Monday, December 31, 2012

Roll on 2013

It's here, another year. This post is just a few words to say thanks for sharing my interest in early western writers, whose first novels and short stories I've been reviewing at BITS. For everyone who has said, "You should write a book," rest assured that 2013 promises to be the year that finally comes to pass. Looking at the manuscript that has grown, it may be more than one book--if not more than two.

A word of thanks also to the diligent bloggers whose posts I have enjoyed and learned from over the past 12 months. For those of you who also write fiction, I encourage you to continue giving heart and soul to your craft. There are few higher callings.

See you in the New Year!

Photo credit: Chris LaTray

Coming up: Robert Mitchum, Marilyn Monroe, River of No Return (1954)

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Saturday music, Elvis

Recorded and released in July 1956, with "Hound Dog" on the B-side. Was #1 on the pop charts that year for 11 weeks.

Coming up: Robert Mitchum, Marilyn Monroe, River of No Return (1954)

Friday, December 28, 2012

Zane Grey, Nevada (1928)

I’ve had a first edition copy of this book for about 15 years. It was given to me by a friend at work when I was just getting into western history—but not yet westerns. Watching the 1944 movie Nevada based on it (and reviewed here), I got curious about the original story. So it was time to read the book.

How the movie compares to the novel can be summed up in two words. It doesn’t. Besides the names of a handful of Grey’s characters, there’s not the remotest resemblance between the stories. Still, movie posters of the time advertised the film as “Zane Grey’s Nevada.” So much for truth in advertising.

Plot. In its 365 pages, the novel tells a complex story involving a gunman named Jim Lacy who is known to some characters as “Nevada” and to others as “Texas Jack.” As Jim Lacy, he has a reputation that puts fear into the hearts of even the bravest men. As “Nevada,” he is remembered by a California family as an honorable man who won their love and respect before disappearing in the novel’s opening chapter.

Windmill, Arizona, c1920
As “Texas Jack,” he’s a hard-working cowboy for an Arizona rancher, who goes after a gang of cattle thieves called the Pine Tree outfit. In a plot device often used later in B-westerns, he infiltrates the gang to learn the identity of its members. One by one, he then kills them.

Maybe two-thirds of the novel is devoted to the family from California, Ben Ide and his sister Hettie. Both have fallen deeply in love with the man they know as Nevada, and they leave California to take up ranching in Arizona, where each hopes to find him again. Alas, no one knows of a “Nevada” there.

By chance, Hettie learns that Nevada and the notorious Jim Lacy are one and the same. Stunned by this discovery, she decides to keep it from her idealistic brother. His early enthusiasm for Arizona is waning as he finds that he’s been cheated by the man who has sold him a ranch, and thieves are making off with his cattle.

When the paths of the two men finally cross, it is after Ben has become determined to see the man “Jim Lacy” hanged as a cattle thief. Having killed the last gang member, Lacy is being held under arrest when Ben first lays eyes on him. Overjoyed to be reunited with his long-lost friend, Ben learns that Lacy has been working undercover for two local ranchers. Any charges against him are handily dismissed.

Meanwhile, Hettie Ide has been shaken to her boots by this sudden turn of events. She feels unworthy of the courageous man whose true identity she’s doubted. For his part, having always worshiped Hettie, he feels unworthy of her. They finally get past their false assumptions about each other and agree to marry and live happily ever after.

Pictographs, Arizona, 1903
Character. The strongest parts of Grey’s story have to do with the man of three faces, Jim Lacy. A decent and honorable man but given to violence, he is something of a wounded hero. As we learn in the opening chapter, he has killed others in the service of those he respects. But it also isolates him as a fugitive from those who would repay violence with violence.

More than once, Grey characterizes Jim Lacy as a “lone wolf.” Hiding out for a while in a remote canyon, he is swept up by feelings of loneliness and self-pity. There is a melancholy, despairing side of him. He knows shame for his part once in a stagecoach robbery. Yet while he lives at considerable risk, he knows no fear, for he “was not in love with life.”

Before he disappears from the narrative for much of the novel, he is established as a man who never loses his cool. He doesn’t drink, because alcohol affects his judgment and his skill with a gun. He avoids trouble and calmly declines to be lured into a gun duel by a man he scorns. He’s also unmoved by the come-on from a flirtatious saloon girl. But when she is beaten up by her boyfriend, he kills the man.

Cabin, Arizona, 1920s
Themes. The novel is a celebration of Arizona. Whole chunks of it would make rapturous prose poems for Arizona Highways. Zane Grey’s reputed love of the outdoors is in evidence on page after page.

