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

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Hell's Hinges (Kay-Bee Pictures, 1916)










A landmark Western movie




 
 
William S Hart was one of the first ‘movie stars’ as we understand the term and he was the screen cowboy - he was to his era what John Wayne was to ours.
 
Wm S Hart, Western hero
 
This was curious in a way. Hart was born in the East (Newburgh, NY) and grew up in New York City. He was a professional stage actor, not a cowboy. Apart from a short trip in the 1870s, Hart did not experience the ‘cowboy and Indian’ West until he first began to make Western movies at the age of forty-nine.

But he was noticed as a cowboy in a minor part in the stage version of The Squaw Man and then made it big with the lead in The Virginian on Broadway. Suddenly, he was an ‘authentic’ Westerner and he even asserted, untruthfully and rather ungratefully, that Wister’s work was “at variance with cowboy life as I knew it.”

But he made a conscious effort, consulting Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson and other survivors of the ‘real’ West, and insisting on ‘authentic’ Western costumes (i.e. scruffy and utilitarian rather than glamorous or showy).

The plots of Hart’s movies (and they were often his movies in the sense that he frequently directed, wrote and produced the pictures as well as acting the lead in them) were pure dime novel-West, and he established a ‘type’: he was almost always a tough badman redeemed through the love of a good woman. The villains were usually “racially low” types such as half-breeds and Mexicans.

He started making one- and two-reeler silent Westerns in 1914, often working with Thomas H Ince, and by 1916 he had already starred in 22 short films. But Hart was greatly influenced by DW Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation in the fall of 1915 and he strove to produce Westerns in the same epic-historical style.
 
Hart's first great picture
 
The first fruit of this new ‘grand’ Hart was Hell’s Hinges in 1916. It was another Thomas Ince production but now ran to 53 minutes and had a large cast, a big set (which was burned down in the final reel to create a Hellish inferno or a sort of Western Sodom or Gomorrah) and it was really quite ambitious in scope. It cost over $30,000, more than four times as much as any previous Hart Western. Fortunately for us it survives - the majority of Hart pictures did not - and is available on DVD, and more than watchable today.

Of course the basic story is the same: Hart is Blaze Tracey (a name redolent both of fire and blazing a trail). He is a tough hombre who has strayed from the path of righteousness (he drinks, smokes and plays cards) and he is redeemed by a beautiful and good woman (Clara Williams). But there’s quite a clever plot development as the heroine’s brother, a young clergyman (Jack Standing), who has come out West with her, then slides into sin and depravity in parallel with Hart’s climb to goodness and decency. The heroine is named Faith, and Blaze seeks faith just as his lover’s brother loses his.
 
The young parson strays from the straight and narrow
 
Visually, the film is sophisticated, with the longshot crowd scenes and panoramic wide angles especially being handled with skill and artistry. The cinematography was by Joseph August, who was later to do the great Tumbleweeds and also work with John Ford.

It’s a high-octane drama rather than a traditional Western. Yes, there are very Western scènes - in the saloon, for example, as Blaze holds the gamblers and drinkers at gunpoint - but a lot of the movie isn’t like that. It’s more about clergy and upright lay folk coping with the wages of sin. As such, it has a Victorian air about it and the captions seem to us now very stilted and pious, not to say pompous, though they are, I think, occasionally poetic.
 
Blaze holds off the saloon reprobates
 
The New York Herald of the day said:

'Hell's Hinges,' one of those traditional places on the frontier of the Wild West, 'where there ain't no Ten Commandments and a man can get a thirst,' was pictured in the most lurid manner.

Well, you could call it lurid. It all looks a bit tame by today’s standards of course. But there’s certainly a clear - not to say heavy-handed - moral message and it is also true that the principal actors - Hart himself, Standing as the weak-willed reverend and Clara Williams as his sister, Hart’s love - are all really quite restrained for the period. They limit their silent-movie melodramatic hamming and come across as, well, almost subtle.
 
Restrained
 
I also liked the saloon owner Silk Miller (Alfred Hollingsworth) in his black frock coat and small goatee (a classic bad guy). The intertitle cards describe him as having “the oily craftiness of the Mexican.”  Hollingsworth did play up the pantomime villain a bit but I was secretly on his side.
 
Silk Miller is the roguish saloon owner. Hart is also smiling (most unusual).
Is it me or does he look slightly Tommy Lee Jones-ish?
 
No sign of Fritz, though. Hart’s horse is a handsome bay.

Actually, in 1924 a real town came to a similar fate when Cromwell, Oklahoma was burned to the ground by person or persons unknown in response to the murder of the famous lawman Bill Tilghman. But that’s another story.
 
Inferno
 
At the end Blaze and Faith abandon the burned-out town and set off for California – another future convention of the Western movie. California represented another, further frontier, once the original one has proved either too corrupt or too civilized.

