Sunday, January 19, 2020

Chill Wills's Greatest Hollywood Role?

Copyright 2020 by Gary L. Pullman

Sometimes, the stories of the actors behind the figures of the Old West—at least, as they are portrayed in Hollywood Westerns—are as interesting as those of the cowboys, gunfighters, outlaws, and sheriffs themselves.

A case in point: character actor Chill Wills, who was known as much for his gravely voice and his gruff demeanor as he was for his rugged appearance. 

He starred in many Westerns, alongside some of the most famous leading men of the genre, including John Wayne, Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Robert Taylor, Gene Autry, and Robert Preston.

It was after his role as Bee Keeper in the 1960 film The Alamo, starring John Wayne, that Wills got into trouble. Bee Keeper was the sidekick of Davy Crockett (John Wayne). According to Cynthia Brideson and Sara Brideson, authors of the highly recommended Also Starring Forty Biographical Essays on the Greatest Character Actors of Hollywood's Golden Era, 130-1965, Wills's role won him “his first Oscar nomination,” and he wanted the award badly enough to hire a publicity agent to conduct a campaign for him.
His agent, W. S. Wocjiechowicz, conceived the idea of blanketing “Hollywood trade papers” with an ad containing the copy, “We of The Alamo cast are praying harder—than the real Texans prayed for their lives in The Alamo—for Chill Wills to win the Oscar.”

Wayne, who had great respect for the real men of the West, was offended. Not only did he deny that “any of the cast had condoned” Wills's slick campaign, but he also “condemned” it.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science also found the campaign offensive. As a result, the Academy forbade any future such campaigns by stars who were nominated for the award.

Wills didn't win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Instead, he lost to Peter Ustinov, who won for his part as Lentulus Batiatus, the owner of the gladiator school in Spartacus.
Click picture to activate link.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

McLintock: Getting Wild in the Wild West

Copyright 2019 by Gary L. Pullman

To get a true idea of the complexity of the American West, as it is suggested by the posters that promote John Wayne's many Western films, it's necessary to analyze many of these advertisements. In this post, however, only one is considered, so, admittedly, only the surface has been scratched here.

The point of this post is to identify some of the elements that Hollywood filmmakers considered, at the time of the poster's appearance, to be of sufficient interest to the genre's fans that they could be used to persuade them to part with the price of the movie's admission.

McLintock, released in 1963, stars John Wayne, Maureen O'Hara, Patrick Wayne, Stefanie Powers, Jack Kruschen, Chill Wills, Jerry Van Dyke, and Yvonne De Carlo. Three women in a Western are two (or, in many cases, even three) more than usual; consequently, their presence suggests that this film focuses on the relationships between men and women of the Old West more than many other such films.

Despite the presence of Patrick Wayne, Jack Kruschen, Chill Wills, and Jerry Van Dyke, there's really only one male character of importance in the motion picture: Wayne's character, George Washington (“G. W.”) McLintock. As the movie's poster makes clear by focusing on him and O'Hara, the flick is primarily about his relationship to her.

Wayne is shown as huge, his portrait taking up the upper two-thirds of the poster's space. He appears to be laughing, except that he looks more pained than merry (but, then, Wayne often looks pained, on screen and in posters). The fact that the film is a comedy suggests that he is, in fact, laughing.

Beneath his image, the movie's title, “McLintock!,” appears, complete with exclamation point.

Beneath the title, three pictures, looking much like snapshots, are featured, the middle one of which slightly overlaps the one before and the one after it. Comprising a sort of triptych, these smaller images seem to be the soil, so to speak, out of which the comparatively gigantic head and shoulders of McLintock arises, as if his being is rooted in the activities the “snapshots” depict. The order of the smaller images also suggest a beginning, a middle, and an end, and all of them suggest violence of a sort.

The first picture shows two men engaged in a fistfight, while a third lies on the ground, apparently recovering from a blow.

