Category: Movie westerns

Old West Towns: Real or Myth?

Shops and businesses on the streets away from the center of town were laid out willy-nilly; some with entries facing alleyways. Boarding houses and private homes were seemingly dropped at random, as if tossed like dice from a gambler’s hand. –from my WIP, Stop the Wedding (book #1 Shotgun Brides)

I’m working on a new 3-book series that takes place in the fictional town of Haywire, Texas.   Before I could begin writing, it was necessary to map out my town.  Fans of western movies might think that’s a bit strange.  When a town is only one street wide and a block long, what’s to map out?  Well, for one thing, western movie sets are generally much smaller than a real town ever was, and less spread out.

Gold Hills, Nevada

The town in my book was built prior to the Civil War.  That’s important to know, because towns founded before the war generally sprang-up along wandering cow paths.   If you ever got lost in parts of Boston, as I once did, you’d know how confusing such towns can be.

Fortunately, after the war, town founders hired surveyors to plat grids oriented to railroad specifications. This practice came too late to help the poor residents of Haywire—or my hero who gets lost while chasing a bad guy through town.

Since business taxes in the Old West were calculated on width, shops and saloons were built long and narrow. What was generally called Outhouse Alley ran behind the buildings, parallel to the main thoroughfare.

Some buildings did double-duty. Schools often shared space with the Oddfellows or Masons, and shopkeepers lived over shops.

My town’s main street is T-shaped which runs into the railroad.  On the other end of Main, the town is split in two by a hundred-foot wide cross street.  A street like this was known in many western towns as the Dead Line, the purpose of which was to separate moral businesses from those beyond the pale.

Dead Line streets were wide enough so that anyone who accidentally ventured into the wrong side of town, occupied by saloons, bordellos and in Haywire’s case, the barbershop, could easily turn horse and wagon around.  Thus delicate constitutions were saved and reputations left intact.

Typically, the bank would be built next to the sheriff or marshal’s office, which explains why bank robberies in the Old West were rare. Only the most daring outlaw would attempt a bank robbery. It was much easier to rob stages—and a whole lot healthier.

Movies do get some things right. For example, buildings in many towns were mostly wood with false fronts.  These fake facades were added to make hastily-built buildings look more impressive and provide a place for signage.  Some towns, especially in the south-west where few trees could be found, were built mostly from adobe.

Speaking of movies, what western would be complete without having the hero barge through a saloon’s bat-wing doors? In reality, not every saloon had such doors. In some parts of the country, it was too cold or windy and too much dust would blow inside. Saloons that did have café doors also had standard doors that could be shut and locked when necessary.  A tour guide at Universal Studios explained that movie sets had saloon doors of different sizes: an extra-large one to make the heroine appear small and demure, and an extra-small door to make the hero appear taller and more imposing.

Another thing that frontier towns had that you won’t see in most western movies is a sign telling visitors to check their guns.  Now that’s one area where Hollywood and Haywire can agree.

Have you ever visited a western ghost town or movie lot?

 

Welcome to Two-Time, Texas

There’s a new sheriff in town and she almost always gets her man!

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Updated: April 27, 2017 — 4:50 am

REVISITING THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE by Cheryl Pierson

    LV movie poster

Favorite western movies? I’ve got a few. But if I had to choose, I think it would have to be The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

This Hollywood classic, starring John Wayne as Tom Doniphon, Lee Marvin as Liberty Valance, Vera Miles as Hallie Ericson, and Jimmy Stewart as Ransom “Ranse” Stoddard has just about everything a western cinema fan could hope for: action, romance, right-over-might…and an unforgettable theme song.

Dorothy M. Johnson’s short story was made into a movie in 1962. It’s one of my oldest “movie” memories, as I was five years old when it made the rounds to the movie theaters and drive-ins.

Here’s the description of the movie according to Wickipedia:

Elderly U.S. Senator Ransom “Ranse” Stoddard and his wife Hallie arrive by train in the small western town of Shinbone, to attend the funeral of an apparent nobody, a local rancher named Tom Doniphon. Prior to the funeral, Hallie goes off with a friend to visit a burned-down house with obvious significance to her. As they pay their respects to the dead man at the undertaker’s establishment, the senator is interrupted with a request for a newspaper interview. Stoddard grants the request.