For a western novel, there’s an unusual amount of it devoted to the subject of love and a resulting flood of romantic emotions. Besides Ben’s and Hettie’s frequent professions of love for the absent Nevada, we get Nevada’s lonely yearning for Hettie. There’s also a subplot devoted to the burst of first love that consumes a young cowboy Marvie and his sweetheart Rose.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Top 10 early western novels for 2012

Of the 47 early westerns (1880-1915) reviewed this year at BITS, here are the ones that for various reasons stood out from the rest. Listed in chronological order by date of publication:

Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton, The Squatter and the Don (1885)
This historical romance, set mostly in southern California, has a bundle of different aspirations. It’s a nostalgic recollection of life on the Spanish land grant haciendas and a bitter account of its swift demise when Alta California became part of the United States. The book is also a family saga, incorporating several love stories. And it’s a shrill screed attacking the greed and political corruption of the railroad monopolies. More. . .

Marah Ellis Ryan, Told in the Hills (1890)
There’s a bit of Charles Dickens in this story of long-held secrets ending with a cascade of deathbed revelations. In its study of white-Indian relations on the frontier, it is also a critique of racial prejudice. As a study in character, its hero and heroine portray a stubborn independence and loyalty to higher ideals that put them at odds with their social equals. More. . .

Owen Wister, Red Men and White (1896)
Republished in later years as Salvation Gap and Other Western Classics, this early collection of short fiction by Owen Wister was originally written in part for Harpers Monthly in 1894-1895. I first read it a half dozen years ago, and coming to it again after reading the work of his contemporaries, there’s more to notice that wasn’t obvious the first time. More. . .

Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville (1897)
Alfred Henry Lewis (1855-1914), published a trio of books, Wolfville (1897), Wolfville Days (1902), and Wolfville Nights (1902). Each is a comic collection of sketches set in a fictional frontier settlement in the Arizona desert. Ominously called Wolfville, it was no doubt meant to emulate the very real town of Tombstone. More. . .

Elizabeth Higgins, Out of the West (1902)
Set in Nebraska in a fictional small town, Columbia Junction, this anti-railroad novel describes the disastrous impact of rising freight rates on early settlers. The central character, Frank Fields, lives there in exile, sent West by his wealthy father to manage a couple of grain elevators acquired in a foreclosure. More. . .

Samuel Merwin, The Road-Builders (1905)
In this exciting railroad novel, Samuel Merwin tells of a crew of engineers building a railway in West Texas. It is the 1870s, and the principle obstacle to the operation is not the Apaches, as you’d expect, but a rival railroad magnate. More. . .

Herman Whitaker, The Settler (1907)
Reading this novel, it’s not a surprise that its author hung out with Jack London. Herman Whitaker shows a feeling for the kind of tough men who labored in the most physically demanding industries of the developing West. While an opponent of the monopolists, trusts, and robber barons who made fortunes at the expense of workingmen, he also saw that it took the hubris of their grand vision to build nations. More. . .

Frederick Niven, The Lost Cabin Mine (1908)
This early western by Scots-Canadian writer Frederick Niven (1878-1944) is a character study of a frontier outlaw with “good” bad man credentials. The Apache Kid is a congenial train robber, bank robber, and road agent, But he’s never been convicted of any crimes and socializes freely with any law-abiding citizens who care to have his acquaintance. More. . .

Martin Allerdale Grainger, Woodsmen of the West (1908)
Martin Allerdale Grainger (1874-1941) was a true son of the British Empire. Born in London, he grew up in Australia, was educated at Cambridge, went to the Klondike, and served as a trooper in the Boer War. After trying placer mining and logging in British Columbia, he settled there, devoting the rest of his life to the timber industry. More. . .

And the beat goes on. Currently I have another 15 more early western writers whose first novels are on the to-read list.

Coming up: Zane Grey, Nevada (1928)

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Top 10 westerns for 2012

Here’s a year’s end tally of the best of the 48 westerns reviewed this year at BITS.

