Friday, October 9, 2009

An Extended Essay - Part One


I was a Roy Rogers kid. In those days—the mid-1940’s—you were either a Roy Rogers kid or a Gene Autry kid. At a certain point you had to choose. It was a rite of passage of sorts; in some important way it marked the crossing of the threshold from childhood to boyhood, which in turn was the first step toward becoming the man you knew you would have to be one day. The choice wasn’t an easy one because it was for keeps; once you made up your mind, you had to stick with your choice. There was no backing out or changing your preference. No Roy kid ever became an Autry kid, and no Gene kid would ever think of going over to Roy. You had to hold true to your choice.

That choice said a lot about what you held dear and who you hoped to become. Even at that age—roughly five or six—you sensed the decision was what you would later call an ethical one. It had to do with different styles of goodness. With subtle differences, both cowboy stars stood for right action. Gene’s virtue was a bit austere; he wore plain outfits and carried a single unostentatious gun, and rode his dark workmanlike horse Champion. Roy was all flash and dazzle and glamour; he used a pair of nickel-plated pistols with stag handles, wore fancy shirts and fringe, had that silver-mounted saddle and rode that wonderful palomino. Virtue could be sensible or it could be flamboyant. I went for the glitz.

In one sense it was an innocent time to be a boy. While we were cautioned against talking to strangers, basically we ran free. We didn’t know what a pedophile was. Not that they didn’t exist; it was just that nobody talked about them, at least not in our hearing. Preschool and kindergarten were foreign concepts for kids in my social class; first grade lay in the distant future. Life was a feast of unsupervised play—play we mostly invented owing to the shortage of toys and the absence of television and video games.

But paradoxically it was also a time when we knew the world outside the safe cocoon of our neighborhood was very dangerous. We had come to consciousness when a global war was raging and every freedom was at stake. Now fears of communism and the atom bomb were spreading. The police action in Korea was at hand. We knew evil stalked abroad. But my parents assured me that most people had good in them and good would conquer evil in the end. Thus I had to try to be good and find the good in others, so the maximum amount of good in the world could be brought to bear on the evil and defeat it.

Roy and Gene were examples of the power of goodness that we kids could reliably follow. They always licked the bad guys, and if they sometimes had to knock the bad guys down to subdue them, they never, ever killed them; the worst they would do was shoot the gun out of the bad guy’s hand—evidently a trick every cowboy star had mastered. Their only flaw was that they sang. I always cringed when they sang because I thought it made them sissified. But they usually did more riding and fighting and shooting than singing, so I grudgingly tolerated the occasional ballad.

To be fair, I should mention there was a second rank of Western movie heroes a kid could also emulate during the 40’s and into the early 50’s. Rex Allen, who wore his pistols reversed and had a beautiful black horse with a white mane and tail called Koko. William Boyd as Hopalong Cassidy, dressed head-to-boot in black yet belying his somber garb with his booming laugh and grandfatherly silver hair—Hoppy’s was the first hazy image I ever saw on a television screen, galloping soundlessly through the electronic snow on his white horse Topper. There was Tex Ritter. Johnny Mack Brown. Sunset Carson. Wild Bill Elliott. Jimmy Wakeley. Charles Starrett as the Durango Kid. Tim Holt. Lash LaRue.

As I grew a few years older, the Western stars tailored especially for television ascended—the Lone Ranger, the Cisco Kid, Bill Williams as Kit Carson, Guy Madison as Wild Bill Hickok. And thanks to TV I also got to watch the recycled exploits of an older generation of Saturday-matinee cowboy stars like Tom Mix, Buck Jones, Bob Steele, Col. Tim McCoy, Ken Maynard, Buster Crabbe and Hoot Gibson. Quaint and crude were those old-time Westerns, mostly without music except for the main title, and in their stillness you heard the grunts of the running horses and the hollow beat of their hooves and the hiss of the sand they kicked into the sagebrush; and some peculiar feature about the speed of the film or perhaps the operation of the cathode ray tube made the wheels of stagecoaches and buckboards seem to roll backwards in a primitive and charming way.

But none of these second-level stars had the compelling allure of Roy and Gene. Bob Steele and his ilk were optional. You could like or dislike any of them without jeopardizing your primary preference. They too were good guys—with the possible exception of LaRue, whose form-fitted black shirt and menacing bullwhip were sufficiently ambiguous to suggest the perverse—a suggestion lost on us, in our near total innocence. Otherwise, virtue was the order of the day in “B”-Western Hollywood.