As the interview with the local reporter begins, the film flashes back several decades as Stoddard reflects on his first arrival at Shinbone by stagecoach to establish a law practice.Liberty Valance Lee Marvin

A gang of outlaws, led by gunfighter Liberty Valance, hold up the stagecoach. Stoddard is brutally beaten, left for dead and later rescued by Doniphon. Stoddard is nursed back to health by restaurant owner Peter Ericson (John Qualen), his wife Nora (Jeanette Nolan) and daughter Hallie. It later emerges that Hallie is Doniphon’s love interest.

Shinbone’s townsfolk are regularly menaced by Valance and his gang. Cowardly local marshal Link Appleyard (Andy Devine) is ill prepared and unwilling to enforce the law. Doniphon is the only local courageous enough to challenge Valance’s lawless behavior. On one occasion, Doniphon even intervenes on Stoddard’s behalf, when Valance publicly humiliates the inept Easterner. Valance trips Stoddard who is waiting tables at Peter’s restaurant. Stoddard spills Doniphon’s order causing Doniphon to intervene. Valance stands down and leaves. Doniphon tells Stoddard he needs to either leave the territory or buy a gun. Stoddard says he will do neither.

"No...I said you, Liberty...You pick it up!"

“No…I said you, Liberty…You pick it up!”

Stoddard is an advocate for justice under the law, not man. He earns the respect and affection of Hallie when he offers to teach her to read after he discovers, to her embarrassment, she’s had no formal education. Stoddard’s influence on Hallie and the town is further evidenced when he begins a school for the townspeople with Hallie’s help. But, secretly, Stoddard borrows a gun and practices shooting.

Doniphon shows Stoddard his plans for expanding his house in anticipation of marrying Hallie, and reminds him that Hallie is his girl. Doniphon gives Stoddard a shooting lesson but humiliates him by shooting a can of paint which spills on Stoddard’s suit. Doniphon warns that Valance will be just as devious, but Stoddard hits him in the jaw and leaves.

In Shinbone, the local newspaper editor-publisher Dutton Peabody (Edmond O’Brien) writes a story about local ranch owners’ opposition to the territory’s potential statehood. Valance convinces the ranchers that if they will hire him, he can get elected as a delegate to represent the cattlemen’s interest. Shinbone’s residents meet to elect two delegates to send to the statehood convention at the territorial capital. Valance attempts to bully the townspeople into electing him as a delegate. Eventually, Stoddard and Peabody are chosen. Valance assaults and badly beats Peabody after Peabody publishes two unflattering articles about Valance and his gang. The villains destroy Peabody’s office. Valance also calls Stoddard out for a duel later in the evening after Valance loses his bid for delegate. Valance leaves saying “Don’t make us come and get you!” Doniphon tells Stoddard he should leave town and even offers to have his farmhand, Pompey, escort him. But when Stoddard sees that Peabody has been nearly beaten to death, he calls out Valance. Stoddard then retrieves a carefully wrapped gun from under his bed and heads toward the saloon where Valance is. Valance hears he has been called out and justifies going out in self-defense. His wins his last poker hand before the duel with Aces and Eights.

"Pompey..."

“Pompey…”

In the showdown, Valance toys with Stoddard by firing a bullet near his head and then wounding him in the arm, which causes Stoddard to drop his gun. Valance allows Stoddard to bend down and retrieve the gun. Valance then aims to kill Stoddard promising to put the next bullet “right between the eyes,” when Stoddard fires and miraculously kills Valance with one shot to the surprise of everyone, including himself. Hallie responds with tearful affection. Doniphon congratulates Stoddard on his success, and notices how Hallie lovingly cares for Stoddard’s wounds.

Sensing that he has lost Hallie’s affections, Doniphon gets drunk in the saloon and drives out Valance’s gang, who have been calling for Stoddard to be lynched for Valance’s “murder.” The barman tries to tell Doniphon’s farmhand Pompey (Woody Strode) that he cannot be served (due to his race), to which Doniphon angrily shouts: “Who says he can’t? Pour yourself a drink, Pompey.” Pompey instead drags Doniphon home, where the latter sets fire to an uncompleted bedroom he was adding to his house in anticipation of marrying Hallie. The resulting fire destroys the entire house.