Hell’s Hinges is, in a way, a visual representation of Roosevelt, Remington and Wister’s racialist school of Anglo-Saxon Western hero proving his manhood and clearing away the trash of society by resorting to violence. Hart’s next two films, The Aryan and The Patriot, later the same year, made this even more explicit.
 
Blaze is meditative as the corrupt town burns
 
Still, it’s an important landmark in the history of the Western and it’s also a quality film that deserves to be seen. Mi raccomando.

 

Saturday, May 28, 2016

The Virginian (Paramount, 1929)


If you wanna call me that, smile!




 
 
Following a recent re-read of and subsequent new blogpost on Owen Wister’s seminal Western novel The Virginian, I decided on a rewatch – if there is such a word and if there wasn’t there is now – of what I consider to be the best of the many movie versions, Paramount’s film of 1929 with Gary Cooper as the Virginian.

There had been a silent movie directedby Cecil B DeMille in 1914, starring Dustin Farnum which was really little more than a filming of Wister’s own stage version (in which Farnum had starred). And there had been a larger-scale silent remake in 1923 with Kenneth Harlan as the Virginian. But the 1929 version was the first talkie Virginian. Later remakes came in 1946 with Joel McCrea (in color) and TV versions in 2000 (director/star Bill Pullman) and 2014 (singer Trace Adkins as the Virginian). There was also, of course, the long-running TV series but that had little to do with the original story and just borrowed characters’ names.
 
 Still the best ever screen version

I had to dig out my old VHS player to watch the film. As far as I know it is still not available on DVD (and if so, that is a disgrace). But if you can get hold of a copy it will richly repay your effort. It is a key Western in the genre’s history and it really established so many of the cinematic conventions of the genre, as Wister’s novel had done in literary form. It was also a landmark movie in the sense that it was the first major sound film ever shot outdoors.

Of course the content of the long novel had to be contracted and even the majority of the story omitted – that is the case with all movie adaptations. But the film remains true to the spirit of the book, unlike some other versions, such as the dreadful 2014 one.

It starts with cattle as the cowboys of the Box H drive their herd into Medicine Bow, Wyoming, where we see Easterner Molly, the new schoolteacher, arriving on the train. She is frightened by a cow and the Virginian profits from this (though it is only “an old moo-cow”) to scoop her up and ‘save’ her from peril. So no river crossing. The train’s engineer defies the cowboys by tooting his whistle to frighten the cattle – so many of these little episodes were to become a staple of the movie Western for years to come.
 
Brian and Coop
 
Steve is one of the first characters to appear, rival of the Virginian to pay attention to Miss Molly. Steve is played by Richard Arlen (1899 – 1976). Arlen had (like Coop) started as an extra, but he made a break-through when in 1927 William A Wellman cast him as a pilot in Wings (he had served in the Royal Canadian Flying Corps in the World War), so he was well known by 1929. He plays a cheery Steve, drawn more by inertia than deliberate intent into the orbit of the rustling villain Trampas.
 
 Richard Arlen fine as Steve

Mary Brian was cast as Molly. “The Sweetest Girl in Pictures” had been Wendy in the 1924 Peter Pan, and moved effortlessly into talking pictures when the time came. Coop was having a torrid affair with Lupe Velez at the time (she had been the co-star of Coop’s first talkie Western, Wolf Song) and she was the ex of director Victor Fleming (who had also directed Wolf Song) so it was a bit awkward when she showed up on the set. Anyway, Mary Brian was safe from Coop’s advances, though she was pretty and single. She gives us a feisty Molly (she is rather wet in the book, I think) and she was certainly a high point of the picture.
 
 Victor Fleming

Very soon we are in the saloon and have the famous scene where Trampas appears, dressed in black, and comes immediately into conflict with the hero. Trampas was played by second-billed Walter Huston (1883 – 1950). Huston was a star of Broadway through the 1920s and was better known than Cooper. The fear was that he would steal the picture, and in the saloon scene that seemed a distinct possibility, but Coop was already doing his quiet, underacting bit and succeeded in making the extrovert Huston seem almost to be overacting. Still, Huston was the best screen Trampas there has ever been (the worst was probably Brian Donlevy). The famous dialogue from the book is slightly altered when Trampas calls the Virginian “You long-legged sonova…”, and Coop sticks a gun in his ribs and replies, “If you wanna call me that, smile.” It is a remark that Wister had heard a deputy sheriff in Wyoming address to a man who had called him a SOB, and Wister was so struck by it that he used it to define his hero.
 
 Huston as Trampas

Later in the story, the Virginian is shot by Trampas with a rifle (there are no Indians in this version) and he is not saved by Molly, though she nurses him back to health.

