Saturday, February 4, 2017

THE WEIRD WEST GENRE: Weird Western Film Part 2

   So, in 1935, the Weird Western film was accidentally born outta pulp magazine stories and the end of the silent western era. This was with film serial The Phantom Empire, starring Gene Autry, singing in some ancient civilization miles under the Earth’s surface. You can see then, how that wasn’t something anyone did on purpose. You can’t even really say the thing was a true Weird Western. But if there’s to be a contender for the first, well, there’s an argument to be made for this one.
   (At least in America, but we’re not there yet.)
See, there were western serials that came earlier, with their own mixes of sci-fi and horror. Mystery Mountain in 1934 had The Rattler, master of disguise and holed up in a cave full of electronic gizmos. Terror of the Range, even farther back in 1919, had a vampire and Lightning Bryce, that same year, put in some Indian ‘magic’.
   However, these really just had weird villains. You could swap them out with any old black hat and end up the same place. Of course, Phantom was similar. While it did have its entire mystery pinned to those folks living underground, we didn’t really need Gene Autry as a cowboy. Take out the hidden city and your whole story is shot, but make Autry a singing mail clerk or soldier or airplane pilot and it works out the same.
   That’s a thing to keep in mind with any genre fiction – is whatever person or item that makes it part of that genre so important that you can’t remove it without wrecking the story? Did we need a vampire in Terror, or if we did, then did we need cowboys to chase it? How about Lightning Bryce? Did there have to be Indian ‘magic’ – which was just powders and hocus pocus to confound the heroes momentarily – in order to move the story forward?
   Not really, on any of those accounts. None of them are Weird Westerns, despite the addition of some weird elements in a western setting. No, the ‘true’ weird western was decades off yet. But in the meantime, there was still plenty of weird to see in the serials of the day.
   Not really in the western ones themselves, though. Sure, Phantom and a few others with masked and mysterious villains (and their evil ‘powers’) to spice things up, but they were pretty standard fare. Good guys and bad, a ranch somewhere needed defending, maybe someone’s brother or dad got killed and off they went. All anyone wanted to see was them cowboys, anyway.
   No, for the real weird, people went to other horror and sci-fi serials, with their whole framework built out of unearthly visitors and evil conspiracies and strange machines. Homunculus in 1916 was an early sci-fi one, and The Crimson Stain Mystery did for horror that same year. Those genres continued on same as the westerns, so there was no real need to jump up the western by adding anything new to it. As its own ‘weird’ genre, that is.
   And that kept on fine from the advent of real movies around 1903, on up to the late 1930’s. Phantom Empire came out, then Riders of the Whistling Skull in ’37 and The Terror of Tiny Town in ’38, two more swipes at the ‘weird western’ genre, though that genre had no name, yet.
   Why’d anyone bother? Well, like the horror and sci-fi films of those days, the western serials were cheap pulp. Disposable entertainment so sure, why not make a full-blown sci-fi or horror western? Or in the case of Tiny Town, one with nearly the whole cast made up of little people? Now was the time to take that popular whiz-bang stuff from the other genres and mix the western all the way up. The western had seen its best days, so there was nothing to lose.
   Then of course, came Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power and all their handsome Hollywood friends to save the day. Dodge City with Mr. Flynn was released in 1939 and brought westerns back from pulp serial-hell to traditional audiences. It was produced by Hal B. Wallis, who’d already produced Captain Blood, Fugitive From a Chain Gang, Little Caesar and dozens more. He’d go on to have his hand in Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon and hundreds more after that. Around 400 in his career. Reviving the Western was nothing for this guy.
   John Ford’s Stagecoach helped as well, as did Destry Rides Again and plenty others. The western was off and running once more. The fare was still standard, good guys and bad, ranches and rescues but the money was bigger and the talent more capable. They provided rich backdrops and powerful performances. The movies of that time established what we know now as the Classic Western: traditional, predictable and plenty profitable. For the next twenty five years, it’d stay that way.
   And then things would get really goddamn weird.

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