From out of the West, a Rootin'-Tootin' Genre

By Hyman, Ann | The Florida Times Union, February 8, 1998 | Go to article overview

From out of the West, a Rootin'-Tootin' Genre


Hyman, Ann, The Florida Times Union


Western movies are as old as movies, about 100 years old. Some

of the earliest films produced by moving pictures-inventor

Thomas Edison were documentaries about cowboys and Indians and

the Wild West. Edison also produced the first Western narrative

film, The Great Train Robbery.

Since the first Western flickered to life on the silver screen

a century ago, more than 7,000 shoot-'em-ups have come down the

trail. They are a particularly American creation, much as jazz

is a particularly American creation. That is not to say that

other countries can't do Westerns -- think of the Italians -- or

jazz -- think of the French. This is to say that you will always

hear an American voice, see an American shadow in the show.

The Western wasn't invented with the movies, or for the movies.

The nation's fascination with the West, the frontier, is much

older than the movies.

Books about the West were popular for almost 100 years before

pictures began to move.

James Fennimore Cooper's books, featuring a continuing

character reminiscent of Daniel Boone, were published between

1820 and 1840.

In the 1860s, the dime novels -- so called because they were

quick reads, and cheap -- made heroes of real people. Calamity

Jane was one tough and ugly pistol-packin' mama who became a

legend and was, eventually, played by Doris Day in the movies.

Calamity's pal Wild Bill Hickock got to be a legend, too, until

he was shot in a poker game and the hand he held, aces and

eights, entered our folklore as a "dead man's hand."

Somewhere in the 1870s, as the West grew more settled, Wild

West shows toured the East, and even Europe, bringing the color

and pageantry of Indian wars, stagecoach robberies,

sharpshooting and trick riding to the folks at home.

Most famous of the shows was Buffalo Bill Cody's. Annie Oakley

joined up with Buffalo Bill, and so did Sitting Bull, the famous

Sioux chief who defeated General Custer at the Little Big Horn.

Irvin Berlin even made a Broadway musical set backstage at

Buffalo Bill's, Annie Get Your Gun.

As the Wild West shows folded their tents, the movies came

along, and great books of the West kept on coming. Owen Wister,

author of The Virginian, was at the head of a parade of writers

of Western stories that includes Zane Grey, Max Brand, Louis

L'Amour, Luke Short. There is no better writer in America than

Larry McMurtry and his most-popular, and honored, work is set in

the Old West, Lonesome Dove, Dead Man's Walk, Comanche Moon. …

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