Early Wyatt Earp
Following on from our two-part post on Wyatt Earp on the screen (click here and here for that) I thought we’d review some of the individual movies in more depth, starting with what was effectively the first portrayal, Universal’s Law and Order, released two years after the publication of the (to all intents and purposes) Earp saga by WR Burnett, Saint Johnson.
Burnett is largely forgotten today but he wrote books that became huge movies, such as Little Caesar, Scarface, The Asphalt Jungle and High Sierra. Burnett said he had been inspired by Walter Noble Burns’s 1927 book Tombstone: an Iliad of the Southwest, and he saw the Tombstone conflict in the context of Eastern organized crime. He once told an interviewer that Dillinger and Roy Earle (from High Sierra) were not gangsters but “a reversion to the western bandit.” Burnett went to Tombstone, which was not yet a tourist flytrap, and sought out old-timers who might have known the principals of 1881.
During filming, it was Burnett who intercepted Wyatt’s widow Josie, who stormed Universal studios to protest the use of her husband’s life in the picture, and charmed her, drinking tea all afternoon, and talking her down.
As we have seen, Hollywood has long been fascinated by the story of Wyatt Earp (not the other brothers; just Wyatt). The whole ‘town-taming marshal’ plot has always been a mainstay of the Western genre, and by the early 1930s, especially with Stuart Lake’s mega-seller Frontier Marshal (published 1931) Wyatt Earp had become the exemplar.
Burnett’s novel, Saint Johnson, was a tale of brothers’ vengeance in Tombstone that did not mention the Earps by name but was clearly an account of their exploits. Hollywood sat up and took notice. Law and Order, starring Walter Huston, went into production at Universal.
Brian Garfield, the Delphic oracle (actually, he was a bit too outspoken to be Delphic), said in his masterly guide Western Films of the 1932 Law and Order, “[T]his may well be the definitive Wyatt Earp movie.” In his Pictorial History of the Western Film, William Everson called the picture “the finest reconstruction yet of the famous gun duel at the OK Corral.” Herb Fagen in The Encyclopedia of the Western calls it “a near-masterpiece.”
It’s actually a superb film, and I think Garfield had a point. The first thing you notice is the influence of William S Hart, who was a friend and admirer of Wyatt in LA in the 1920s and was pall-bearer at his funeral in 1929. As with many Hart Westerns, the picture moves slowly, and a Hart-ish Huston verges on the ponderous sometimes. There is a darkness about it, with most scenes shot at night or in the gloom.
Huston is magnificent. At 48 he was too old to be Wyatt but that never matters. He had of course been a powerful Trampas in the first talkie The Virginian in 1929 (still the best version in my view), and he had followed that with a classic good-badman tale when he was Pancho Lopez in The Badman in 1930. Law and Order was his third Western. He didn’t do a huge number of them in his career but he was really powerful in the ones he did. Except maybe The Outlaw in 1943, when he played Doc Holliday, but no actor could have done anything with that trashy script and bad direction. Still, it made him one of the few actors to have played both Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer’s the only other one I can think of). Huston dominates Law and Order much as, so the legend has it, Wyatt Earp dominated the town of Tombstone.
He is Frame ‘Saint’ Johnson, the man who cleaned up Kansas and, as one character says in hushed tones, “the killingest peace officer that ever lived.” His nickname is also explained: “Looks more like a preacher than a two-gun man,” says one denizen of the saloon. “That’s how he got his name,” replies his pard. One is reminded of Kirk Douglas’s Doc Holliday in a later interpretation calling Burt Lancaster’s Wyatt ‘Preacher’.
Harry Carey (Sr, obviously) was the Doc Holliday-esque Ed Brandt, Frame’s sidekick. Carey was always splendid and in his frock coat and top hat (which he wears even on the trail) he is especially so. He is a firebrand, always wanting to have at ‘em with his sawn-off shotgun. He isn’t called Doc and doesn’t cough. He’s a slick gambler and Wyatt’s (sorry, I mean Frame’s) best buddy. Amazingly, this was Carey’s 97th Western (he had started in 1910).
Frame has two other sidekicks, his brother Luther, whom he calls Lute (Russell Hopton), a sort of composite of Virgil and Morgan, and Deadwood (Raymond Hatton). Best known as a fast-talking urbanite, Hopton didn’t specialize in Westerns. He’d had a small part in a Buck Jones oater the year before and he did a few B-movies afterwards. He isn’t bad as the Earp brother. He perishes in the gunfight at the OK Corral – or OK barn as it is. Ray Hatton, however, was, as I am sure you know, a dyed-in-the-wool Westernista. Like Carey, he had started in the early days (in fact in the 1914 The Squaw Man) and appeared in over 200 Westerns. Later in the 1930s he was Rusty Joslin in the Three Mesquiteers series. Deadwood is also shot to death at the OK.
The Northrups are the Clantons. Poe Northrup (Ralph Ince) and his two brothers, slimy Walt (Harry Woods) and drunken Kurt (Richard Alexander) are murdering rustlers in league with the crooked Sheriff Fin Elder (Alphone Ethier), the Behan figure. We see the Northrups railroading Elder through in a corrupt election, murdering a man who dares to suggest he might not vote for him. The Northrups have pretty well treed the town of Tombstone, which is a sink of iniquity.
Good old Russell Simpson is the judge who begs Frame to wear the badge and clean up the town. I always like Russell. Actually, he too had been Trampas once, in the 1923 The Virginian.