Stoddard is hailed as “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” and based on this achievement, is nominated as the local representative to the statehood convention. Stoddard is reluctant to serve based upon his notoriety for killing a man in a gunfight.

At this point, in a flashback within the original flashback, Doniphon tells Stoddard that it was he (Doniphon), hidden across the street, who shot and killed Valance in cold blood, and not Stoddard in self-defense. Stoddard finds Doniphon and asks him why he shot Valance. He did it for Hallie, he says, because he understood that “she’s your girl now”. Doniphon encourages Stoddard to accept the nomination: “You taught her to read and write, now give her something to read and write about!”

Stoddard returns to the convention and is chosen as representative. He marries Hallie and eventually becomes the governor of the new state. He then becomes a two term U.S. senator, then the American ambassador to Great Britain, a U.S. senator again, and at the time of Doniphon’s funeral is the favorite for his party’s nomination as vice president.

The film returns to the present day and the interview ends. The newspaper man, understanding now the truth about the killing of Valance, burns his notes stating: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

"Hallie... who put the cactus rose on Tom's coffin?"

“Hallie… who put the cactus rose on Tom’s coffin?”

Stoddard and Hallie board the train for Washington, melancholy about the lie that led to their prosperous life. With the area becoming more and more civilized, Stoddard decides, to Hallie’s delight, to retire from politics and return to the territory to set up a law practice. When Stoddard thanks the train conductor for the train ride and the many courtesies extended to him by the railroad, the conductor says, “Nothing’s too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance!” Upon hearing the comment, Stoddard and his wife stare off thoughtfully into the distance.

As a side note, one of the many reasons this film holds a special place in my heart is because I remember it as being the first time I made the connection between a scene onscreen representing a flashback. Remember the “flashback within a flashback” that the Wikipedia article mentions? The smoke from John Wayne’s cigarette moves and flows to take over the screen as he tells Jimmy Stewart, “You didn’t kill Liberty Valance. Think back, Pilgrim…” That smoke took us back to the truth of what had happened, and my five-year-old brain was shocked—and enamored, even then, with the idea that time passage, or remembrances could be shown through the haze of cigarette smoke. It was the moment of truth for Ransom Stoddard. John Ford was a genius for so many reasons.

Liberty Valance JW and JS cigaretteFor me, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance embodies the core of the west—good and evil, and how sometimes “the point of a gun was the only law”—and it all depended on the man who held the weapon.

Liberty represented the purest evil. Ranse was determined to fight him with the law he treasured—the desire to do things the legal way blinding him to the fact that Liberty didn’t respect that. In the beginning, his naivete is almost painful to watch, providing Liberty some rich entertainment. Though Tom finds it amusing, his growing respect for Ranse’s perseverance is portrayed to perfection by that familiar downward glance of John Wayne’s. Accompanied by the half-smile and his slow advice-giving drawl, the character of Tom Doniphon is drawn so that by the point at which he sees the handwriting on the wall and burns down the house he built for Hallie, the viewer’s sympathy shifts, briefly, to the circumstances Tom finds himself in.

But Ranse is determined to vanquish Valance one way or the other—with a lawbook or a gun—whatever it takes. In the final showdown, the lines of resignation are etched in Tom Doniphon’s face, and we know he is honor-bound to do the thing he’ll regret forever: save Ranse Stoddard’s life and lose Hallie to him.

I love the twist. Ranse truly believes he’s killed Valance. Again, to do the honorable thing, Tom tells him the truth about what really happened.

What do you think? If you were Ranse, would you want to know you really were not the man who shot Liberty Valance? Or would you want to be kept in the dark?  If you were Tom, would you have ever told him? It’s a great movie!

GENE PITNEY SINGS THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE

Now you can sing along! (I promise, this song will stay with you all day long…)

THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE

When Liberty Valance rode to town the womenfolk would hide, they’d hide
When Liberty Valance walked around the men would step aside
’cause the point of a gun was the only law that Liberty understood
When it came to shootin’ straight and fast—he was mighty good.

