Friday, January 20, 2017

THE WEIRD WEST GENRE: Weird Western Film Part 1

   To talk about Weird Western movies, I need to talk about all Western movies. And to talk about all westerns is to talk about Musical Westerns, Serial Westerns, Acid Westerns, Horror Westerns, Eurowesterns, Revisionist Westerns, Spaghetti Westerns, Kung Fu Westerns, Osterns, and Porno Westerns. Hell, even 3-D Westerns. Each of them, in their own way, weird. Damn sure that 3-D one.
   But, to know the Weird Western movie itself is to know the Western movie at large and to know that, you need to know just what the hell a Western actually is and how it came to be.
   Now, we all seen a ‘Western’. Bad guy rolls into town, the town trembles. The town bands together or a good guy shows up and evil is vanquished. Probably a girl in there too, maybe a wedding. Maybe a ranch being taken over. White hats and black, fistfights, someone plays guitar around a campfire. It’s in black and white if you don’t know a lot about the genre, or has John Wayne in it, if you know someone who does.
   However, when thinking of that classic story, the Duke or no, what you’re really thinking on is cowboy fiction. It got its start with James Fenimore Cooper in 1823 and his Leatherstocking Tales, featuring Natty Bumppo. Bumppo was an idealized character (based a bit on Daniel Boone) but he wasn’t some superhero. He was a good man though, always good and always did what was right. He was American through and through and to many, represented our bold, frontier spirit.
   That same spirit was present later with the first dime novels, (Malaeska, 1860, is the first) but their popularity soon took over and well, give the audience what they want. And then some. While the dimes were based on tales being told at the time, (of things that, on the surface, mostly happened) they soon embellished the facts something fierce. Folks ate that up.
   Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp, dozens and dozens more, all got grand legends grown up  around them that – in many cases – stayed true well into the next century. Actually, the whole notion of the Big Figure, the Western Archetype, that sullen, sultry Lone Gunslinger (who didn’t ‘truly’ exist in the Old West) came from dime novels.
   Once the frontier was tamed, well, the pulp magazines started in 1900 and the western story wasn’t just for those out west no more. It went back east and soon, our whole country was reading about the brave men who’d claimed this country and shot and fought and rode their way into the history books.
   There were people still alive at the time who even knew these brave men, or knew people who did, who might’ve even been that type themselves, out there riding and roping and shooting once upon a time. In fact, some were still out there, living in the last of the frontier that wouldn’t officially be called ‘tame’ until 1912.
   Naturally, they’d make that all into a movie. Who wouldn’t pay to see that? The frontier was still fresh in our hearts and minds when the first silent pictures came out. Powdered faces, clean costumes, picture cards popping up for dialogue. Film was hand-cranked of course, and not too fluid, so the action was abrupt and stilted and horses ran around real damn fast. The word ‘gunslinger’ comes from one of those films in fact, Drag Harlan, in 1920 and got picked up by western writer Zane Grey, who popularized it.
   Well, any rate, when they got sound for their films in the mid-20’s, no more Tom Mix or Zorro or any of that. Instead, they went independent and producers started making serials. The first Weird Western (as most folks consider the genre) was The Phantom Empire in 1935. A hidden civilization of ‘Muranians’ is discovered by a singing cowboy (Gene Autry) and prevented from causing some chaos. Seems odd, we get a Weird Western that fast, but not when you think on just how it came to pass.
   No one at the time was subverting the silent genre and taking westerns in some outlandish new direction. (Well, most, but we’re not there yet) Hell, the genre wasn’t 30 years old in film yet, (The Great Train Robbery is considered the first western, in 1903) so they were drawing on what was popular at the time. It was of course, the pulps, full of horror and science fiction and these provided an obvious source for those wanting to give folks the time-honored western film with some ‘contemporary’ punch.
   No one in fact, had any idea what a Weird Western was, much less a Weird Western film. But they’d take their cracks at it, sure enough. Not to create a new genre of course, but instead to preserve, or – as time went on – even destroy, an old one.

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