The biggest piece of fiction is not by fictional inclusion, but by historical omission in most versions of the story. Not until I Married Wyatt Earp in 1983 did many of us know there was any common law wives of Earp, omitting both Mattie Blaylock and Josephine Marcus.
This was mostly by the design of Josephine (also known as Josie and Sadie) who conjured up the narrative for Stuart N. Lake’s Wyatt Earp biography in 1931, two years after Wyatt’s death. It was then that Josie had the story white washed, more for her protection of a sordid past than her husband’s.
But Lake and Josie had a falling out due to the author taking some license of his own on the facts, and their association was terminated. Hollywood came a calling in 1934 and they bought the rights to Lake’s book, Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal, however Josie legally prevented Fox Studios from using the name of her husband. The film was retitled simply, Frontier Marshal and some scenes already filmed had to be reshot to rename the Marshal in a not so subtle change to Michael Wyatt.
When the film was remade in 1939, the studio was permitted to use ‘Wyatt Earp,’ but for some odd reason Doc Holliday is now Doc ‘Halliday,’ due to the fact that the Holliday family had not given studio permission to use the exact name.
Stuart N. Lakes book was later found to be totally apocryphal, but both he and Josie continued to get royalties from the book as well as film versions of the time. Of course Josie would embellish as well in her memoir I Married Wyatt Earp. Josephine Marcus died in 1944, two years before John Ford lensed his version of the story; this made it much easier for the studio and Ford to ‘name names.’ However there still remained no Mattie or Josie, instead replaced by Clementine Carter; and ‘Big Nose Kate’ was nowhere to be found for the Doc; her replacement was named Chihuahua (Linda Darnell).
Stuart N. Lake would continue to worm his way into the Americana when he became the consultant for the 1955 – 1961 television show, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp; all bases where covered adding ‘legend’ to the title, because it was more of Lake’s fictional world of Wyatt wrapped around some actual events. Hugh O’ Brien looked nothing like Wyatt, although the story goes he was cast due to his resemblance to the character. The moustache was gone – according to Hugh, the studio tried one one him but it didn’t look right – no TV cowboy hero would wear a moustache until Paladin on Have Gun Will Travel, the following year.
It was Lake’s version that added the Buntline Special, so that was a novelty that became a big part of the television show upon its introduction. Once again, Wyatt was a footloose single man who rarely had time for women and less time for alcohol or gambling; he also followed an oath never shoot to kill, just wound – that flew out the window as time went on.
As a matter of fact, although this version of Wyatt Earp is considered one of the first ‘adult western’ I dispute that somewhat, in that just like Roy, Gene, and the Lone Ranger he never smoked, drank, gambled, or messed around with women.
The show was unusual in one aspect that the stories that were presented created a pattern of Wyatt’s life (as a bachelor however) in linear fashion starting with his time in Kansas and ending with the gunfight and trial in Tombstone. The show ended in 1961, three years before Stuart N. Lake passed away. away.
“When in doubt…make a Western”
“The Western is a universal frame within which it's possible to comment on today.”
“Cinema through spectacle, through the entertainment of spectacle, tells the story of many actual problems in life. Because whoever doesn’t want to read between the lines can just enjoy the entertainment and the show and go home happy.”
Sam Peckinpah was a ‘mad’ genius. This could work for him or against him. He had the foresight to use the western genre to look to the future by focusing on our past and then pushing the envelope. He looked at westerns as a warning of what could come by revisiting the past and giving his predictions of what we have to look for to if we don’t watch out.
Sam’s best quote about his warnings was made by him when referencing The Wild Bunch: “You want to be complacent lemmings? Here's what's going to happen if you do, so you'd better rebel before it's too late." Too bad we didn't listen.
In John Ford's classic western film, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, James Stewart plays the ‘Honorable’ Senator Ransom Stoddard returning with his wife, Hallie (Vera Miles) to the town of Shinbone to attend the funeral of Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). As we learn through the flashback story Doniphon is the man responsible for Stoddard being the success he is through a secret that was shared by the two men; a secret that the senator can no longer, in all good conscience, keep to himself. At the finish of his story Stoddard tells the reporter the truth about who shot Valance. Knowing it will create a problem, not just for the senator in his bid for governorship of the unspecified state but to those who need their heroes, the reporter, Maxwell Scott (Carleton Young) decides to tear up the story and throw it in the nearby potbelly stove proclaiming, "This is the west sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." He really isn't doing it for Stoddard but for all the people who believe in him. Back then, as today,we need heroes to look up to no matter what the cost. Which story will sell more newspapers is completely irrelevant to the myth building Maxwell Scott; being somewhat jaded, it could also help the newspaper editor if he ever needs a favor from a Governor Stoddard
A legend can have greater meaning to those of us looking for heroes thus outweighing the facts. Tom Doniphon is dead so who is the truth going to help?
Certainly not the Senator who is still very much alive and married to the woman that both he and Doniphon loved. It’s not going to help Tom Doniphon, even though it could help create a heroic legend for the man who actually shot Liberty Valance thus destroying Stoddard’s reputation; so what really should win out … The truth or the legend?
