families living in a West Texas community. Country folks from all around  have gathered for dancing, a fried chicken dinner, and a boiled candy pull in the back yard.

Sleet has fallen the day before, and the trees are covered with glistening ice. The breath of the horses can be seen on the night air. Though it is cold, the front door is open, and inside there is a roaring fire. After the meal, the dance goes on to the music of a single fiddler. The young people step outside into the cold to grab handfuls of hot candy and pull it until it turns brittle in the cold air. It's a bit of Dickens on the Texas frontier.

3-Minute Western: The Wire-Cutters, "Christmas" from Ron Scheer on Vimeo.

Coming up: Top-ten lists for 2010

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Maybe you can help

Monica 4, Santa Monica, California
I’m teaching a seminar on the western next semester. To keep the movie-viewing simple, the students subscribe to netflix, and we watch whatever films are currently streamable.

The current list of available westerns is longer than we’ll have time to watch them. So I’m listing them here and asking for some help to pick the best combination of them.

The students are freshmen, 18-19 years old, who have mostly never seen westerns. The last big one, 3:10 to Yuma (2007), was already long enough ago that most of them won’t know it. (At that age, they really are born yesterday.)

From having taught the course before, I know that the genre is a big surprise to them. The biggest surprise is that they actually like westerns, even the “old” ones. They discover that westerns deal with ideas about heroism, relationships, codes of behavior, and ethical issues, and they offer different interpretations of those ideas.

Anyway, as I prepare for the course, I’ve got to make up my mind soon about what I’ll be asking them to see. Here is the list of 18 that are currently available. If you had to cut that list down to ten, what would you want absolutely to keep?

Fort Apache
The Searchers
3:10 to Yuma (original version)           
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Lonesome Dove (six hours long! counts as two)
Broken Arrow (James Stewart)
Hombre (Paul Newman)           
Joe Kidd (Clint Eastwood)
The True Story of Jesse James (Robert Wagner)
Yellow Sky (Gregory Peck)
The Ballad of Cable Hogue (Jason Robards)
The Scalphunters (Burt Lancaster)
Tribute to a Bad Man (James Cagney)
The Return of Frank James (Henry Fonda)
Wyatt Earp (Kevin Costner)
River of No Return (Robert Mitchum, Marilyn Monroe)
The Last Sunset (Rock Hudson, Kirk Douglas)
Four Faces West (Joel McCrae)

Feel free to ask all your friends to help!

Picture credit:
Coming up:

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Cowboy (1958)

This is a curious mix of a western. Based on a fictitious cowboy memoir, it’s got a good script with an uncredited, blacklisted screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo. One lead role was played by a cowboy movie veteran, Glenn Ford. The other by Jack Lemmon, an otherwise gifted comic actor who in this film was, alas, a round peg in a square hole.

Cowboy is a trail-drive western that starts out a romantic comedy and then veers off into anti-romantic realism. Glenn Ford is a larger-than-life trail boss who’s just arrived in Chicago with a herd of cattle and a crew of noisy trailhands.

Lemmon plays supposedly real-life Frank Harris, who persuades Ford to take him on as one of the outfit. I say “supposedly,” as there’s little evidence that Harris ever did such a thing. In an age of Oprah-endorsed phony memoirs, this should have a ring of familiarity.

The irony is that what Harris invented (or stole) was pretty close to accurate, and the film defies many Hollywood conventions by attempting to honor that accuracy. The trailhands are not just tough but callously indifferent to each other’s welfare.

When one of them gets into trouble in a Mexican cantina, no one is willing to go help him. Determined to go to the rescue alone, Harris is stopped by the trail boss who gets rough and slings a crow bar at him. Better to lose one man than two, he argues. He’s got a herd of cattle to worry about.

Meanwhile, death on the trail is arbitrary – one man dies after some foolishness with a rattlesnake. A former lawman tells of turning in his badge after killing two drunk boys who had playfully jumped him in a dark alley. He later becomes despondent, kills a cousin after a couple drinks in a bar and then hangs himself.

Indians are observed in passing, on the move like refugees. One cowboy tells another not to worry about a calf struggling to keep up with the herd. “Leave it for the coyotes,” he says.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Mollie Davis, The Wire-Cutters (1899)

1997 edition by Texas A&M Press

Update: Revising my review of this novel for my book about early frontier fiction, I realized that the first draft, posted here almost three years ago, was embarrassingly awful. Here is the new improved blog version.

