The more things change, the more they stay the same.
As those of us of a certain vintage could tell you young ‘uns, the Western genre has seen more ups and downs than a –well, never mind what; this is a family site. Let’s just say that over the decades it has come and gone in popularity, but has always held on there in the fringes, often due to the efforts of a Leone or a Peckinpah, a Costner, or an Eastwood.
Or John Ford. Always, always there was John Ford.
Yet even I got a surprise when I came across this, courtesy of Ford biographer Joseph McBride:
“By the late 1910s, the Hollywood Western, other than the occasional prestige project, was becoming increasingly marginalized. Falling out of fashion as mainstream audience tastes gravitated to more ‘sophisticated’ fare, bread-and-butter Westerns came to be regarded largely as undemanding entertainment for children and uneducated adults.”*
Imagine. In just over a decade, all the way from the dizzying heights of that famous 12-minute epic from 1903, The Great Train Robbery, the Western had triumphed and fallen from favour; and not for the last time, not by a long rifle shot.
I love and always have loved tales from places like Old Fort Lee or Old Hollywood. These are recognized as where the motion picture industry began. They weren’t the first people to shoot moving images – you would have to go back several decades for that – but I guess that for something like a recognizable narrative structure and the beginnings of a visible art form… yeah. Yeah, it was here that it all began.
In and around 1909-10 the Fort Lee, New Jersey studios were attracting the likes of Mary Pickford, Mack Sennett, D.W. Griffith, and that legendary proto-Goth, Theda Bara. In fact, Fort Lee had narrowly edged in there before the foundation of the more climate-friendly Hollywood in California.
“…the unspoiled charm of a vanished era.”
Yes, I love tales of the big studios during their dawn days. For me, it’s like an archaeologist reading a fossil record. It just sets my imagination aflame to think what it must have been like down Hollywood-way when the country was virtually untouched and you could breathe air that wasn’t going to give your lungs a blistering-hot Attack of the Smog Monster. In fact, the great actress, screenwriter, and director Lillian Gish, was able to say this about her arrival in 1912:
“I thought I was in paradise. The air was fragrant. It smelled like lemons.”
It smelled like lemons. And it probably also smelled of oranges. Orange and lemon groves dotted the countryside for many miles around as those film pioneers descended, no doubt resembling a swarm of locusts to those who lived there. McBride reports:
“Hollywood was not yet a state of mind when Jack Feeney [John Ford] stepped off the train. The Los Angeles suburb was barely even a place three years earlier when its first movie studio, the Nestor Film Company, was opened by David Horsley in a converted tavern at the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Gower Street. The land surrounding Sunset and Hollywood Boulevards was occupied by lemon groves, bean patches, and hay fields. But the film folk were gradually taking over. Hollywood almost doubled its population between 1909 and 1913, growing from 4,000 to 7,500 people. The staid residents of its stately mansions and Victorian homes were ambivalent about the invasion: happy for the new business in their restaurants and stores, but unwilling to socialize with or sell their homes to those raucous nouveaux riches who worked in the disreputable ‘flickers’. Many apartment buildings displayed signs reading ‘NO DOGS OR ACTORS ALLOWED’”.
Yes, indeedy; the more things change…
At the Silent Cinema Galway’s showing of Buster Keaton’s The General a few weeks back, a young man of 12 by the name of Thomas McDonagh solemnly enquired if these people were actually doing their own stunts. And were they in one take. I was the same age when I discovered the wonder of these images all of fifty years ago and thought it a very good, very bright observation.
Using Ford as an example again, here’s a quote from him:
“If we had a gunfight, we’d talk it over with someone who’d been an old lawman – like Pardner Jones [who acted in Ford’s silent films and was said to have been a deputy of Wyatt Earp’s in Tombstone, Arizona] – and he’d tell us how it happened. In those days we didn’t have any tricks. If you had to have a glass shot out of somebody’s hand, Pardner would actually shoot it out… So we tried to do it the real way it had been in the West: none of this so-called quick-draw stuff.”
Talking of an insanely dangerous stunt in his 1919 film Marked Men, Ford added:
“In the second reel I had to find one man who dared risk his life for a thrill, and I found him. His duty was to dash through the railing of a high wooden bridge on a horse and fall sixty feet below in a shallow river. I had six cameramen there to catch the scene from every angle, and I believe that it will stand as one of the most daring feats ever performed before a camera.”
Thomas, I hope that answers your questions.
And I hope someday to return to the rich vein that is there to be mined from a discussion of John Ford’s approximately 65 silent films, of which tragically only fourteen are believed to have survived.
But yes, again: I love these old tales of that era when film storytelling was in its infancy and probably scarcely even realizing that it was evolving into a new type of Art. And I am immensely grateful to Adam Scheffler, the founder and art director of Silent Cinema Galway. Although he will wince at and be embarrassed by my saying this, I consider him no less than a visionary for taking the risk that he has with this project. I believe it is an important one, though; and delight in the thought that he has already created a new interest in those wonderful days when the Californian air smelled like lemons and legends like Lillian Gish thought they were in paradise.
These films that Adam is showing… they’re a kind of magic. They’re a kind of Time Machine that lets us explore ‘the unspoiled charm of a vanished era.’
I also happen to know that he has even more ideas about to come to fruition. But of those, I’ll let him explain himself… Suffice it to say that you won’t be disappointed.
*I have drawn from Joseph McBride’s John Ford: A Life, surely one of the top three or four best film biographies ever written; and also from conversations with Steve Mayhew, author and authority on all things Ford. In fact, once in the long ago, he penned (no doubt with quill and inkpot) his thesis, The Silent Films of John Ford. Perhaps he’ll let us reprint some of it here one day. Hint heavy hint, Steve. And if you have even a passing interest in vintage Westerns, you could do worse and not much better than to check out Steve and Brian Sweet’s site Mostly Westerns.