"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Wyatt Earp, in fact and fiction




This 2010 post has been revised and updated in April 2013.
To read the revised version, click here.


Wyatt

I'll come back to Wayne. In fact I've just ordered a boxed set of his 1930s Republic & RKO pictures so doubtless, once it arrives from amazon, I'll have a lot to drone on about, Waynewise.

But on another subject, I was just musing yesterday over how many movies were made about Wyatt Earp.
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It was the appearance in 1931 of the biography 'Frontier Marshal' by Stuart N Lake (1889-1964) that really started it off. Lake called Earp "the greatest gunfighting marshal that the Old West knew" and said in his introduction to the book, to give you the tone: "The lover of swift and decisive action, Wyatt Earp's achievements surely must be of interest in themselves. His taming of Mannen Clements and fifty cowboy killers in the streets of Wichita; his play against Clay Allison of the Washita in the Plaza at Dodge City; his protection of insignificant Johnny-Behind-the-Deuce against a Tombstone mob; the sanguinary battle of the O. K. Corral, his sawed-off shotgun duel with Curly Bill--tales of these exploits could not fail, even were they meaningless, to stir a reader's blood. Through them Wyatt Earp moves steadily, surely, sagaciously, implacable on, guided by a philosophy fitted to his surroundings, to which he gave fullest expression in admonishment of Ike Clanton, braggart outlaw, cow thief and murderer."

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Natural raw material for the Hollywood Western.
.The first attempt was Universal's Law and Order in 1932 with Walter Huston as Frame 'Saint' Johnson, the clean-up-the-town Marshal, and Harry Carey as the Doc Hollidayesque Ed Brandt. Earp family members were still alive and somewhat contentious; the real names were avoided. Brian Garfield, the Delphic oracle (actually, he was a bit too outspoken to be Delphic), said, "[T]his may well be the definitive Wyatt Earp movie." I haven't seen it. I'd love to. It's hard to get, though it does still exist.

They remade it in 1953 with future White House tenant Ronald Reagan in the Earpish part, and this is available easily on DVD, but, says Garfield, "it's a tired echo."

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In between the two Law and Orders, Fox got into the act with two versions of Frontier Marshal, in 1934 and 1939. The first starred George O'Brien as "Michael Wyatt" and Alan Edwards as "Doc Warren". Again, I haven't seen it but it is said to be a standard oater, without the class of Law and Order.

When Fox remade it, with Randolph Scott and Cesar Romero, the real names finally appeared. Filmed on the tenth anniversary of Wyatt's death, it had all the Lake-inspired myths firmly in place. It came out in the same year as Union Pacific, Jesse James, Destry Rides Again and Stagecoach, so it got rather overshadowed, but it's energetic and entertaining.
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Of course, between the Scott version and the Reagan one, John Ford decided to treat the theme for Fox again and in 1946 he came out with what I consider (not having seen the first Law and Order) to be the finest Earp picture ever, My Darling Clementine. I haven't got space to review it here but I will, in a later post. Suffice it to say at the moment that the Henry Fonda/Victor Mature pairing was inspired and if Ford hadn't later made The Searchers, this film would have stood as his masterpiece.
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Ford portrayed Earp again in 1964 with James Stewart, no less, in a cameo appearance in Cheyenne Autumn. Dudish and in a splendid panama hat, almost as good as that of Laurence Harvey in The Alamo, Stewart made the most of the part.
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Stewart had made the fine Winchester '73, of course, in 1950 and in that movie there is also a cameo Earp, played by Will Geer. Earp here is jovial but Geer attempts to show the steel beneath.
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In 1942, Paramount had decided it didn't want to miss out and Pop Sherman, the Hopalong Cassidy producer, brought Richard Dix and Kent Taylor to the screen as Wyatt and Doc in the alliteratively titled Tombstone, The Town Too Tough To Die. "Plenty of clichés and very dated," says Guru Brian. "Still, it's a sturdy and fairly spirited Western of the old school."
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In 1953, the same year as the Reagan Law and Order brought out by Universal, Fox actually got Stuart Lake to participate in the writing of Powder River, a routine oater, but the names were non-Wyatt/Doc again, even if the story was clearly the same.
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Joel McCrea was an excellent Wyatt in Wichita in 1955, telling of Earp's early life cleaning up another town, and in that same year the famous TV series started with Hugh O'Brian as the Buntline-toting Marshal. The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp was enormously popular and lasted for six seasons, till 1961, for a total of no fewer than 229 episodes. When many of us think of Wyatt Earp, we think of O'Brian in his fancy vest with that absurdly long-barreled pistol.

