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Hollywood's West

Hollywood's West: The American Frontier in Film, Television, and History

Peter C. Rollins
John E. O’Connor
Copyright Date: 2005
Pages: 392
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  • Book Info
    Hollywood's West
    Book Description:

    American historians such as Frederick Jackson Turner have argued that the West has been the region that most clearly defines American democracy and the national ethos. Throughout the twentieth century, the "frontier thesis" influenced film and television producers who used the West as a backdrop for an array of dramatic explorations of America's history and the evolution of its culture and values. The common themes found in Westerns distinguish the genre as a quintessentially American form of dramatic art. In Hollywood's West, Peter C. Rollins, John E. O'Connor, and the nation's leading film scholars analyze popular conceptions of the frontier as a fundamental element of American history and culture. This volume examines classic Western films and programs that span nearly a century, from Cimarron (1931) to Turner Network Television's recent made-for-TV movies. Many of the films discussed here are considered among the greatest cinematic landmarks of all time. The essays highlight the ways in which Westerns have both shaped and reflected the dominant social and political concerns of their respective eras. While Cimarron challenged audiences with an innovative, complex narrative, other Westerns of the early sound era such as The Great Meadow (1931) frequently presented nostalgic visions of a simpler frontier era as a temporary diversion from the hardships of the Great Depression. Westerns of the 1950s reveal the profound uncertainty cast by the cold war, whereas later Westerns display heightened violence and cynicism, products of a society marred by wars, assassinations, riots, and political scandals. The volume concludes with a comprehensive filmography and an informative bibliography of scholarly writings on the Western genre. This collection will prove useful to film scholars, historians, and both devoted and casual fans of the Western genre. Hollywood's West makes a significant contribution to the understanding of both the historic American frontier and its innumerable popular representations.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-7180-7
    Subjects: Film Studies, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-VI)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. VII-VIII)
  3. Preface
    (pp. IX-XII)
    Ray Merlock
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. XIII-XIV)
  5. Introduction. The West, Westerns, and American Character
    (pp. 1-34)
    John E. O’Connor and Peter C. Rollins

    There is no more characteristic American art form than the Western film. Even when it is produced in Italy, Finland, East Germany, Hungary, Australia, or Japan, there is no mistaking the American institutions that are being represented or the distinctively American character types portrayed. Scholars have been interested in the wide variety of Western stories and representations of the West for generations. ConsiderThe West of the Imagination, a 1986 PBS television series focusing on nineteenth-century painters and photographers of the frontier who “like the writers and storytellers became America’s primary mythmakers” (Goetzmann x). For the eras prior to cinema,...

  6. Part One. Early Sound Era Westerns, 1931–1939

    • 1 The New Western History in 1931: RKO and the Challenge of Cimarron
      (pp. 37-64)
      J. E. Smyth

      In early 1931, RKO Pictures releasedCimarron, a history of an Oklahoma pioneering couple’s marriage from the opening of the territory to white settlement in 1889 to the film’s 1930 production year. Even before the film’s completion, the Hollywood motion picture community anticipatedCimarronas innovative American historical cinema, and following its premiere, the studio and the trade papers presented the film as both an authoritative historical document and a landmark of American cinematic achievement.¹ At the end of the decade, filmmaker and historian Lewis Jacobs would acknowledge its profound effect on historical cinema, and as time passed, Hollywood executives...

    • 2 Tradition, Parody, and Adaptation: Jed Buell’s Unconventional West
      (pp. 65-80)
      Cynthia J. Miller

      In the 1930s, a different kind of West appeared on Hollywood’s “Poverty Row.” It was a West animated by “little people” brawling in barrooms, a black hero singing his way into the heart of the rancher’s daughter, an opera singer-turned-cowboy, and a penguin. It was Jed Buell’s West. Little recognition is given to Buell for leaving his imprint on the Western musical as a genre. Credited with producing only about a dozen “singing cowboy” films, all released between 1936 and 1940, he was undoubtedly not the most active of contributors, but he may have been one of the most imaginative....