The second shows a man pursuing a woman dressed only in her underwear; he holds part of her torn dress; she, the rest of it. One of the buildings behind the couple is the McLintock Hotel. Probably to maintain an element of suspense, neither of the two figures (or those of the fighting men) are identifiable as members of the cast and, in fact, look like any of the actors, so viewers can't tell whether the fighters include Wayne or the couple consists of him and O'Hara.

The third of the smaller pictures shows another brawl, in which one man, shown in the foreground, knocks his opponent down, while, in the background behind them, a third man holds a fourth, while a fifth falls to the ground. Most of the men, of course, wear six-shooters, holstered on their hips.

The poster seems to indicate that McLintock is a man of violence, a fighter and (by today's understanding) a perpetrator of domestic violence. A businessman, probably of some social and economic standing in town, he's outwardly respectful, but he's certainly no saint. Like his business rivals, physical combatants, and his own wife, others are subject to his will; a dominant personality he's able and willing to impose his will on men and women alike. Somehow (perhaps because the bigger image of him is laughing), he appears to be likable.

With some speculation, based on the poster's imagery, these notions are about all a viewer can discern concerning the movie's likely plot. Filmmakers were betting that these inferences would be enough to lure fans of Westerns in general and of Wayne in particular into theaters in 1963.

By consulting a summary of the movie, we can see whether the implications suggested by the movie's poster (or the interpretation of it, at least, that's offered in this post) are close to the content that the film actually delivers, are far afield, or are somewhere between these polar possibilities.

The movie, we find, is based “loosely” on William Shakespeare's comedy The Taming of the Shrew. G. W. is more financially successful than his name on the hotel, as shown on the poster, suggests, and he's not primarily a hotel owner; he's a rancher, a cattleman, and a mine operator as well.

His wife Katherine (O'Hara) has left him, to live back east, after suspecting he's committed adultery. His daughter Becky (Powers), a college student, lives with him. In Katherine's absence, G. W.'s hired a homesteader, the beautiful widow Louise Warren (De Carlo), whose adult son Devlin (“Dev”) (Wayne's son Patrick) lives in McLintock's house with her.

All is cleared up between G. W. and Kathleen, after G. W. spanks her with a coal scuttle, a technique he picked up from his daughter's fiance, Dev, who earlier delivered the same punishment to Becky, using the same instrument, whereupon the quarreling younger couple became engaged.

The poster is vague about the fistfights it depicts, but, it seems, they reference the brawls that occur in the movie. The man pursuing the woman in the central picture at the bottom of the poster is G. W.; the woman he pursues, his wife (although their identification is, perhaps intentionally, left unclear in the poster).

Wayne, who developed the script, included the spanking scenes to indicate his own aversion to domestic violence. However, according to O'Hara, Wayne “really spanked me! My bottom was black and blue for weeks!”

Although the poster seems purposely vague about the motives of the characters and the particular details of the situations in which they are depicted, again, probably to preserve suspense, it does a fair job of hinting at the nature of the film and its general theme.

Fans of the Western who enjoy action and adventure that includes sex (symbolized on the poster by O'Hara's half-dressed state) and violence (suggested on the poster by the pictures of fisticuffs) and features a manly, if familiar, star as protagonist were likely to fork over the price of admission to enjoy McLintock, the filmmakers apparently believed, since this poster was released to promote the film.

The persistence of these ubiquitous dramatic (and narrative) elements, which have become more and more explicit and pervasive in Westerns, as in other genres of film, suggests that today's audience remains at least as interested in these elements of the genre as was the same genre's audience in 1963.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

What's in a Movie Poster? Western Images, Themes, Qualities, Characters, and Values

Copyright 2019 by Gary L. Pullman
Western movies tend to do well at the box office, especially when their leading character is a star of the magnitude of John Wayne or Clint Eastwood.

How much do posters and lobby cards designed to promote these films help sell tickets? The answer is anybody's guess, but, apparently, even in the digital age, Hollywood believes that there is magic in such advertisements. Movie posters and lobby cards have long been staples of the promotion of movies of all genres, Westerns included. They remain so today.