It has been argued that The Wire-Cutters by Mollie Evelyn Moore Davis (1844-1909) was the first western novel. It predates Owen Wister’s The Virginian by three years. Much of it is set during a range war that erupted in West Texas in the 1880s with the introduction of barbed wire fences across open range. It was written by a writer who knew West Texas from having lived there.

But it’s a western without cowboys. The hero rides a horse and is a frontier settler with some cattle, but his main cash crops are cotton and pecans. Also, a third of the novel takes place in the Deep South, beginning and ending with a heavy serving of melodrama. Looking for an authentic cowboy novel that predates The Virginian, a reader would do well to consider Wister’s own Lin McLean (1897).  

Plot. The central character, Leroy Hilliard, does not know that he was born to a wealthy Louisiana plantation owner and his wife. Because he bears a mysterious resemblance to his mother’s divorced first husband, she has her second husband get rid of the boy. Without her knowledge, he is adopted by a high-ranking Confederate officer, whom he comes to believe is his actual father. In fact, the man is her much loathed first husband.

Years pass and the now grown-up Hilliard goes to West Texas, where he has bought a farm. When barbwire fences begin cropping up across the countryside and preventing open range cattle from getting to water, he’s among the first to oppose them. But the arrival of a rich, idle, unscrupulous young man, Alan Deerford, stirs up trouble for him. When Hilliard declines to disturb fences that have been erected legally, Deerford leads the local young men on nighttime raids of more wire cutting.

Deerford has a bad influence on an impressionable younger man, Jack, who was once Hilliard’s best friend. Jack goes missing and foul play is feared. In time, his body is found with Deerford’s knife through his heart, and Deerford has disappeared. Meanwhile, the gang of young wire-cutters is jailed for their mischief.

Hilliard magnanimously comes to their defense, acting as their attorney at the trial. After an impassioned plea, he gets a not guilty decision from the jury. He then pursues Deerford to bring him to justice and finds him at the Louisiana plantation where the story started and a cascade of revelations awaits both men.

Romance. Intertwined with the tangled plot of the two men is a romance in which they are rivals for the hand of the same woman, the pretty Helen Wingate. She has come west from Kentucky as a guest of a schoolmate, Margaret Ransome, who is Hilliard’s close friend.

He is instantly taken with Helen. But he soon realizes that Deerford intends her to be his wife as well. We don’t know until well into the novel that Helen does not love Deerford and accepts his attentions only out of a mixture of fear and politeness. As she abruptly leaves to return home, Hilliard is pleased to learn that she is quite fond of him and will happily entertain a proposal of marriage. But in an impulsive moment, she marries Deerford, who is one step ahead of the law, and sails off with him to Europe.

Hilliard’s friend Margaret has much more to commend her as a wife and soul mate. She is brave, thoughtful, attentive to the needs of others. You don’t have to read deeply between the lines to see that she loves Hilliard. We keep expecting him to realize this, but there is little to indicate at novel’s end that he and Margaret are destined to be together.

Character. Settling in Texas, Hilliard is good humored and shows his grit by never complaining. His neighbors quickly warm to him as he shows himself able to “straddle a horse and shoot a rifle, sleep on the ground in camp,” and join the men in talk about politics (pp. 92-93). At social gatherings, he catches the eye of the women, who find him to be a good dancer and candy-puller.

He stands out as a principled man by comparison with most of the other men of the community, whose ethics are flexible. He respects the law and does the right thing, though it means the loss his popularity. He becomes an honorable man with few friends.

Style. The Wire-Cutters is an interesting example of a hybrid novel, mixing plantation and western themes. On the one hand is an ante-bellum sensibility, with a refined Southern aristocracy and its “negro” retainers. On the other is the egalitarian spirit of the frontier. Each world gets its own style of storytelling. 

The plantation chapters have a sunny, dewy, perfumed exterior, but dark passions seethe under the surface. A young and unhappy wife takes a knife to a portrait of her husband, slashing his image across the cheek. An image of this same slash shows up as a birthmark on her first son’s face. Southern gothic comes to mind.

The Texas chapters are sharply realistic, with dusty roads, blistering heat and blue northers, dying cattle on the open ranges. The social fabric is richly detailed, the country folk often comically portrayed.

