Westerns were ubiquitous when I was growing up. On television and radio, in movie theaters, even at birthday parties, cowboys and their ilk ruled over everyone else. We couldn’t tell at the time, but it was the beginning of the end of Westerns’ cultural dominance.
You can trace that dominance back to the 17th century, when for young colonials the frontier signified everything from an evil unknown to a chance for a fresh start. Into the 19th century, James Fenimore Cooper, the Hudson River School and Manifest Destiny all pointed to what would become the defining characteristics of Westerns. We went West to find ourselves, to erase our past, to escape the law. We discovered a world of mountains and deserts, mysterious cultures, and stark moral choices. The genre became so popular in part because it was so adaptable, because it could address the central issues facing the nation. In Westerns, right and wrong could be cut-and-dried or ambiguous; Native Americans, enemies or victims; law, a matter of principle or an untenable burden.
From its earliest days, cinema turned to the West. In the 1800s, the Edison Studio filmed Annie Oakley and other stars of Wild West shows. The country’s first bona fide blockbuster, The Great Train Robbery (1903), was a Western, albeit one filmed in New Jersey. Some of the industry’s best directors started out making low-budget Westerns. John Ford for one, but also Victor Fleming, William Wellman, and even William Wyler. By the 1920s, every major Hollywood concern relied on the income from Westerns, and the genre later helped studios like Universal survive the Great Depression.
We tend to forget that for early filmmakers, the West was still real and not yet a nostalgic fantasy. An exciting new DVD set from the National Film Preservation Foundation makes this vividly clear. With over 10 hours of material on 3 discs, Treasures 5: The West 1898–1938 provides an unparalleled look at how filmed helped shape our concepts of the frontier.
The forty films in the set range from newsreels to features, with travelogues, sponsored films, documentaries, and promotional movies all providing unexpected insights into Western life. You’ll see the first cowboy stars, like the winning Tom Mix, famous for performing his own stunts; as well the expert comedienne Mabel Normand and the “It” girl herself, Clara Bow. Directors include slapstick pioneer Mack Sennett, W.S. Van Dyke (The Thin Man), and Victor Fleming (Gone With the Wind).
Equally as intriguing are the set’s lesser known titles, like Romance of Water (1931), a government-sponsored short that in 10 minutes encapsulates the political background to the great 1970s film noir Chinatown. Or Last of the Line (1914), which finds Asian star Sessue Hayakawa battling Native-Americans. Personally, I loved travelogues promoting sightseeing spots like Yosemite National Park. The women and children in Beauty Spots in America: Castle Hot Springs, Arizona (1916) are unexpectedly and appealingly giddy at the prospect of riding ponies and diving into pools. Lake Tahoe, Land of the Sky (1916) still conveys the excitement travelers must have felt at encountering the area’s incredible vistas.
Annette Melville, director of the NFPF, singled out The Better Man, a 1914 film recently repatriated from the New Zealand Film Archive. “The Better Man is fascinating because of its treatment of ethnic themes,” she said in an interview. The story contrasts a Mexican-American horse thief with an Anglo father and husband, with unexpected conclusions. “When it premiered at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival it was greeted with cheering,” Melville recalled. “It was kind of wonderful, really, no one expected that such a modest film could pack such a wallop.”
The Better Man was produced by Vitagraph, a studio considered the equal of any in the industry during the early twentieth century. Comparatively few Vitagraph titles survive, however, which is one of the reasons why The Better Man was included in the set. “We want to introduce audiences to films that there is no way on Earth they’d be able to get a hold of otherwise,” Melville said.
As Melville points out, Treasures 5: The West 1989–1938 presents a different version of the West than the one found in the classic Westerns of the 1950s. “It was more of a melting pot and had more variety,” she said. “In our set, the West was still being used as a backdrop in industrial films and travelogues to incite business and tourism. Like Sunshine Gatherers, a film about the canned fruit industry that likens the beginnings of the orchard industry to the Father Junípero Serra’s founding of missions. In the story, the fruit becomes an embodiment of California sunshine that can be put in a can and shared with people all over the world. Of course with an understated Del Monte logo because it was put out by the Del Monte company to make every girl and boy want to have their canned fruit.”