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Reconstructing American Historical CinemaFrom Cimarron to Citizen Kane$

J.E. Smyth

Print publication date: 2006

Print ISBN-13: 9780813124063

Published to Kentucky Scholarship Online: September 2011

DOI: 10.5810/kentucky/9780813124063.001.0001

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The Return of Our Epic America, 1938–1941

The Return of Our Epic America, 1938–1941

(p.115) 4 The Return of Our Epic America, 1938–1941
Reconstructing American Historical Cinema

J.E. Smyth

University Press of Kentucky

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the trend in historical filmmaking in the U.S during the period from 1938 to 1941. This period represents a return of the film industry to epic America. Some of the most notable films produced and released during this period include Stagecoach, directed by John and written by Dudley Nichols, Jesse James, directed by Henry King and written by Nunnaly Johnson and Union Pacific, directed by Cecil B. DeMille.

Keywords:   historical films, U.S., epic America, Stagecoach, John Ford, Jesse James, Henry King, Union Pacific, Cecil B. DeMille, filmmaking

History is not just a matter of names and dates—dry facts strung together. It is an endless, dramatic story, as alive as the news in the morning’s paper. That’s why I feel for the sake of lively dramatic construction, I am justified in making some contractions or compressions of historical detail, as long as I stick to the main facts.

—Cecil B. DeMille, 1939

For two weeks in February 1939, New York Times film critic Frank S. Nugent focused on Stagecoach. He began, “In one expansive gesture … John Ford has swept aside ten years of artifice and talkie compromise and has made a motion picture that sings a song of the camera.” The following week, he amplified Ford’s artistry with the western: “In simple terms, he has taken the old formula … and has applied himself and his company to it with the care, zen, and craftsmanship that might have been accorded the treatment of a bright new theme. It is as though the picture had been made ten or fifteen years ago.”1 Although Nugent did not mention it, it had been ten to fifteen years since Ford had made his last two westerns for Fox, The Iron Horse (1924) and Three Bad Men (1926).2 According to Nugent, with Ford’s return to the genre he once dominated, the western was cleansed of its sound-era “artifice.”

More than any other film critic, Nugent stressed John Ford’s role as the exclusive creator of Stagecoach. His praise would serve him well; only a few years later, Nugent would replace Dudley Nichols as Ford’s principal (p.116) writer.3 But his review had a more lasting effect on film history. Nugent’s praise created the impression of a silent “golden age” of the western followed by a talking drought, with the implication that only Ford’s artistry was capable of returning the western to the magnificence it had achieved in the silent era. On this foundation lay future film scholarship’s creation of the pure western genre, the empty decade of A-level production, and Ford the auteur’s responsibility for its renaissance in 1939. In fact, Stagecoach is one of the most lionized of westerns largely because film theorists, film historians, John Ford biographers, frontier historians, and cultural historians universally considered the film to be the epitome of the western myth and a template for the genre.4 The film’s cast of characters was a collection of western archetypes: the tough but boyish-faced cowboy out for revenge, the whore with the heart of gold, the crooked banker, the snobbish southern gambler, the drunken Irish doctor. The landscape existed in lyrical counterpoint to the timeless conflict between civilization and savagery, between whites and Native Americans. The narrative moved within the mythic boundaries of the western genre world. Although historical events may have generated the film, it was not historical.

After “westerns” such as Annie Oakley; Klondike Annie; Go West, Young Man; The Last of the Mohicans; Ramona; and San Francisco, Nugent must have seen Stagecoach as a welcome return to the less baffling, classic, cowboy-and-Indian westerns known since at least D. W. Griffith’s The Battle at Elderbush Gulch (1913). Stagecoach’s narrative must have seemed like an escape from the wordy historical era of the sound film. Decades later, the highly structured and confined concept of the western genre codified by Will Wright, John Cawelti, and others ignored the more eclectic, disruptive, and unclassical historical westerns of 1935–1938 and emphasized the genre’s repetitive and transhistorical narratives.5 In fact, by amplifying the concept of the “empty” decade and expounding on the mythical purity of the western genre, these film scholars pursued their own ethnic cleansing and true lineage of the western. It is true that Stagecoach lacks the self-conscious historical trappings of text forewords, historical documents, recognizable historical figures, and superimposed dates. But even though the film lacks the textual pretensions of a Wells Fargo, Nugent’s praise of Stagecoach’s visual splendor did not imply a concomitant transhistorical, mythic power. Nugent’s focus on Stagecoach’s references to silent western cinema suggests that Hollywood’s long-term dominance as the popular historian of the West was also an important part of American history. Hollywood’s West and the actual West had fused in American consciousness, and John Ford, like historians Francis Parkman or (p.117) Frederick Jackson Turner or Frederic Paxson, was writing a new narrative—with a camera. Nugent’s criticism pointed to a subtle reinterpretation of the variety and capacity of historiography. According to Nugent, Stagecoach was a powerful form of self-conscious film historiography, not a myth.

Although Nugent pointedly ignored talking historical westerns that violated the classical purity of the western genre, a closer look at Stagecoach’s production history and contemporary reception reveals the film’s connections to the historical innovations of the past few years. Screenwriter Dudley Nichols was responsible for scripting Stagecoach’s historical perspective and its deliberate connection to the cycle of sound-era historical westerns.6 But in 1939, historical screenwriters’ early independence and experimentation with western history were solidifying into a cycle known to critics as the “superwestern.” Nichols’s waning influence over Stagecoach’s production of American history, the critical outcry over Nunnally Johnson and Darryl Zanuck’s re-creation of Jesse James’s life, and Robert Buckner and Hal Wallis’s consolidation of western history at Warner Brothers all indicated escalating conflicts between aberrant American voices and the growing power of a historical filmmaking establishment.

Dudley Nichols’s History of the Old Southwest

When Dudley Nichols (a former New York World reporter) and John Ford began to edit the script of Stagecoach in October 1938, they were perhaps the most respected filmmaking partnership in Hollywood. Since Men without Women and The Seas Beneath (1931), they had developed a reputation for taut adventures and popular success. In 1935 the industry honored them with separate Academy Awards for their work on the critical success The Informer. In subsequent years they continued to work together, but with the merging of Twentieth Century and Fox, Ford became Zanuck’s property, while Nichols remained at RKO. In spite of Ford’s legendary status (even in 1930s Hollywood), ensuing film scholarship has emphasized Ford the auteur and ignored the inherently collaborative artistry behind his work.7 But from the early sound era until the early 1940s, Nichols and Ford shared equal reputations as filmmakers. Indeed, as president of the Screen Writers’ Guild and his studio’s preeminent prestige writer, Nichols may have possessed even more autonomy at RKO than Ford enjoyed under Zanuck’s meticulous eye. In a 1939–1940 poll conducted by the Screen Writers’ Guild, Nichols was voted the industry’s most admired writer.8

(p.118) During the 1930s, many Hollywood insiders acknowledged that screenwriters had more autonomy and power over film production than directors did. At the time, the power of a writer was often connected to his or her status as a historical screenwriter. In addition to Nichols, Lamar Trotti, Nunnally Johnson, Sonya Levien, Ben Hecht, Norman Reilly Raine, Seton I. Miller, John Bright, Robert Buckner, John Huston, and Jeannie Macpherson made their reputations during the sound era on historical scripts. Veteran Anita Loos, who had begun writing intertitles for Griffith on Intolerance (1916), maintained her independence at MGM with her period film San Francisco. Loos’s independent achievement was remarkable at a studio notorious for its mistreatment of writers and its constant, expensive, and often unhappy collaborations. Often when critics praised a prominent director’s skill, others realized that the credit was due to the writer. In his 1941 study of Hollywood, Leo Rosten quoted Gilbert Seldes: “Ninety percent of the judgments delivered on the quality of directors is really concerned with the thoughts and ideas presented ready-made for the directors to work with.”9

