If you love western movies, you'll enjoy our fun western film trivia.
About Western Film Trivia
"Talkies" had yet to become a reality but fledgling filmmakers-and aspiring writers- in the early 1900's were already captivated by the glamour of the American West. There were clearly defined heroes and villains, good girls (school marms) and bad ones (dance hall darlings), and a noble code of chivalry that still lingered in the public imagination… even if the rough and tumble backdrop that inspired its origins was all too rapidly being encroached on and absorbed by the advances of Civilization. The genre's rise in popularity through the 30's, 40's and its most stellar decade-the 50's-also gave rise to trivia that is as colorful-if not more so-than the stars themselves. Saddle up, Partner, and enjoy a whimsical ride through some rollicking cinema nostalgia.
Casting Call: Height-Challenged Cowboys
You've probably never heard of "The Terror of Tiny Town". This 1938 comedy flick directed by Sam Newfield was about a western community that found itself beset with big troubles. In reality, of course, the evil, gun-toting villain wasn't any bigger than the rest of them…who were all midgets. This is Hollywood's only western, in fact, where the entire cast was comprised of actors under four feet tall who saddled up Shetland ponies to go ride the range. A bizarre entry in the western archives but reflective of an era that had yet to learn the nuances of political correctness. Rumor had it that Producer Jed Buell planned to follow this project up with a film about Paul Bunyan. Same cast but a regular sized actor playing Paul. It never got off the drawing board. How's that for western film trivia?
Wyatt Earp, Film Consultant
We tend to associate the legends of a certain era with that era alone. Therefore, it's inconceivable for us to ever imagine them transcending to a different lifestyle, much less an entirely different century. Take Wyatt Earp, for instance. After that famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral, we like to imagine that he quietly rode off into the west and was never seen again. Not so. Seems that Wyatt developed quite an interest in this new fangled thing called movies and offered himself up as a consultant. He not only lived until the age of 80 (it was 1929 by then) but had cowboy actor pals William S. Hart and Tom Mix as his pallbearers. Even more staggering is the realization is that his lady-love Josie outlived him, following him to the grave in 1944. They are both buried in Colma, California, south of San Francisco.
Haven't I seen this place before? In another bit of of western film trivia, props were not in as wide supply in the old days of filmmaking as they are now. It was, therefore, not unusual, for the very same guns, holsters, hats and costumes to make the rounds in several films before being retired. If you look closely, you'll also see that the majority of films in the 1930's (especially John Wayne movies) all took place in exactly the same town and "ol' timer's shack on the outskirts". The lack of sophistication of early film equipment employed a repetitive visual effect whenever it was necessary to show either "Later, the same day" or "Meanwhile, across town". Specifically, the camera would do a fast, blurred pan to the right or left, then back again. From a practicality standpoint, this made lots of sense; although the backdrops were generally only about 100 feet away from each other, it was deemed easier to do a pan than to physically move all of the equipment across the lot.
The Great Train Robbery
This silent film debuted in 1903 and was shot in various wooded parks throughout New Jersey. It also clocks in at a tight 12 minutes and employed what would become common camera techniques (pans, ellipsis and jump-cuts) in westerns of the future. Audiences were known to shriek in alarm and duck in their seats in the final frame when a revolver was pointed-and fired-at the camera. Likewise, they voiced concern for the character who was thrown from the moving locomotive, unaware that he had actually been replaced with a cloth dummy. This movie even saved money by having its star, Bronco Billy Anderson, play multiple roles. Originally cast as one of the villains, Anderson's complete klutziness on horseback required some hasty, non-equestrian rewrites.
They Shot Horses, Didn't They?
In the early days of filmmaking, there were no protections for animal actors. To make scenes look particularly dramatic, trip wires were used to bring them down in chase scenes and stampedes. The horses were crippled as a result and summarily shot. Today, filmmakers are governed by SPCA regulations to ensure that no harm befalls any of the non-human cast members during the production of a movie.
Dummies R Us
While we're on the subject of horses in movies, you may want to freeze-frame some of the "Seabiscuit" scenes that take place at the Santa Anita Racetrack in Arcadia, California. (Yes, I know it's not a western but there's a point to this illustration.) When the audition call went out in the newspapers seeking extras to sit in the stands, not quite as many people showed up as the casting director had been anticipating, (Could the fact that they were expected to act for free have something to do with it?) Unable to hold up the filming any longer, the casting director resorted to the next best thing-department store mannequins that could be dressed up in hats and coats and interspersed amongst the live actors. Look closely and see how many of them you can count in any given row. This same phenomenon has been used in a number of westerns in which the occupants of wagon trains are all slaughtered by marauding tribes. Not only have filmmakers realized that extras can't lay still long enough but it makes it much more authentic if a whooping brave can thwack his tomahawk into the covered watermelon head of a dummy than an actual person.
We're Walking and We're Talking
Based on O. Henry's short story, "The Caballero's Way," a 1928 gem called "In Old Arizona" was the first western to describe itself as "100% All Talking". Interestingly, the director (Raoul Walsh) had cast himself in the lead role but was then forced to back out of it when he suffered an eye injury in a car accident. Warner Baxter, the actor who replaced him in the role of the Cisco Kid, went on to win an Academy Award for it.
A Shot That (Wasn't) Heard 'Round the World
In 1948, an apparently kinder and gentler production company decided to go a different route than resorting to shoot-outs and showdowns. "Four Faces West" starred husband and wife Joel McCrea and Frances Dee, Charles Bickford and William Conrad. The decision to bank on McCrea and Dee's chemistry, a multi-layered plot, and breathtaking Southwestern scenery, however, wasn't as bankable at the box office. Audiences, it seemed, were dismayed by the total lack of flying bullets.
Now Showing: Westerns Only
Leave it to Beverly Hills to cater to an exclusive albeit quirky clientele. In 1946, a theater called The Hitching Post opened its doors to people who just couldn't get enough of the old West in their viewing habits. Offering double bills of popular western movies, it was an entertainment venue that not only appealed to workaday people but Hollywood celebrities and real-life Southern California ranch hands of all ages. To add to the authenticity, patrons were required to leave their weapons with the cashier until the end of the show.