Have you ever wondered where the conceptual boilerplate of the time-honored Western movie comes from?
Our favorite guest contributor and Books 2 Movies maven, Larry Michie, has the answer.
Hello Everybody, Joe Morella and Frank Segers here again with our favorite topic, Classic Movies.
The conventions of motion picture Westerns have long since been established – and subsequently tinkered with, inverted and refined, from “The Three Amigos” to “The Wild Bunch.” But the father of the genre undoubtedly was an easterner named Owen Wister (1860-1938).
He wrote a novel called “The Virginian – A Horseman of the Plains,” and that yarn had all the elements of the Great American Fable, our own native Iliad and Odyssey.
As depicted in the novel, a man called The Virginian left his native state as a boy and eventually found himself in Wyoming, punching cattle. He was a man of high and immutable honor, valiant and strong, uneducated but quick to learn, soft-spoken and sparing of words.
His temper flared at injustice. He defended the rights and property of those who were honest. He was no mean marksman when he was forced to use his gun. He was respectful of the women he met, and when a pretty and spunky young woman arrived from the East to teach school, his courtship was circumspect and unwavering.
You get the idea. You’ve seen this movie before.
Owen Wister came from a wealthy family, and one of his closest life-long friends was a Harvard classmate, Theodore Roosevelt. Both loved the West, of course, and Teddy was one of the original American environmentalists, dedicated to preserving the natural beauty of the country he loved.
The Virginian was published in 1902 and was vastly popular, going through various editions. A successful stage play was adapted from the novel.
Film versions of The Virginian began early on and eventually continued in increasingly diluted form through the televised Westerns that were popular in the 60s and ‘70s.
(The most popular version of Wister’s work on the tube was “The Virginian,” one of the first primetime series in a 90-minute format which ran for eight seasons through 1970 on NBC, providing regular parts for an eclectic mix of actors including James Drury (in the title role), Doug McClure, Lee J. Cobb (who plays the vicious union boss in “On the Waterfront”), the veteran Charles Bickford, Stewart Granger in late career and a pre-Farrah Lee Majors.)
The most accessible movie version of The Virginian is the 1946 Paramount Pictures Production – readily available on videotape – that was directed by Stuart Gilmore.
The novel itself is a mighty long ride, pardner, but the Gilmore crew did a good job of compressing the elements of the yarn into a respectable narrative. There is a tremendous amount left out, but the bones of the story – and the requisite aspects of the classic Western – are true to the novel written by Wister.
The star of Gilmore’s film is none other than the ubiquitous Joel McCrea, a top Western performer for many years. The bad guy is black-clad Brian Donlevy, the love interest is the spirited and pretty Barbara Britton, the good guy who makes a mistake and pays for it is none other than Sonny Tufts, and there’s the usual cast of sidekicks and cow-punchers, led by the always-reliable William Frawley (best known today for his indelible tv interpretation of Fred Mertz on the “I Love Lucy” show.)
There also was a film version of The Virginian shot in 1923, directed by Tom Forman and with a cast of Kenneth Harlan (the hero), Florence Vidor (the schoolmarm), and Russell Simpson (the bad guy). The producer, movie fans, was none other than B.P. Schulberg (former head of Paramount Pictures and father to “What Makes Sammy Run” Budd Schulberg, the screenwriter of “On the Waterfront” and “A Face in the Crowd, among many other titles.).
Many Westerns following the basic format of “The Virginian” preceded the Joel McCrea version, of course, including a number of early John Wayne vehicles, but there are two motion picture treatments of “The Virginian” that I really lust after but as yet have been unable to corral.
One is a 1914 silent version “picturized by” Cecil B. DeMille – can you imagine?
What a hoot! Producer is Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company. The cast includes Dustin Farnum as the Virginian, along with J.W. Johnston, Sidney Deane, bad guy Billy Elmer, love interest Winifred Kingston and, get this, one Cecilla DeMille.
My, oh my, how times don’t change.
Whatever the merits of these various incarnations of The Virginian, the most important motion picture version of the Owen Wister novel might be a 1929 production by Paramount Pictures. The director was Victor Fleming (“Gone With The Wind’s” director of record). The big hook on this one: The Virginian is played by none other than a very young Gary Cooper. The female lead is Mary Brian, and other cast members include Walter Huston and Richard Arlen.
I haven’t seen it, but I betcha ten bucks that Coop mops up the screen as the best durn cowboy you ever did see.
Special Bonus: Early in the novel, when the man who turns out to be The Virginian’s chief foe makes a snarky remark, The Virginian responds with the first recorded response to a nasty hombre:
“Smile when you say that.”
Really. It’s the first recorded use of what became a universal cliche, especially in Western films.
Thanks, Larry. Frank, as previously noted is a great fan of the spaghetti westerns of the 60’s. Shot mostly in Italy and Spain with Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef starring in the best of them.
Joe tends to like only the truly classic westerns such as “Red River” and “Three Godfathers.” Oh, a particular favorite and one that seems to be forgotten today is “Yellow Sky.”
OK, enough about us. What’s YOUR favorite Western?