Although Ford was highly regarded in the press, with the exception of The Informer, he had not distinguished himself with a film comparable to The Iron Horse. Zanuck assigned him to a wide variety of productions. His only American historical “prestige” picture, The Prisoner of Shark Island, fascinated critics with its unusual historical narrative but owed its success more to its original screenwriter, Nunnally Johnson, and to Zanuck. Curiously, for a filmmaker who would eventually dominate the western genre, it was Ford’s competitors, Ruggles, Seitz, DeMille, and Lloyd, who had proved the continued draw of the American West in major Hollywood productions. Even Nichols had written a historical western, the Wyatt Earp–based Arizonian, in 1935. Ford, eager to return to western filmmaking, bought Ernest Haycox’s short story “Stage to Lordsburg” in 1937, but he had difficulty selling the idea to producers.10 Although film historian Edward Buscombe and others have cited this resistance as evidence of Hollywood’s belief that westerns were “lower order, with small budgets, mass-produced in series,” this was simply not the case.11 Hollywood invested in the West, but only when the scripts were connected with prestigious historical topics, such as the lives of Annie Oakley, Buffalo Bill, and Wild Bill Hickok; the settlement of California; and the development of stage transport. Haycox’s brief story, with no historical characters or references, was not attractive as a potential film. Zanuck, although he respected Ford, did not want to spend the money on the slim property. He was already in the midst of planning a historical western with (p.119) Nunnally Johnson, Jesse James. David O. Selznick also rejected the property, not simply because it was a western but because it was “some uncommercial pet” of Ford’s. Selznick had disliked the West ever since he had been forced to edit The Conquerors for RKO, but he also felt that Ford was not a good enough director to save the poor story. He wrote, “I see no justification for making any story simply because it is liked by a man who, I am willing to concede, is one of the greatest directors in the world, but whose record commercially is far from good.”12 But Ford persisted, and he wanted the author of all his smashes and failures, Dudley Nichols, to write the script. Independent producer Walter Wanger eventually agreed to hire them, and Stagecoach went into production in late 1938. Outside of the supervision of a major studio, Ford at last found himself directly involved with the screenwriting process.

Nichols’s first self-appointed task was to transform the thin narrative that producers had dismissed into a commercial prestige western. By November 1938, he had completed his final shooting script.13 Although Nichols maintained the skeleton of Haycox’s fictional narrative, he lengthened and transformed “Stage to Lordsburg” into Stagecoach largely by augmenting its historical context and setting the narrative in New Mexico and Arizona during the devastating Apache wars of the 1880s. Like many of his peers, Nichols consulted traditional and contemporary historical perspectives when reconstructing the background of the stagecoach attack and adding the legendary Apache warrior Geronimo to the script’s cast. Studio research departments during this period were extensive, but many top writers such as Nichols, Estabrook, and Trotti would do their own preliminary research for historical scripts. Although Nichols’s research notes no longer exist,14 it is likely that he turned to the growing number of popular histories and memoirs published in the late 1920s and early 1930s about Geronimo and the Apache wars of the 1880s. Paul Wellman’s Death in the Desert: The Fifty Years War for the Great Southwest (1935) was typical of the literature condemning Geronimo’s resistance to the U.S. government’s Indian policy.15 The memoirs of cavalry officers Britton Davis (1929) and Anton Mazzanovich (1931) offered other perspectives.16 Both had fought against Geronimo in the 1880s and wrote detailed, personal accounts of life in the Southwest.

While Mazzanovich portrayed Geronimo as cold-blooded and cruel,17 Davis, an army officer who had been personally acquainted with Geronimo, wrote a revisionist history of the Apache wars that was more in line with William Christie MacLeod’s 1928 account of race in the West. In the preface, Davis’s editor even stated that the book was intended to (p.120) contradict the popular conception of Geronimo and the Apaches as vicious barbarians. Like Mazzanovich, Davis described his account as “the truth about Geronimo,” but he directed his anger at those “whose knowledge [of the Apache] was gained from barroom talk.”18 Whereas Mazzanovich, an Austrian immigrant, responded to the West like an effusive tourist, Davis, with his insistence on eschewing “romantic embellishment or poetic description,” possessed the tone of a revisionist historian.19 According to Davis, Geronimo’s raids had been provoked by a legacy of white treachery and interference in Apache culture. Davis’s self-styled role as a historian would add Geronimo’s perspective to contemporary western history.20

In spite of Geronimo’s prominence in traditional and revisionist popular western histories, professional historians writing in the 1920s and 1930s ignored the Chiricahua leader, just as they considered Billy the Kid, Calamity Jane, and Wyatt Earp trivial subjects suitable only for popular history and the cinema. Only in the late 1980s and 1990s did professional historians reassess the racial dynamics of western history and puncture white establishment historiography with the many Native American, female, black, Chinese, and Mexican voices participating in or opposing the “development” of the nation.21 But in the 1920s and 1930s, popular history and cinema had already developed an audience for marginal and aberrant westerners, whether they were Native American leaders, women pioneers, or working-class gunfighters. Nichols’s conception of Stagecoach as an Apache war drama reflects contemporaneous trends in popular western history, but his and Ford’s visual engagement with the past surpassed the texts of both popular and professional historiography.

Dudley Nichols’s concern with writing a historical western was not confined to the expansion of Haycox’s pedestrian narrative. Like his screenwriting colleagues, he planned an impressive historical foreword, a textual invocation of the past to lend credence to Ford’s visual narrative. The final script begins with a projected text foreword:

Until the Iron Horse came, the Stagecoach was the only means of travel on the American frontier. Braving all dangers, these Concord coaches—the “streamliners” of their day—spanned on schedule wild, desolate stretches of desert and mountainland in the Southwest, where in 1885 the savage struggle of the Indians to oust the white invader was drawing to a close. At the time no name struck more terror into the hearts of travelers than that of Geronimo—leader of those Apaches who preferred death rather than submit to the white man’s will.22

(p.121) His foreword details the white invasion of the Apaches’ land and contextualizes the narrative with a specific date and time. The titles do not refer to a simple, mythic time dominated by a white conflict with nameless “Indians”; instead, they describe a specific tribe and a historic Apache leader, Geronimo. Nichols significantly altered his final shooting script’s attitude toward the Native Americans’ plight in the face of white expansion. An earlier draft, which also began with a text foreword, had conveyed an uncomplicated image of nameless Apache savagery:

Until the Iron Horse came, the stagecoach was the only means of travel on the American frontiers.… Braving all perils, these coaches traversed desert and mountain in the untamed Southwest of 1885, when the savage struggle of the Apache Indians to oust white settlers was drawing to a close.23

Here, the stagecoach, a symbol of civilization in the desert, is the hero of the frontier. Geronimo is not mentioned, and the Apaches have no fearless leader. Instead of refusing to “submit” to “the white invader” as they do in the final script, these Apaches merely attempt to fight the white settlers. Evidently, John Ford worked with Nichols on the script from late October to early November as they got ready for preliminary shooting. The result was a longer and more historically nuanced foreword, or opening title.

Since Cimarron’s manifold deployment of text inserts eight years before, text had become the definitive feature of historical filmmaking. Whether conveying an attitude of eulogy, criticism, or irony toward its historical subject, the projection of text on screen was an immediate trigger to filmmakers’ and audiences’ sense of a historical film. Considering all its connotations in terms of the established documentation and reputation of traditional written history, text had the potential to lend cinema a new and serious historical dimension. For Nichols and Ford to begin Stagecoach with a text foreword suggests components of the film’s history hitherto unrecognized by late-twentieth-century film criticism: the filmmakers’ approach to the West connected Stagecoach to a legacy of historical westerns and to a self-conscious preoccupation with questions of history.

