Hollywood Westerns Embody Essential History of the United States

This original movie poster for 1953’s Shane sold for $5,676.25 at a November 2008 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Inexplicably, there was a 60-year gap between the first Western to win an Academy Award for Best Picture and the next one. Cimarron (1931), starring Richard Dix and Irene Dunne, was based on the 1929 novel by Edna Ferber that told the tales of the Oklahoma land rushes of 1889 and 1893. The next winner was Dances With Wolves, the 1990 Kevin Costner film that won seven Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director.

This was despite the fact that there were a number of notable Western films in the intervening decades: High Noon (1952), Shane (1953), and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), to name a few. My favorite remains Red River (1948), directed by Howard Hawks and introducing Montgomery Clift, the brilliant actor who was Elizabeth Taylor’s close friend and who died too young after a car accident led him to too many pain-killers (that did as advertised).

These were laconic men with a code to live by: Don’t run, stand up and don’t rely on anyone but yourself. Men who liked simple stories that seemed almost incidental to the action. In 1966, Hawks called Robert Mitchum for a role in El Dorado.

“You available, Bob?”

“Sure, Howard. Uh, what’s the story?”

“Oh, you know, Bob. There’s no story.”

Peter Bogdanovich, the director and writer, has six personal favorites and all were directed by either John Ford or Howard Hawks. His nucleus of favorites underscores the Western’s focus: clarity between right and wrong. “Certainly,” Bogdanovich wrote, “the Western is one of the most pervasive icons of Americana; a symbol of frontiers challenged and tamed; a series of morality tales of good and evil that contain within them the essential history of the United States.”

Director John Ford was reputedly prickly and fearless. From his early efforts until his last Western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), his films helped hype the myth of the West and the men and women who belonged there. “When the legend becomes fact, sir, print the legend,” a young reporter tells Jimmy Stewart, playing a U.S. Senator in Liberty Valance. That is advice Ford gave and followed.

The mythic Western theme is pervasive, thanks in part to the movies and television. It was how the rest of the world saw us for a long time. We’re all cowboys, gunslingers operating under some unwritten rules way out in the open spaces. Ford’s stories were simply about the individual as the last line of defense. A man takes a stand, no matter what the price, refusing to ask for help. (He had no regard for High Noon, because “No real Western sheriff would ever ask for help.”)

Then it almost seems like television was made for the Western and in the 1950s, we had plenty to choose from on every network. Even popular radio Westerns found it easy to make the transition. The best example may be Gunsmoke, which had established itself as a Saturday night special on radio with William Conrad in the venerable role of Marshal Matt Dillon. The rotund Conrad didn’t fit the visual image, so CBS tried to lure an ex-Glendale High School football star who had lost his USC scholarship due to a surfing accident. His name was Marion Morrison.

We know him as John Wayne, who Ford had molded into a superstar in Western movies. Wayne declined the offer, but agreed to introduce the first episode in 1955 with James Arness (the elder brother of Peter Graves) in the Matt Dillon role. Not surprisingly, it became the longest-running American prime-time TV drama – 639 episodes from 1955 to 1975 and still running in syndication today, a mere 63 years later!

Personally, I’m quite happy that Wayne kept making movies, because in my opinion, he was the Western. But why? Maybe no one summed it up better than director Raoul Walsh when he said, “Dammit, the son of a bitch looked like a man.” Perhaps that’s it. He did look and act like a man, and we never read or heard anything to make us doubt it. Journalist and writer Joan Didion in a profile spoke for a lot of us when she said, “When John Wayne rode through my childhood, he determined forever the shape of certain of our dreams.”

I miss John Wayne and all the things he stood for.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

‘America’s Hometown’ Now Empty Storefronts, Wal-Marts and Shuttered Factories

Milan High School’s state basketball victory over larger Muncie inspired the 1986 film Hoosiers.

By Jim O’Neal

The last time I was in Buffalo, N.Y., was in October 1974. We were on a tour of supermarkets to improve our code dating discipline. Anytime we spotted a bag with an illegible date or past the stale point, we simply crumpled the bag and asked the store manager to have the Frito-Lay salesman replace it with no charge to the store. I was aware that Grover Cleveland had been sheriff of Erie County and personally hanged two murderers, but didn’t know that the Ball Brothers glass manufacturing company had moved their company to Muncie, Ind., in 1889 due to the abundance of natural gas. And, of course, President William McKinley got himself assassinated in Buffalo in 1901.

Muncie has become newsworthy ever since a landmark sociological study was undertaken there in the 1920s. It had been identified as the representative American community worthy of the title “Middletown.”

It started after Robert Lynd, a young seminary student, accepted an assignment to analyze the effectiveness of ministries by studying a Wyoming oil-drilling camp owned by Standard Oil of Indiana. The camp was a dismal collection of tents inhabited by 500 discouraged workers and their families. Lynd was successful in forging them into a viable community. He then wrote an article for an obscure journal, detailing the appalling conditions and attacking John D. Rockefeller Jr. (personally) as the one responsible.

In a twist of fate, Rockefeller – a devout Baptist with liberal ideas – had just formed a committee to study America’s religious practices. He wanted to reconcile capitalism of the early 20th century with his personal Protestant beliefs. So Rockefeller picked Lynd to head the “Small City Study” to prove it was truly independent. Their charter was to look at social problems arising from industrialization – “ascertain[ing] the religious, ethical and capability of people” in a single industrial city.