Gary Cooper, 28 years old, 6’3”, incredibly handsome and already a fine actor, was undoubtedly star of the show. All through the 1920s Coop had continued stunting and extra-ing on silent Westerns for a variety of studios, including Poverty Row ones. Finally, in 1927, came a lead role in a Paramount Western, Arizona Bound. It was a routine 53-minute silent oater shot in fifteen days but it was quickly followed by Nevada, another Zane Grey story. All of this had stood him in good stead for the great challenge, and opportunity, which was now to come as the Virginian.
 
Gary Cooper was 28
 
He rose to it with aplomb. At first, he had difficulty remembering his lines (talkies were a new experience for most actors) and Arlen kindly offered to fix them to his chaps when he had his back to the camera. It worked, and Coop gradually grew in confidence. He developed a Virginian accent, coached, it is said, by Randolph Scott. He seems beanpole-spindly and endlessly tall, high, and though absurdly over-made up, as was the habit with actors in those days, he still manages to transmit emotion with his face, especially his eyes. It was a masterly performance and it made him forever the Virginian.

The cast and crew moved in a huge caravan with all the tractors, cranes, sound equipment and generators necessary to Sonora in the High Sierras of California. The movie was shot in only 24 days in May/June 1929 on a then substantial budget of $415,000. Director Fleming got $75,000, Huston $20,000 and Arlen and Cooper $3,400 each.

Other actors have pretty low-key roles. Judge Henry (EH Calvert) hardly appears at all. Probably the best minor character is Eugene Pallette as Honey Wiggin. It is hard to imagine but Pallette had started as a slim and athletic actor in silent movies under DeMille and DW Griffith but by the time talkies arrived, when his gravelly voice became a real asset, he was, er, gargantuan. He was in 36 Westerns between 1913 and 1946 but fully 14 of these were one- and two-reeler silents in 1913 and ’14. He was memorable again with Coop in Fighting Caravans in 1931 and he was unforgettable as Fray Felipe in the 1940 Zorro.
 
 
 Eugene Pallette as silent star

Of course they do the baby-swapping scene, a favorite from the book and stage version. A cacophonous rendering of Three Blind Mice in the schoolhouse adds to the mirth. There is, as there was in the book, a strong comic thread running through the movie, though the somber lynching scene more than makes up for that, and the final showdown with Trampas is done with full weight and seriousness. The Virginian uses Steve’s sixgun, with STEVE carved on the butt, when he walks down to face Trampas.

Trampas really does say, “This country ain’t big enough to hold the two of us” and give the Virgnian until sundown to get out of town, and although Coop doesn’t quite say, “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do”, he does make similar remarks. When he says to Molly before the gunfight, “I’ve got to stay” he reminds us very much of Marshal Kane in High Noon talking to Grace Kelly. The whole business of a man having to stand up in a gunfight despite the pleas of the ‘weak’ (but actually right) woman became a standard trope of the genre; this was the classic example.

The Virginian established the Western code of honor firmly in the ‘mythoscape’ of the genre. The Virginian has to face the villain down. Trampas had callously abandoned his fellow rustlers to their fate (hanging) and then shot the Virginian in the back from ambush with a rifle, and now he shoots with his revolver from hiding in Medicine Bow. He is a skunk. We also have the contrast between the racy saloon gal (Nina Quartero, whose legs get a good airing) and the pure schoolma’am, another image that was to become a standard, not to say cliché in later cowboy movies. The rustlers drink whiskey and play cards. In so many ways, The Virginian was the prototype of the talkie Hollywood Western.
 
Great stuff
 
The New York Times review of the time makes quite amusing reading now. Mordaunt Hall (what a name!) wrote,

Paramount-Famous-Lasky have produced a noteworthy talking film, in which the voices are nicely modulated and the acting pleasingly restrained. The story is cleverly developed by the director, Victor Fleming, who deserves great credit for the production and especially for the effective but at the same time gentle humor that pops up periodically. It is also a capitally timed picture, with characters going here and there with natural movements.

He adds,

There is good suspense when the Virginian gets the drop on Trampas and in the latter stages of this film the glimpses of Trampas looking for the Virginian recall the doings of Wild Bill Hicock [sic], Bret Harte's men and even Buffalo Bill's thrilling encounters. It is a picture with a fine conception of the necessary atmosphere and one in which Mr. Fleming has happily refused to introduce extraneous incidents.

Hall approves of the acting:

Aside from the intelligent acting of Mr. Huston and Mr. Cooper, Richard Arlen gives an agreeable portrayal of Steve. Mary Brian does her share to help the picture along, but she might have been more persuasive with less rouge on her lips.

And in 1929 the critic was still marveling at the talking picture:

The sounds, whether footfalls, horses' hoofs, rumbling wheels or voices, are really remarkably recorded and reproduced. A good deal of this film was made in the open and it would seem that stories of Western life, if pictured in a rational fashion, would be unusually successful, for they are aided immeasurably by the audibility of the screen.

