Another year rolls by and seldom is a western film released. For those of us raised during the era of the Saturday double-feature and cowboy picture shows, followed later by many weekly western TV series, dusting off old VHS copies or DVDs of the classic A westerns, and the B “oaters” featuring our silver screen heroes enables us to find momentary relief. We love the classics, like The Searchers,Shane, Outlaw Josey Wales, The Wild Bunch. And over the past decade, we have enjoyed Tombstone,Unforgiven, Open Range, and most recently 3:10 to Yuma and Appaloosa, but, we can only watch them so many times, since we know what the next line of dialogue will be.
the exception of a few stalwart directors like Kevin Costner, Clint Eastwood and now Ed Harris, most producers and directors (the under 40 set) were raised on Star Wars, slasher movies, or sophomoric, crude so-called comedies, and thereby, have little appreciation for western cinema. Most refuse to even discuss the possibility of making a movie with cowboys, claiming they are a lost litre. Thus they shy away from the opportunity even when presented with the facts that the westerns made for cable TV (starring Tom Selleck, Sam Elliot or Robert Duval) were the most watched made for TV movies in history. An argument can be made that even the so-called “target audience” (those under the age of 25, male or female) will watch a well made movie with a good story line, regardless of genre. However, these post-Baby-Boomer, Hollywood executives have evidently written off those of us over 50, even though demographic studies all indicate that we are an aging population and that we’ll be around awhile longer. As such, we too want quality entertainment and are able and willing to pay for it.
We’ve had to accept the fact that perhaps only one brave heart will film a quality western every so often, and we need to be thankful for that. However, to satisfy our addiction there is another, often overlooked option available to us. We can and should take the time to go rediscover some of the best western films ever made, yet seldom seen “photo-plays” from the “Golden Age” – the Silent Era.
PARDON ME, YOUR BIAS IS SHOWING
Recently, my grandson Dakota, age 6, watched an old Tom Mix movie with me, an early Universal sound film. Noting it was in black and white, he asked if something was wrong with the TV set. His reaction reflects most people’s preconceived notion that movies are not very entertaining without sound and the advancement of technology to its present state. I know this condescending feeling as I once was of the same opinion. To me, the film speed at times was too fast, especially in action scenes, and actors appeared overly melodramatic. Egads – leading men like the ultimate cowboy hero Tom Mix, looked like he wore lipstick! They seemed cheaply made with flimsy, artificial backdrops, and, of course the major concern, no spoken dialogue.
With an insatiable appetite for new westerns, I began to research what silent westerns were available in the video market, and started collecting and watching the early films of notable stars such as Tom Mix and William S. Hart. After all, they were the heroes of my father and eventually became mine as well.I also discovered that early cinema provided us with some great, top quality, “A” production western films. I viewed these previously perceived, laughable films through a newly formed and enlightened perspective. For example, I learned that the film speed issue of some of the action scenes was because of the hand-cranked cameras making it almost impossible to maintain a constant pace throughout filming; that the male actors wore lip rouge because their mouths would have been washed out in the early black and white, nitrate film stock. Also, my opinion that they were overly melodramatic was softened considerably when I considered their inability to express emotion through spoken dialogue, limited to a few lines on an occasional, printed dialogue card. There was no way to record all the dialogue on a title card as it would have detracted from the flow of the movie. With my newly gained insight into the world of early cinema, I finally began to truly enjoy the surviving films made before the advent of sound. If I had not made such a paradigm shift, I would have missed out on what has been a grand experience.
SILENT WESTERNS IS A MISNOMER
The first significant film ever made just happened to be a western - The Great Train Robbery, by Edwin Porter in 1903. From then until 1929 and the advent of sound, there were scores of western movies made, however, they were not known in the film industry as “silent westerns”…they were simply called “western photoplays,” or cowboy motion pictures. The term “silent film” is a name coined later by historians after the release of “all-talking” pictures. In fact, most of the early pioneers in the film industry felt that sound was not a positive thing. Films of the late teens and twenties were shown throughout the world. No sound meant any difference in languages was not a real problem. All they needed to do was change the dialogue cards to reflect the native language of the foreign country.Also, early sound attempts were failures because the technology to do so was still in the formation stage. Audiences at some of the initial sound film showings actually booed because of the stilted dialogue, often due to “mike fright” on part of the actors and/or the lack of sound quality equipment in the evolving technology. Also, the studio’s major investments in plant facilities were designed for shooting several movies simultaneously, side-by-side, since there was no problem with overriding noise from other sets that would affect the finished product. As such, there was no need for constructing costly sound stages.
Thomas Edison, pioneer in the motion picture film industry, when once asked what he thought about the advent of sound in the moving picture industry, still in its infancy, supposedly replied”Sound…..sound….why spoil the illusion”! The great Italian film director Federico Fellini, remarked much later, “if there were more silence, if we all kept quiet….we could understand something.”Perhaps, they had a valid point, as spoken dialogue, if over done, can detract from the objective and mood of the story. The great director John Ford, felt that the less dialogue, the better. After all, it was the story line, character development and background locations that were more important.
The western was the perfect vehicle for the early film industry in that dialogue was not as important as it was to melodrama. Riding, roping, fighting, hangings and stampedes required minimal dialogue, if any at all. Also, there was plenty of 30 dollar a month working cowboys who came out to Hollywood with the possibility that they could earn that much in one day if they would take a fall off a horse.Heck, they often did that as part of their daily work for a dollar a day. The real, not reel, cowboys that came further west were the likes of rodeo cowboys: Art Acord, Hoot Gibson and Yakima Cannutt, wild west show performers aka Tom Mix, Will Rogers, Ken Maynard and Buck Jones. Other working cowboys like Jack and Al Hoxie, Lane Chandler, Wally Wales, Gary Cooper and “Big Boy” Williams found their way to Gower Gulch, the hangout for cowboys waiting the casting call for film work.However, other early cowboy film stars came from various backgrounds. Stage actors like William S. Hart and Harry Carey Sr. always wanted to be cowboys, had experienced western life first-hand as young men, and knew what a real cowboy looked and acted like. Bronco Billy Anderson was a male model from the Big Apple, and Tom Tyler, Neal Hart and Buddy Roosevelt were some of cinemas first stuntmen. George O’Brien worked behind the scenes as part of the film crew on Tom Mix films as did Marion Morrison, aka John Wayne. Fred Thomson was a three times National Decathlon Champion and a war veteran. Jack Holt, father of cowboy film star Tim Holt, was just a bit actor in pioneer Hollywood melodramas, but also a great polo player. Tim McCoy was a military commander with the National Guard in Wyoming. These were the cowboy actors that paved the way for the western stars of the next generation like Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and Tex Ritter, among many others.Hollywood was the Mecca for cowboys during the Golden Age!
Check back soon for the silent cowboy movie countdown!