Comanche Station (1960)
This is a gem of a 1950s western (released in 1960) and another fine one from the team of Budd Boetticher, Burt Kennedy, and Randolph Scott. It’s a high-stakes and tightly knit story with a handful of well-drawn characters. Shot in CinemaScope in the Alabama Hills of Lone Pine, California, the film is also gloriously handsome. More…

Hour of the Gun (1967)
Historians may object to the liberties taken in this story about the aftermath of the gunfight at the OK Corral in 1881. But in its broad outlines, it doesn’t depart too widely from the record. The feud between Ike Clanton and the Earp Brothers did not end on that October day in Tombstone. More lives were to be taken, including that of Wyatt’s brother Morgan. More…

Day of the Outlaw (1959)
This western noir stars Robert Ryan in another of his hard-bitten and slightly psychotic roles. Shot in black and white, the story is set in a small mountain town knee-deep in Wyoming winter snow. The location photography gives the film a gritty realism. So does the adult material. This is not a western for kids. More…

Tracker (2010)
I’m calling this a western even though it was shot and takes place in New Zealand. It has most of the elements of a good western—sweeping unpopulated landscapes, guns, horses, immigrants, soldiers, and natives. It’s 1903; the story is of searchers on the trail of a man wanted for murder; there’s plenty of action, and most of it happens outdoors. More. . .

Rio Grande (1950)
The story goes that Herb Yates at Republic Pictures agreed to make John Ford’s The Quiet Man only if he’d make another western first. So Ford went with a script from a James Warner Bellah story to Moab, Utah, and shot this classic western with John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara. More…

The Hi-Lo Country (1998)
The Hi-Lo Country is an area of northeast New Mexico, celebrated by writer Max Evans in his novels. Published in 1960, The Hi-Lo Country was made into a film in 1998 by British director, Stephen Frears. Set in the 1940s, it recalls an even earlier era of the West, when cattle ranching and cowboys ruled the open range. More. . .

6 Black Horses (1962)
This western based on a Burt Kennedy script is a perfect vehicle for Audie Murphy. He gets to play a decent man, a cowpuncher down on his luck, who gets involved in a desert quest with a trail partner (Dan Duryea) and a blonde with money (Joan O’Brien). More…

Good Day for a Hanging (1959)
You don’t think westerns when you think of Fred MacMurray, but he was a versatile actor and equally at home in just about any kind of role. Here he plays a character found in other 1950s westerns, a lawman alone against a town that has lost faith in him. More…

Gun the Man Down (1956)
As interested in character as it is in action, this film brings together the talents of a screenwriter, two actors, and a director at the beginning of long successful careers. In 1956, James Arness was about to begin his 20-year tenure as marshal Matt Dillon in TV’s Gunsmoke. Angie Dickinson had her first feature role in the film. More…

El Dorado (1967)
This Howard Hawks western bears a strong resemblance to his previous western, Rio Bravo (1959). The elements are much the same, as if Hawks wanted to have another go at them. John Wayne appears again, this time as a hired gun. Particular about who hires him, he turns down a dirty job in the opening scenes offered by a land-greedy rancher (Ed Asner). Wayne ends up working instead with a sheriff (Robert Mitchum) to help a family keep their ranch out of Asner’s hands. More…

Looking forward to a 2013 that's full of more of the same great westerns from the past, and some good ones worth a mention from the present.

Coming up: Top 10 early western novels for 2012

Monday, December 24, 2012

Favorite Christmas album

Silent Night. Remembering Dave Brubeck this Christmas. This album, released in 1996, is a mellow mix of carols and secular songs.

“Homecoming” Jingle Bells
Santa Claus is Coming to Town
Joy to the World
Away in a Manger
Winter Wonderland
O Little Town of Bethlehem
What Child Is This?
To Us Is Given
O Tannenbaum
Silent Night
Cantos Para Pedir las Posadas
Run, Run, Run to Bethlehem
“Farewell” Jingle Bells
The Christmas Song

May your holidays be merry and bright.

Coming up: Top 10 westerns for 2012

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Saturday music, Jimmy Boyd

James Boyd (1939-2009), born near McComb, Mississippi; grew up in Riverside, California. "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," released by Columbia Records in December 1952, sold 2.5 million copies in the first week. Banned in Boston for a time by the Roman Catholic Church for mixing sex and Christmas.

Coming up: Favorite Christmas album

Friday, December 21, 2012

Will Levington Comfort, Trooper Tales (1899)

Like James Michener, who turned his WWII service into Tales of the South Pacific (1947), Comfort first published Trooper Tales after returning from the Spanish-American War. It is a collection of short stories and sketches of young enlisted men. Most take place in Porto Rico (now Puerto Rico), but “cactus and alkali,” he says, “blows about in a couple of these yarns.”

“Red Brennan of the Seventh.” Trooper Red Brennan is a hard case, his worst enemies being whiskey and himself. He is lured from duty by an Indian woman, Kate Poison-Water. The narrator of the story describes her as “a serpent in cunning, a tigress in strength and agility—a Sioux squaw in general deviltry.” She is also fearsome in her devotion to the young trooper.