In his biography of Coop, Gary Cooper, American Hero (Robert Hale, 1998), Jeffrey Meyers quotes Robert Warshow’s essay on the Western:

The romantic image of the cowboy as the embodiment of male freedom, courage and honor was created by men who had lived a rugged life in the West: in words by Teddy Roosevelt and Owen Wister, in art by Frederic Remington and Charles Russell, and in film, preeminently, by Gary Cooper.

Meyers and Warshow may have been thinking of High Noon but more probably they have in mind The Virginian of 1929, one of the greatest Westerns ever. Yes, by modern standards, it is rather ponderous and stilted but it was a very early sound film and that’s not surprising. The point is that it is superbly done and it is certainly the best screen treatment of Wister’s classic that was ever made. And it set the standard for the whole future of the talking-picture Western.

 

Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Secret of Convict Lake (Fox, 1951)


A classy little noir Western




 
 
When I first saw Fox’s 1951 Western The Secret of Convict Lake I was – I now think unfairly – dismissive of it. I thought it an undistinguished studio-bound black & white B-movie. But I saw it again last night and have revised my opinion of it, upwards.
 
Give it a go
 
It was directed by Michael Gordon, who, before he worked on the likes of Pillow Talk, made some interesting films, such as An Act of Murder in 1948 on the subject of euthanasia and the 1950 Cyrano de Bergerac. These were enough to get him on one of the first lists of Senator McCarthy, and his career crashed. He only directed two Westerns, and the other was the pretty mediocre (at best) Dean Martin outing Texas Across the River in 1966 when his career was revived. His work on Convict Lake is not magnificent but it is not at all bad either. The movie is somewhere between a noir, a psychowestern and a suspense drama. And it’s worth seeing.
 
Michael Gordon
 
Although much of it is shot on a sound stage, it’s one of the best studio sets I can remember, to the point where you sometimes wonder if it’s not an exterior location shot. And such exteriors as there are impress by their quality. It’s a story of escaped convicts in the snowy winter of 1871 crossing the Sierra Nevada and arriving at a small village, which they pretty well take over. So we first get ferocious mountain blizzards and then an intense, noirish, claustrophobic setting. It was very well photographed by Leo Tover, of The Sun Also Rises fame, who also shot the Westerns The Tall Men and Love Me Tender.
 
They cross the mountains in a blizzard
 
Another reason for the quality of the picture is that the fugitives' boss is Glenn Ford. Ford was a natural Western lead and one of those fine actors who make an indifferent film (The Violent Men, say) good and a good film great (The first 3:10 to Yuma, for example). Of course he isn’t an out-and-out badman; he was unjustly imprisoned and was innocent, and though he is tough as old boots, he is polite to the ladies and kind to animals, ergo a classic Western good-badman. Actually, this kind of part had been standard Western fare since the days of William S Hart.
 
Glenn Ford, excellent
 
The movie resembles the later (and better) Day of the Outlaw, when director André De Toth and stars Robert Ryan and Burl Ives were all on top form. It also has something in common with the not quite so great Firecreek (1968) with Henry Fonda as the outlaw boss, and the first class Yellow Sky (1948) with Gregory Peck leading the badmen. In all of these, outlaws take over a remote place and bring threat and tension. In all of them the chief bad guy turns out to be not quite as evil as we (and the town’s residents) feared. Day of the Outlaw is the best of them but Convict Lake is by no means the weakest.

The five convicts (there were six but one shadowy figure perished in the storm) are Glenn Ford, a splendidly nasty Zachary Scott, Jack Lambert (who reprised the role in Day of the Outlaw), the ‘Limey’ Cyril Cusack (who though a Brit seemed to have studied at the Dick van Dyke School of Cockney Accents) and a psycho youth Richard Hylton. However, because in this film all the town's menfolk are off prospecting silver, the women of the village are alone and play an unusually prominent part (for a Western).
 
Zachary Scott preys on Ann Dvorak
 
They are bossed by bedridden Granny (Ethel Barrymore in full flight), and number among them the betrothed Marcia (Gene Tierney, much less posh than in The Return of Frank James), who falls for Glenn of course, and hard, bitter spinster Rachel (Ann Dvorak, a fine actress). There’s an impressionable young girl, Barbara (Barbara Bates), who flirts with the outlaw boy, so three of the women pair off with outlaws – but only one couple will make a go of it. Barbara’s mom Harriet (Jeanette Nolan), maternal but rifle-totin’ Mary (Ruth Donnelly) and the rather pathetic Susan (Helen Westcott) make up seven, so the dames kinda outnumber – and outgun – the bad guys.
 