Frame at first says no – he has earlier declared, “I wanna put my shootin’ irons away for good” – but is persuaded by the judge when Poe Northrup threatens him. You don’t threaten Wyatt Earp. This idea of Wyatt first saying no became standard. In both Tombstone: The Town Too Tough To Die (1941) and Wichita (1955), Wyatt (Richard Dix and Joel McCrea respectively) decline the badge but change their mind when a small boy is caught in crossfire. And of course Henry Fonda says no, until little brother James (odd how movies made the oldest brother Jim Earp into the youngest) is killed by the Clantons and then he pins it on.
The movie starts with a potted history of the West in which three dates are chosen: 1840, with a pioneer wagon train and Indians, 1869 – the railroads and outlaws, and 1889 with the Oklahoma land rush. Then a card reads, “In the wake of the pioneer came a backwash of lawlessness which gave birth to the gun-man. Weak men were made strong by the aid of leaden death.” This seems to imply that Earp’s Tombstone days were after 1889 but never mind. It’s corrected with a picture of Rutherford B Hayes (President 1877 – 81) in the saloon.
The saloon is introduced with the ideal scene because it shows a man at the bar showing some other fellows a new derringer (and you know how obsessed I am with derringers). It goes like this:
– It’s called a derringer.
– You don’t say.
– Yep. It’ll fetch ‘bout anything it goes after.
– It looks a sight girlish.
– No, it’s a handy weapon.
So you see the movie is already sky-high in my estimation.
The clean-up-the-town notion is established early, even before Frame gets to Tombstone, because while on the trail with his pards he blames the six-gun for the lack of law ‘n’ order. He says that the six-gun “even makes skunks brave”. Later, he grandly pronounces, “Someday the six-guns will all be put away and this will be a fit country to live in.” I’m afraid we’re still waiting for that day, Frame, and the six-guns are now semi-automatic. Huston and Burnett were talking in the era of gangsters and gangster movies. The New York Times review called the movie “a roaring melodrama” and added that “it is one of the goriest exhibitions of shoot-em-down gunplay since the gangster and machine-gun era.”
The parlous state of law and order in Tombstone is underlined by the presence, power and prosperity of two splendid twin-brother undertakers, the Parkers (D’Arcy Corrigan and Nelson McDowell) who look almost as cadaverous as their clients.
I even spotted a young Walter Brennan cleaning the spittoons. Well, I guess we all have to start somewhere. Actually, let me correct that: Walter Brennan was never young. It was already his tenth Western, in fact (he too started in the silent days).
Another enjoyable appearance is Andy Devine as Johnny ‘Behind the Deuce’ Kinsman. He even looks thin! Well, not fat anyway. He’s already got that trademark high-raspy voice. Frame stands off a lynch mob on Johnny’s behalf but then has to hang him when Judge Simpson sentences him to death. Most unfortunate, and the killing Johnny did was only accidental, but a lawman’s gotta do what a lawman’s gotta do. Johnny doesn’t seem to mind too much when he is told that he will be famous as “the first feller to be hung legal in Tombstone”. Devine had had a micropart in the Tom Mix version of Destry Rides Again the same year (as Stage passenger, uncredited – scenes deleted, so it was not exactly fame and glory) but Law and Order was his first proper Western role. It was the start of a long and glorious Western career.
There was to have been a female lead and indeed Lois Wilson appeared on the posters but all her scenes were cut before release and so it’s a very male picture.
The director was Edward L Cahn – his first at the helm. Cahn started as an editor at Universal but is best known for his later work as director, especially the schlock sci-fi movies he did in the 1950s. This was certainly the best Western he did. He directed a few more in the 1950s and early 60s but they were all forgettable B-movies. He has quite an original touch in Law and Order and there are some interesting scenes, though you wonder if Huston had more to do with that than Cahn did.
Well, Frame deputizes his pals and introduces a gun ordinance (Brandt even has the nerve to confiscate a derringer from a lady of the night) but gun law or no, there’s plenty of shootin’. Brandt is shot rather in the Virgil Earp fashion but, unlike Virgil, expires soon after. Frame grits his teeth and cries revenge.
The climactic gunfight at the OK livery stable is snappily edited (that’s Cahn’s influence, one supposes) and fast, but confused and dark. Perhaps because of the quality of the current print, you can see various people are getting shot but you can’t quite see who. It turns out to be everyone except Frame, who doesn’t quite throw his star in the dust at the end but almost, and leaves town, wounded and alone. He told his dying brother, “You were right, Lute, they don’t want peace.” So in a way Wyatt fails to clean up Tombstone.
The screenplay was written up from the Burnett novel by Walter Huston’s son John, still in his twenties and later to direct The Unforgiven, The Misfits and The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, as well as the magnificent contemporary Western The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, starring, alongside Humphrey Bogart, dad Walter Huston, in one of his last films, for which he won an Oscar.
The movies ends with the cast. We had that at the beginning but as it says on the screen, “A good cast is worth repeating…”
Obviously it’s historical hooey, like the vast majority of Earp films, but you can’t blame this one. Having fictional characters as leads cuts both ways: you can’t be criticized for monkeying about with history.
Law and Order is in fact a splendid movie, at least for a serious Westernista. It’s dark, austere, somber and minimalist. Everson said that the film “achieves a sense of Greek tragedy, without consciously striving for it.” The picture is also ‘important’ as the first proper portrayal of Wyatt Earp – the mythic Wyatt Earp who was to become the old West lawman for the whole world.
There was a remake in 1940 with Johnny Mack Brown as ‘Bill Ralston’ (and Fuzzy Knight as Deadwood), and another remake in color in 1953 with Ronald Reagan as Frame. Neither was good. The Walter Huston one was re-released as Guns a’Blazin’ as late as 1951 and still looked valid. Watch the 1932 one. You won’t regret it.
More Earp films on the way, so come back soon!