"Red Brennan of the Seventh"
Returned to camp, Brennan is held for a time as a prisoner until freed to fight alongside Custer’s troops at the Little Big Horn. Meanwhile, a Sioux prisoner, Chief Rain-in-the-Face, is being held under guard by Major Reno. During the night before the battle, Rain-in-the-Face is set free and his guard killed.

On the day of the battle, all but one of the bodies of the felled men under Custer’s command are found stripped and mutilated by the Sioux women. However, Red Brennan, like Custer himself, remains fully clothed, with arms crossed over his chest, a sign of respect for valor in battle. Beside the dead Brennan is the dying and grief-stricken Poison-Water Kate. It is surmised that it was she who freed Rain-in-the-Face, with the promise that Brennan would be spared.

“Back to San Anton’.” In this dark story, set in the Southwest, Comfort tells of a sergeant, Mulgowan, who stoutly defends a Mexican girl who is ill treated by her father. Old Geldez, who supplies the troops with mescal brought from Mexico, does not appreciate Mulgowan’s interference.

Out on campaign, the sergeant begins to receive mysterious packages in the mail. The first contains the third finger of what seems to be a woman’s hand. The second contains the same finger from the other hand. Mulgowan disappears and as the troops later learn, he has found the girl with both hands missing. For deserting during wartime, the sergeant is court-martialed and sentenced to death.

"The Aberration of Private Brown"
Themes. Western novels about the military in the West typically focus on the officers. The enlisted men are simply background, and outside of Owen Wister’s Specimen Jones in Red Men and White (1896), their stories are seldom told. Thus Comfort’s portrayal of them adds a welcome layer of detail to our picture of life in the U.S. cavalry.

In his introduction, Comfort observes that whether written by commissioned officers or civilians, stories of the military get the enlisted men all wrong. Civilian writers misrepresent the gulf between them and their COs. Officers write of them as “baneful and temporary necessities,” who follow orders and neither speak nor think. Their pastimes are assumed to be no more refined than “cards, canteens and colored ladies.”

Comfort says he wants to show us the real article—“wild, incorrigible, splendid men!” His stories of cavalrymen often touch on the matter of camaraderie and how men become accepted or shunned by other men. Here from “The Silent Trooper,” he opens a story with some observations about trooper behavior:

A troop is a family of big boys. Some of them are big bad boys, and an odd thing about it is that these are not always the unpopular ones. Troopers do not fall on the neck of a new man. They treat him with pinnacled dignity, like old cavalry horses treat additions to the picket line. If the new man, in a reasonable period, develops no objectionable traits, he will find himself a member of the family, which is other words for a good fellow.

Two of the stories concern black soldiers, for whom Comfort shows notable respect as fighting men. The first story, “The Recruit in the Black Cavalry,” tells of a black regiment fighting bravely in Cuba. In another story, “Shadow and the Cherub,” Comfort writes of a black soldier traveling onboard a troop ship.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Red Pony (1949)

This film about a California ranch family at the turn of the last century is not exactly a movie for the whole family. Its central theme of a 10-year-old boy learning about death and disappointment has moments that would disturb the 10-year-old in all of us. It is the work of John Steinbeck, who wrote the screenplay and the stories it is based on.

Less tragic than his Of Mice and Men, it still finds an under layer of darkness in the California sunshine. It introduces themes of family discord that would find full expression in his novel East of Eden, also set in California in the early years of the twentieth century.

Plot. Little Tom Tiflin (Peter Miles) is given a pony, which he is training with the help of a ranch hand, Billy Buck (Robert Mitchum). The boy’s father (Shepperd Strudwick) is an unhappy man, never having adapted to life in the country after marrying his wife Alice (Myrna Loy). The emotional distance that has grown in the marriage intensifies when her father (Louis Calhern) arrives for an extended visit.

Peter Miles, Robert Mitchum
Calhern with his long white hair and beard could be a double for Buffalo Bill Cody. And he has a similar past, as a man who once led wagon trains of pioneers to the West. He loves to recount those exciting days, but his son-in-law has long ago grown tired of his stories and finally says so in an outburst that the old man overhears.

There’s also distance between father and young son. The boy is enamored of Mitchum, a coolly competent cowboy, who says he’s half horse, having been fed horse milk as a baby. In Greek mythology that would make him a centaur, a creature embodying untamed nature, as well as being a teacher. Billy Buck is both.

The problem with Billy is that he’s not altogether reliable as a teacher. He casually makes promises that he can’t keep. After he’s assured the boy that it won’t rain while he’s at school, the pony lets himself out of the barn in a terrible storm and takes a fever. Mitchum says the pony will recover, but despite his efforts it slowly worsens.