But for some reason, this text foreword was cut before the film’s national release. Without the prologue, Stagecoach’s attitude toward history is not directly or textually constructed in relation to the accepted vocabulary of historical filmmaking in the early sound era. In the screenplay, (p.122) the conquest of the West, the dispossession of the Indians by the “white invaders,” and the refusal of Geronimo and his people to “submit” are all directly stated from the outset, complicating any simple view of the film as a violent racial myth that denies an Indian perspective. Did Ford cut this foreword in early 1939 before he finished shooting or before the film’s release, perhaps because he wanted to avoid creating a history-book western? This seems unlikely for several reasons. Although Nichols created the text foreword for the rough draft before Ford involved himself in the script, the text survived their intensive work sessions in October and November. Ford not only liked Nichols’s foreword but even expanded it; the text prologue in the final shooting script is twice its original size. The prologue was thus a long-term component of the planned film.

Ford did, however, delete Nichols’s opening sequence that described Geronimo’s rampage in the southwestern territories and foregrounded his fearful effect on the townspeople and the stagecoach passengers. In the final shooting script, when the sheriff warns the passengers that Geronimo is on the rampage and advises that they travel at their own risk, the pedestrians overhear and whisper the Apache’s name in a fearful crescendo.24 Ford evidently cut this shot, or series of shots, that would have contextualized Geronimo’s reputation as a threat to both established settlements and isolated outposts.

Ford did not cut Nichols’s specific provision in the script for a stunning close-up of Geronimo.25 Ford actually shot Geronimo full face as he looked directly into the camera—one of only two such close-ups in the film (the other is the first shot of Ringo). Geronimo’s direct confrontation with the camera and his look of concentrated menace, intensified by a low-angle shot, fracture the insularity of the classical western narrative and the spectator’s distance from the film’s historical narrative. Geronimo’s stare implicates the white audience in his 1885 response to the white “invasion” of the Southwest. Chief White Horse’s thin, scarlike mouth; deep cheek furrows; narrow, close-set eyes; and piercing stare are all recognizable attributes of Geronimo. The Chiricahua leader sat for his likeness many times after his surrender in 1886.26 Indeed, the film’s close-up is its “photograph” of Geronimo, taken not in captivity but when the Apache’s feared name and reputation coexisted with his defiant features. The shot also provides a closer view of Geronimo than any contemporary photographic portrait. Most, like the famed A. Frank Randall photograph, are full- or half-length portraits taken from a distance. In one sense, Stagecoach’s close-up seems to present, if only momentarily, a better sense of Geronimo and of history.


The Return of Our Epic America, 1938–1941

Close-ups of Geronimo. (Stagecoach)

In a famous article on the dinner-table sequence in Stagecoach, Nick Browne demonstrated Ford’s deliberate distance from the formal, identifying, point-of-view structures of classical Hollywood cinema.27 Although the sequence shows society’s ostracism of Dallas, Browne argued that Ford’s presentation of Ringo’s reaction, his close sympathetic shots of Dallas, and a reestablished distance from the scene all cause the audience to reject the dominant view of society embodied by the proper soldier’s wife, Lucy Mallory. But Ford truly subverted traditional forms of audience identification in his presentation of Geronimo and the Chiricahua perspective. In the film’s final battle, as the white passengers fight the Apaches, Ford integrated multiple shots of the moving stagecoach. Most of these show the stagecoach moving forward to the left of the frame, with the Indian riders gaining on the right. Audiences are closely aligned with the stagecoach passengers or positioned in front of the coach (like a Lordsburg citizen or cavalry officer looking out onto the desert). Yet at one point, Ford crosses the 180-degree line of action, “violating” the conventions of Hollywood editing. In that shot, the stagecoach is shown under attack in the distance, moving forward left to right. Ford’s choice, long understood as a mistake in editing by late-twentieth-century film historians, was no mistake.28 Although, as in the case of Lucy Mallory’s point of view, we may be led to reject this structure of identification, we are still seeing the stagecoach from the Apache point of view.


The Return of Our Epic America, 1938–1941The Return of Our Epic America, 1938–1941

The final chase in Stagecoach: Whose side is Ford on?

Stagecoach’s unusual if abbreviated portrayal of the Apache perspective and the visual and verbal power of Geronimo’s name and figure give him a cinematic presence throughout the film. It was the only major film in 1939 that even acknowledged the Native American point of view in this supposed return of the western myth. But Native Americans were not the only “aberrant” groups invested with their own perspective. Southerners Hatfield and Lucy Mallory, though nominally society’s arbiters of manners and privilege, are marginal enemies in the West. En route to Lords-burg, Doc Boone gloats over his status as a former Union officer serving under General Philip Sheridan (who later became an infamous Indian (p.125) killer). It was Nichols who decided to make Haycox’s anonymous army wife and gambler southerners. Nichols’s and Ford’s attitudes toward the South were highly ambivalent throughout their careers—unlike that of most of their colleagues, who tended to lionize southern qualities as they traveled west—but Stagecoach disparages the hoity-toity cultural trappings of Hatfield and Mallory. In both the final shooting script and the film, the South is the epitome of the civilization from which Ringo and Dallas happily escape at the end. Nichols took this attitude toward the South even further in his final script. During the last stagecoach battle with the Apaches, Doc Boone shouts as he kills an Apache, “Got ya, Johnny Reb!” thereby conflating the former Confederate rebels with the Apache rebels.29 Both these rebel forces were essentially destroyed by the assault of a new wave of white civilization. Ford may have thought that Nichols went too far here; the line was cut.

Although Ford’s transformation of the opening narrative sequence, his deviations from Nichols’ script, and his deletion of Doc Boone’s line in the last sequence all suggest an effort to curb Nichols’s complex historical allusions, many critics focused on the screenwriter’s role.30 After the premiere and reviews, Nichols, perhaps worried that his acclaim was souring a future working relationship with Ford, soothed his old friend with a letter. “If there was ever picture that was the director’s picture,” he wrote, “it was that one, and I tried to make that clear to everyone who complimented me in New York.” He continued, “It seemed to me in some of the notices I received undue mention and I tried to set it straight.”31 Curiously, in both major prints of Stagecoach, the credits placed Nichols’s name as screenwriter beneath that of Ernest Haycox, who wrote the original short story. This reversed the etiquette of motion picture crediting, which always gave precedence to the screenwriter. As one detects from Nichols’s letter to Ford, many speculated that the director might have done this deliberately to diminish Nichols’s role in authoring the film. Although this surprising postproduction attack may have initially irritated Nichols, he hastened to defend Ford in the same letter and even professed what “a very happy collaborator” he had been and still hoped to be. Ford was soothed, if only temporarily. He and Nichols would work together on only one more film during that period, The Long Voyage Home (1940). Although it earned Nichols another Academy Award nomination, it was not then considered one of Ford’s great achievements.

In spite of Ford’s resentment and possible invidious behavior, the screenwriter’s project for Stagecoach succeeded. Reviewers praised Nichols’s script, but even more prevalent was their emphasis on Stagecoach’s (p.126) historical underpinnings. According to these reviews, Stagecoach revived American history in films by re-creating the Southwest during Geronimo’s last raid.32 Stagecoach was true to both western history and the Hollywood history of the West. Life magazine highlighted Stagecoach as the movie of the week in late February, before the film’s general release, but instead of summarizing the fictional plot, the article began with an expanded version of Nichols’s prologue: “The railroad came to Arizona in 1878, but as late as 1885 you traveled overland to Lordsburg by stage.” It continued with a detailed account of the hardships a passenger encountered on the two-day, 170-mile run. “But the real menace of the Arizona Overland,” Life reminded its readers, “was the Indians. The very name of Geronimo made the passengers blanch with terror.”33 Life’s review is further testimony not only that the screenwriter’s prologue was included in the original film version but also that it made a powerful if somewhat skewed impression on audiences in 1939.

