OFF THE BEATEN TRAIL

American movies and Westernspractically grew up together. In fact, the first American narrative movie was Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery, and Western films were among the most popular during the silent screen era and for decades later. The fourth Academy Award for Best Picture went to Cimarron, a 1931 Western.

Though far from dead, it must be admitted that Westerns rarely make good box-office these days. For instance, Slow West (with Michael Fassbender and Kodi-Smit McPhee) received considerable acclaim at various festivals earlier this year but had an extremely limited release. The same was true for Tommy Lee Jones’ The Homesman last year.

A child of the ’50s, when Westerns dominated TV screens and still galloped respectably across theater screens, I’m excited about finally seeing the two new Westerns on DVD. Until then, though, I’ll revisit two earlier films, both about the early days of Hollywood when Westerns were in flower.

Hearts of the West (1975) stars a young Jeff Bridges as an aspiring writer of pulp Westerns who, through a series of mischances involving a phony correspondence school for novelists, becomes an extra in Hollywood B-Westerns of the early ’30s. His mentor on the set, a grizzled veteran of the pulps as well as cowboy movies, is played by a post-Mayberry Andy Griffith.

With Alan Arkin as a conniving director and Blythe Danner (Gwyneth Paltrow’s mom and near-double) as the enterprising love interest, Hearts of the West is loaded to the barrel with talent and charm. Howard Zieff (My Girl,Private Benjamin) elicits lots of laughs and nostalgia from his premise, and his two stars – Bridges as a naïve tenderfoot and Griffith as a likable cynic – fit their roles like six-shooters in quick-draw holsters.

The movie ends with a real shoot-out, of sorts, with the wounded but delighted hero riding off with the girl into the night (if not the sunset), but in an ambulance instead of on a horse.

Despite its elegiac title, Blake Edwards’ Sunset (1988) has great fun with Hollywood myth and hokum, pairing real-life Wyatt Earp (James Garner) with silent Western superstar Tom Mix (Bruce Willis) in a tale of skullduggery among Tinseltown bigwigs. Easily identifiable as the villain at the start, Malcolm McDowell plays ruthless producer Alfie Alperin (modeled on Charlie Chaplin) whose former screen persona was a lovable clown, The Happy Hobo (like Chaplin’s Little Tramp).

More a straightforward detective film than a comedy, Sunset still skewers Hollywood lore with liberal doses of humor. The movie ends at the first Academy Awards show in 1929 with real guns blazing all over the place, as Earp and Mix take on the bad guys. In real life, Tom Mix and Wyatt Earp really were friends – Earp was a paid consultant on some Westerns – but the former Tombstone marshal died months before that Oscar show. And Chaplin was certainly no murderer.

But so what? The two pals ride off into the sunset, one on a train and the other on a horse. Echoing a recurring tagline throughout the film, the closing title card reads: “… and that’s the way it really happened. Give or take a lie or two.”

You might say the same for all the movies today that open with the solemn declaration: “Based on a true story.”

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