One example: Between services at Sunday church gathering, the men group outdoors on one side of the church and the women on another. The girls studiously avoid eye contact with the eligible bachelors, who wait until leaving time to race after them on their horses and ride along next to them.

Wrapping up. Davis was born in Alabama. From 1855, her family lived in Texas, and she earned a reputation as a poet. Marriage took her to New Orleans in 1879, where her husband was editor of the New Orleans Picayune. A prominent figure in literary circles there, she later became a newspaper editor herself, while continuing to write fiction and poetry.

The Wire-Cutters was preceded by Under the Man-fig (1895), a novel set in a Texas river town on the Brazos. It is a romanticized account of plantation life during the years before, during, and after the Civil War. A collection of short stories, An Elephant’s Trunk (1897) included titles previously published in Atlantic and Harper’s. The same year saw her history of Texas, Under Six Flags.

The Wire Cutters is currently available online at google books and Internet Archive. A modern edition (Texas A&M Press, 1997) can be found at amazon, Barnes&Noble, Powell's Books, and AbeBooks. For more of Friday’s Forgotten Books, click on over to Patti Abbott’s blog.

Texas State Historical Association website
Sylvia Ann Grider, Lou Halsell Rodenberger, eds., Texas Women Writers: A Tradition of Their Own, 1997.

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

Friday, December 17, 2010

Photo-finish Friday: desert sunrise

I cannot notice a dawn like this one without grabbing a camera and running like hell outdoors to try and capture it somehow. Always the sky is too big for the camera and I'm taking a fistful of pics, one after another, wishing I could do one of those David Hockney Polaroid mosaics. Impossible even if I could, because the moment when the sky is full of color is so fleeting. In a minute, it will all fade to ordinary daylight.

Since this is mostly about me taking this picture, it should probably be of me, who you can imagine, out there at the end of the street in sweats and socks. My nextdoor neighbor, who came driving up and was parking in front of his house, gave me a surprised look as I ran by to get to where there are no rooftops and power lines to obstruct the view of the sky. Anyway, this is what it looked like here for a brief moment one pre-Christmas morning this week.

Coming up: Mollie Moore Davis, The Wire-Cutters (1899)

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Sheriff of Tombstone (1941)

Roy Rogers (1911-1998) had starred in over 20 B-westerns when this film was made. Before that, he was already known as a singing cowboy, performing as Leonard Slye with the Sons of the Pioneers. Co-star George “Gabby” Hayes (1885-1969) had been in countless movies, with and without whiskers, since 1931.

While the copy of this film is not first quality, it’s a cut above the typical low-budget B-western. Roy and Gabby know what they’re doing in front of the camera. Their characters are believable, even if the plot and situations aren’t.

The plot. In a nutshell, like Wyatt Earp before him, Sheriff Brett Starr (Roy) has cleaned up Dodge City and is on his way to Tombstone to do the same there. Arriving in Tombstone, he’s mistaken for a gunman and put to work by a crooked mayor who is trying to seize the silver mine of an old lady.

When Roy and Gabby learn of this scheme, they attempt to save the day. But difficulties arise when the real gunman shows up in town and puts himself at the service of the villains. All gets sorted out after some gunplay and Roy has a minute of film stock left to spirit away the town’s attractive and more-than-willing dress shop owner.

 Gabby Hayes and Roy Rogers in The Carson City Kid, 1940
Added value. The songs are extras (you could say extraneous) to the plot. But Roy has a fine voice, and it’s fun to watch him sing. A curious addition is Sally Payne as Gabby’s daughter, a saloon girl who does a couple turns as something of a cabaret singer, with a quartet of waiters as backup. Some day someone will explain to me how this convention of the stage musical found its way into the western.