Of course, contemporary reviewers did not attribute the film’s success merely to Nichols’s historical influence. Ford received an incredible amount of critical and popular praise for Stagecoach. But ironically, considering the auteur’s legendary reputation as an artist, his decision to cut the prologue and many of the obvious historical elements seems to have been based on a need to assert control over the production at the expense of the high-profile screenwriter, rather than on an aesthetic desire to reinvent the western or connect Stagecoach with the mythic past of silent film. Nichols’s partial defeat on Stagecoach may have symbolized a turning point for both the power of the screenwriter and the construction of western cinematic historical discourse. In late 1942, after he had parted company with Ford, Nichols would comment that the studio compromised cinema’s potential by disempowering the writer. Both he and Twentieth Century–Fox writer-producer Nunnally Johnson would sense the waning power of the Hollywood writer and attempt directorial careers in the 1940s.34 Nonetheless, in 1942, Nichols looked back on his work and concluded, “I devoutly believe it is the writer who has matured the film medium more than anyone else in Hollywood.”35

In 1943, Nichols and the head of the Theatre Guild, John Gassner, published a collection of twenty of Hollywood’s best sound-era screenplays for popular consumption. Gassner’s praise for Stagecoach centered on Nichols’s sophisticated reconsideration of the nation’s western past. He wrote:

The representation of American history and ideals has, in fact, added not a little weight to the screen’s output, and can add a (p.127) great deal more. … A realistic examination of our past, as well as of the present in relation to our past, is imperative, and an impressive beginning was made by Dudley Nichols’ Stagecoach. … The “western,” regardless of its superficiality and naiveté, represented the American dream of independence and virility—but on a juvenile level. As Stagecoach, as well as a number of other screen stories like The Plainsman and Wells Fargo, demonstrate, the story of the West is not inherently wedded to puerilities.36

Rebels against the Railroad

One of the most prominent writers in Hollywood, and one directly connected to the rise of the American historical film, was former Georgia and New York reporter Nunnally Johnson. When Johnson moved from Paramount to Fox, he and Darryl Zanuck embarked on a massive American historical cycle. In fact, Johnson was so closely associated with Zanuck’s vision that in their first major American historical film, the Reconstruction-era account of Dr. Samuel Mudd’s trial and imprisonment, The Prisoner of Shark Island, Johnson was the film’s associate producer. He would later act in a similar capacity on Slave Ship (1937) and Jesse James (1939). Released a month before Wanger premiered Stagecoach, Jesse James was Zanuck and Johnson’s major prestige picture of 1939. It was also the first important film of the year, and Fox had prepared audiences for its arrival with a spate of publicity that focused on the film’s notorious heroes.37

In the December 1938 issue of Liberty magazine, journalist Helen Gilmore asked Johnson why gunfighters were coming back to A-feature Hollywood productions. Johnson answered that although gunfighters had never really gone out of style, Jesse James’s major audience pull would be its history. He then proceeded to read what would be the entire text of the opening frames. His foreword narrated American history following the Civil War, when “the eager, ambitious mind of America turned to the winning of the West.” According to Johnson, the railroad was the symbol of this new industrial age, but it was not an era of unalloyed progress: “The advance of the railroads was, in some cases, predatory and unscrupulous. … Whole communities of simple, hardy pioneers found themselves victimized by an ever-growing ogre—the Iron Horse.” Johnson explained Jesse and Frank James’s rise to fame as part of the climate of lawlessness, the dissatisfaction with American “development,” and the victimization of the pioneers.38

After his dramatic reading for the press, Johnson supposedly shut his (p.128) script with a flourish and assured Gilmore that the studio was not glorifying the James brothers but presenting important facts about an era previously neglected by the screen. Johnson had been scripting historical films since 1934, and he knew the value of injecting impressive historical iconography and research into a period narrative. The textual background of the Reconstruction era and the rise of industrialization gave depth to legendary characters such as Frank and Jesse James and invested the film with an aura of prestige. Jesse James represented a sublimation of Zanuck’s gangster cycle, where history had been too close for the censors’ comfort. But as Johnson reminded readers in 1938, nineteenth-century gangsters could not possibly be bad examples subject to censorship, since “those times have passed forever.”

Johnson’s lengthy prologue, which would eventually involve three text superimpositions in the final film, introduces many conflicts between America’s past and future. The text foreword and the James brothers’ lives begin after the Civil War has ended. The Union is restored, but with the advance of the railroads, a new lawless age develops. The massive foreword, first outlined in 1937 by writer Hal Long, concentrated on the underside of progressive business, as “the ruthless railroads pushed forward to new frontiers.” The emphasis was on industrial corruption. “Hoodlums, abetted by crooked politicians and financed by avaricious robber barons, capitalized on the development of the fertile valleys which lined the Mississippi for miles. Simple, hardy and God-fearing pioneers, real owners of the land from which all manner of life and sustenance sprang, found themselves victimized by the ever-growing ogre, The Iron Horse.”39

What the foreword does not state is that these unscrupulous industrialists and their agents are northerners, and the victimized farmers, like the James family, are former Confederates. So has the Civil War really ended? Isn’t Jesse and Frank’s decision to rob their first train a direct result of an ongoing guerrilla war between industrialism and agrarianism? Aren’t they self-styled Confederates, violently pushing the past and the Lost Cause of southern independence into Missouri’s troubled future? This is what Jesse James Jr.’s biography of his father and the myth of Jesse James stated.40 But as biographer T. J. Stiles recently pointed out, it was a self-conscious identity construction created not only by James’s frequent letters to local newspapers but also by editorials written by his friend and fellow Confederate veteran John Newman Edwards.41 Historians did not create the James mystique. Claims of historical objectivity or a search to find the “real” Jesse James are therefore lost causes, because so much of his life was a public performance of Confederate values. Eyewitnesses to (p.129) his first robberies even attested that he and his men wore Ku Klux Klan masks.42 The persistence of the James legend depended on creating and retaining a unified southern identity; only then could James’s robberies and murders be justified and admired as patriotic acts.

Surprisingly, Johnson and Zanuck excised the James brothers’ selfconscious presentation of their work as a continuation of Confederate resistance. The filmmakers suppressed Missouri’s endurance of martial law, the relocation of southern families, the enforced oath of allegiance that barred Confederate sympathizers from voting, as well as the barbarous crimes committed against Unionists by the James brothers and their bushwhacking associates during Reconstruction. Instead, Johnson started Jesse James’s career after railroad agents had killed his mother for not selling her farm. It was not the first time that Reconstruction would be written out of Hollywood’s history of nineteenth-century America, nor would it be the last. Only the vestiges of the James family’s doomed agrarian resistance survived the filmmakers’ historical transformation of America from a nation at war to a nation bent on expansion.

