L’Alliance brisée: Le Western des anneés 1920 by Jean-Louis Leutrat
The Western movie certainly took enormous strides forward in the 1920s, even before the advent of sound.
When I was writing about guidebooks to the Western recently (click the link for that) JAW reader Jean-Marie mentioned a book published by the excellent (and beautifully named) Institut Lumière in Lyon, L’Alliance brisée: Le Western des années 1920 by Jean-Louis Leutrat. I’m a sucker for yet another book on the Western so out came the credit card.
M Leutrat wrote books on John Ford, Diderot, Jerry Lewis and Nosferatu, among others, quite an eclectic mix, that (also one on Jean-Luc Godard, which I shall not be reading). This one is solid, comprehensive and covers the subject thoroughly but I hope Mr Leutrat’s shade (for he passed away in 2011) will forgive me if I say that not all of his book was entirely to my taste, for he does dabble in what I call film studies-speak – you know, that overly intellectualized language adored by teachers of cinema in universities but largely opaque to normal human beings. Here’s an example, which I have translated below, but I’ve only translated it linguistically speaking; I don’t think I’ve made it any more intelligible to non-francophone general readers.
La notion de genre postule une identité. Au sens classique, le genre est a-historique. Il repose sur un principe transcendant. Lorsque ce principe vient à disparaître, que reste-t-il ? Soit on tente de fonder l’éternité dans l’instant, dans l’éphémère (c’est le classicisme de la modernité, la conception des avant-gardistes), soit on pare l’Histoire des oripeaux de mythe, soit enfin on s’appuie sur des identités prothétiques : le genre ne recouvre pas alors une identité, mais une parcellisation, des morceaux épars, des membra disjecta – non pas un morcellement d’identités (qui supposerait une ou plusieurs identités préalables) mais une identité à partie de la diffraction, une prothèse d’identité.
The notion of genre postulates an identity. In the classical sense, genre is a-historical. It is based on a transcendent principle. When this principle disappears, what is left? Either we try to found eternity in the instant, in the ephemeral (this is the classicism of modernity, the conception of the avant-gardists), or we dress History up in the garb of myth, or, finally, we rely on prosthetic identities: in this case, genre is not an identity, but a parcellation, scattered pieces, membra disjecta – not a fragmentation of identities (which would presuppose one or more prior identities) but an identity based on diffraction, a prosthesis of identity.
Perhaps you understand this and find it helpful. If so, I apologize for slighting it.
However, to be fair to the author (and I do try) most of the book is not like this. It is written in the French equivalent of plain English. And indeed, I got a lot out of it, and learned much. That’s why I’m writing about it now, because I thought you might be interested in the subject matter anyway. Perhaps I can distill it for you – in plain English.
The title L’Alliance brisée seems to pun on the French name for the film Broken Lance, which was La lance brisée, though that was a 1950s Western. The alliance the writer talks of is that between the Western and what he calls burlesque – vaudeville, in fact. He suggests that before the 1920s, Westerns and frankly low comedy were as one, but in the decade concerned, the Western ‘grew up’, became more serious and historical, earning the respect of austere critics, studio bosses and indeed a more sophisticated movie-going public.
Myself, I’m not sure about this – if a non-intellectual may have the temerity to question it. It is true, yes, that many early Westerns were indeed comic, or at the very least contained a great deal of comic relief. One thinks of those jocular 1910s ones Tom Mix made for Colonel Selig, or those Broncho Billy Alkali Ike’s Pants or The Cowboy’s Mother-in-Law comedy one-reelers. Vaudeville started incorporating screenings of ‘shorts’ of this kind into their live shows, and conversely, showings of Western movies in theaters were often preceded by prologues and skits given by live performers. So there was a kind of alliance. It is also true that in the 1920s, some Westerns got more serious. Mix moved to Fox in 1917 and gradually started making a different style of picture, features with pretensions to being ‘good films’. Look at him as Lassiter in Riders of the Purple Sage, for example, in 1925. He is tough and unsmiling. And the great Western hero of the late teens and early 20s, William S Hart, made a thing of being stern, earnest, authentic and decidedly uncomic. The 1920s also saw the birth of the historical ‘epic’, big-budget 8-reel pictures with nation-building themes, films like Paramount’s The Covered Wagon (1923), Fox’s The Iron Horse (1924), Paramount’s The Vanishing American (1925), Bill Hart’s Tumbleweeds (1925), and more. So maybe Leutrat had a point.
However, there were plenty of comic Westerns all thru the 1920s and of course beyond, and not only B-movies either. And even the most serious of them felt obliged to include some comic relief, however scanty – an amusing old-timer, perhaps, or a hen-pecked husband or something. The gag of the hero taking a bath. Whatever. And well before the 20s, the likes of DW Griffith and Thomas Ince were making some very serious Westerns, not at all comedy ones, pictures about the plight of American Indians, for example. So I’m not utterly convinced that the thesis holds. Still, I’m only someone who likes Westerns.
Leutrat gives some historical context to the 1920s which of course ended in a disastrous financial crash but which also began with a major economic downturn, as the post-WWI boom petered out. American cinema went through its own crisis.
1921 was the year that immigration quotas were introduced and many Westerns of the early 20s were based on the notion of the foreign menace. In Shadows of the West (1921) the bad guys are Asiatics seeking to colonize the US, while in Tom Mix’s Sky High (1922) Tom is an Inspector of Immigration who stops a car full of women only to find they are Chinese illegal immigrants in drag. Tom’s boss tells him, “Two hundred chop suey-eating Chinamen will try to cross the border near Calexico without bothering to ask Uncle Sam. What’s more it’s suspected they’re smuggling jewels and laces!” Well, we can’t have that.