Myrna Loy, Robert Mitchum
While the boy takes to sleeping in the stall with the pony, it escapes again and is found dead, the buzzards already feeding on it. The boy is shattered by the discovery and in a horrific scene tries to strangle one of the birds as it struggles fiercely with bloody talons.

The lessons learned are hard ones. The boy discovers he cannot trust the word of grown-ups, even the man he admires. The grandfather learns that as a man who was once a leader of men, his day in the sun is over. The boy’s father takes a leave of absence with his brother in San Jose—a kind of homecoming. But he comes to realize that he is a “stranger” to others wherever he lives.

Finally, the life of Mitchum’s mare hangs in the balance, as he believes the colt in her is turned wrong. Sharpening the knife he’s used to doctor the pony, he is ready to kill the mare to save the colt. The emotionally wrought boy steals the knife, and while Mitchum leaves the barn to retrieve it from him, the mare safely gives birth to the colt. True to his word, Mitchum gives the colt to the boy. In the last scenes, we see the adults together, all smiles, as the boy rides his new pony across the fields of the ranch.

Myrna Loy, Shepperd Strudwick, Peter Miles
Comments. Long a B-movie factory, Republic Pictures was the surprising producer of this feature film with an all-star cast. Shot locally in Agoura, California, and in Technicolor, it has the look and feel of Steinbeck country in central California. The effect is partly due to the rain-soaked earth underfoot in many scenes.

Myrna Loy is everybody’s lovely mother, a composed woman of private emotions, who keeps house, cooks meals, and plays classical music on the piano. Robert Mitchum, a star of cowboy movies from the war years, plays a ranch hand with the actor’s usual cool confidence.

Steinbeck’s script has many fine moments, as when Calhern’s garrulous old man laments how the drive to adventure westward has died out of people. “It was a job for men,” he tells his grandson. “Now only little boys want to hear about it.” Later, he scolds Mitchum for being unaware of a rule against sitting on another man’s bed.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Old West glossary, no. 52

Montana cowboys, c1910
Here’s another set of terms and forgotten people gleaned from early western fiction. Definitions were discovered in various online dictionaries, as well as searches in Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, Dictionary of the American West, The New Encyclopedia of the American West, The Cowboy Dictionary, The Cowboy Encyclopedia, Vocabulario Vaquero, I Hear America Talking, Cowboy Lingo, and The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

These are from Alice Harriman’s A Man of Two Countries, a political drama set in early Montana, and Agnes Laut’s The Freebooters of the Wilderness, about theft of public lands in the West. Once again, I struck out on a few. If anyone has a definition for “the jigs,” “rastical,” “copper gentry,” “full pelther,” “sternwheeler hat,” “chack up,” or “tum-jack,” leave a comment below.

bally = an intensifier; cf. bloody. “Don’t be a bally fool and buck into a buzz-saw!” Agnes C. Laut, The Freebooters of the Wilderness.

blind pig = an unlicensed drinking house. “You make the Senator’s job and your job and public service all round a bunco game, a bunco game with marked cards; while we Service and Land fellows act the decent sign for a blind pig.” Agnes C. Laut, The Freebooters of the Wilderness.

buffer = a fool. “Every bar-room buffer in the country side will know it by night.” Agnes C. Laut, The Freebooters of the Wilderness.

by Harry = a mild expletive. “‘By Harry,’ cried Wayland, ‘that mule does smell water.’” Agnes C. Laut, The Freebooters of the Wilderness.

cartwheel hat = a woman’s hat with a low crown and a wide stiff brim. “Eleanor took a quick glance at her neighbors, all men but the cart-wheel-hat to one side and a little young-old lady opposite.” Agnes C. Laut, The Freebooters of the Wilderness.

catspaw = a person used as a tool by another. “Be sure that she is promised something she thinks worth her while, by Bob or by Moore, for her sudden interest in politics and—Charlie Blair. She is a good catspaw.” Alice Harriman, A Man of Two Countries.

choke off = to silence or get rid of someone, stop a person’s activities. “Choke it off! He’s staying with Missionary Williams at the Indian School, and you know about how much love is lost between Williams and Moyese.” Agnes C. Laut, The Freebooters of the Wilderness.

clockwork = embroidery or woven work on the side of stockings. “She raised her eye lashes and looked the speaker over from the undertaker’s plumes and the gold teeth and the ash colored V of skin to the clock-work stockings and high heeled slippers.” Agnes C. Laut, The Freebooters of the Wilderness.

congĂ© = dismissal, permission to depart. “Father will be furious when he knows that I’ve given Mr. Burroughs his congĂ©.” Alice Harriman, A Man of Two Countries.

dee-fool = damn fool. “One of the first things Moyese told me when I went on his paper was never to monkey with the dee-fool who wastes time justifying himself.” Agnes C. Laut, The Freebooters of the Wilderness.

entryman = one who enters upon public land with intent to secure an allotment under homestead, mining, or other laws. “I didn’t know Senator had his drag net out for parsons as dummy entrymen!” Agnes C. Laut, The Freebooters of the Wilderness.