Gabby is clearly present in the story as a comic foil, though Roy is so consistently bright and cheerful, the balance between the two takes on a character of its own. Instead of the buffoonery of a Fuzzy Q. Jones, Hayes has a measure of gravitas. In this film, he plays a judge, who seems to know the law, and there are times when he almost carries the weight of a scene. Opposite the idealistic and youthful confidence of Roy, he stands for a more developed knowledge of the world that comes with age to some men.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Old West glossary, no. 4

Montana cowboys, c1910
Here’s another set of frontier terms garnered from reading books of that era. Definitions were discovered in various online dictionaries, as well as Ramon Adams’ Cowboy Dictionary and The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

Once again I struck out on a term or two. If anybody knows what a "Shanghai post" is, leave a comment.

amole = the root or other part of several chiefly western North American plants, such as agave and yucca, used as a substitute for soap. “They make ropes out of colts’ tails and rawhide, mold their own candles, and let the women wash with amole to save buying soap.” Eugene Manlove Rhodes, “The Enchanted Valley.”

bobtail = the first cowboy(s) guarding the cattle at night. “The bobtail moves the herd to the bed ground – some distance from camp, to avoid mutual annoyance and alarm – and holds it while night horses are caught and supper eaten.” Eugene Manlove Rhodes, “The Trouble Man.”

chop-house = a cheap restaurant. “McCloud took supper afterward with Whispering Smith at a Front Street chop-house, and the two men separated at eleven o’clock.” Frank H. Spearman, Whispering Smith.

Sheet music for Bert A. Williams song, 1896
coon song = popular song mimicking songs sung by Blacks. “They were sheets of gaudy coon songs and ragtime with flaring covers, and they seemed to give off odors of cheap perfume.” Frank H. Spearman, Whispering Smith.

Free Silver = a populist political movement advocating a monetary system in which (like gold) the value of mined silver was the same as the face value of silver coinage. “Some one or two drinks were handed to me, however, a handful of cigars and six dollars change. Them Free Silver fellows shore believed what they said.” Eugene Manlove Rhodes, “The Numismatist”

hummer = a person or thing of exceptional excellence. “Miss Dicksie Dunning is a hummer, isn’t she?” Frank H. Spearman, Whispering Smith.

jackleg = incompetent; dishonest. “Frenchy kept a jackleg lawyer, and he was helping to persecute.” Eugene Manlove Rhodes, “The Numismatist”

jay = dull, inferior, poor. “He is a jay with a gun, and you may tell him I said so; do you hear?” Frank H. Spearman, Whispering Smith.

jerk-line = a single rein that runs to the lead animal in a team of mules or horses. “Freight depot was, too, judging from the evidence of the huge-wheeled wagons rigged with chains and stretchers for twenty-horse ‘jerk-line’ teams.” Eugene Manlove Rhodes, “The Enchanted Valley.” More info here.

World War I era poster, c1918
lick = sorghum molasses, used as a sweetener. “‘Lick’ (sorghum molasses) was the only dessert we had in the chuck wagon, and that with cured bacon, frijoles, bread, and coffee constituted our regular chuck.” Frank Collinson, Life in the Saddle.

light a rag = leave at high speed. “We’ve got ’em! Light a rag, you hungry man!” Eugene Manlove Rhodes, “The Trouble Man.”

mountain fever = viral infection spread by bite of the wood tick. “They had chosen a time when McCloud, the assistant superintendent of the mine, was down with mountain fever.” Frank H. Spearman, Whispering Smith.

play hob = to cause mischief or disturbance (related to hobgoblin). “‘Now you’ve played hob!’ exclaimed Dave. He swung out of his saddle and gripped Hare with both hands.” Zane Grey, The Heritage of the Desert.

ragtown = a tent city; generic term for a new settlement with temporary structures. A famous Ragtown in modern times was the workers’ shanty town on the floor of the canyon where Hoover Dam was being built on the Colorado River. “We stayed two days in Dodge City, a typical Western ‘ragtown’ in that June, 1874.” Frank Collinson, Life in the Saddle.

reefer = an overcoat. “McCloud ordered the flat cars cut off the train and the engine whistle sounded at short intervals, and, taking Stevens, buttoned his reefer and started up the grade after the three trackmen.” Frank H. Spearman, Whispering Smith.

ring-tail =  an uncooperative horse, marked by tail swishing. “Many of the government horses and polo ponies in the country at that time were considered ring-tails, sharp spurs having caused the condition.” Frank Collinson, Life in the Saddle.

riprap = construct a breakwater using as a foundation of loose stone. “They rode to where the forces assembled by Lance were throwing up embankments and riprapping.” Frank H. Spearman, Whispering Smith.

shinny-on-your-own-side = stay within the lines; mind your own business (name given to an early version of field hockey). “They left me here to play shinny-on-your-own-side.” Eugene Manlove Rhodes, “The Trouble Man.”

shooting-box = a small country house providing accommodation for hunters during hunting season. “I intend to secure a holding here – shooting-box, summer-house, that sort of thing – and bring out my nervously prostrated friends to get back into tune with life.” Eugene Manlove Rhodes, “The Enchanted Valley.”

show the white feather = display cowardice. “His victim had pulled an engine throttle too long to show the white feather, but he was dying by the time he had dragged a revolver from his pocket.” Frank H. Spearman, Whispering Smith.

sockdolager = a decisive blow or answer; something exceptional. “You caught me a sockdolager on the jaw as I fell, and I just this minute came to.” Eugene Manlove Rhodes, “Loved I Not Honor More.”