    • 3 The Lone Ranger: Adult Legacies of a Juvenile Western
      (pp. 81-96)
      John Shelton Lawrence

      Born at Detroit radio station WXYZ in 1933, the Lone Ranger became a great twentieth-century mythmaking franchise. His trajectory ascended out of radio, comics, pulp novels, advertising endorsements, licensed merchandise, and fan clubs into the sphere of serialized television and the B Western. As the Ranger’s commercial flare dimmed, he plummeted toward ITC/Wrather’s widely scorned featureThe Legend of the Lone Ranger(1981) and the much-derided Warner Bros. television pilot “The Lone Ranger” (February 26, 2003). In that failed two-hour resurrection, the Ranger is “Luke Hartman,” a brown-hatted Harvard law student with New Age tendencies and hot springs fantasies about...

  7. Part Two. The Post–World War II Western, 1945–1956

    • 4 Wee Willie Winkie Goes West: The Influence of the British Empire Genre on Ford’s Cavalry Trilogy
      (pp. 99-114)
      Kathleen A. McDonough

      The Shirley Temple vehicleWee Willie Winkie(1937) was a curious assignment for director John Ford, whose reputation was primarily as a man’s director for his skillful handling of actors like Victor McLaglen and Warren Baxter in male-oriented films such asThe Lost Patrol(1934),The Informer(1935), andPrisoner of Shark Island(1936). Scott Eyman notes that Ford told two different stories about his reaction to this assignment, one where he said, “My face fell atop the floor,” and another where he was imperturbable. “I said ‘Great’ and we just went out and made the picture” (181). Both stories...

    • 5 Beyond the River: Women and the Role of the Feminine in Howard Hawks’s Red River
      (pp. 115-125)
      John Parris Springer

      The films of Howard Hawks have long presented feminist critics with a paradox: they are famous for their recurrent staging of the social rituals of male bonding and camaraderie, and yet then frequently offer images of strong, independent women who undercut the authority of the male group and call its self-sufficiency into question. His action-adventure and Western films such asThe Dawn Patrol(1930),Only Angels Have Wings(1939), andRed River(1948) are intensely masculine dramas in which tight-knit groups of men routinely face danger as part of their job, displaying a typical Hawksian code of ethics that includes...

    • 6 The “Ache for Home”: Assimilation and Separatism in Anthony Mann’s Devil’s Doorway
      (pp. 126-159)
      Joanna Hearne

      In the year 1950, a postwar revival of the Western genre marked a major shift in the way Hollywood represented Native Americans, with the release of Delmer Daves’s color production ofBroken Arrowin July and Anthony Mann’s first Western,Devil’s Doorway, a few months later. Both films examine and then negate the possibility of cross-racial romance, setting that romance in the immediate post–Civil War period and featuring a male hero who is a returning Civil War veteran. AlthoughDevil’s Doorwayhas received considerably less critical attention thanBroken Arrow, it is by far the more radical film in...

    • 7 Giant Helps America Recognize the Cost of Discrimination: A Lesson of World War II
      (pp. 160-172)
      Monique James Baxter

      The years during and following World War II witnessed a considerable improvement in the social status of America’s minorities. Their contributions to the war effort, through military service and war-related work on the home front, proved invaluable. More than 2.5 million black men served in the military. Approximately 500,000 Mexican American troops also participated and earned medals (DeLeon 116). Other minorities served as well, while females from these diverse groups actively volunteered at home. Consequently, support for the civil rights of American minorities grew. In the war’s aftermath, knowledge of the extent of Hitler’s genocidal campaign intensified positive interest in...