Like movie posters that promote other genres, those that advertise Western films can pinpoint some of the features of such fare that screenwriters have found appeal to viewers. The same features, one might suppose, would also appeal to readers of Western novels.

Let's take a look at a Western movie poster, with an eye toward what, specifically, they advertise that's central to this genre.

The poster for Pale Rider, featuring Clint Eastwood, shows

  • a lone gunman fanning his Colt
  • a lone gunman who is dressed well by the standards of his time
  • seven men standing in a line
  • a block of buildings typical of Western towns
  • a caption, in small letters, at the heart of the sun-like circle to the right of Eastwood's head
  • the colors yellow, orange, red-orange, and reddish-brown
What can we infer from the images, design, colors, and text?
Typically, the Western hero is a solitary figure who's good with a gun and who is willing to risk his life to defend himself, another person, or his own values. He tends to be larger than life. The poster focuses on Eastwood's character, a lone gunman who is shown as a giant among men; the seven other figures shown in the poster are not only literally beneath him, but they are tiny in comparison, and, while he is shown in full color, they are little more than shadows. Next to him, the other men are insignificant, more like pesky gnats than worthy foes.

Not only is the lone gunman bigger than anyone else, but he is also central: he is shown near the center of the poster's focus. Thanks to his size, his facial features are easily discernible; he has an identity; he is an individual, a person with character. His weathered appearance, leathery skin, and sharp features mark him as an independent, hard-bitten man who's been around and knows the score. In his eyes, we see steely determination; his bared teeth show aggression. He is focused, intent, one with his gun. A man on a mission, he stands and delivers. These are the qualities of personality, the poster suggests, that are important to the audience for this actor's films. Moviegoers (or readers) who enjoy Westerns want a man who, even alone, will take a stand, risk his own life, and combat forces which would defy or destroy the principles he holds dear.

The lone gunman dresses better than many of his day, which suggests that he enjoys financial success. He may make his living by his gun. He may, in other words, be a gunfighter or a mercenary. (Those familiar with the “spaghetti Westerns” in which Eastwood starred will know, of course, that, in Pale Rider, he plays a bounty hunter).

The sun behind him isn't a halo exactly, or, if it is, it doesn't fit him precisely, but the effect is similar; the concentric circles of the high desert sun frame him closely enough to suggest that there may be more to him than meets the eye, even if he himself is not altogether holy.

The poster's colors are bright and vibrant, but the sun's brilliant yellow, by degrees, merges with the brown of the hero's coat and the sky, the element of air merging with the element of earth. Perhaps the lone gunman is a demigod, the Wild West's version of Hercules. Western fans want their heroes to be Heroes, to be writ large, to be of nearly supernatural dimensions.

The fact that the movie is set in the West is presented almost as an afterthought. The stretch of low buildings with false fronts and the line of small figures in Western garb are more like quick sketches that suggest, rather than depict, the setting. It is clear that the film is not so much about the West itself as it is about this one individual, the lone gunman who stands out.

White adds touches of sunlight to the brim of the gunman's hat (which is not a Stetson; this man is a gunman, but he's no cowboy). White also highlights his left cheek, the top of his shirt, the cuffs of his shirt sleeves, and the handle and the cylinder of his second gun, the Colt stuffed in his gun belt, a phallus not quite hidden and ready to hand, doubling his manhood.

In the yellow circle of the sun, the poster's caption, in small letters, whispers part of a verse in the book of Revelations: “. . . and hell followed with him,” suggesting the consequences of the Pale Rider's visit and connecting him to a figure of the Biblical apocalypse: “And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.” If there was any doubt as to the lone gunman's identity, the caption spells it out: the Pale Rider is, in fact, Death personified.
Without seeing the movie itself, these suggestions are all the poster's viewer has by which to decide whether to see the film. According to Box Office Mojo, Pale Rider grossed over $41 million, a fourth of this amount during its opening. Although other factors contributed to the film's success, it seems that potential viewers liked what the poster showed them. If they were attracted by the themes, the type of hero, and the character traits suggested by this poster, it's likely that they would be drawn to similar themes, heroes, and character traits in Western novels as well.