Everlasting pea
everlasting = flowers or foliage that retains form or color for a long time when dried. “It was the Ranger in his sage green Service suit wearing a sprig of everlasting in his Alpine hat.” Agnes C. Laut, The Freebooters of the Wilderness.

floater = a writer who travels to gather and write up often erroneous impressions. “Bat’s floater was working for a Chicago boomster, who had issued a magazine to boom Western real estate.” Agnes C. Laut, The Freebooters of the Wilderness.

frap = to strike, beat. “The old frontiersman literally avalanched off his broncho and made a dash at the tent flap, frapping it loudly with the flat of his hand.” Agnes C. Laut, The Freebooters of the Wilderness.

frontier knock = a scratching sound made on the flap of a tent. “She had heard the unmistakable voice of Mr. Moore. Had he used that frontier knock?” Alice Harriman, A Man of Two Countries.

Gaillardia suavis
gaillardia = an American flower of the daisy family, cultivated for its bright red and yellow flowers. “The gold of yellow midsummer light dyed in the asters and sunflowers and great flowered gaillardias and golden rod, with an odor of dried grasses or mint or cloves.” Agnes C. Laut, The Freebooters of the Wilderness.

ghost walker = a person who feigns or fabricates an assignment. “ ‘High brows,’ ‘dreamers’ ‘ghost walkers,’ ‘barkers,’ ‘biters,’ ‘muck-rakers!’ Oh, he knew the choice names that lawless greed cast at such as he.” Agnes C. Laut, The Freebooters of the Wilderness.

gird at = to jeer or jibe. “‘N-o,’ hesitated the lawyer, divided between a desire to gird at the doctor, or to soothe his civic pride.” Alice Harriman, A Man of Two Countries.

headlights = false or capped teeth. “The gold headlights suffered eclipse behind a pair of tightly perked lips.” Agnes C. Laut, The Freebooters of the Wilderness.

job = to turn a public office or position of trust to personal advantage. “Fight for all the fellows in the Land and Forest Service when they see a steal being sneaked and jobbed!” Agnes C. Laut, The Freebooters of the Wilderness.

jug through = to deceive, either jokingly and through some illegality. “He stole ’em, those coal lands. He jugged ’em thro’ Land Office records with false entries.” Agnes C. Laut, The Freebooters of the Wilderness.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Saturday music, Kalin Twins

One-hit wonders, Hal and Herbie Kalin, born 1934, Port Jervis, New York. "When" released June 1958.

Coming up: The Red Pony (1949)

Friday, December 14, 2012

Agnes Christina Laut, The Freebooters of the Wilderness (1910)

This is a muckraking novel about land grabs and corrupt politics in the West. Our hero is a dedicated employee of the Forest Service, trying to thwart the schemes of a U.S. Senator who is snapping up coal and timber from public lands. This jam-packed novel is also a steamy love story, with a desert adventure, a courtroom drama, and sequences of rapturous nature writing.   

Plot. Though he doesn’t know it when we meet him, Dick Wayland is poised on the threshold of taking on the wily Senator Moyese, the novel’s unapologetic robber baron. Wayland knows that fighting him is a lost cause. The man holds all the trump cards. For one thing, he owns one of the local newspapers and has a PR man, Bat Brydges, who manages what’s printed in the other two. The Senator even has the local sheriff in his pocket.

The law and the slow judicial system work in his favor. Federal legislation covering public lands and national forests is so loosely regulated that coal and timber are basically there for the taking. Moyese acquires land by putting newly arrived immigrants and each member of their families on 160-acre “homesteads,” which he then buys cheap when the time to improve them runs out. Court challenges testing the legality of this business drag on unresolved and without end. Meanwhile, his mills and mines operate nonstop.

Sheep herd, Idaho
Also in the cattle business, the Senator is in a running battle with local sheep men who have grazed their herds unmolested until now. Several of Moyese’s cattle-rustling thugs defy Wayland’s grant of grazing rights to one sheep man, Macdonald, by running his herd over a cliff. Their callous disregard for a herder, the young son of a local missionary, results in the boy’s death.