Zanuck and Johnson bolstered their critique of postwar industrialization with text forewords, dates, and details linking the careers of the James brothers to the ruthless path of the railroad. The titles note “April 8, 1872,” as the day the workers drove in the last spike of the St. Louis Midland Railroad, and the images and text then chronicle the rise of the James’s careers. These historical trappings gave Jesse and Frank James a historical prestige bestowed on other famous Americans, and Zanuck and Johnson zealously relied on assumptions of historical accuracy and the participation of James’s granddaughter Jo as a technical adviser to support the film. Critics reacted with amusement to the studio’s “apocryphal” and “purified” Jesse James, and Nugent wistfully noted that “movies frequently would be better if they didn’t try to draw a lesson.” Besides criticizing the film’s refusal to portray “Jesse James as he was, or even as we had thought him to be,” Nugent scoffed at the filmmakers’ portrayal of James as an anti-industrialist. “As a member of the capitalist press,” he sniggered, “we must condemn this obstructionist policy. As a vicarious member of the James gang, as every former reader of the nickel thrillers must be, we rather resent this moralistic lesson.” But Nugent overlooked the way James had manipulated the media and been reinvented by the Missouri press, dime novelists, biographers, and historians. It was facile to hope for a picture of James “as he was.” As Time’s film critic pointed out, the dime novel Jesse James, the Outlaw and its sequels portrayed Jesse as “a morally delinquent crook.”43 In their historical film, Zanuck and Johnson were (p.130) attempting to place two outlaws’ criminal exploits within a more complex historical framework.

But Johnson and Zanuck also surpassed any simple historian’s approach to find the “truth” about Jesse James. Johnson included a version of John Newman Edwards (played by the fiery Henry Hull), who editorialized James’s career and directed public understanding of his acts. After James’s murder, the editor fittingly gives a eulogy and disperses James’s individual criminality within the more sinister forces of government and industry. Zanuck connected the outlaw to a crucial period in American history: “His death marked the end of an era where such-and-such happened.” Zanuck continued, “He did many things wrong but he was not entirely to blame—laws—railroads—and all that—so we have a feeling that there was a point to the whole thing.”44 A biography of a gunfighter, however legendary, had to have historical overtones as narrative support. Johnson concurred, but he also portrayed James’s mythmaking as an ongoing process by the press. Nugent may have had tongue in cheek when he sputtered about capitalist resentment of Johnson’s historical premise, but the film is still remarkable for its presentation of a devious establishment and its acknowledgment of America’s desire for aberrant heroes.

Jesse James was not a classic western in the silent tradition as Frank Nugent understood it. As a Twentieth Century–Fox film, it retained a deliberate textual component and overarching historical argument that linked it to the core of sound-era prestige pictures. Although some prominent critics objected to its historical peccadilloes, by siding with the James brothers, Zanuck’s film stood against establishment history, government control, and national pursuit of expansion. Variety quoted the film’s foreword as historical justification, and Motion Picture Herald reviewed the film as “Twentieth Century–Fox’s Biography of an Outlaw,” linking the new film to audiences’ more recent memories of gangster Al Capone.45 The film’s declared and structured discourse was historical, not a hazy western myth. For all its deviations from strict accuracy, Jesse James belonged to a historical tradition established in the sound era.

Other films released in the ensuing months would claim in projected and printed text that they dealt with issues in western history, but their historical approach no longer sided with the rebels against the oppressive will of national expansion. Instead, the majority of historical westerns shown during and after 1939 justified the glory of America’s progressive history. But for a while, in the midst of a surge in American historical films, Jesse James proved that filmmakers were not always on the side of government-backed industry.

(p.131) Converting the Critics of Expansion?

Later in the year, Cecil B. DeMille’s Union Pacific was released as the antidote to Zanuck’s critique of industrialization. DeMille had begun working on another historical western after the success of The Plainsman in 1937 and Lloyd’s ambitious Wells Fargo, but he had no particular historical event, person, or neglected historical topic in mind. Instead, he began with an idea of national expansion and completion. Over lunch one day in February, he and Jeannie Macpherson worked it out: “Union Pacific is going to bind together two sides of the continent—Senators screaming ‘we don’t want the West. It can’t be done. It’s a madman’s dream.’—Dreams of a few men who believed it could be done.—President Lincoln believed that it must go through—without it the West would fall into foreign hands.—The drive to do the superhuman task.”46 Macpherson could not have been surprised when DeMille decided on the railroad as his heroic protagonist and the Indians and train-robbing outlaws as his villains.

Jesse Lasky, one of DeMille’s screenwriters for the project, skimmed through the popular history collected from neighboring libraries and chose Ernest Haycox’s semihistorical novel Troubleshooter as his source. Lasky was frankly contemptuous of Haycox’s story but believed that, with the appropriate historical groundwork, the fictional characters might work. He also looked at Trottman’s History of the Union Pacific before deciding on the Haycox work. He wrote to DeMille that the worthwhile element of the book “is lost in the stupid flamboyant style of its writing. There are the seeds of a good style underneath a bad ‘western’ literary style.”47 After the script was completed in September, producer William LeBaron read it and stressed the need for DeMille to include a truly impressive foreword emphasizing the national import of the Union Pacific. He suggested having Abraham Lincoln say, “This is not just important to the Middle West and the coast—but is important to the world.” Although DeMille added Lincoln to the visual prologue, he was uncertain about the foreword. Perhaps thinking that a national historical connection was too small for him, he toyed with comparing the Union Pacific with the Pyramids and the Great Wall of China. Luckily, one assistant producer thought that this type of foreword would be a bit too esoteric.48 DeMille may have tried to ease his historical discomfort by constructing a text foreword that identified Union Pacific as “a legend.” But as Pamela Falkenberg pointed out, even DeMille’s fabrications cannot be taken lightly. “This title,” she wrote,

(p.132) also ascribes to the depiction a particular status: what we are about to see is neither historical nor factual (that is, not a true representation), but a legend. A legend is both “an unverified popular story handed down from earlier times” and “a romanticized or popularized myth of modern times.” There is a certain ambiguity here. To the extent that Union Pacific is the legend, it is a myth of modern times that romanticizes the Union Pacific of the past. … To the extent that Union Pacific simply quotes the legend of the Union Pacific, it hands down a fictional past from earlier times.49

DeMille’s legends may be self-conscious transcriptions of historians’ own romantic views of nineteenth-century expansion and capitalist enterprise. And as Falkenberg reasoned, the opening credits are arranged to recede into the distance, becoming more historically illegible as time progresses. It was an approach DeMille had pioneered with The Plainsman in 1936. Although the titles deliberately inscribe this uncertainty, this sense that all history is based on recycled legends and elusive text, according to Falkenberg, DeMille’s narrative also exposes capitalism’s and American history’s own contradictions. When the evil capitalist Barrows turns around and funds the railroad that he once planned to destroy, capitalism is momentarily subverted, but not for long. The Union Pacific is completed; thus, “capitalism negates itself in order to maintain itself.”50

The Return of Our Epic America, 1938–1941

Opening credits of The Plainsman illustrate the theme of the recession of history.

Yet no contemporary film critic was willing to credit DeMille with (p.133) an unconscious discourse on corporate capitalism or any self-conscious historical subtlety. Nugent was cutting: “For Mr. DeMille spares nothing, horses or actors, when he turns his hand to western history.” The narrative was an “encyclopedia of frontier adventure.” Hollywood trade papers called it “a significant addition to the roster of historical melodramas” but neglected to specify what it added, save epic size and over $1.4 million of productions costs.51 Historical filmmaking in the late 1930s had become an overarching business that became more and more adept at masking its historical qualities and subversive text.