Monday, December 2, 2019

Wild Bill Hickok's Wild Bear Story

Copyright 2019 by Gary L. Pullman

In Wild Bill, his biography of Wild Bill Hickok, Tom Clavin relates an anecdote about Hickok's alleged encounter with a cinnamon bear.

Wild Bill Hickok

According to Clavin, the story probably happened, although “a few researchers have disputed that the encounter” between Hickok and the bear “ever took place” (38).

It seems that the gunfighter was working as a teamster when “he found a bear blocking the road,” whereupon he climbed off his wagon “and shot her in the head.” The gunshot didn't do anything but anger the mother bear, causing her to attack, "crushing Hickok against her” (38).

He responded by shooting her in the paw, after which the bear locked onto his left arm and began to bite; Hickok jerked his Bowie knife from his belt and slashed "the bear's throat” (38).

Somehow, Hickok managed to drive his “freight wagon to the next town,” despite his extraordinary pain, and the local sawbones treated his patient “for broken bones in Hickok's chest, shoulder, and arm” (38).

Clavin mentions a film that features a bear attack: The Revenant, starring Leonardo DiCaprio (37). (Another movie, set in Canada, that features a horrific bear attack is Backcountry.)

Friday, November 22, 2019

Nineteenth-Century Guns: What's in a Name (Part 2)

Copyright 2019 by Gary L. Pullman

Several weapons that first appeared during the days of the American Wild West are named for famous people.

Richard Jordan Gatling

Richard J. Gatling (1818-1903), a medical doctor, invented the Gatling gun in 1861 and patented it a year later. He hoped that his spring-loaded, hand-cranked weapon (Handbook of the Gatling Gun, Caliber .30, Models of 1895, 1900, and 1903, Metallic Carriage And Casement Mount, 13), would lead to armies of fewer troops, thereby reducing wartime deaths and casualties (Harold A. Skaarup, Shelldrake: Canadian Artillery Museums and Gun Monuments, 133). It was an early rapid-fire weapon, preceded only by the French mitrailleuse (Skaarup, 133).

French mitrailleuse

Since the gun required the gunner to crank a handle to fire the weapon, it is not an automatic weapon; the first automatic wouldn't be invented until 1884, when the 7.92-millimeter Maxim machine gun, appeared. (Skaarup, 133).

Gatling gun

The Gatling gun, however, was superior to other weapons of its day, because the time that it took to eject a spent cartridge and load the next round of ammunition during “the firing/reloading sequence” allowed the barrel to cool a bit, permitting “higher rates of fire . . . without the barrel['s] overheating” (Skaarp, 133). (Today, the U. S. Army's .50-caliber machine gun fires so many bullets so quickly that the barrel must be replaced at frequent intervals.)

Bane Messenger, the protagonist of my Western series, An Adventure of the Old West, uses a Gatling gun twice in Blood Mountain, to even the odds against him.

1873 Winchester Rifle

The Model 1873 Winchester rifle was sold as “The Gun that Won the West,” although, technically, of course, a rifle is not a “gun,” since a rifle is rifled, whereas the bore of a gun is smooth. Originally, the rifle fired a .44-40 centerfire cartridge. The bullet could travel at a velocity of about 1,500 feet-per-second. The rifle also featured “a sliding breech cover . . . that [kept] dirt and snow out of the breech,” and “an integrated safety sear . . . prevented accidental discharge of the rifle when the hammer was cocked” (Martin Pegler, Winchester Lever-Action Rifles).

Buffalo Bill Cody's 1873 Winchester rifle

Various lengths of barrels were available, as were a number of embellishments: “silver or gold plating, engraving, set triggers and special carrying cases” and “an all-in-one reloading tool” (Pegler).

The standard version of the rifle cost $27 ($439 today), the carbine $24 ($390 today), but “these prices were often doubled by the time the guns had shipped west” (Pegler).

