Friday, January 23, 2015

You’d Do It For Randolph Scott…

Today is the birthday actor Randolph Scott (1898-1987) and we here at The Jade Sphinx are delighted to participate in the Randolph Scott Blogathon, sponsored by Toby Roan and his wonderful site, 50 Westerns From the 50s.

In thinking about the many attributes of this fine performer, I came to realize that he was not only a capable Western performer, but someone who personified the most admirable attributes of a Western Hero.

Born George Randolph Scott, this tall, handsome Southerner hailed from Virginia.  From a well-off family, he attended private schools (which, clearly, added a level of polish that was evident in his acting), and was an excellent athlete, concentrating on swimming and football.  When the Great War came around, he enlisted and saw action in France.  He returned home and went to college, dropping out before earning his degree and joining his father at the textile firm.

But … something about acting has also intrigued the handsome Virginian, and he moved West, thinking of a career in the movies.  He worked as a bit player and extra in several films, and then worked on stage to further develop his abilities.  After time he garnered a contract from Paramount, and went on to star in a series of Westerns based on the novels of Zane Grey.  His first important, starring role was in Heritage of the Desert (1932), and he went on to make 10 B Westerns for Paramount in their Zane Grey series.  A Western star was born.

Well … not quite.  In his early career, the Virginian starred in a wide variety of movies, including musicals (including turns with Shirley Temple!), comedies, crime pictures and adventure movies.  He appeared in everything from the science-fantasy She (1935) to the musical Roberta, with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

But it was in Westerns that the Virginian made his most significant impact.  He would appear in more than 100 films, but the majority of them would be Westerns.  In his early Westerns, he is capable – and, in bigger-budgeted pictures, often the second banana.  But as he aged, he brought to his Western performances a gravitas, a hardness, and a touch of tragedy.  He wears stoicism like a suit of armor, only emerging from under it to write wrongs and mete out justice.

His face and body only improved with age.  As the Virginian entered his 50s, he lost much of his callow handsomeness, leaving him with an impressive, sculptural beauty.  It is a handsome face, but one carved from stone, with all the strength and impassivity associated with rock.  His muscular frame became leaner and harder as the Virginian aged into indestructability.  It is almost impossible to imagine, in these days of films made almost exclusively for addled children and undemanding adults, such a mature action hero.  But the maturity and the gravity were key ingredients to the Virginian’s later greatness; without them, he was diminished.

This Western persona hit its stride in the 1950s, and was particularly majestic in a series of seven Westerns he made with director Budd Boetticher (1916-2001).  Each and every one is a small masterpiece in its way, with the best being Ride Lonesome (1959).  When introducing people new to Westerns to the genre, this is usually the film I chose … and if you only see one Western, it may as well be this one.

When thinking about Scott and his Western screen persona for this retrospective, I realized that the actor had seemingly walked off of the very pages of the first great Western novel, The Virginian, written in 1902 by Owen Wister (1860-1938).

Like the nameless Virginian, Scott was a tall, handsome native of that state.  Like Wister’s hero, he would come to represent all of the virtues of the Western Hero – justice, chivalry, integrity, mercy and a sense of honor.  He is a straight-shooter, a man of moral substance and of self-respect.  He has seen it all and it has cost him much; but it has not made him bitter or hateful … merely watchful.  He is self-possessed and a gentleman around women, but not a ‘ladies man’ in the traditional sense.

For all of his exterior hardness and privacy, there is warmth and approachability in both Virginians.  There is a flinty hint of laughter around the crinkles of his eyes, and a wry humor.  Both Virginians live simply, speak honestly and are nature’s noblemen.  As the narrator in Wister’s novel says, often in their spirit sat hidden a true nobility, and often beneath its unexpected shining their figures took a heroic stature.

Scott’s final film was the excellent Ride the High Country (1962), which may be only good film by Sam Peckinpah.  In it, Scott and fellow-Western star Joel McCrea (1905-1990) are aging lawmen tasked with transporting gold across the frontier.  Both have lived hard lives, and both have seen the world change too much.  During the trip, one of the pair plans to make off with the gold and fund a comfortable retirement.  Playing against type – Scott plays the potential thief.