 From out of the East a stranger came, a law book in his hand, a man
The kind of a man the West would need to tame a troubled land
’cause the point of a gun was the only law that Liberty understood
When it came to shootin’ straight and fast—he was mighty good.

Many a man would face his gun and many a man would fall
The man who shot Liberty Valance, he shot Liberty Valance
He was the bravest of them all.

The love of a girl can make a man stay on when he should go, stay on
Just tryin’ to build a peaceful life where love is free to grow
But the point of a gun was the only law that Liberty understood
When the final showdown came at last, a law book was no good.

Alone and afraid she prayed that he’d return that fateful night, aww that night
When nothin’ she said could keep her man from goin’ out to fight
 From the moment a girl gets to be full-grown the very first thing she learns
When two men go out to face each other only one retur-r-r-ns

Everyone heard two shots ring out, a shot made Liberty fall
The man who shot Liberty Valance, he shot Liberty Valance
He was the bravest of them all.

The man who shot Liberty Valance, he shot Liberty Valance
He was the bravest of them all.

A Life-Long Love of Westerns

Howdy, everyone! I’m happy to be joining the Petticoats & Pistols as the newest member today, partly because it’s always nice to hang out with other writers and readers but also because of the focus on westerns. You see, I’ve loved westerns for as long as I can remember. I recently had to answer a questionnaire for my publisher, and one of the questions was why I liked cowboy stories. I had to sit and think about it because it was just something that had always been true. As I was growing up in rural western Kentucky, we only had three TV channels and had to go outside to physically turn the antennae if the reception was bad. I distinctly remember that old movies played on Saturday afternoons, and a lot of those were westerns. When I think back on them now, I can identify why they attracted me and why I still love western-set TV shows, movies and books.

  • The landscape was so wide open with impossibly wide skies and a rugged type of beauty. This was completely different than the wooded, rolling hills where I grew up. At that point in my life, I’d barely been out of the state with brief trips a few miles down the road and across the river into Illinois and a Girl Scout trip to Opryland theme park in Nashville, Tenn., both of which looked pretty much like Kentucky. So those western landscapes, even if some of them were created on Hollywood lots, were like a different planet that I longed to visit.
  • Even though it was romanticized and still is to some extent, cowboys were iconic American heroes. They could live off the land, were honest (at least if they were wearing a white or light-colored hat), chivalrous, and a force for good. Even back then in the 1970s and ’80s, I knew that things were rarely that black and white in real life. Reality was more complicated and filled with shades of gray.
  • I love stories set in the past. I haven’t met a costume drama I didn’t love, and westerns — at least for me — fall into that category. It’s a bit like being a time-traveler and being transported to a different time and place, but you don’t have to worry about the lack of hygiene or modern medicine.
  • While I love my modern conveniences, I for some reason have always loved stories about survival and living off the land. When I think about people who set off in wagon trains west, not knowing if they’d make it or if they’d ever seen friends and family again, I’m awed by how much courage that took. Kind of like people who boarded ships in England and sailed for America. Even though modern-day cowboys and ranchers have the modern conveniences the rest of us do, they are still men of the land and work out under those wide-open skies.

While I write contemporary romance, many of which have cowboys as heroes, I still have a great love for western historicals. These were the first romances I read back in high school and continued to read in the years that followed — stories by Lorraine Heath, Kathleen Eagle, Elizabeth Grayson, among others. My first manuscript was even a historical set along the Oregon Trail, inspired partly because of that old video game called Oregon Trail. A friend even got me a shirt once that said, “You have died of dysentery,” which is a familiar phrase to anyone who played the game.

If a new movie comes out that is a western, I do my best to go see it in the theater so they’ll continue to make more. If there’s a western-themed TV series, I’m parked in front of the small screen. My all-time favorite show, Firefly, actually is a mixture of western and my other favorite genre, sci-fi. Yes, space western, and it was awesome!

In the months ahead, I look forward to blogging about various western-themed topics — my trips across the American West, my love for western-themed decor, rodeo, etc. And I look forward to interacting with the readers of Petticoats & Pistols.

Updated: January 23, 2017 — 1:26 am
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