Lynd chose Muncie since it fit certain criteria: small (38,000), Midwestern and economically diverse. Although 92 percent were “native white of native parentage,” Lynd claimed a homogeneous population permitted him to study cultural changes, unimpeded by racial or religious differences. It also reflected his deep belief that native-born Protestants represented the bedrock of American society and best hope for the country’s future success.

Robert and wife Helen Lynd arrived in Muncie in 1924 and quickly decided religion was too narrow and expanded the study to factory conditions, the Kiwanis and Rotary Clubs, and even the people’s reading habits. What they discovered was a city rushing into the 20th century, with rapid industrialization, farming to factories, kerosene to electricity, central heating, hot water in a tap and the telephone, automobile and railroads.

In 1929, they published Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture, 500 pages detailing a rigid class system and gradual erosion of values, with excessive materialism and consumerism in full bloom. Returning after the 1932 Great Depression, Lynd was totally disillusioned by American capitalism and looked with naive envy on the Marxist experiments in the Soviet Union.

Waves of subsequent sociologists have made their own journeys to Muncie, which today calls itself “America’s Hometown,” with a litter of empty storefronts, outlying Wal-Marts, factories shuttered, the Ball Brothers HQ now in Colorado, and a vibrant service economy. Locals have grown accustomed to being sampled and polled by outsiders. “Here, it’s something of a way of life,” said Muncie Star-Press editor Larry Lough.

I’d like to visit Muncie some day since I love Indiana basketball and in 1954, tiny Milan High School (enrollment 161) knocked off Muncie to win the state basketball championship. This was the inspiration for the 1986 film Hoosiers with Gene Hackman in one of my all-time favorites.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

‘Citizen Kane’ Fosters a Contrived Fiction of William Randolph Hearst

Henrietta Rae’s oil on canvas Psyche Before the Throne of Venus, 1894, once owned by William Randolph Hearst, sold for $324,500 at a May 2017 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

The American Film Institute consistently ranks Citizen Kane at No. 1 on its list of the 100 Greatest Films of All Time, closely followed by The Godfather (1972) … my favorite … and Casablanca (1942). Citizen Kane was nominated for nine Academy Awards and snagged the one for Best Writing (Original Screenplay).

Despite the critical success, the film flopped at the box office, failed to recoup its production costs and gradually faded from view. William Randolph Hearst’s ban of any mention of the film in any of his vast network of newspapers was no doubt a contributing factor in its mediocre financial performance. Hearst (1863-1951) had a valid rationale for this unusual level of censorship, since the film was a thinly veiled biopic covering his entire life (using an effective, flashback technique) and his long-standing relationship with actress Marion Davies.

In addition, his architectural masterpiece at San Simeon on the sparkling California coastline was parodied in the film by a castle called Xanadu, located in Florida as an added insult.

Hearst

After Hearst’s death in 1951, the film underwent a remarkable resurrection … rivaling Lazarus of Bethany being restored to life by Jesus four days after his death. Citizen Kane’s revival trajectory is so persistent that it’s probable that the next three generations of movie fans will be transfixed by two dramatic scenes in the movie. The first is a dying Charles Foster Kane (played by Orson Welles) literally gasping the word “Rosewood” as a sled is tossed into the fireplace with the voiceover “throw that junk in.” And Susan Alexander Kane (Marion Davies) alone in a dark cavernous room – jigsaw puzzles scattered around her.

Hearst’s beloved hilltop home, which he called “La Cuesta Encantada” (The Enchanted Hill), was cast by the spooky Xanadu, a forbiddingly deserted pile filled with meaningless junk. In the scholarly world, Hearst Castle is the name most commonly used for the estate since the 1930s, although Hearst is only recorded once as using it.

Of course, the real lives of Hearst and Davies differed in many important ways. Welles had never been to San Simeon or even met Hearst or Davies. The film’s images were conjured up by Welles, his collaborator John Houseman and screenplay co-author Herman Mankiewicz, a writer who had been a guest at San Simeon.

Yet historians, critics and the general public have been content to rely on the lore of a two-hour film for their insights into Hearst and Davies … to no great harm other than fostering a contrived fiction. It is the crude Xanadu, which mars the splendor of the real California coastline with the amazing Hearst Castle’s 360-degree view from 1,600 feet above the Pacific Ocean peeking through the morning fog, that rankles many (including me).

Little thought has been given to the probability that Hearst’s buying methods were by his choice rather than the side effect of money and ignorance. His omnium-gatherum approach to collecting was personal rather than the critics’ inaccurate assumption that it was all purchased in a dealer-inspired grand pillage of a Europe desperate for cash to rebuild after WWI. Just consider the letter to his architect Julia Morgan to capture his other love, animals: “How about a maze in connection with the zoo. I think getting lost in the maze and coming unexpectedly upon lions, tigers, pumas, panthers, wild cats, macaws and cockatoos would be a thrill for even the most blasé.”

He was a generous man and I suppose if you had a particular yen for an ibex, one would have been provided to take home! They actually had 50 dachshunds in the kennels as gifts for animal-lover guests. Also, consider the extravagant excesses: One year, on Easter Sunday, guests awoke to find the castle surrounded by Easter lilies in bloom – planted during the night by a battalion of gardeners working under floodlights.

This is the marvel of the American West, if not the Western world, that I saw on tour.

So what if the man had an Edifice Complex. He could afford it.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].