Sunday, October 27, 2013

Old Westerns

by Bill Holmes

I'm a fan of Westerns, movies and TV shows. Since there aren't many new Westerns I watch old Westerns. One of the channels I get on my cable system is Encore Westerns. It's all cowboys all the time. Most of the schedule is old movies but during weekday afternoons there is a block of TV shows. The current list of TV shows is Laredo, Have Gun Will Travel, Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Gunsmoke and Bonanza. Every few months they'll change out one or two of the shows although Gunsmoke, both 30 minute and one hour versions, seems to be a constant. I guess because there are so many episodes available from it's 20 year run.

The movies date from the 1930's to those that are just a couple of years old. Want to see Gene Autry and Roy Rogers? This is the place. They have some of the old John Wayne B movies from when he was just starting out. Audie Murphy, a real WW II hero, is the star of several movies. Many of the old time Hollywood stars who you don't think of as cowboys are in these movies too.
Roy & Gabby

The old classic sidekicks are all over the place. Great character actors and comedians like Gabby Hayes, Smiley Burnette, Al (Fuzzy Q. Jones) St. John, Pat Butram, Pat Brady and many others. For a couple of decades it was required that the hero have a comical and inept sidekick. That trend even spilled over to some TV westerns. Remember Chester and Festus on Gunsmoke or Pancho on the Cisco Kid? Although these sidekicks played buffoons they were often very talented actors and comedians. Al St. John was an integral part of the old Fatty Arbuckle and Buster Keaton silent film productions before becoming a cowboy sidekick.

Morgan Woodward
Whether it's the old movies or TV shows, it's amazing how many big stars show up in them, often in minor rolls. It's also funny how some of the stars of the TV shows faded almost completely after their series ended. Does anyone remember anything of consequence Hugh O'Brian did after Wyatt Earp or Gene Barry after Bat Masterson? They were both extremely popular in their day. Another constant is the stable of character actors that cycled through the TV shows. There was a revolving door of these folks. They would alternate between bad guy and good guy often on the same show. The women were a little less durable unless they played the older spinster or mother. Here's just one example of a regular player in the old westerns, Morgan Woodward. You may not know the name but if you are of a certain age you certainly will recognize him. Morgan was a regular on Wyatt Earp for a couple of seasons. He also appeared on Gunsmoke 19 times and countless other shows and movies. Last I heard, the now over 90 year old Morgan is alive and living in the D/FW area. Even some of the old B western movie heros like Lash LaRue or Bob Steele would show up in minor rolls on TV. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Burt Reynolds was once a regular on Gunsmoke and Steve McQueen was the star of Wanted: Dead or Alive. I wonder what became of them?

Since Westerns were so popular, a lot of movies had big name stars that didn't exactly come across as real cowboys. Many looked far more at home in a nightclub wearing a tux or tails than in a saloon wearing chaps and spurs. A rather foppish Errol Flynn with his British sounding accent never convinced me that he was a rootin tootin wrangler. Several major stars looked like they would fall off their horse at any minute.  It would be like today if Jim Parsons, Neil Patrick Harris or Woody Allen suddenly showed up on horseback wearing a ten gallon hat and a six shooter. Of course there were some stars who were made for Westerns. I guess John Wayne is the most famous but many others looked the part too. I think my favorites are Randolph Scott of the old timers and James Garner in more recent times.
Rough & tough Errol Flynn

Now, let me critique these old TV shows and movies. Remember, I said I am a fan. For the most part the scripts were bad. In the case of the B movies and some TV shows they were terrible. Often the acting didn't even live up to the bad scripts. The plots are cut and dry, no twists or turns or surprises. All the characters are one dimensional, either good or bad. The females are mostly helpless. Even the few strong women eventually melt in the arms of the hero and learn their place. Story and time continuity is not a requirement. Terrible theme songs and background music for the TV shows was a staple. Almost every shot fired that didn't hit somebody ricocheted off a rock or hit the watering trough. If someone was inside a building they had to break the window glass before firing, opening the window was apparently forbidden. Six shooters could hold dozens of bullets but when you did run out of shells you threw the gun at your opponent. The special effects were often laughable. Some of the scenery was just a poorly painted backdrop with some paper mache rocks. The background film that was shown during closeups of the actors while they were riding horses or buggies was sometimes a too short loop that repeated during the scene. That exact same tree, mountain, sign or house would show up two or three times in the background. The stunt doubles often didn't look anything like the star they were doubling including rather large men doubling for petite females. The size and hair were often different and they seemed to have no problem during the fights scenes showing the face of the double as long as it wasn't a closeup.

Of course there was no CGI back then so any stunts had to be done with camera tricks or by actual stunt people. All those Indians and cowboys that fell off their horses or went flying out of a wagon were real stuntmen. They were tough guys. There are some amazing stunts on film. A few of the big western stars started as stuntmen others started as singers.
Stuntman Yakima Canutt in Stagecoach

Stereotypes are everywhere. Besides the weak and incompetent women we have the intellectually inferior Mexicans and the savage Indians. The Chinese hotel worker in Have Gun Will Travel was named Hey Boy (Hey Girl one season). Any other Chinese around did laundry. All country folks were complete backward idiots. There were hardly any Blacks in the old Westerns but when there were they were either completely subservient or overly competent. No middle of the road. The Indians were treated particularly bad. They were almost always portrayed as the bad guys. I think maybe more TV and movie Indians were killed than real Native Americans during the US western expansion.

The other major problem is the total disregard of history. Famous 1800 personalities show up in the wrong era in the wrong place and doing the wrong things. The Pony Express shows up all over the place in several different decades, it actually only lasted 18 months in 1860 and 61. Indian tribes raid settlers and forts thousand of miles from their tribal territory. Gold and silver mining towns sprout up in the wrong place at the wrong time. I've seen a dozen different depictions of Wyatt Earp and the gunfight at OK corral. A couple might be close, but most are complete fiction. Wild Bill Hickok, Jesse James, Buffalo Bill, Geronimo and dozens of others suffered the same fate. It's amazing what script writers, producers and directors could get away with before Google.

One thing that has always bothered me about the B movies of the 30's and 40's is the mixing of the old west with the then current times. Many Gene Autry or Roy Rogers movies have telephones, radios, cars and other "modern" items but Gene and Roy still ride their horses and carry a six gun. They are still chasing rustlers, cattlemen are fighting sodbusters and barbed wire. Horses regularly outrun cars and trucks.

Most of these faults don't bother me although sometimes the acting is so bad, the stereotypes so brutal or the history so wrong that I can't ignore it. That's OK, there are plenty that are still entertaining and it's always fun to see who is going to show up in the cast.

It will be interesting to see how our current movies and TV shows hold up. What is acceptable and what is politically incorrect changes. We no longer demonize Native Americans, those inferior Asians are now often the valedictorians . Will we look with dismay at how some are now depicted? A few shows and movies that are only five or so years old seem dated. Some of it is because of changing technology used in the presentation. The old Westerns didn't have to worry too much about that although I'm sure the railroad showed up in places before its time on occasion or a gun model was in the wrong decade.

I'll continue to watch Paladin overact in his 30 minute morality plays, John Wayne triumph over the bad guys and a dozen different depictions of Jesse James or Wyatt Earp. I will continue to look for big stars in their early roles. I will continue to marvel at how the technology and social mores change. It's mostly fun and if it isn't I can change the channel. It's a mindless guilty pleasure and we all need some of those. What we need are some new Westerns on TV and at the movies.


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