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.
Charlie LeSueur is AZ's Official Western Film Historian, Encore Fellow @ Spirit of the West; Scottsdale's Museum of the West.