Vaquero with leather coverings over sitrrups
toe fenders = leather hoods covering the stirrups of a saddle. “I learned too that I needed toe fenders, or ‘tapaderas’ as the Mexicans call them, to protect my feet from the thorns.” Frank Collinson, Life in the Saddle.

toot onsong = the general effect (tout ensemble). “The toot ongsom was calculated to make an escaped lunatic homesick.” Eugene Manlove Rhodes, “The Numismatist”

turn turtle = turn over, capsize, be upset. “The doctor felt of his head as if his brain were turning turtle.” Frank H. Spearman, Whispering Smith.

windsucker = a horse that addictively sucks and gulps air, usually from boredom. “A steer that was run and roped and jerked around was called a ‘windsucker’.” Frank Collinson, Life in the Saddle.

Picture credits:

Coming up: Sheriff of Tombstone (1941)

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Beat to a Pulp, Round 1, Cranmer and Ash, eds.

Pulp fiction is un-American – in the best sense of the word. It sticks its finger in the eye of our over-idealistic national myths. It questions the myth of progress and the myth of the American Dream. Along with one of the characters in Cranmer and Ash’s Beat to a Pulp, Round 1, it insists that things are “going to hell.”

This is easy for me to say, knowing as little as I do about pulp fiction. My hat’s off to folks like Cullen Gallagher, whose informative history of pulp appears at the end of this giant volume of new stories. I don’t even rank as an amateur in this discussion. But it’s hard, as a compulsive reader, not to pitch in my two centavos.

Pulp and Beat. Pulp, as Gallagher points out, is an aesthetic. It can show up in other popular art forms (film noir, punk rock). Its main message is “stop kidding yourself, we’re beat.” It gives the lie to any form of optimism.

Reading these stories, I have found new reason to enjoy the play on words in Cranmer and Ash’s title Beat to a Pulp. The word “beat” here evokes the meaning of the word as Jack Kerouac originally meant it – exhausted, beaten down. He was describing field workers in California. And he was embracing them and their hardscrabble, hand-to-mouth existence as being more fully authentic. (Never mind that he didn't know what he was talking about.)

This admission of defeat is at the heart of the pulp fiction in this collection. It’s an attitude typically charged with fierce anger, chilling anxiety, or wild hilarity. Given the working conditions and the low pay of pulp writers, it’s no mystery where this attitude originated.

That pulp flourished during the Great Depression seems no accident. Laissez-faire capitalism had already dragged the economy through several booms and crashes. It was a system that was always hard on ordinary folks, but the Big One about did us in. Pulp, along with the movies, offered an affordable escape from harsh realities and disillusionment.

Every period since then has had its anxieties. Still, most Americans snap back from jolts to their confidence, and sunny optimism prevails. Until lately. And not surprisingly, pulp has had a renaissance.

Dark vs sunny. Pulp is a walk on the wild side. It offers escape into a world where, ironically, there’s often no escape. It traps you in a locked room with your worst fears. Like the protagonists in Bill Frank’s “Acting Out” or Glen Gray’s “Cannulation,” you find yourself caught in a lose-lose situation. It’s a bad dream with no way out but a hopeless run for your life.

Pulp is honest. It is anti-heroic because heroics are futile. It just says no to happy endings.

Almost always. Sometimes cunning succeeds where heroics fail. And while feel-good endings are rare, justice typically prevails. Pulp dives into that gap between what is dark and sunny in us and comes up with cheap thrills that can be thoroughly enjoyable.