You don't want to mess with these women - especially Granny
 
Another great feature of the picture is that when the posse of lawmen finally do arrive in the village they are led by Sheriff Ray Teal, always a delight to see even if he does have little more than a walk-on part. The ending is rather clever, in fact.

The music (Sol Kaplan) is sinister-noir rather than overtly ‘Western’ but suits the story.

There’s a voiceover intro and outro, which assures us it’s a true story (yeah, right).
 
Gene falls for Glenn - and vice versa it must be said
 
There were quite a few writers involved. Oscar Saul (Major Dundee) gets the big mention but we are told that it was based on a story by Anna Hunger and Jack Pollexfen, ‘adaptation’ by Victor Trivas. Ben Hecht (Stagecoach, Duel in the Sun, et al) also contributed (uncredited) to the script.

The Secret of Convict Lake is not the least of Glenn Ford’s oaters (it was his sixth) and I recommend it to you. Don’t expect greatness, but do expect quite a classy little noir Western.

 


Monday, May 23, 2016

The Desperate Trail (Turner, TV, 1994)


Marshal Sam Elliott, thug




 
 
Many made-for-TV Western movies are no better (but no worse either) than the run-of-the-mill B-Westerns churned out for movie theaters in the decades before. TV movies can be Hallmark-bland or fall into that dreaded category of ‘family entertainment’ (read anodyne and/or saccharine). Every so often, though, one comes along that it is a bit better than that. Such a one was Turner’s 1994 offering of The Desperate Trail.
 
 
It starred Sam Elliott for one thing. Everyone likes Mr. Elliott in Westerns. It’s that growl of a voice and the handlebar mustache. He had started out in a bit part as Card Player #2 in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in 1969 but really made his Western way on TV, particularly in The Sacketts in 1979 and Wild Times in 1980, and, later, Conagher. He was Wild Bill Hickok in Buffalo Girls and Bucky O’Neil in Rough Riders, as well as, on the bigger screen, Virgil Earp in Tombstone. It’s a pretty good Western CV. No wonder the Coen brothers chose him to be the cowboy angel in The Big Lebowski.
 
Marshal Elliott recruits a posse member
 
In The Desperate Trail, though, he is anything but angelic. He is (incorrectly) billed as ‘Marshall’ Bill Speakes (a common spelling mistake but it doesn’t look good in credits) and he is a sadistic brute. He is chasing a criminal and is first seen on the stage with the captured fugitive (whom he is taking to be hanged) handcuffed to his wrist. Now in days of yore this outlaw would have been played by a well-known tough guy actor but we are in the mid-1990s so it had to be a tough gal instead. It’s Linda Fiorentino as Sarah O’Rourke, and she’s as sassy as all get out and looks all Bad Girls/The Quick and the Dead/Bandidas in her pants and slouch hat.
 
Another stage passenger, a smooth-talking young fellow from New York, tries to woo her but gets very short shrift. This Latin-quoting Easterner is Jack Cooper (Craig Sheffer) and he and the tough gal are soon to team up in a Bonnie-and-Clyde-like duo, or perhaps it’s more Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Gal. I’m probably not supposed to say these days that Ms. Fiorentino is decorative but I’m too old to be PC, so she is damn good-looking. And she doesn’t do at all badly in the part either: you feel she’s at least twice as tough as her accomplice. It was, sad to say, her only Western. Mr. Sheffer, the good brother from A River Runs Through It, has been in three other Westerns (or semi-Westerns) and also isn’t bad, though his costume and make up were poor.
 
Outlaw Linda Fiorentino
 
Well, you wonder why Marshal Speakes is so dead set on getting Linda to the scaffold, and so gloating about the effects of the rope, but then you discover that she killed his son, so it’s more than a lawman/outlaw quest – it’s personal. Speakes Jr. was her husband but tried to beat her, and so she killed him. There’s rather a wife-beating theme running through the movie, in fact, as another character on the stage also thumps his spouse. He gets his come-uppance, though. Elliott is splendidly vicious. He did well as the bad guy.
 
Splendidly vicious
 
There’s a lot of Western action and it’s well handled too: a stage hold-up, a couple of gunfights, a jailbreak. Marshal Sam pursues the escapees with a posse of six instead of the mandatory seven (it must have had a limited budget). In a blazing gun battle three posse members are slain but there still seem to be five when they continue the pursuit. Most odd.

The Easterner Jack has a brother, Walter (Frank Whaley) and there’s some sub-Freudian psychobabble about how Jack caused a disabling injury to Walter and can’t forgive himself. Actually, that was the least of his problems because really Jack now causes the death of his bro at the hands of Marshal Elliott.

It’s all quite violent and grown-up, which is good. The direction (Scorsese alumnus RJ Pesce) is fussy with a lot of edits and jumping here and there but the movie was good enough for Mr. Pesce to be named Best Independent Director of the Year at the Hamptons International Film Festival. Pesce later did Sniper 3 and I feel he might be more at home in that genre. Still, he did a Western, so respect.