December 1st was be the 112 Anniversary of the release of the first western film with a storyline, The Great Train Robbery (1903). It is also the film that, in a roundabout way, introduced us to the first western screen hero, Maxwell H. Aronson aka Gilbert M. Anderson aka Broncho Billy Anderson.
When I think about big screen westerns of the last 30 years Open Range, Tombstone, Silverado, 3:10 to Yuma (remake), and Appaloosa are a few that come to mind. You probably have your own opinion about each of these titles (I do) but one thing is for sure. They tried in their own way to stay true to the spirit of the west.
Last Saturday at our monthly get together at the Scottsdale Museum of Western Art, I was asked a question that I hear a lot – “Why aren’t more westerns made for the theater?” The answer is simple and yet may be hard to comprehend for us western lovers. We just don’t support the ones that make it to the local silver screen complex.
How many western purists saw Cowboys and Aliens? Or the recent Lone Ranger? Or Will Smith’s Wild Wild West? I know, I know, you’re saying, “Those aren’t the type of westerns we want to see!” But, as I told the audience on Saturday, you need to realize that the studios aren’t run by people who care. They look at facts and figures. They weren’t around when westerns were in vogue and dominated before the dreaded “Demographics” began to dictate what they began telling us we ‘wanted’ to see.
These fact and figure corporation types look at the bottom-line – which is necessary to stay solvent since the demise of the halcyon days of the studio system - I had to look ‘halcyon’ up by the way. Let’s take The Lone Ranger for example, if it had been a hit it would have been another feather in the cap of the team of Johnny Depp and Jerry Bruckheimer. There would have been a sequel which would have been another western, so to speak. But the film set westerns back. Not because it was a bad film – I actually enjoyed it on its own terms, you have to go in not expecting Clayton Moore (even John Hart) and Jay Silverheels.
But too many western fans refused to support it because of its presentation. It failed miserably although it did well on video, but so do dozens of westerns released directly to the video medium each year. Therefore it wasn’t a win for Depp and Bruckheimer, but a loss for westerns! Disney looked at it as a lack of interest in a big screen western. In other words, theater goers love Depp, but they hate westerns! Everybody loves Depp as a pirate, they should have loved him as Tonto, right?! That’s their thinking, just like Wild Wild West wasn’t successful because of Robert Conrad’s casting, so wouldn’t it be great to give the part of James West to Will Smith and tinker with the plot of a 1960s TV show that was very popular in its day? “Well,” I can hear the studio brass thinking, “It couldn’t have been the casting of Will Smith or the plot! It has to be that no one wants to see westerns anymore.”
We may hate what they do with our westerns but unless we take the castor oil they try to spoon feed us then we’ll just need to be satisfied to stay home and watch some of the quality TV westerns we have coming our way. Now I guess I’ll go finish watching Jonah Hex and then follow it with a chaser of Audie Murphy in Whispering Smith to make ol’ Jonah go down easier.
By 1959, westerns ruled. No fewer than 26 episodic westerns rode supreme on the three networks ABC, CBS, and NBC; DuMont was an early fourth network which started in 1946. DuMont’s programming was very eclectic featuring religion, science, variety, detectives, comedy, and wrestling, but no westerns. The network dissolved in 1956 as the westerns really began their ascension.
By 1968, extreme pressure from the P.T.A. and other anti-violence groups compounded affects the networks were already feeling from the Vietnam War protests and the tragic assassinations Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy. The westerns didn’t lose viewer popularity the networks simply became skittish and decided to cancel anything that might be blamed for violence on the streets.
High Chaparral was a prime example. In its 4th season, 1970-’71, there were only 18 episodes shot when the average was around 30 per season. This western could be rough and gritty at times, as opposed to its counterpart, Bonanza, but it was popular and was maintaining its ratings. Never-the-less, NBC sent word to the producers that they needed to tone down the violence. “Make sure that if anyone is shot on camera it’s only a wound,” was the order. A fifth season was announced and new characters had been introduced in the fourth season to return; Rudy Ramos as “Wind” was the prime example. Scripts were being prepared and contracts ready to sign, but the show was cancelled. High Chaparral had lost its edginess by being forced to feature more social drama and less of what their audience wanted. They became Bonanza in the desert. The networks were looking for any excuse to rid themselves of programs that didn’t fit their idea of the age group and the suburban audience they wished to cater to. By using the pressure groups as an excuse they were able to achieve their goal.