I’m thinking here of a couple stories: Kieran Shea’s “Off Rock” and Anonymous-9’s “Hard Bite.” The cheap thrill in both of them is the opportunity to identify with a killer. Each is about a prisoner, one on an asteroid, the other in a wheelchair. Each of them engineers a kind of freedom for himself that involves taking the lives of others. But the dead deserve their fates, and so justice prevails. Still, the killers in both cases are scarcely superior to their victims. Should things backfire – as they do in one case – we know it was inevitable.

There’s a similar set-up in Evan Lewis’ exciting pirate story, “The Ghost Ship.” Here the reader is immersed in a bloody melee as the merciless pirate captain slashes his way to the hold of a captured ship. There he hopes to find treasure. At some point, we discover, good judgment has left the man, maybe long before the story began. And for his cheering crew, justice is finally served.

So greed and lust for blood (dark) meet generosity and the love of safety (sunny), and there we are suspended between a nightmare and a waking world. And enjoying it. Blood and violence mark many of these stories. The word “blood” appears at least once in eleven of them.

Going, going, gone. Death is a nearly constant theme. Worth mention on this point is Paul Powers’ homage to Ambrose Bierce. His “The Strange Death of Ambrose Bierce” parallels Bierce’s own “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” first published in 1890. And knowing the original story makes the parallels especially haunting. With the hanging of a Confederate sympathizer, it is as if Bierce predicted his own death, as a prisoner of war in Mexico.

James Reasoner’s “Heliotrope” finds another man lingering, he comes to learn, between life and death. His story, set in a hospital in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor has a vintage feel and reads like a 1940s radio play. Patricia Abbott’s wonky take on death, in “Ghostscapes,” involves several blithe spirits who need time to discover that being among the living doesn’t mean they are still alive.

Women. The women in these stories seem to spring full-blown from the unconscious of the writers, most of them male. Rather than modest and well-behaved, they are wild and sexual or downright spooky. Cash Laramie encounters a kind of Spider Woman in the Edward A. Grainger story, “The Wind Scorpion.”

In Nolan Knight’s “At Long Last,” a man with a windfall inheritance picks up a woman at a bar and gives her a good time, flashing his new wealth. King for a day, he goes back to being a loser when she robs him of all of it.

Seventeen-year-old Ryder is the girl-from-hell in Andy Henion’s black farce, “Anarchy Among Friends: A Love Story.” The middle-aged wife of a wealthy old man in Hilary Davidson’s “Insatiable” shares one of her swarthy lovers from time to time with her husband who has appetites of his own.

Suspending disblief. Generally, these stories take place in a closed universe, a dream world with a logic of its own. You have to suspend all your disbelief to accept them on their own terms. Chap O’Keefe’s “The Unreal Jesse James” mixes science fiction with western history, and the effect is whimsical. It doesn’t have connection points with the real world.

On the other hand, the portrayal of tropical parasites and cannibalism in Chris Holm’s “A Native Problem” casts a shadow that doesn’t quite lift when you turn its last page. Though set in 1923, the story reminds us of AIDS and other global diseases still waiting in the wings.

Garnett Elliott’s “Studio Dick,” set in post-war Hollywood, makes telling reference to anti-Semitism. Stephen D. Rogers’ “Pripet Marsh” cuts close to the bone in its portrayal of wartime savagery seemingly countenanced by the availability of high-tech weaponry. Today’s global black market in organs is evoked in the futuristic “Spend It Now, Pay Later” by Nik Morton. Human trafficking is, in fact, the subject of Frank Bill’s “Acting Out.”

So pulp entertains by playing on the shadow side of popular and officially sanctioned myths about the real world. It questions the validity of beliefs about hard work and getting ahead, going by the rules, being a model citizen, the sanctity of human life, human decency, family values, truth, justice, and the American Way.

So, yeah, it’s un-American. It’s not in denial about the human condition. And it’s a safety valve for all our known and unknown fears, as well as an escape from them. For a while we can let ourselves get beat to a pulp without getting bloody in the bargain.

Coming up: Old West glossary, #4

Monday, December 13, 2010

Eugene Manlove Rhodes, stories

Today I’m taking a quick look back at Eugene Manlove Rhodes. I have a copy of a story collection, The Rhodes Reader, assembled by W. H. Hutchinson in 1957. This is truly a “forgotten book” available only from used book sellers, even though reprinted a couple of times since then.

Hutchinson begins the book with an essay on western fiction at a time when as a genre it was still going strong, both in print and on screen. The heyday of pulp fiction was past, but he predicts that the western is here to stay. He only laments that it hasn’t been taken seriously as a narrative genre since Zane Grey first drew scorn from the literary establishment.