Don’t expect anything greatly original (except maybe the casting) when you watch this one, but it’s gritty and fast-paced (mostly), and Sam is pretty damn good as the sadistic sheriff. Worth a shot.

 

Friday, May 20, 2016

The Virginian by Owen Wister


Back in November 2013 I posted a review of Owen Wister's The Virginian, that seminal Western novel. However, in the light of a recent re-read and also reading Richard Slotkin's chapter on Wister (in Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth Century America, University of Oklahoma Press, 1992) I have revised that post and present you with this version.


When you call me that, smile!

 
It is said that Owen Wister (1860 – 1938) heard a deputy sheriff in Wyoming address that remark to a man who had called him a SOB, and Wister was so struck by it that he used it to define his hero, the Virginian.

There is something essentially Western, and essentially true, about the fact that you can use a term of abuse to a man you like and respect, if you do it with a laugh, that you should never employ to another man. A slap-on-the-back kind of friendly insult at the bar could become a shootin’ matter.

The Virginian had a name. He confided it to his fiancée Molly and to the narrator, his good friend Ogden. Presumably Judge Henry, his employer, knew it and Molly’s mother must have had it too, for he wrote to her declaring his love for the girl and he would hardly have signed the letter Yours, The Virginian. But the rest of us will have to be content with just calling him the Virginian. It’s maybe just as well. He’s perhaps more mysterious – and slightly dangerous – like that.
 
Seminal
 
Hero is the word, of course. No mere ‘central character’ he, still less an antihero. Countless early twentieth century female readers fell in love with him and male ones secretly wished they could be him. He is tall, handsome, reserved, brave, decent, strong, knowledgeable and funny. There ain’t a damn thing wrong with him – by the standards of Wister’s day.

There is something wrong with Molly, though. Miss Molly Stark Wood comes out from Bennington, Vermont to be the schoolmarm at Medicine Bow, Wyoming Territory, some time in the 1880s. She is a little conceited and a little coquettish but that’s OK. We don’t mind that. But she is also a snob. Wister makes her resist the Virginian’s advances for no other reason than her assumed superiority. The judge’s wife has no patience with her and tells her husband, “She is not good enough for him”. Molly’s landlady Mrs. Taylor delivers herself to Molly of the withering "I can't wait, deary. Since the roughness looks bigger to you than the diamond, you had better go back to Vermont. I expect you'll find better grammar there, deary." But of course Molly comes round and the story finishes in connubial bliss. I think Wister only made her waver to make the Virginian seem even nobler.
 
Nice edition
 
The Virginian is essentially a love story, the tale of true and finally happily consummated love between the hero and the heroine. At least we assume it is consummated: they bathe on separate sides of the island in the stream on their honeymoon and have separate rooms at Aunt Stark’s. Oh yes, I remember now; they had a large family. Sure, it was consummated. It’s just that writing in 1902, authors didn’t discuss such things.

It is also a comic novel. Whole chapters are devoted to humorous episodes, almost interludes, such as Chapter VI about Em’ly the hen and later the way the Virginian bests Trampas by telling an even taller story to him and his men, about frog farming, and having it believed. The narrator, who plays a not insignificant part in the plot also, so is not just an observer, is a self-confessed tenderfoot, a New Yorker, though he is no snob. Like Wister, he is fascinated by the frontier life, greatly admiring of frontier people and their ways, and he visits often, gradually becoming wise in the ways of the West. Still, the amusing experiences of a green Easterner out West were excellent comic fodder and became, as with much in The Virginian, a standard trope of the Western genre.

For the book was in so many ways a pioneer and a standard-setter. Wister’s daughter, herself to become a noted author, wrote:

  . . . For the first time, a cowboy was a gentleman and a hero, but nobody realized then that the book was the master design on which thousands of Westerns would be modeled.  Its hero was the first cowboy to capture the public's imagination, and hundreds of young girls fell in love with him . . . besides being handsome, he was humorous and human . . . The Virginian himself is the progenitor of the cowboy as folk figure.  Because of him, little boys wear ten-gallon hats and carry toy pistols.  This one novel set the tradition of the West permanently.   We still have Western stories, Western movies, and Western radio and television drama in which the cowboy hero defends justice and his girl's honor and shoots it out with the villain . . . It was written as fiction but has become history . . .

“It was written as fiction but has become history”: yes, it is part of the curious process of the Western that fact became myth which then became the fact.

Owen Wister was born in Philadelphia, son of a well-to-do doctor. He had a cosmopolitan education in Switzerland and England before going to Harvard where he was a classmate (and admirer) of Theodore Roosevelt. He wanted to be a musician and studied for two years at the Paris Conservatory but then entered the Harvard Law School before practicing as a lawyer in Philadelphia.
 