DeMille still believed in stressing the importance of American history—when it served his cinematic purpose. When critics complained of historical inaccuracies in The Plainsman, he had quoted his foreword as a disclaimer. When Reverend Shiuhushu of the Indian Association of America condemned Union Pacific’s “rotten” portrayal of Native Americans as a “savage race,” DeMille countered, “We were making pictures based on historical facts,” without specifying whose facts he relied on.52 He claimed utter objectivity in his films, yet Frank Calvin, a nephew of the head of the Union Pacific Railroad, headed Union Pacific’s research department. Surely there was a conflict of interest. Speaking with Bosley Crowther of the New York Times in May 1939, DeMille defended his historical vision: “History should be honestly and diligently respected. But, also I’d maintain that its teaching should be done more naturally, too. History is not just a matter of names and dates—dry facts strung together. It is an endless, dramatic story, as alive as the news in the morning’s paper.”53 Unfortunately, DeMille’s main facts were his constant faith in heroic national expansion, the purity of the white race, the sacredness of industry, and his stock of cinematic images and sequences that he could recycle at will. These were not facts but attitudes and legends, which, as Falkenberg argued, perversely turned on themselves for sustenance. Like the opening credits of DeMille’s film, history itself seemed to disappear, leaving only its main argument formed by the thrust of the Union Pacific’s tracks. Spurred on by DeMille’s example, Hollywood filmmakers pursued the “superwestern”54 but left the wreckage of historical experimentation in their wake.

Warner Brothers and the Winning of the West

Although Warner Brothers had been releasing American historical productions during Darryl Zanuck’s era, it was only in 1936 that the studio created the Warner Research Library and appointed Dr. Herman Lissauer (p.134) to head it.55 Warner Brothers was preparing to compete with Zanuck, and though it would soon possess one of the most impressive research libraries in California, it still lacked the historical screenwriters with whom Zanuck worked so closely. By 1938, Robert Buckner emerged as Warner Brothers’ most prominent writer of American historical films. His first collaboration on such a script for Warner Brothers was the rather stodgy Gold Is Where You Find It (1938), a history of the clash between California’s emerging hydraulic power industry and the agricultural economy. A few months after the release of Gold Is Where You Find It, the studio library collected Thornton Delehanty’s article “Westerns—The Last Word in Safety.”56 The noted critic said that westerns were cheap and satisfying to the nation and predicted that 1939 would be dominated by Americana. The studio had already made its own prediction several months before.

Under the supervision of Hal Wallis, Warner Brothers took as few financial risks as possible and decided on a remake of a successful historical period—the opening of Oklahoma’s Cherokee Strip in 1893. The event had figured prominently in Cimarron, and even eight years after its release, the film still possessed an aura in Hollywood. Its scale and expense had deterred remakes, but by 1939, with the overall economic situation in Hollywood improving and with a different script, Warner Brothers decided to make The Oklahoma Kid. The researchers even dug a copy of Ferber’s Cimarron out of the studio’s library and studied it.57 Originally, writers Wally Klein, Edward E. Paramore, and Warren Duff opened The Oklahoma Kid with a highly critical historical prologue beginning with a shot of the Indian Territory and the title quoting the government treaty, “Theirs as long as the grass grows and the water flows.”58 They then planned a quick dissolve to the White House in 1893, when President Cleveland broke the treaty. Buckner cut this potentially embarrassing prologue and planned to open with a voice-over extolling “the five and a half million acres of virgin land.” Duff agreed to replace the original critical treatment with Buckner’s positive spin on the imperial proclamation and decided to combine the endorsement of the new land rush with the original shot of the White House.59 The writers studied Cimarron, both the book and the film, and although the time span and prologue were significantly diminished, they still maintained a protagonist, the Oklahoma Kid, who publicly sneered at “empire building” and remembered that the land had prior owners—the Cherokees.

However, unlike Yancey Cravat, the Oklahoma Kid (James Cagney) is neither of mixed blood nor a journalist-historian. The Kid is just on the (p.135) wrong side of the law. Although he initially criticizes the government’s expansionist policies before and during the land rush, his antiexpansion rhetoric disappears as the narrative progresses. The filmmakers were evidently worried about any antiestablishment comments, and in the final stages of film production, they began to add a number of temporizing text inserts to the first half of the film. Their impressive intertitles render the Kid’s individual critique of the government even more marginal: “Out of the wilderness sprouts an empire. Pioneers, their eyes fixed on the future, build a town—one day to be a city … Tulsa.”60 In constructing Cimarron’s history of Oklahoma, Estabrook had incorporated a counterpoint of overblown rhetoric with multiethnic, multiracial, feminist, and antifrontier images; in contrast, Buckner and Warner Brothers’ team of writers used text as a means of restraining aberrant film images. After the land rush, these historical structures vanish, and the Kid’s conflict with crooked saloon-keeper Whip McCord (Humphrey Bogart) dominates the narrative. In fighting the men who killed his father, the Kid becomes a good American citizen again, one who supports law and order and expansion. Screenwriter Norman Reilly Raine explained the new goal of the script: “Whatever he does against the McCord crowd would be lifted out of the status of the personal and would become the act of a patriot … and would provide a legitimate reason for stressing largeness of vision in the settling of the country and the onward march of civilization.”61 Zanuck had suggested something similar when expanding the historical significance of Jesse James, but Raine, Buckner, and Wallis did not share his valorization of critics of American empire. The Oklahoma Kid’s opening criticism of the government’s treatment of Indians and his own contempt for the government and expansion are transformed in the course of the narrative. Curiously, as traces of history and text disappear from the film and the scenes develop exclusively along the personal story, Cagney’s character becomes a figure for law and order. He absorbs the discourse of the projected text. Buckner had originally planned to solidify the Kid’s national devotion in a final speech that praised the settling of the West and claimed that it had been his father’s dream, and was now his own, and would belong to future generations.62 But this was too much for the studio. The film ended on a kiss.

Released in March, The Oklahoma Kid was a mild popular success. The critics thought otherwise. Nugent wrote, “Mr. Cagney doesn’t urge you to believe him for a second; he’s just enjoying himself.” After starting off the year and a new western cycle with Jesse James and Stagecoach, Variety was appalled by this “small-time western” masquerading as a (p.136) Cimarron, and it blamed the clichés on the writers.63 Howard Barnes of the New York Herald Tribune also attacked the script. Critics of historical films usually focused on the accuracy of the narrative, but Barnes took the filmmakers to task for their pretensions in adding prestigious touches and intertitles to a western. “The direction falters to the point of having to substitute subtitles at points where a bit of significant action or dialogue might have knit the continuity together. … If you care to pigeonhole the photoplay, call it the latest example of the glorified westerns, which are rapidly assuming the proportions of a major screen cycle.”64 For nine years, the use of projected text in film had been the most recognizable iconography of the historical film. Critics unfamiliar with the period or with the nuances of historiography used to quote or paraphrase the filmmakers’ forewords. Often they became the keynotes for a critic’s review. But in 1939, Barnes reacted to text in The Oklahoma Kid as though he had noticed it for the first time: text had become so obvious and disjunctive that the visual narrative fell apart.

In spite of the film’s mediocre reviews, Warner Brothers seemed determined to control the production of historical westerns. After a huge premiere and fancy national promotions, it released its next installment, Dodge City, in April 1939.65 Prestige, historical trappings, and the making of “glorified” westerns all seemed to be the surest method to rescue a hidebound Hollywood genre from its own repetitive anonymity and mediocre profits. But critics recognized that, unlike Cimarron, these “splashy” films increasingly explored history and conflict as a means of concealing mediocre scripts. Warner Brothers, Paramount, and MGM, in their mad dash to surpass RKO and outdo Zanuck, had a surfeit of major actors and a dearth of scripts. Since Buckner worked on all of Warner Brothers’ efforts, time constraints forced him to repeat impressive historical formulas. At Warner Brothers, scripts became films at a breathless pace, and it was tempting to repeat narrative formulas from James Cagney’s last feature to support Errol Flynn’s latest adventure. Historical intertitles and details could patch only so much; Barnes’s criticism may have hit its mark. Dodge City’s antecedents were undistinguished, and Buckner realized it, so his solution was to add some historical filler. Aeneas MacKenzie had done some preliminary research on Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday in early 1938.66 The studio had wanted to make another picture about Earp in Tombstone, but Twentieth Century–Fox owned the rights to Frontier Marshal and the only major biography of Earp by Stuart Lake. It did not want to risk a lawsuit from the irascible Lake or the pugnacious Zanuck. But, as Walter MacEwan wrote, the studio could always do a film about (p.137) Earp’s experiences in Dodge City, Kansas, and fictionalize everything by making “a swell big western.”67