In his essay, he argues that Grey fixed the genre in a formula of three elements: “virgins, villains, and varmints.” Each is defined by a limited selection of stereotypes. He attributes this in part to a simple fact. Western writers, including Grey, were chiefly “outsiders” from east of the 100th meridian, writing about a West they knew only selectively and from partial experience.

Grey vs. Rhodes. Grey, as we’ve seen, was writing about a mythic West. He favors action and melodrama set against a panoramic backdrop of mountain, desert, and canyons. Romance is elevated to grand passion. Villains are evil and must die. It is escapism pure and simple.

After reading writers of western fiction who were his contemporaries, you soon notice his utter lack of wit and humor. If there is irony in his writing, it can be heavy-handed. He was no master of the light touch.

The son of a dentist, Grey grew up in Pennsylvania and Ohio. He went to the University of Pennsylvania on a baseball scholarship and was apparently a middling student. It’s worth noting that he knew the West as a place for adventuring. He wrote for Field and Stream, which featured his articles on hunting mountain lions and deep-sea fishing.

Sacramento Mountains, New Mexico
Rhodes, Hutchinson reminds us, grew up in Nebraska and Kansas before resettling with his family in New Mexico. He worked there as a cowboy, miner, freight hauler, and in at least a dozen other jobs from an early age. The characters in his stories were men he actually knew. It is said that he wouldn’t write a word that would ring false to any of them.

There are virgins, villains and varmints in his fiction, but he presents them with a feeling for the human comedy. To know all is to forgive all. The virgins are clever and surprisingly daring in their refusal to be sidelined because of their gender – or their need of rescue. Violence between adversaries is avoided if possible. Life is hard enough without willfully making it worse.

Rhodes was mostly self-educated and a voracious reader from an early age. His fiction is full of literary allusions and a playful love of language. There is wit and humor and a brand of irony that make light of adversity and the harsh conditions of western life. It is a “western” sensibility.

So today I’m briefly looking at a few of his first stories, all of them published before 1910.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Photo finish Friday: The Birds

Pigeons don't get much respect, so there's a flock of them I'll give a nod to today. They hang out in the neighborhood and spend nights on a power line behind the house. Each morning at dawn, they suddenly spring into flight and do this aerial ballet that lasts for several minutes.

Watching them, you wonder again how they manage to move as one through the sky - a squadron turning first this way and then that way, disappearing and then reappearing somewhere else. Then all at once they come in for a landing again, dropping back onto the power line, and the performance is over.

The light before sunrise is too weak to get a good shot of them, but you can get an idea from the blur they leave in the camera. To complete the picture, all you have to do is imagine the fluttering sound of all those wings as they swoop overhead.

Forgotten book: Troublemakers by John McNally

This collection of stories lies somewhere between the blue-collar melancholy of Raymond Carver and the outrageous humor of Hunter Thompson. His characters (all males in their early teens to thirties) are comically pathetic, living lives that barely hang together.

Teenagers Hank and Ralph appear in three stories set on the Southside of Chicago. They are obsessed with girls (who are all repelled by the two boys) and spend their aimless days and nights on the ragged boundary between adolescent angst and Big Trouble. Roger, a UPS driver, moves blankly through empty days haunted darkly by thoughts of Squeaky Fromme and Charles Manson. Meanwhile, a fellow worker runs a personal ad and discovers the liberating mysteries of "raw carnality."

Far from being bleak, the wonky dialogue and cock-eyed situations in these stories had me laughing out loud. In my favorite story, a debt-ridden young English instructor is beleaguered at work by witless students and an annoying, politically correct faculty and then harassed at his new home by a neighborhood bully. All comes unglued for him at a faculty party where he gets entirely too drunk.

The last longer story, "Limbs," shows McNally stretching himself into something more novel-like, as he explores the disintegrating impact of a murder on the lives of several small-town people. Here there are few laughs, just a dizzying descent into confusion and rage. I loved this book. Still in print and so, I suppose, officially not forgotten, it deserves all the readers it finds.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Frank Collinson, Life in the Saddle, part 3

Life in the Saddle is partly about West Texas and eastern New Mexico geography. The pictures today represent some of that terrain. The book is also a catalogue of the way men died on the frontier. And more from violence than natural causes, Collinson says. 