This is the tipping point for Wayland, who gives chase to the men. In the company of an old frontiersman, Matthews, he heads into the mountains, through the springtime remnants of winter snows, narrowly escaping a massive avalanche. The pursuit takes them into desert wastes that leave them near death for lack of water. They manage to survive, though they never catch up with the thugs, who succumb one by one to accident and exposure.

Character. A Yaley who is now a humble federal employee, Wayland is an earnest laborer in Uncle Sam’s vineyards. He aspires to standards of conduct that would place him among hard-line conservationists today. Not a tree-hugger with romantic notions about preserving the wilderness, he is more concerned with theft of publicly owned natural resources.

Holy Cross Mountain, Colorado, 1873
Encouraged to think of himself as a warrior in the defense of the public interest, he comes to accept that he can only make minor skirmishes in the battle of Right against Might. He can’t win, but he will sacrifice his own life in the fight if he has to. As the story takes place in the foothills and valleys below Holy Cross Mountain, we’re invited to regard his efforts as Christ-like.

Jack Matthews, his older companion on the trail and mentor, is a man no better than he needed to be until he turned 40. He then mended his ways and became an itinerant parson. Disdainful of book learning and the “sissie,” “bread-and-butter goodness” of average churchgoers, he says he’s a “fighting” Christian. He knows the trick o’ puttin’ Christianity into th’ end o’ m’ fist.

Forest Service timber sale, 1919
Villainy. Few early western novels draw their villainous characters so fully as the smoothly greedy Senator Moyese. He knows every argument and counter argument of the Waylands of the world who would stop him from amassing a personal fortune by monetizing the wilderness. Tell him the lands belong to the public, and he’ll say he is the public, and any man is welcome to follow his example.

Tell him he has no right to what he is stealing, and he’ll say he’s free to do whatever the law permits. So try and stop him. Appeal to a sense of decency and social responsibility, and he’ll say the words have no meaning. Only a fool puts any stock in them. It’s every man for himself and the devil take anybody who doesn’t agree.

For the Senator, “freedom meant freedom to make and take and break independent of the other fellow’s rights.” Smugly sure of himself, he simply denies that others have rights. His one passion is “getting,” and so much the worse for people, things, or laws that come in the way.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Mary Doria Russell, Doc

One of the most curious friendships in the Old West is the one between Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. Each of them was so different from the other, Doc a well-educated and cultured Southern gentleman and Wyatt a hardheaded, unpolished Yankee of apparently no more than average intelligence.

Russell takes us back a few years from that fateful day in 1881 in the streets of Tombstone to the Kansas town where the two men became acquainted. In the pages of her novel, we’re in Dodge City, and the year is 1878. Wyatt has a temporary job as a keeper of the peace, and Doc has followed the money from Texas, using his skill at cards to make a living as a gambler.

The others we know from history are here, too. Wyatt’s brothers Morgan and James, and their women, including Kate Harony, the prostitute who is both bane and comfort for the ailing Doc. The town fathers are here as well, Bob Wright, George Hoover, and others. Entertainer Eddie Foy provides bawdy comedy and song at the Comique (pronounced “Commy-Q”).

Doc Holliday
Plot. Readers looking for Old West action will not find much of it in this story of people living day-to-day lives in a frontier railroad town. The excitement to be found tends to be of the unwelcome kind, as rowdy, young cattle drovers fill the saloons in the summer months. The job of keeping the peace falls to the likes of the Earp brothers and another legend in the making, Bat Masterson.

Doc’s poor health is treated with a graphic attention likely to surprise readers who think of TB as a quietly wasting disease, as we typically see it portrayed in film. Doc’s cough and bloody handkerchiefs are a motif throughout the novel, and a crisis point is reached near the end as his condition sharply worsens until he’s almost near death.

His recovery—one of several—is observed with a Christmas party at which he sits down at a newly tuned piano and plays the entire Emperor Concerto. It is a spellbinding performance that holds the assembled guests in a state of awe. Then with the coming of the new year, the Earps and Doc decide to pull up stakes and head for Tombstone. Prospects, they believe, are better there. We know what they don’t, that it’s an appointment with destiny.

Dodge City police officers
If there’s a plot thread at all, it concerns the mysterious death of a young, black faro dealer found in the smoldering remains of a livery barn burned to the ground. Doc suspects foul play and eventually unravels the mystery.

History. Russell gives credit to several sources as the historical basis of the novel, notably Karen Holliday Tanner’s biography, Doc Holliday: A Family Portrait. She takes imaginative liberties in filling in the details and clarifies in the opening pages of the book the few characters who are fiction and those that are not.