Owen Wister (1860 - 1938)
 
Wister made many trips to the American West. On an 1893 trip to Yellowstone he met Frederic Remington, who remained a lifelong friend. Wister started writing in the 1890s, short pieces mostly, and several of these were later incorporated into The Virginian. It is significant that Wister, Roosevelt and Remington, as well as the narrator, Judge Henry and Molly Stark Wood in The Virginian, were all upper-class Easterners who went West to seek the ‘strenuous life’ and ‘find themselves’, or anyway have their prejudices confirmed.

Roosevelt, Remington and Wister were of course racialists who believed in a ‘natural aristocracy’ of virile men (and very rarely women) who would rise to the top and become the ruling class. They would then have the right to use violence to remain there. Roosevelt moderated these beliefs a little, at least during his political career, because you need votes. Remington was the nastiest racist of them; he clearly loathed and despised Indians, Blacks, Jews, anyone in fact he deemed to be ‘beneath’ him – the ‘lesser breeds’. Wister in his writings posed as the reasonable ‘philosopher’ of the racialist school of thought, justifying it (he thought) and even contradicting the Declaration of Independence’s assertion that “all men are created equal.” He has his hero say, “Equality is a great big bluff and it’s easily called.” Wister thought that the great cattle ranches of Wyoming might prove the context for the emergence (or anyway revival) of a new, and superior, American racial type.

The Virginian, Wister’s only Western novel, was published in 1902 and was an immediate hit, being reprinted fourteen times in eight months. It became the archetypal literary Western. Wister adapted it for the stage soon afterwards and the first movie version appeared in 1914, directed by Cecil B DeMille and starring Dustin Farnum, who had appeared in the title role in the play. There was another silent version in 1923 (with Russell Simpson as Trampas!) By the time the famous 1929 talkie was made, with Gary Cooper as the Virginian, the book had already sold 1.6m copies and had become, with Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage (1912), the premier Western novel.

I really like the book, for its leisurely pace and slow action, its wry humor verging on the cynical but never being that, and its breezy approach. It is much less 1900s-‘literary’ than, say, Zane Grey’s work, and contains a good deal less purple (sage) prose. True, the speech of the Westerners is rendered on the page in (for these days) far too hokey a way, but you do get used to that. I don’t know what was gained by writing Yu or pillo for you or pillow. The pronunciation is the same. It just becomes irritating – and risks being patronizing. But stylistically speaking most of The Virginian is pretty modern.
 
Medicine Bow, WY in 1910. Not a great metropolis. Still isn't! I went there. Well, you gotta. You can leave the 80 from Laramie to Rawlins and take the high road to Medicine Bow. Nice town, I'm sure, but well, New York it ain't...

The characterization is strong and you get to know the principal characters well, the Virginian and Molly, of course, but also the villain Trampas, Shorty, the judge and his wife, the Taylors, Steve, Honey, Lin and the other drovers. Monte the horse. Trampas, Spanish for cheating, or snares, and containing an element of tramp (considered the most worthless social type) is a good name for the villain, the very kind of man Wister and his fellow-travelers believed must not triumph, for they are low and unmanly types. And ever since James Fenimore Cooper, Virginians had been identified as the Americans closest in type to the old British nobility – the novel’s Virginian is a new kind of American aristocrat.

From a Western point of view, much of the action is fairly inconsequential but certain chapters stand out, XXVI for example, when the odious rancher Balaam brutalizes the sweet horse Pedro and he and the Virginian are attacked by Indians (interestingly, there’s a captivity-narrative reversal when the hero is wounded by Indians and it’s the heroine who rescues him). Or Chapter 30, the somber account of the lynching.

Murder by a mob is such a heinous crime that it is almost impossible to make any character in a novel or movie even remotely sympathetic when he carries it out. It is a major problem that all movie versions of The Virginian have. Wister does his best by making the victim (one of the victims anyway) forgive the leader of the lynchers, and by laying out the usual excuse that where there was no enforcement of law, people may take it into their hands. Even the judge attempts to justify the practice, to Molly, and draws a rather sophistical distinction between the peremptory hanging on suspicion of cattle thieves in Wyoming (acceptable) with the strangulation by a white mob of Negroes in the South (unacceptable).
 
According to Judge Henry in the story, 'acceptable'.
Accused horse thief lynched, Oregon, c 1900.

Wister, in his arguments justifying lynching, essentially takes vigilantism (vigilantes claimed a natural and democratic right to violence to redress wrongs in the absence of law and order) into an assertion of race and class privilege. The big ranchers were superior to the small ones and entitled to use force to stay that way. It is a view that is hard to justify today – if it ever was justifiable. In many ways, though, Wister’s version of the Johnson County War is an apologia for the Wyoming Stock Growers Association’s actions, and Wister was definitely a WSGA partisan.