Of course far beyond my ken during this same period, some mainstream films were offering darker visions of the Western. Directors like William Wellman, Howard Hawks, Anthony Mann and John Ford were making gritty, relatively realistic adult films like Stagecoach, The Ox-Bow Incident, Red River, Winchester ’73. But if you were a closely supervised kid, as I was, you had scant chance to sample the heavier fare. Back then most “B” Westerns were filmed in black and white—Roy, who sometimes made movies in Technicolor, was a spectacular exception—yet I was eventually to learn there was a subtle, almost spiritual difference between the black and white of the matinee “B” movie, which seemed innocuous, and that of the more serious Western, which somehow took on an air of the sinister.

I was too naïve to know that the difference I noted was the difference between cheap movies ground out by journeyman directors in a few days and films crafted over months by talented artists, directors and cinematographers, who carefully framed and lit each scene. Grim and forbidding was the look of these movies. Mothers—at least my Methodist-minister’s-wife mother—had a practiced eye for noting the difference when viewing theatrical trailers. All films having that air of dark menace were ruled off limits to me.

But as is true of anything we are told is bad for us, the movies our parents condemned tantalized us even as we obediently steered clear of them. Once when I was ten years old I happened to see a trailer (we called them previews) for a Western called Blood on the Moon. Mother, who was with me, must’ve been appalled. Not only was the title itself lurid and unseemly, Blood on the Moon was bathed in that telltale maleficent murk, and it starred Robert Mitchum, in Mother’s view a very shady character indeed owing to his recent, infamous marijuana bust. So on three grounds the movie clearly fell beyond the pale; I was not to see it.

Yet how riveting was my fragmentary glimpse! The black magic was not so much in the action itself—staples like cattle stampedes and shootouts; instead, it permeated the very essence of the preview. I saw quick cuts of scenes at night or in rain. A darksome, brooding light dwelled in the corners of rooms sketching all else only partially or in dim outline, leaving deep pits of shadow everywhere, in which peril seemed to lurk. Then there was Mitchum himself—big-shouldered, sleepy-eyed, stubble-chinned, moving with that gliding grace of his, deadly as a coiled snake, his hair long and lank and possibly greasy. A far cry indeed from the well-groomed King of the Cowboys.

I had caught a grim glimmer of a West far different from that of the singing cowboys who shot the guns out of the hands of the villains. What I didn’t know was that this was the era of film noir and that Blood on the Moon was of a piece with contemporary cinematic fashion. For me it spoke of the evil I already distantly knew was loose in the world, but from which my parents had wished to shield me by pointing me toward positive role models like Roy and Gene. It hinted at how deep and terrible that evil was. And because I’d been so protected, perhaps subconsciously I began to suspect, even to fear, that when I grew up I might not be equipped to deal with it as effectively as Robert Mitchum, who either brutally beat up or simply killed the bad guys; that instead, when I came face to face with it, maybe imitating Roy and Gene—trying to knock the
bad guys unconscious after a short roughhouse, or to shoot the guns out of their hands—wouldn’t be nearly enough.

Forty-odd years later, never having forgotten that fleeting glimpse of the other West, I finally bought a video of Blood on the Moon and watched it for the first time. It is, of course, a minor classic, directed by the great Robert Wise. And while it has its moments of goofiness, and while virtue does triumph in the end, and while Mitchum’s Jim Garry is clearly a good guy, at times both the film and the character Mitchum plays take some disturbing turns, as in a violent fistfight between Mitchum and Robert Preston, staged in a darkened roadhouse saloon. The sequence has a primal viciousness that remains unsettling even by today’s standards. Think what strong medicine it was for 1948! Had I seen Blood on the Moon at age ten, I might’ve grown up sooner.

But I didn’t. Safe from prolonged exposure to Robert Mitchum, I remained a Roy kid. I read his comic books, watched his television shows, went to his movies. I wanted desperately to meet him. I wanted to ride Trigger. Instead, I had to settle for peering down from a cheap seat at the local coliseum where a spotlit, barely visible but very real Gene Autry strummed and sang. After the show I stole backstage in hopes of ferreting out Gene himself (second choice is better than none) where, frustrated in that design, I contended myself by patting Champion’s satiny rump and acquiring the autograph of Johnny Bond, an Autry hanger-on of modest repute.

But Autry was not Roy, and Johnny Bond notwithstanding, I wanted Roy’s showy virtue, I longed in vain for two cap pistols like Roy’s flashy Colts—my parents were against guns, even imitation ones. I couldn’t even have a Red Ryder BB rifle. I went through boyhood wholly unarmed. And I wanted to be armed. I continued to worship Roy but I had glimpsed the other side; and I would never forget it.


No comments:

Post a Comment