The real joy of High Country is the continual interplay between McCrea and Scott.  Originally, the roles were to be reversed, with Scott playing the honest and honorable lawman, and McCrea the more cynical, out-for-what-he-can-get ex-lawman.  However, during the initial reading, both realized that switching parts would be more effective, and they were entirely correct.  McCrea’s flat, Midwestern delivery is perfect for the moral compass of the picture, and Scott, in the role of a lifetime, uses his rich, Virginian accent to great effect as he makes sardonic, pithy remarks throughout the film.  In fact, his running commentary is one of the most satisfying elements of the screenplay, and the timbre of his voice is essential. 

Throughout the 1950s (and much of the 1940s), the Virginian focused primarily on Western films, and he brought to his performances the full weight of his screen image, and he played upon audience expectations of who he was and what he would do.

There have been many Western stars who rode tall in the saddle, but the Virginian, Randolph Scott, was one of the most impressive.  With his calm demeanor, steely reserve and moral compass, he was a reflection of the best part of ourselves.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Adventures of Zane Grey

There are several authors of our great American Western Myth.  Certainly the fountainhead of it all was William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody (1846-1917), the great frontiersman, scout, Indian fighter, actor, showman and mythologist.  We have written about Bill in these pages previously, and he remains one of the few historical personages whom we would have liked to have known personally.

But the myth of the West quickly evolved – dime novels (often written about western heroes currently alive when they were first written, such as Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp), the nascent film industry, and, of course, both literary and visual arts.  We have looked at several Western artists in-depth, but up till now have not given the written word its due.  And there is no better way to write this wrong than by starting with one of the most prolific – and successful – western writers of all time, Zane Grey (1872-1939).

Born Pearl Zane Grey, the young writer had a supportive mother and an abusive father.  (His father was a dentist, so obviously he had a taste for inflicting pain on others.)  This baleful influence would often leave Gray surly and distant.  He would be plagued by intense moodiness or depression for most of his life, and one wonders if the root of his black mood was his oppressive father.

Fortunately, Zane was befriended by an older man named Muddy Miser, who encouraged Zane with his interests in baseball, fishing and the outdoors.  He also was a great reader of Zane’s early writing … how many mentors like Muddy have made all the difference in an artist’s life, one wonders?

Zane and Muddy shared a taste for early Western fiction, and would devour pulp adventure novels about the likes of Buffalo Bill Cody.  Zane’s first story was a Western, Jim of the Cave, written when he was only 15.  His father found the story and tore it up before beating young Zane. 

Like many abused children, Zane followed in his father’s footsteps, going into dentistry like his dad.  He would assist his father on dental work, until the state board of Columbus, Ohio, where they were living at the time, intervened. 

Young Zane went to the University of Pennsylvania on a baseball scholarship, where he studied dentistry.  He was something of a baseball star, and juggled aspirations of being a writer or sportsman.  Upon graduation, he bunted and became a dentist, setting up shop as Dr. Zane Grey in New York City.  (Oddly enough, another figure who shaped the image of the American West, Doc Holliday, was also a dentist.)

While on a canoeing trip in 1900, Zane met the 17-year-old Lina Roth, known as Dolly.  It was, after his friendship with Muddy, the most important meeting of his life.  Unhappy as a dentist, frustrated as a sportsman, Dolly copy-edited and encouraged his writing.  Dolly was the secret of Zane’s success, and an extremely patient woman.  Dolly found the money for Zane to self-publish his first novel after it was rejected by publishers, was a tireless editor and polisher, managed his extensive business affairs once he became successful, and, most generously, turned a blind eye to his many marital indiscretions.

Zane’s earliest novels include many Westerns, and it is clear from the beginning that he found his muse among the cacti.  He was an avid traveler, hiker, fisherman and hunter, finding the raw material for his Western tales in the great outdoors.

Zane was never a darling with the critics – he was a successful popular novelist, and, to boot, wrote within a genre that had not yet gained critical respect.  However, he was in incredibly successful author and one of his novels, Riders of the Purple Sage (1912) has since been evaluated as something of a masterpiece.

If you are to read only one Zane Grey novel (and your correspondent recommends reading many!), then Purple Sage is the one to pick.  It is the story of a woman, Jane Withersteen, who struggles to escape from Mormon influence in Old Western Utah.  Zane is not a fan of religious fanaticism, and he sees polygamy and religious control as smokescreens for greed, lust and oppression. 

