THE AMERICAN WESTERN MOVIE
Part Three: the Myth-Makers
by Bill Monson
Even as the Old West thrived, eastern writers and producers were creating the myths
that would far outlive it and forever cloud our vision of it. Pulp publishers like the Beadle brothers and Street and Smith hired writers who never saw the West to turn out dime novels and stories about it. Stage producers did the same; and they even persuaded authentic westerners like Buffalo Bill Cody and Wild Bill Hickok to appear in distorted tales about their adventures.
Hickok soon gave up the stage and went back west to his Deadwood date with destiny.
Cody, however, decided to try a different venue--the hippodrome or arena show--where
he could use real cowboys and Indians in feats of riding, roping and shooting. He hired authentic figures like Sitting Bull to participate
and gave the public new legends like Annie Oakley. Thanks to his Wild West shows and dime novel fiction about him by Ned Buntline, Cody soon became a dominant force in the myth of the American West.
He also inspired conpetitors. One of these was the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch Wild West, which grew out of the brothers' large ranching operation in Oklahoma. The show just happened to be wintering in Venice, California,
when movie producer Thomas Ince came west to set up Inceville, his production lot, north of Santa Monica. Business in Venice was bad, so Ince hired the whole outfit--cowboys, Indians, horses, cattle and wagons--and used
them to make western movies.
With other companies like Universal Studio also hiring, many of the 101 cowboys saw a chance to start a new career. Few of them did more than ride or simple stuntwork such as fall off a horse. Some, however, became featured players and even stars.
A good example was Edmund Richard Gibson, who went by his nickname of "Hoot."
He moved easily from rodeos to Wild West shows to movie stuntwork and back again. In 1912, he won the title of All-Around Champion Cowboy at the annual Pendleton
Roundup in Oregon. There, he met and moved in with Helen Wenger, a female rodeo performer. When she was chosen to star in
her own Universal serial THE HAZARDS OF
HELEN (1914), Hoot played in some of the chapters.
On the Universal lot, Hoot became friends with Harry Carey, the studio's current leading cowboy, and his director John Ford and was cast in some small roles with them. After a stint in the Tank Corps in World War One, Hoot returned to the studio where he became the star of two-reelers directed by Ford. Seeking a unique approach for his character, Universal took advantage of Hoot's breezy manner and capacity for light comedy to turn out a series of action-filled but mainly non-violent oaters aimed at the juvenile market.
Hoot usually played a happy-go-lucky fellow who stumbled into trouble and could fight his way out. He didn't carry a gun and usually had to borrow one for a showdown. He'd stick it in his belt or boot and go off on his palomino Goldie to settle the villains' hash. This endeared him to audiences; and by the mid-20s, Universal was paying him $14,500 a week for features.
Hoot literally lived high--and not just in partying. He won the National Air Races in 1931 and crashed (with minor injuries) in 1933 during a match race with another cowboy star Ken Maynard at the L.A. Municipal Airport. When sound came in, Hoot's bantering
style stayed popular; and he made the Top Ten of money-making western stars as late as 1936. However, his career ebbed away to a series of Monogram cheapies in the 1940s and a final cameo role in John Ford's THE HORSE SOLDIERS (1959) with John Wayne. When cancer claimed Hoot in 1962, the $6-million he'd made in his career was long gone.
But he'd outlived nearly all the other western stars of his era, including another rider from the
Miller Brothers 101 who was to have an even bigger impact on the style of western movies.
NEXT: TOM MIX