The actual hanging takes place ‘off stage’, as it were: the narrator remains in the stable and hears about it later. This, probably, was to soften the blow and make the grisly event slightly more palatable to Eastern readers. At least Wister had the courage to deal with the matter; he could easily have simply not mentioned it, or not have his hero lead the unappointed executioners, but lynching was widespread enough in the West, and in Wyoming cattle lands in particular, for the issue to be a difficult one to skip over. The fact remains that it was a disgusting and appalling act, and the ‘cheerful’ banter on the eve of the murder is unintentionally chilling. Lynching appeared all too often in later Western movies, often done casually and/or with laughing murderers. However ‘B’ or formulaic the picture, I am never less than revolted.

The other truly Western chapter is, of course, the penultimate one (the last chapter is devoted to a honeymoon, a bucolic idyll described, unfortunately, in terms so saccharine that your stomach will be upset), concerning the final confrontation with Trampas. Here we have the classic Western showdown. How many pulp novels have we read that contain such a fight, and how many Western movies have we seen! But this was the original, the archetype. Trampas really does say, “I’ll give you till sundown to leave town!” The actual shooting is done rapidly, almost again ‘off stage’ in a way. It is described from the Virginian’s point of view, in a blur; he does not really shoot consciously. Hollywood made up for that, of course, with far more dramatic versions! But what is most interesting, to me, is the conversation between the Virginian and Molly before the gunfight occurs.
 
Showdown
 
From one standpoint, you have a rather silly Eastern dame with no understanding of the ways of the West who emotionally blackmails her lover in order to deflect him from the decent and noble action that he must undertake. Molly is appalled by the coming confrontation and gives the Virginian an ultimatum: renounce or she will not marry him. But the thing is, she’s right. She’s not right by the standards of the Virginian, or Owen Wister or 90% of the readers of the book, but she’s right. Such a duel is an outrageous, brutal, premeditated affair that in civilized countries or parts of countries would be illegal, it is cold-blooded and it is even essentially childish. We must use firearms against each other because he called me a coward or told me to get out of town or whatever. These are boys talking. Why would a sensitive, intelligent girl want to marry a man like that, a killer?
 
Molly (Mary Brian) pleads with the Virginian in the 1929 talkie,
the best ever film version of The Virginian

Of course, she relents. And she is made weaker by that, and her opposition comes to seem willful and girlish. She has to give way to the virility and domination of the hero. But she was right!

That’s what I think, anyway. And I speak as a lifelong lover of Westerns. I hugely enjoy those Main Street showdowns, and cheer for the hero and say good riddance as the villain falls to the dust. But that doesn’t mean it’s right. Lucky it’s only a film. Or a book.

Many people have watched Marshal Kane’s Quaker wife deploy very similar arguments in High Noon, and may have thought that scene original. But Gary Cooper as Kane had used very similar words when arguing with Molly in the 1929 The Virginian.
 
The fence symbolizes the closing of the West.
The Fall of the Cowboy by Wister's friend Frederic Remington, 1895.

Another interesting aspect of the novel The Virginian, interesting to Western lovers anyway, is the fact that in what was essentially the very first ‘proper’ Western novel, before even the first narrative Western movie had been made (The Great Train Robbery of 1903), the notion of ‘the end of the West’ was already there. We are used to Western movies of the 1960s and 70s describing the decline of the old West as ‘civilization’ encroached on the freedom and wildness of the frontier. Think of Ride the High Country or The Shootist or even The Magnificent Seven. In all of them and many more it is sunset, the old ways are disappearing, there’s no place for a cow puncher any more – and still less for a gunfighter. Railroads, telephones, automobiles, churches and temperance societies have done for all that. But, we think, earlier Westerns had no such melancholy thoughts: they were all about manifest destiny, fighting the Indians, creating an exciting new world, pushing back the frontier. Those silent movies, the 1930s talkies, the 40s and 50s big-budget Westerns were far more sure of themselves and unquestioning about what was right. They were positive and self-confident. They looked to the future with hope.

Well, maybe, but on page 77 of The Virginian we already have this:

…they came upon the schoolhouse, roofed and ready for the first native Wyoming crop. It symbolized the dawn of a neighborhood, and it brought a change into the wilderness air. The feel of it struck cold upon the free spirits of the cow-punchers, and they told each other that, what with women and children and wire fences, this country would not long be a country for men.

Wister was writing at the turn of the century, when ‘the West’ was already gone and Eastern nostalgia about it was in full swing. Frederick Jackson Turner had delivered his famous paper on the closing of the Frontier in 1893. That ‘end of the West’ notion was embedded in the Western myth right from its inception.

Well, you have to read it, dear old e-pard. It’s one of those essential rites of passage for any Western fan. But my guess is that you will actually rather enjoy it.