Leutrat is good on the sheer scale of the movie business. In 1926, 75% of films shown in the world were American. By the end of the 20s there were 20,000 theaters in the US showing movies to 77 million people a week (about 10% of these children under 14). Many of these were luxurious palaces, with seats costing a dollar, though Westerns tended to be screened in humbler houses, with a 5₵ ticket price. Hollywood was making an average of 700 features a year, as well as hundreds of ‘shorts’. As for Westerns, in 1921 there were 110 feature Westerns out of a total of 733 films (15%), while in 1929 there were 92 out of 529 (17.4%).We can only dream of such riches these days.
The author quotes an interesting survey conducted in 1926 in rural areas which asked which kind of films people liked. Action films were way top, with 58% of the vote, and of these, 11% were for ‘adventure’ films and fully 47% liked Westerns. By way of comparison, love stories were liked by 2% of respondents. Tom Mix was by far the most popular movie star, with Hoot Gibson second.
Westerns were more popular than the West. Will Hays remembered that when his young son was playing with other boys, they all wanted to be Bill Hart. Not Buffalo Bill or Daniel Boone – Bill Hart!
There were huge numbers of movie magazines.
Four million youths joined the Buck Jones Rangers.
Hugely popular Westerns may have been but critics in the early 20s looked down their collective nose at them. Leutrat quotes many examples of reviews which declared the genre vulgar, for the unintelligent. Motion Picture News said of The Half-Breed (the 1922 version) that it “might be OK for second class downtown houses. Small towns may like it. Intelligent audiences won’t.” (Apparently there weren’t any intelligent people living outside the cities). Variety on Hell’s Hole (1923): “The action calls for exaggerated melodrama, and while the picture will have an appeal to the kids who always were and always will be strong for Westerns, it’s pretty mild entertainment for adult intelligence.” Variety again on The Three Buckaroos (1922), “The intellect of a three-year-old girl would have rebelled against this balderdash.” And so on.
All that changed in 1923. The author devotes a lot of attention to Paramount’s The Covered Wagon, directed by James Cruze. He tells how Jesse Lasky recounted in his memoirs a telephone conversation he had with his partner Adolph Zukor after Zukor found out that The Covered Wagon had already cost half a million dollars, and rising. Zukor said, “Don’t you realize that Westerns are finished?”
Lasky replied, “This film is more than a Western; it’s an epic.”
There was a long silence. Finally Zukor said, “An epic, eh? Well, that’s different. Go ahead.”
I’ve incorporated quite a few points Leutrat makes about this film in my review of it, so click the link on The Covered Wagon at the end of this article to know more.
Now Westerns were to become more adult, more serious, more historical and more patriotic, dealing with nation-building themes of Manifest Destiny. And they were to become much more expensive to make. Of course, more juvenile low-budget fare continued to be churned out and continued to be popular but from 1923 snooty critics sat up and took notice and intellectuals did not disdain to discuss the genre. Perhaps they even went to see some.
Not to be outdone, Fox replied the year after The Covered Wagon with a similarly big-budget ‘nation building’ epic, The Iron Horse, directed by up and coming John Ford, with the hint of a suggestion that just as trains had replaced covered wagons in the West, so Fox’s Western movie had replaced Paramount’s… Lasky responded with the big-budget North of 36 (1924), about the great Texas to Kansas cattle-drives, and Cruze’s The Pony Express (1925) showed how that enterprise united the nation. MGM got in on the act, and released its ten-reeler The Trail of ’98 about the Klondike gold rush in 1928. And so it went on. The Western was coming of age.
Abraham Lincoln was a special favorite. He had come to replace George Washington as the national hero and various films featured him, usually master-minding some nation-building project. DW Griffith’s 1930 biopic Abraham Lincoln, Griffith’s first talkie, set the seal on this trend in 1930.
Fortunes varied. The star of some actors rose and others fell. Art Acord was an alcoholic who made his last picture for Universal in 1927 and moved downmarket to Poverty Row, finally dying in Mexico, some say stabbed to death, others that he took cyanide to end it all, in 1931. Fred Thomson, on the other hand, went the other way, leaving modest budget FBO to move up to Paramount at $15,000 a week and making some big pictures. In early December 1928, Thomson stepped on a nail while working in his stables. Contracting tetanus, which his doctors initially misdiagnosed, he died in LA on Christmas Day 1928. Tragically, producer Harry Joe Brown admitted later to having burned the negatives of Fred’s films because he felt it was undignified to show them after the death. So even the major Jesse James of 1927, for example, is lost.
Other aspects of the 20s Western the author covers, quite interestingly, are the place of women in them, the use of color, the power of censorship – both self-censorship by Hollywood and, after 1922, from the Hays Office, the creation of Central Casting in 1925, and the music of silent Westerns.
There are some major failings in the book, such as no chapter headings and three chapter fives, for example (the book is divided into three – unnamed – parts) and no index (disgraceful in a scholarly work) so it’s quite difficult to navigate and find things. Also, the paperback binding is poor and with all the page turning and looking things up, it has fallen apart.
If you read French, I would recommend this book. If you don’t, I hope you’ve got something out of this little summary.
By the way, if you are interested in the 1920s Western you might like to click on some of the links below, which will take you to our review of them.
The Covered Wagon 1923
Go West 1925
Hell’s Heroes 1929
In Old Arizona 1928
The Iron Horse 1924
Just Pals 1920
North of 36 1924
North of Hudson Bay (1923)
The Pony Express 1925
Single-Shot Parker 1923
The Virginian 1923
The Virginian 1929
3 Bad Men 1926