No Trust Here, Stanley Wood,1895
As an example, he tells of a killing he witnessed in Socorro, New Mexico.Three young trail herd cowboys were shot in the back, unprovoked, as they left town on their horses – by the sheriff and a deputy. The oldest was no more than 23, he says, and there was “no harm in any of them.” He goes on to say:

There were graves along the prairie from Texas to Montana, and no doubt some of the victims were tough hombres and deserved to be shot. But I’m convinced that the majority of them, like the three young cowboys in Socorro, were killed wantonly. (pp. 217-218)

Fort Griffin. The vigilante committee was kept busy in this wild frontier town in west Texas, where life was a tenuous commodity. Foul play was so common that when someone went missing suspicions were easily aroused.

Two brothers there, Ed and Frank Woolsey, cooked up a plot to take a ranch from a partner, James Brock. Frank left the country and Ed started a rumor that Brock had killed him. Like a scene out of The Oxbow Incident, the vigilantes swung into action. On the way to apprehend Brock, however, they were turned back by high water.

Saved from hanging, Brock was later tried but not convicted. He then searched for 13 years before finally finding Frank Woolsey in Arkansas. Somehow, instead of killing him, he returned with the man to Fort Griffin to prove his innocence.

Yellow House Canyon, near Slaton, Texas
A disappearance of another kind occurred when two gamblers shot it out in a Fort Griffin saloon over a high stakes card game. As bystanders fled, Lottie Deno, a so-called poker queen, stayed behind long enough to make off with the $1,000 the men were fighting over. She left town later and reportedly lived as a reformed woman after a conversion at a revival in Silver City, New Mexico.

Gun violence was so much the norm in Fort Griffin that a stage driver engineered some attention for himself by shooting up his own stage and claiming to have fought off a band of robbers. After receiving a medal for bravery from his fellow townsmen, he confessed to the truth during a drunk and returned the medal.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Frank Collinson, Life in the Saddle, part 2

I’m putting in another day on this cowboy memoir because so much of frontier lore has been packed into it. Today, two notables: Billy the Kid and John Chisum.

Billy, photo by Ben Wittick (1845-1903)
Billy the Kid. I mentioned last time that Collinson had encountered Billy the Kid during his trips to New Mexico. Collinson doesn’t admire Billy, but he believes he was treated unfairly as the only one ever brought to trial during the Lincoln County War. He considers much of his alleged criminal record to be implausible hearsay. And if his employer, John Tunstall, had not been murdered, we would never have heard of Billy.

When Collinson met Billy, he was unimpressed and described him years later as “only a boy” and “not much to look at”:

Everything he had on would not have sold for five dollars – an old black slouch hat; worn-out pants and boots, spurs, shirt and vest; a black cotton handkerchief tied loosely around his neck, the ever-ready Colt double-action .41 pistol around him and in easy reach; an old style .44 rim-fire, brass-jawed Winchester.

I should say he was about five feet, seven inches tall, and weighed perhaps 135 pounds. He had no chin, no shoulders, and his hands and feet were small. He needed a haircut. He had a pair of gray-blue eyes that never stopped looking around. (p. 118)

There are various accounts of the death of Deputy Dan Carlyle at the Greathouse ranch outside White Oaks, New Mexico, where a posse found Billy’s gang. Collinson’s version casts Greathouse as the villain, with a record of rustling cattle and selling liquor to Indians for horses. While Greathouse was questioned outside by the posse, Carlyle went into the ranch house as guarantee of his safe return.

Frederic Remington, Fighting Over a Stolen Herd, 1895

Billy had threatened to kill Carlyle if any harm came to Greathouse. Hearing a shot from outside, Carlyle dived for his life through a window, and Billy cut him down, as he’d promised. Collinson says, “I always figured the killing of Carlyle was the most uncalled-for of any of the Kid’s killings” (p. 170).

In fact, it has not been determined whether the posse, Billy’s gang, or both fired at Carlyle. The accounts make a good example of how hard it is to sort fact from fiction in writing the history of events like these. You can find a different account of the incident here.

As a footnote, it’s worth a mention that Collinson had been told there was a demand for shooters in Lincoln County. A marksman with a buffalo gun, he seriously considered hiring on there with either of the fighting factions, at $3.50 a day – until someone talked him out of it.