Jack Warner was intrigued by this inexpensive suggestion and sent MacKenzie to the research library to read popular history, hoping that this precaution would save them from the pitfalls of plagiarism. Buckner had an even simpler solution: make it up and treat it like history. He knew nothing about Earp’s life and even asked the research department if there was such a place as Tombstone, Arizona. He wrote, “Reduced to its actual elements, Dodge City was a dynamic, wide-open cattle town—that and only that. Any other reasons for its colorful existence would be an absolute falsification of historical facts. The result is a ‘western’ picture, if a label must be applied; but a formula which we have attempted to improve and distinguish within the natural limitations of the material.”68 The old “western” formula lacked prestige at that time, as Buckner’s almost embarrassed hesitation indicated; during the heyday of the sound-era historical western, critics preferred to dress up westerns with terms such as “historical melodrama,” “history,” “semibiographical,” and “period adventure.”

Buckner attempted to cover the genre’s plebian past with the gloss of the Civil War. It was a solution he and the studio would return to in Virginia City (1940), The Santa Fe Trail (1940), and They Died with Their Boots On (1941). Both his first draft and final script of Dodge City begin with text superimpositions and prologues opening during the Civil War.69 Wade, the fictional protagonist (though modeled on Earp), is actually a southern officer at Gettysburg. Buckner eventually restrained his enthusiasm for history, however, and had the script begin after the war, when “the soldiers of both armies put aside their guns and consecrate themselves to the rebuilding of a great nation.” The railroad becomes the new plow. Wade’s southern origins are barely noticeable, and although tensions with Yankee saloon-keeper Surette flare, Wade’s real preoccupation is the rebuilding of the nation out west. He has none of the Oklahoma Kid’s scruples but is a full-blown cattleman and sheriff.

Even more than Dodge City, Virginia City protected its western narrative with the impressive rhetoric of Abraham Lincoln and epic battles of the Civil War.70 Buckner and Wallis also enlisted the resources of the research department to bolster the narratives, but by 1940, critics were not impressed. Barnes and Nugent both dismissed the stories as “conventional horse operas” trying to be “glorified westerns” but projecting only “well-worn” and “hackneyed views of the West.”71 Behind closed doors, the filmmakers openly acknowledged that these historical gestures were (p.138) meaningless. Actors were changing their own lines, and Wallis predicted that when “everyone becomes a writer,” the script would fail.72

In a major break with the structure of historical filmmaking, Darryl Zanuck’s production of The Return of Frank James (1940) used actual footage from Jesse James, and the original film functioned like the traditional text foreword. Film history became the structural equal of historiography. Producer Julian Johnson was thrilled with the idea, and Zanuck, with some misgivings, agreed.73 With the exception of serials and the use of documentary footage, it was one of the first times that a major A feature used old fiction film footage as historical evidence. In Vera Dika’s analysis of the postmodern “nostalgia” film of the 1970s and 1980s, she defines the postmodern impulse as a potentially critical view of the past lodged in the disjunctive return of past images.74 Although Dika limits these selfreflexive moments to postclassical Hollywood, Zanuck’s reuse of his old footage points to a self-conscious use of film as a historical document and to the symbolic decay of the historical genre. Remakes of historical films such as The Oklahoma Kid, Fox’s Frontier Marshal (1933, 1939), Universal’s Destry Rides Again (1932, 1939), and MGM’s Billy the Kid (1930, 1941) testified to the studios’ occasional experimentation with historical structures and iconography, but critics saw only repetition. Even the Hollywood Reporter complained, “It doesn’t seem to matter what you do to a western; it still comes out as a western, and whether you spend $50,000 or $500,000 or even more to make one, they all seem to wind up with about the same story that has the same entertainment values.”75 By 1939, as these struggles between historical innovation and mass-produced spectacles resulted in more and more western formulas, the memory of Hollywood’s pioneering sound-era westerns faded into the distance.


(1) . Frank S. Nugent, New York Times, 3 March 1939, 21; Nugent, “A Sixty Day Note,” New York Times, 12 March 1939, X5.

(2) . Both these films made use of historical details and intertitles.

(3) . Some of the best known among the Ford-Nugent collaborations were Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), The Quiet Man (1952), and The Searchers (1956).

(4) . André Bazin, “The Evolution of the Western,” in What Is Cinema? ed. and trans. Hugh Gray (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972), 2:149–57; Nick Browne, “The Spectator-in-the-Text: The Rhetoric of Stagecoach,” in Film Theory and Criticism, 6th ed., ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 118–33; Richard Anobile, Stagecoach (New York: Avon Books, 1975); Edward Buscombe, Stagecoach (London: BFI, 1992), 88; Tag Gallagher, John Ford: The Man and His Films (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 147; Tino Balio, Grand Design: Hollywood as a Modern Business Enterprise, 1930–1939 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1993); Richard Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation (Norman: Universitiy of Oklahoma Press, 1998), 303.

(5) . See Jack Nachbar, ed., Focus on the Western (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1974), and other titles in the bibliographical note in ch. 3 of that book. For more on John Ford’s mythic West, see Andrew Sarris, The John Ford Movie Mystery (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1975); Peter Bogdanovich, John Ford (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978); Lindsay Anderson, About John Ford (London: Plexus, 1981); Peter Stowell, John Ford (Boston: Twayne, 1986); Gallagher, John Ford; Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation; William Darby, John Ford’s Westerns (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1996); and Ian Cameron and Douglas Pye, eds. The Book of Westerns (New York: Continuum, 1996).

(6) . Rudy Behlmer’s comparison of the Ernest Haycox short story, the script, and the film ignores Nichols’s historical perspective and the connection to earlier historical westerns: Behlmer, Behind the Scenes (Hollywood: Samuel French, 1990), 104–18.

(7) . Only recently have authors begun to explore Zanuck’s and Nichols’s dominant roles in “Ford” films; see George Custen, Bio/Pics: How Hollywod Constructed Public History (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1992); Twentieth Century’s Fox: Darryl F. Zanuck and the Culture of Hollywood (New York: Basic Books, 1997); Charles Maland “‘Powered by a Ford’? Dudley Nichols, Authorship, and Cultural Ethos in Stagecoach,” in John Ford’s Stagecoach, ed. Barry Keith Grant (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 48–81.

(8) . Leo Rosten, Hollywood (New York: HBJ, 1941), 325–26.

(9) . Gilbert Seldes in The Movies Come from America, 74, quoted in Rosten, Hollywood, 302.

(10) . Ernest Haycox, “Stage to Lordsburg,” Collier’s, 10 April 1937, reprinted in Stagecoach: A Film (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1971), 5–18.

(11) . Edward Buscombe, Stagecoach (London: BFI, 1992), 14–15. See also Peter Stanfield’s Hollywood, Westerns and the 1930s: The Lost Trail (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2001), which claimed that the historical western went out of circulation from 1932 to 1938.

(12) . Selznick to Messrs. Whitney and Wharton, 29 June 1937, in Memo from David O. Selznick, ed. Rudy Behlmer (New York: Viking, 1972), 116–17.

(13) . The script is at Yale University’s Beinecke Library (WA Mss. S-1610, box 46, f. 339). The other known copy is deposited at the Lilly Library, Indiana University.

(14) . Only Warner Brothers’ studio archives retain any records of their production research bibliographies.