In 1970, there were no new episodic westerns introduced to television for the first time since 1949. The one possible exception would be the drastic change in format for The Virginian which had been a mainstay on television since 1962 despite several cast changes over the years except for the two “money actors,” the ones the audience watched the show for, namely James Drury as the Virginian and Doug McClure as Trampas. In season eight the show took a dip in the ratings and fell out of the top 30 programs for the first time. What could have been an excuse for NBC to cancel the western instead became a reason to change the name of the show, the format, the familiar clothing, the theme song, and add or subtract a few characters. Stewart Granger as Colonel Alan MacKenzie became the owner of the ranch and popular western mainstay, Lee Majors, was added to the cast. The format now became a rotation with stars Granger, Drury, McClure, and Majors becoming the solo focus from week to week. Surprisingly, the rating climbed back into the top 30 to 18 maintaining it as only one of four westerns still left in prime time, Gunsmoke, Bonanza, and High Chapparal being the other three; Death Valley Days had been on the air with new syndicated episodes since 1952 and ending in 1970, but many historians ignore its longevity due to it being a “syndicated” series. Despite the rating jump, due likely in curiosity more than anything, this bastardized version of The Virginian was canceled after its ninth season. Granger could be the answer to the cancellation due to his being so hard to work with, letting everyone know that he was a screen star who was slumming.
Surprisingly Gunsmoke, the most popular and longest running western of all time, 1955 – 1975, had actually been canceled in 1967 at the height of its popularity. While having dinner a few years back with the show’s former head writer Paul Savage, he told me that Gunsmoke was Babe Paley’s favorite show; Babe was CBS President William Paley’s wife. “When Babe heard that her favorite show had been canceled she went ballistic,” Paul told me. In order for Gunsmoke to be placed back on the schedule, per Paley’s orders (William or Babe), they had to come up with 30 minutes for the hour long show to fit back in its time-slot. One of their returning half hour shows had to be sacrificed and that was the end of Gilligan’s Island.
The extremely popular, Bonanza, a peripheral western at best, lost steam in May of 1972 with the death of Dan Blocker from post operative complications. The show limped on for one more season but it was obvious the show had no heart without Hoss. The show fell out of the top 30 in its 14th season and was canceled; if Blocker had lived so might have the show.
Gunsmoke would hold down the fort, so to speak, with one exceptional episodic western, Alias Smith and Jones, making its debut in 1971 only to be cut off at the pass with the suicide of Pete Duel in December of 1971. Universal wanted to cancel the popular series but ABC had a western hit and threatened legal action. Without missing a beat, Roger Davis, the narrator of the series, was cast to replace Duel as Hannibal Hayes. The chemistry between Ben Murphy and Duel was missing and the replacement was not accepted by the home viewer.
The Rural Purge of the episodic television western had clearly left it’s mark and westerns would never rule the video airwaves as they did when only three networks dictated what we watched. Today, however, those very same demographics work in the favor of western lovers. With what seems like hundreds of television stations and streaming services available it’s not feasible for every station to cater to the same specific audience and stay relevant. Every year new formats are offered for those who are partial to romance, sci-fi, horror, drama, comedy…and yes our beloved westerns.
Although Dub Taylor had a fantastically long career, after starting with Frank Capra's You Can't Take it With You (1948) at Columbia Pictures, he was relegated to B westerns as the character "Cannonball" for the next 10 years. Despite this, he was in high demand riding with "Wild Bill" Elliott, Russell Hayden, Tex Ritter, and Charles Starrett before moving to Monogram to close out his sidekick days as "Cannonball," with Jimmy Wakely. What many fans don't realize is that for seven of those Columbia westerns another actor replaced Dub as Cannonball in 1941 and 1942. Here is an excerpt from The Western Legends Live On; Tales, and Interviews with the Cowboys of the Silver Screen: When asked why Dub was called “Cannonball,” Charles Starrett, one of Dub’s later co-stars, put it succinctly. “He looked like a Cannonball After Dub left the “Wild Bill” series his moniker of “Cannonball” was given to a leaner comic by the name of Frank Mitchell, formerly of the comedy team of Mitchell and Durant, who replaced him in the Elliott programmers. Later, Dub would reclaim his “Cannonball” character and take it with him for the Jimmy Wakely series at Monogram. Dub’s last western series film for Columbia, Frontier Gunlaw was released in January of 1946. It wouldn’t be until October 1947 that Dub returned to sidekick duties alongside Jimmy Wakely at the much lower budget studio, Monogram. Unlike Smiley Burnette who was forced to surrender his “Frog Millhouse” character name upon leaving Republic Pictures, Columbia had no more use for the sidekick name, “Cannonball.” Dub was so identified with the name that it would have been superfluous for Columbia to give it to any other sidekick; they were more magnanimous than Republic was with Smiley. Wakely’s reaction to his new sidekick was just the opposite of Starrett’s for ole’ Dub. Wakley was quoted as saying that he felt Dub’s humor was “too broad” for his films; it’s interesting to note that neither Starrett nor Wakely were happy with the switch. All in all, Dub Taylor should be considered one of the most successful B western sidekicks of all time riding with "Wild Bill" Elliott, Tex Ritter, Russell Hayden, and Charles Starrett at Columbia, Don “Red” Barry at Republic, and Jimmy Wakely at Monogram; as well as being one of the chosen few (like Slim Pickens) who went one to have a very healthy career after riding the Hollywood B Trail.