  8. Part Three. The Cold War Western, 1950–1981

    • 8 Rewriting High Noon: Transformations in American Popular Political Culture during the Cold War, 1952–1968
      (pp. 175-197)
      Matthew J. Costello

      High Noon(1952) was a landmark artifact of American popular political culture of the cold war. Screenwriter Carl Foreman intended it as a commentary on Hollywood’s capitulation to the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). Director Fred Zinnemann and star Gary Cooper shared the view that the film celebrated the nobility of the individual in the face of a failed public morality (Whitfield 147–48). John Wayne,thefilm star and conservative archetype of the period, declared it un-American (Whitfield 149; Wills 273). One scholar has characterized the film as catering to ideological extremists and challenging the “vital center” (Biskind...

    • 9 Almost Angels, Almost Feminists: Women in The Professionals
      (pp. 198-217)
      Winona Howe

      Lee Clark Mitchell begins his book on Westerns with the following iconic description: “The image remains unaltered in countless versions from the genre’s beginning—a lone man packing a gun, astride a horse, hat pulled close to the eyes, emerging as ifby magic out of a landscape from which he seems ineluctably a part” (3). Mitchell’s words may cause readers to visualize the Marlboro Man; more important, they also evoke a scene from any number of Western films that everyone recognizes, a scene romanticized by virtue of both the male figure and his context. Western women, however, are a different...

    • 10 Cowboys and Comedy: The Simultaneous Deconstruction and Reinforcement of Generic Conventions in the Western Parody
      (pp. 218-236)
      Matthew R. Turner

      Almost as long as the Western has existed as a genre in film there has been a subgenre of Western parodies: from as far back as the 1920s with Buster Keaton, continuing down to the present with Jackie Chan, the Western has been a target of parody and a rich source for comedy. Comedy relies, to a large extent, on the reversal of expectations; because of the familiarity of the highly codified conventions of the Western, it becomes a prime target. Parodies subvert the conventions of the Western in ways that breathe new life into the genre. While the Western...

  9. Part Four. The Postmodernist Western, 1980–2000

    • 11 Historical Discourse and American Identity in Westerns since the Reagan Era
      (pp. 239-260)
      Alexandra Keller

      Because the subject of this chapter is the variety of ways that contemporary Westerns construct historical discourse—constructions that occur even when the film claims merely to entertain, and constructions that veer from the historical “truth,” even when the film claims to be getting at such veracity—it may be worth starting with a rumor and a disclaimer. The rumor: that there was a candlelit shrine to John Wayne at the Alamo. Bruce Winders, curator and archivist at the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas, offered this correction:

      To my knowledge there never was a “shrine” to John Wayne at the...

    • 12 Challenging Legends, Complicating Border Lines: The Concept of “Frontera” in John Sayles’s Lone Star
      (pp. 261-280)
      Kimberly Sultze

      Over the past century, the idea of the frontier as a defining place and phase in the history of the United States has taken on mythic status. During the mid–1990s, the traditional conception of the frontier in the American West was challenged from two different directions, but with similar aims and results. In published histories, Patricia Nelson Limerick argued for a revised historical conception of the West asla frontera—a new term for a new recognition of the different groups that populated and defined the West. At about the same time, in a depiction of the West on...

    • 13 Turner Network Television’s Made-for-TV Western Films: Engaging Audiences through Genre and Themes
      (pp. 281-299)
      David Pierson

      Randy Smith, a member of the Western Writers of America,¹ states that “some of the best recent Westerns have been totally the provenance of the cable television industry.” He asserts that while the major motion picture studios are stymied by marketing conservatism, cable networks, like Turner Network Television (TNT), have been producing Westerns that are truly representative of the “best qualities of the genre.” Ted Mahar echoes Smith’s claim by declaring that the network’sMonte Walsh(2003) “is one of the best westerns of the last quarter-century” (“Monte Walsh” 1). These comments about the quality of TNT’s Western films raise...

  10. Filmography
    (pp. 300-321)
    John Shelton Lawrence
  11. Bibliography: Trail Dust Books about Western Movies: Selected Classics and Works since 1980
    (pp. 322-344)
    Jack Nachbar and Ray Merlock
  12. Contributors
    (pp. 345-350)
  13. Index
    (pp. 351-373)