Oliver Fisher Winchester

Oliver Winchester and his family became fabulously wealthy. His son, William Wirt Winchester, served as the treasurer of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. After his demise, William's widow Sarah became convinced that their house was haunted. The ghosts of Native Americans and others who'd been killed by her family's rifle, she believed, were out for revenge. 

To protect herself, psychics told her, she had to continue to add on to the eight-room farmhouse she'd purchased in San Jose, California, after leaving her home in New Haven, Connecticut. The work had to continue non-stop, twenty-four hours a day, year after year—and it did, to the tune of $5 million ($71 million today), until her own death in 1922.

Sarah Winchester

To confuse the spirits, the 24,000-square-foot mansion (as it came to be) incorporated some decidedly strange features. For example, only one bathroom has a “working toilet”; the others were constructed to confuse the ghosts (Gia Lui, “Take a Tour of San Jose's Winchester Mystery House”).

Winchester Mystery House

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Nineteenth-Century Guns: What's in a Name (Part 1)

Copyright 2019 by Gary L. Pullman

Several weapons that first appeared during the days of the American Wild West are named for famous people.

The Armstrong breech-loading gun was named after its English designer Sir William Armstrong (1810-1900). In 1854, Armstrong sold the Secretary of State for War on making a rifled breech-loading three-pounder for testing purposes. Later models fired ammunition of higher calibers, including the largest among them, a 100-pounder. Although the guns were more expensive, they were also safer, but, ultimately, their design was found to be too complicated, and loading them was a time-consuming process involving several discrete steps. The Ordnance Selection Committee reported its conclusions:

The many-grooved system of rifling with its lead-coated projectiles and complicated breech-loading arrangements is far inferior for the general purpose of war to the muzzle-loading system and has the disadvantage of being more expensive in both original cost and ammunition. Muzzle-loading guns are far superior to breech-loaders in simplicity of construction and efficiency in this respect for active service; they can be loaded and worked with perfect ease and abundant rapidity.

As a result, the military resumed its use of muzzle-loading guns.

Sir William Armstrong

Armstrong, a man of many talents and abilities, is considered the father of modern artillery. A well-respected inventor and philanthropist,” he was knighted, and Queen Victoria later elevated him to the peerage as a baron (Robert P. Dod, The Peerage, Baronetage and Knightage of Great Britain and Ireland 93). In addition to the breech-loading gun named for himself, Armstrong also developed the hydraulic accumulator.

Samuel Colt

Samuel Colt began making weapons in the 1830s, securing a British patent for an improved revolver design in 1836. According to True West, the weapon that Wyatt Earp used during the 1881 Shootout at the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona, Earp “probably” used a Colt single-action revolver with a ten-inch barrel. A Tactical Life article indicates that Bat Masterson “ordered a total of eight single-action revolvers from Colt’s,” the “most notable” of which was a customized “nickel plated short .45 calibre” (source's italics):

Bat Masterson

. . . make it very Easy on the trigger and have the front Sight a little higher and thicker than the ordinary pistol of this Kind. Put on a gutta percha handle and send it as soon as possible, have the barrel about the same length that the ejector rod is (source's italics).

Wild Bill Hickok

The favorite sidearms” of Wild Bill Hickok, who earned his living as a lawman a bit earlier than Earp and Masterson, were a pair of “a pair of elegantly engraved, ivory-handled 1851 Navy Colt cap and ball .36 caliber revolvers [source's bold]. . . [the cylinders of which were] engraved with a naval battle scene between Texas and Mexico” (“Wild Bill's Colts”).

Employed by his father, Colt worked on several ideas for inventions, one of which was the first pistol he'd ever created. Unfortunately, when the weapon was fired, it blew up (R. L. Wilson, Colt: An American Legend 8). The rifle on which he was working at the same time fared better (Colt: An American Legend 8). Leaving his father's employ, he traveled across the United States and Canada, demonstrating the effects of nitrous oxide, calling himself the Celebrated Dr. Coult of New York, London, and Calcutta” (Gardner Soule, The Story of Sam Colt's Equalizer” in Popular Science. 179 (6): 89. 8).