What gives the novel its particular point of view is her belief that the deepest friendship among these men was the one between Doc and Morgan, Wyatt’s younger brother. And Morgan is surely the most endearing, good humored, and likeably intelligent of the Earps. Wyatt, by comparison, is stolid, rigid in his Methodist beliefs, and no smarter than he needs to be.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Nevada (1944)

This remake of a remake was Robert “Bob” Mitchum’s first film with a starring role. He plays the title character, “Nevada,” in a story about gold rush crooks trying to swindle folks out of their ranches and prospecting claims. They've discovered that the worthless “blue stuff” being dug up is really rich in silver. But Mitchum foils their plans.

Plot. Mitchum is riding with two sidekicks, Dusty (Guinn “Big Boy” Williams) and Chito Rafferty (Richard Martin). Winning $7,000 shooting dice at a saloon, Mitchum has to make a hasty exit as he declines to give the angry saloonkeeper a chance to win back the money. Chased out of town, the three friends split up.

When Mitchum rides up on a man who's been ambushed and left lying in the road, he is discovered standing over the body by a sheriff and posse who arrive on the scene. They assume Mitchum killed the man for the money he is carrying. They don’t believe it is gambling winnings, and they haul him off to jail.

A woman (Anne Jeffreys) who runs a gambling hall in town recognizes Mitchum as the man who rescued her and a wagonload of her dancing girls in reel one when she lost control of her team of horses. He seems hardly a killer to her, she says. But as the only banker in town, she happens to know that the dead man was carrying $7,000.

Robert "Bob" Mitchum as Nevada
Trail pals Williams and Martin bust Mitchum out of jail with a clever ruse, inciting a lynch mob to break into the jail. Once he’s out in the street and on a horse with a rope around his neck, the three of them race off out of town.

The villain of the story (Craig Reynolds) and his henchman (Harry Woods), as we’ve known all along, are the ones who killed the old man and took his money. Reynolds and Jeffreys are old friends, and he lets her in on the secret that he’s buying up local land before anyone discovers there are rich deposits of silver under it.

After a comparison of bank notes, Jeffreys learns that Mitchum was not carrying the stolen money. He's been telling the truth. There’s a lot of riding back and forth and a couple of fistfights as justice slowly takes its course. Reynolds shoots his partner, Woods, to keep him quiet, and Mitchum persuades a mining engineer to assay a sample of the ore believed to be worthless. Lo, it’s found to be rich with silver.

Woods, with his dying breaths, reveals to Jeffreys that he and Reynolds did the dirty work of killing and robbing the old man. There’s a final confrontation between Mitchum, Reynolds, and Jeffreys, in which Reynolds accidentally puts a bullet through Jeffreys. Mortally wounded, she is seated in a chair where she can look out the window with a pleasant view of the state of Nevada as she calmly dies.

DVD cover
B+ for a B-western. This short, 62-minute film is an above-average B-western. Mitchum is excellent, with that wonderfully cool presence he brought to so many roles in his career. He doesn’t know fear, Jeffreys says of his character early on, and it’s clear that he doesn’t. Mitchum’s movements are casual and unhurried, his stance relaxed. Note the way he wears his hat on the back of his head.

Always he has that unsmiling poker face, eyes not quite fully open, as if he is quietly taking the measure of whoever he’s talking to. If his face registers anything, it’s with a slight raising of the eyebrows, as if to say, “Is that so.”

His saddle partners are not just sidekicks, with roles played for laughs. They are friends rather than the usual foils of the cowboy hero, and they have key parts to play in the plot. The role of the whiskery buffoon, a stock character in B-westerns, is a barfly called Pancake, played by character actor Emmett Lynn.

Also, for added value, the film includes an instructive scene in which the mining engineer (Edmund Glover) actually fires a sample of ore to assay its ingredients and value. There is frequent mention of assayers in early western novels, but I don't recall ever seeing the job done on screen before.

Curiously, while Mitchum has a couple of dust-ups with the villains, including a fistfight that nearly rips off his shirt, he never fires a gun at them. One of the villains is mortally shot by the other, who also pulls the trigger that fells Jeffreys in the last scene. For all his misdeeds, he is taken away at the end by townfolk, presumably to get a fair trial before being hanged.

You might expect Mitchum and Jeffreys to end up in each other’s arms, but this western is short on romance. Another girl in the cast (Nancy Gates) has scenes with Mitchum, but she’s a peripheral character who doesn’t make the grade as a love interest.