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The series gave a new lease of life to the cinematographic Wyatt Earp. In 1957 Lancaster and Douglas did the job as Wyatt and Doc in the famous Gunfight at the OK Corral, directed by John Sturges. It's one of the best-selling Westerns of all time, VHS- and DVDwise, and the name has passed into the language as 'the' Western in many people's eyes. It wasn't bad, but it was far from the best Earp picture. Sturges made it again in 1967 with the excellent James Garner (who did look a bit like Wyatt) in The Hour of the Gun (United Artists). It's just as preposterous, despite the mendacious "this is the way it really happened" title, but it's interesting because it starts with the OK Corral. Also, Jason Robards was among the best Docs ever. Review follows.
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A fashionably post-modern deconstructed Wyatt appeared in 1971, in Doc, with Stacy Keach this time leading as Holliday and Harris Yulin as Wyatt Earp relegated to the secondary role. This film isn't as bad as has been claimed (Garfield: "It is impossible to be kind to this kind of trash") and OK, it does debunk the myth but you know by this time the myth needed a bit of debunking. This time, and finally, Doc's mistress Big-Nosed Kate gets a decent part, although to judge by photographs of her, Faye Dunaway was slightly more glamorous. Actually, Dunaway was totally fabulous.
. Garner reprised his Earp role in 1988 in the rather charming Sunset, Tristar, directed by the late Blake Edwards. In this he is an ageing Wyatt Earp, advisor on the set of Hollywood movies in the 20s (which he was) and friend of cowboy superstar of the period Tom Mix (which he was), played, rather well, by Bruce Willis. It's a fun film.
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The 1990s had their go and two movies were made almost simultaneously, Tombstone and Wyatt Earp. The latter is rather earnest and long, but it was directed by Lawrence Kasdan, he of the excellent Silverado, and had (just) the better Doc Holliday in the shape of Dennis Quaid. Kevin Costner made a worthy Wyatt but... Tombstone was the more fun picture, lively and colorful, with a better Earp, Kurt Russell, but an almost equally good Doc, Val Kilmer. They are both enjoyable, big-budget Westerns that do the OK Corral, of course, but also take the story on. Wyatt Earp also tries for Wyatt's early life and this was a mistake because it makes the movie too long. Gene Hackman is Earp père.
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Wyatt Earp made other appearances, such as in an episode of The Young Indiana Jones (Leo Gordon there) and he is one of the most durable and recognisable of Hollywood Western heroes.

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Truth or fiction?

Whether these portrayals bore any resemblance to the true and factual Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp (March 19, 1848 – January 13, 1929), farmer, teamster, buffalo hunter, miner and boxing referee - oh, and peace officer from time to time - is quite another matter.
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You can get what seems a decent and accurate summary of the real life of Mr. Earp at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wyatt_Earp The most authoritative and convincing biography I have read is Wyatt Earp: The Life Behind the Legend by Casey Tefertiller (Paperback, 1999). If you want to go into the matter in depth.
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You may just prefer to forget all that and enjoy the screen Wyatt, in all his variety and variations and various voluminous versions.






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3 comments:

  1. the older wyatt looks alot like Sam Elliot does not...cool

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    Replies
    1. Sam Elliott is so cool! But you are right, I never noticed the resemblance before!

      Another doppelganger of the old west is between Joel McCrea and Tom Horn!

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  2. Is he smiling!? There are many pictures of Wyatt Earp to be found, spanning most all of his life. But in not one of them is he smiling, not even a hint of one. In fact, he pretty much always looks like he's ready to take someones head off. Like Virgil says in Tombstone, "I'd know that sour face anywhere", or "She (their mother) always doted on the frowner". But here, the left corner of his mouth is up turned up ever so slightly - a smile. For him at least.

    ReplyDelete