After focusing on a handgun with one barrel, rather than multiple barrels, he managed to find a financial backer and was able to secure a patent in 1836 for the first model of his Colt revolver (Soule, 89). Eventually, with modifications and refinements, his revolver would become one of the most popular handguns in the Wild West.

In 1852, Henry Deringer gave the world the small handgun with a large bore that is named (but misspelled) for him. Muzzle loaded, the percussion-cap pistol fired one shot. Usually sold in pairs for $15 to $25 for both, these weapons were known in the Wild West as “boot pistols” (Gettysburg Museum), “Vest Pocket Pistols,” or “sleeve guns

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Charles Siringo: The Moral of the Story

Copyright 2019 by Gary L. Pullman

According to Pinkerton detective Charles (“Charlie”) Siringo, a year after Dodge City's incorporation, 81 men had been buried in the town's graveyard. Eighty of them had been killed, only one having experienced “a natural death” (A Cowboy Detective 315).

It was in this wild West town that Siringo first encountered Bat Masterson, the nighttime bartender at the Lone Star dance hall. Siringo, attracted by the hall's good-looking women and the establishment's “Texas flavor,” visited the place with a cowboy friend, “Wess” Adams (315). Wess, complaining of having been insulted by Jim White, a buffalo hunter, enlisted Siringo's assistance (315).

Bat Masterson

In the ensuing barroom fight, Masterson intervened, tossing a handful of “heavy beer glasses” at Siringo, one of which, breaking, drew blood (135). A dozen men were involved in the fracas; Masterson didn't differentiate between brawlers and bystanders, but struck anyone in range of the ice mallet he'd taken from its place behind the bar (135).

Jim White

Some of the fighters clubbed others with their pistols. When Siringo saw White “lying on the floor apparently dead, with blood flowing from wounds in the head,” and witnessed Adams being stabbed “in the back,” he beat a hasty retreat, Adams in tow, to their horses, hitched out front, and threatened a police officer, Joe Mason, who barred their way, before riding out of town (136-137).

Siringo and Adams took refuge in a stock yard “shanty.” Examining Adams's knife wound, Siringo saw that it was, indeed, “serious”:

. . . The knife had been thrust in and then brought around in a semi-circle in the shape of a large horseshoe. The open part of the shoe was where the flesh was not cut, and the other part of the wound [was where] the flesh stood out several inches from the body. The clothing was saturated with blood (317).

Charles Siringo

There was nothing to do but ride back into Dodge. Suspecting that the police might be waiting to ambush him, should he return to town, Siringo took a different route back to Dodge, where he bought supplies at the local drug store: “needles and thread, sticking plaster, and a candle” (318).

Returning to the shanty by the same route he'd ridden back to town, Siringo tried, unsuccessfully, to stitch his friend's wound, but found that “the horseshoe[-] shaped protruding flesh could not be pushed back into place on a level with the rest of the body” (318).

Siringo had no alternative but to apply the sticking plaster, before the men rode eighteen miles “to the Bates & Beals cattle camp,” as Adams became progressively weaker “from loss of blood” (318).

Later, Siringo learned that White, “the boss of a large gang of buffalo hunters,” had survived; he ultimately “recovered” from his “many wounds” and the multiple cracks in his skull (319). Siringo also learned, years later, upon meeting Masterson, that he'd been right to take a different route back into Dodge than the one he and Adams had taken out of town, as Masterson “and a gang of officers” had, indeed, been lying in wait to ambush him, had he ridden back to Dodge by the same path he'd left town. “Armed with rifles and shotguns,” the posse had “stood guard till morning,” intent upon making “angels” of the suspects “if [they] returned” (318).

Siringo ends his account of “how near” he'd come “to being put out of business by Bat Masterson” (315) by drawing a moral for his story: “This little scrape illustrates what fools cowboys were after long drives over the rail” (319).

Chill Wills's Greatest Hollywood Role?

Copyright 2020 by Gary L. Pullman Sometimes, the stories of the actors behind the figures of the Old West—at least, as they are portra...