It is with his protagonist, Lassiter, that Zane hits a deep and resonant cultural note.  Lassiter – like Owen Wister’s Virginian – is a black-clad loner, soft-spoken, laconic, respectful of women and the weak, and quick on the draw.  It is the template for Western heroes from Randolph Scott to Clint Eastwood.

There are five film version of Purple Sage (one even staring Tom Mix!), and it was in the movies that Zane found his greatest audience.  Many of his Westerns were adapted into films, and was even the baisis for a television series, Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theatre (which ran from 1956 to 1961).  Nearly every major Western film star has appeared in an adaptation of his work, including the focus of tomorrow’s post, Randolph Scott (1898-1987).

Riders of the Purple Sage is avaialbe for free download nearly anywhere on the Internet, including the invaluable  It, along with most of Zane Grey’s Western corpus, comes highly recommended.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Meat’s Not Meat Till It’s In the Pan, by Charles Marion Russell (1915)

Here it is, a New Year, and already we at The Jade Sphinx are thinking about the past.  To be exact, the past that makes up our great American Western Myth.  We spent the holiday season happily listening to Christmas carols, reading some of our favorite seasonal texts, and, of course … thinking about Westerns.

You mean you didn’t?

This Christmas we made our way through more of the Zane Grey (1872-1939), corpus, reading more of the letters of cowboy artist Charles Marion Russell (1864-1926), watching a western with both (and I kid you not!) Ronald Colman (1891-1958) and Gary Cooper (1901-1961)… and thinking about Randolph Scott (1898-1987).

We will look at all of these this week, but let’s open with a droll evocation of where winter is heading this year with Russell’s wry and wonderful Meat’s Not Meat Till It’s in the Pan, painted in 1915.  The work is oil on canvas, mounted on Masonite, and it currently resides in the Gilcrease Museum of Tulsa, OK.

It’s no secret that we here at The Jade Sphinx love the work of Charles Marion Russell (1864-1926), the cowboy artist.  The boyish Russell went West in his early youth, and worked as a cowboy, watching the waning days of the American West with an artist’s eye.  He didn't seem to be very effective in the saddle, but it was all Charlie wanted and he was happy.

Charlie spent his artistic life drawing and painting the West that loomed so large in his personal myth.  This delightful picture from 1915 is Charlie at his puckish best.  A man of expansive, genial good humor and a delight in a good joke, Charlie was not immune to including humor in his work.  Indeed, humor is one of the integral human experiences, and any aesthete is bereft if he does not fully embrace the lighter side of life.

Clearly our cowboy has done some winter hunting, but he was just a little too close to the edge of a gorge.  He’s bagged his meat, but how will he get it from the outcropping on which it fell?  Aside from the simple narrative of the painting, there is the sound emotional tenor of the work, which is … yeah, I’ve had days like that.

It was part of Charlie’s genius to set the work in the dead of winter; it would not nearly be as witty as a picture depicting a summer scene.  The cold, the snow and the barren quality of the landscape all conspire to make the hunter’s challenge all the more grueling.

Again, let’s look at Charlie’s simple mastery of the medium.  The dominant color is blue, but … look at what he does with it.  Various shades of blue depict everything from cavernous depths, stony distances, cloudy skies, ice on the precipice, and the snow itself.  There are even hints of blue in the rifle-barrel and upon the lighter-colored horse.  Such versatility of shade, warmth and cold, and gradation of a single color is remarkable.

Charlie is also a master of body language.  The vexation of the hunter is comically rendered without being over-the-top; the horses merely indifferent or simply miserable at being out in the weather.

Look at the circle formed by the horse’s nose pointing at the hunter, the gun butt pointing at the ram, the ram pointing to the scrub, pointing back at the horses.  Charlie’s sense of composition was unerring.

It is astonishing that a painting that so deals with death can also be so light-hearted.  Charlie creates a pyramid shape to draw attention to his hunter by having a dead steer create the left foundation, and a tangled mass of withered scrub form the right.  But it is never gloomy or dour; in fact, it only calls to mind the quote by Mark Twain, who wrote, life is just one damn thing after another.

Tomorrow: Zane Grey!