(15) . Paul Wellman, Death in the Desert: The Fifty Years War for the Great (p.387) Southwest (New York: Macmillan, 1935). See also Woodworth Clum, Apache Agent: The Story of John P. Clum (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1936); Frank C. Lockwood, The Apache Indians (New York: Macmilllan, 1938).

(16) . Britton Davis, The Truth about Geronimo: Life with the Apache Scouts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1929); Anton Mazzanovich, Trailing Geronimo (Hollywood: A. Mazzanovich, 1931). Mazzanovich’s popular book had been reissued twice by 1931, and since it had been published in the author’s adopted home, Hollywood, it was certainly known to Nichols. Mazzanovich had many friends in the entertainment industry, some of whom he thanked in his preface for inspiring him to write the book.

(17) . Mazzanovich, Trailing Geronimo, 148.

(18) . Davis, Truth about Geronimo, xvi.

(19) . Ibid., xvii.

(20) . Geronimo’s autobiography as told to S. M. Barrett (New York: Duffield, 1906) was not cited in ensuing popular histories of the Southwest Apache wars.

(21) . See Richard White, Western History (Washington, D.C.: American Historical Association, 1997).

(22) . Dudley Nichols, Stagecoach, November 1939, John Ford Collection, Lilly Library, Indiana University. Nichols’s 1977 publication (Stagecoach,” in Twenty Best Film Plays, ed. Dudley Nichols and John Gassner [New York: Garland, 1977], 995–1038) reads “untamed American frontier.” A typographical error in the latter text records the foreword’s date as 1855. Other references in this version read 1885 and are in accord with the original studio copy of the final shooting script, which refers to all Stagecoach dates as 1885.

(23) . Dudley Nichols, Stagecoach, rough draft 10–23 October 1938, 1, Lilly Library, Indiana University.

(24) . Ibid., 19.

(25) . Nichols, “Stagecoach,” 1029.

(26) . Geronimo’s most famous portrait was taken by A. Frank Randall in 1886 and showed him kneeling and clutching a rifle. Reed and Wallace’s series of photographs, also taken in 1886, were widely circulated as postcards and souvenirs.

(27) . Nick Browne, “The Spectator-in-the-Text: The Rhetoric of Stagecoach,” in Film Theory and Criticism, ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 118–33.

(28) . Buscombe, Stagecoach, 66–67.

(29) . Nichols, “Stagecoach,” 1030.

(30) . Bosley Crowther, “John Ford vs. Stagecoach,” New York Times, 29 January 1939; Hollywood Reporter, 3 February 1939, 3; Film Daily, 15 February 1939, 7; Welford Beaton, Hollywood Spectator, 18 February 1939, 5–6; Life, 27 February 1939, 31–35.

(31) . Nichols to Ford, undated letter, likely March 1939, John Ford Collection, Lilly Library.

(32) . Variety, 8 February 1939, 17; Film Daily, 15 February 1939, 7.

(33) . Life, 27 February 1939, 31–35.

(34) . John Huston (Jezebel) and Preston Sturges (Sutter’s Gold) would also take this route.

(35) . Dudley Nichols, “Film Writing,” Theatre Arts (December 1942): 770–74, 773.

(36) . John Gassner, “The Screenplay as Literature,” in Nichols and Gassner, Twenty Best Film Plays, xxi.

(37) . According to Variety’s reports of key cities (8 February 1939, 10), Jesse James played well for several weeks; its only competitor in February was RKO’s Gunga Din.

(38) . Helen Gilmore, “The Bad Men Are Coming Back,” Liberty, 31 December 1938, 20–21.

(39) . Jesse James treatment, 6 May 1937, Twentieth Century–Fox Collection, USC.

(40) . Jesse James Jr., Jesse James, My Father, the First and Only True Story of His Adventures Ever Written (Independence, Mo.: Sentinel Printing Co., 1899), 194.

(41) . T. J. Stiles, Jesse James (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002), 211–25.

(42) . Sioux City Journal, 23 July 1873, cited in Stiles, Jesse James, 236.

(43) . John Rosenfield, “Jesse James Hero of Epic Melodrama,” Dallas Texas News, 22 January 1939; Time, 23 January 1939; Nugent, New York Times, 8 January 1939, IX, 4:1, 14 January 1939, 13.

(44) . Zanuck conference, 14 May 1937, Twentieth Century–Fox Collection, USC.

(45) . Variety, 11 January 1939, 12; Motion Picture Herald, 14 January 1939.

(46) . Union Pacific, script notes, box 540, folder 1, Cecil B. DeMille Collection, BYU.

(47) . Letter from Lasky to DeMille, 21 February 1938, box 540, folder 10, ibid.

(48) . Communication, 10 July 1938, box 540, folder 2, folder 4, ibid.

(49) . Pamela Falkenberg, “Rewriting the ‘Classic Hollywood Cinema’: Textual Analysis, Ironic Distance, and the Western in the Critique of Corporate Capitalism” (Ph.D. diss., University of Iowa, 1983), 193–94.

(50) . Ibid., 200.

(51) . Variety, 27 April 1939, 3; National Box Office Digest, 8 May 1939, 7, and 22 May 1939, 5. See also Robert S. Birchard, Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2004), 306.

(52) . Letter to DeMille, 16 May 1939, and response, 23 May 1939, box 549, folder 19, BYU.

(53) . Bosley Crowther, “DeMille Checks Facts,” New York Times, 7 May 1939, X, 5.

(54) . Birchard, DeMille’s Hollywood, 293. The Plainsman would gross over $2 million domestically.

(55) . Mary Duncan Carter, “Film Research Libraries,” Library Journal, 15 May 1939, 406.

(56) . New York Herald Tribune, 6 November 1938.

(57) . Research log, 9 August 1938, Warner Brothers Archive, USC.

(58) . The Oklahoma Kid, treatment, 8 July 1938, ibid.

(59) . Buckner, temporary script, 9 September 1938, and Duff, 4 October 1938, ibid.

(60) . Memo, B. F. to Casey, 2 November 1938, Oklahoma Kid story file, ibid.

(61) . Memo, 11 July 1938, 2, story file, ibid.

(62) . The Oklahoma Kid, script, 9 September 1938, 149, ibid.

(63) . Variety, 15 March 1939, 16.

(64) . Howard Barnes, New York Herald Tribune, 11 March 1939, 8.

(65) . Variety, 5 April 1939, 2. By the end of May, Variety (31 May 1939, 6) reported that Dodge City would easily outgross $2.5 million domestically.

(66) . Memo, 30 March 1938, Dodge City, story file, Warner Brothers Archive, USC.

(67) . Memo, 25 January 1938, ibid.

(68) . Buckner, script treatment, 30 March 1938, ibid.

(69) . Dodge City, scripts, 14 May 1938 and 27 September 1938, final script dated 14 October 1938, ibid.

(70) . Wallis to McCord, story file, 12 February 1940, ibid.

(71) . Howard Barnes (New York Herald Tribune) and Frank Nugent (New York Times) both wrote about Dodge City on 8 April 1939; Nugent reviewed Virginia City in New York Times, 23 March 1940, 16.

(72) . Wallis to Curtiz, story file, 4 December 1939, Warner Brothers Archive, USC.

(73) . Zanuck wanted to substitute a montage of newspaper headlines to prepare the largely fictional account of Frank James’s revenge, but the final film includes the clip. See treatment, 2 December 1939; note from Johnson, 4 December 1939; conference with Zanuck, 6 December 1939, 7; and shooting script, 23 February 1940, Twentieth Century–Fox Collection, USC.

(74) . Vera Dika, Recycled Culture in Contemporary Art and Film: The Uses of Nostalgia (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).

(75) . Daily Variety, 23 May 1941; Hollywood Reporter, 23 May 1941.