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American Movie: Wild and Woolly (1917)

33.jpgD.W. Griffith was “The Man Who Invented Hollywood” and Mary Pickford was “America’s Sweetheart,” but Douglas Fairbanks was the prototypical “American Action Hero,” a clean-cut, virtuous and energetic swashbuckler who took great pride and pleasure in doing all of his own stunts. But Fairbanks, one of the powerful founding members of United Artists (along with Griffith, Pickford, and Charlie Chaplin), whose action-packed costume dramas broke box office records in the early 1920s, almost failed to make it in the movies at all.

After Griffith jumped ship at Biograph in 1914, he went to work with Harry Aitken at Mutual Film, and when Aitken left a short time later to found the Triangle Film Corporation, Griffith followed him. Aitken had the idea, borrowed from Adolph Zukor and his Famous Players-Lasky (later Paramount), of recruiting Broadway stars by offering them exorbitant salaries to bring their stage experience and built-in box office draw to bolster his pictures. The backbone of this plan was that these pictures would be overseen by the expertise of Triangle’s three director/producers: Griffith, Thomas Ince (famous for his westerns), and Mack Sennett (a great director of early comedies).

One of the stage personalities signed by Aitken was Douglas Fairbanks, and he was quickly assigned to work with Griffith. Griffith, however, felt that Fairbanks wasn’t a very good actor. When Fairbanks was given his first leading role, as Gerald in The Lamb, Griffith was displeased with the result. The movie would never have been released if it had not been required at the last minute to fill out an already-booked Triangle theater program. The Lamb was an instant hit with audiences, and Fairbanks went on to be the only star, Broadway or otherwise, whose pictures were making the studio any money. Meanwhile, Aitken continued to lose money on the salaries of his less-popular stars, and this combined with the financial failure of Intolerance finally sank the fledgling enterprise.

Fairbanks, in life as in his films, landed on both feet and was offered a sweet deal by Adolph Zukor which included control of his own company to produce films for Zukor to distribute (Zukor had also given Mary Pickford a similar arrangement). In addition to starring in these features, Fairbanks also helped to write several of them, along with Anita Loos and director John Emerson, who he brought with him out of the rubble of Triangle.

Despite the fact that Fairbanks plays essentially the same character in all of these films, it was a role that never failed to charm his public. He would eventually put his celebrity status to good use in 1917 when, unable to join the military, he toured the country along with Pickford (who he would later marry) and Chaplin, encouraging Americans to buy Liberty Bonds to help finance the war effort.

Wild and Woolly, which was also released in 1917, is typical of Fairbanks’ output during this part of his career: a smart, satiric story wrapped around an action-driven comedy. Fairbanks plays Jeff Hillington, the Wild-West-obsessed son of a wealthy New York railroad magnate who is dispatched by his father to Bitter Creek, Arizona, to evaluate whether the town deserves the railroad spur it is requesting. Catching wind of Jeff’s love of the Old West and anxious to please him, the townspeople wind the clock back a few decades and recreate the town’s frontier days, planning to stage a train heist and an Indian uprising for their guest’s benefit. As an extra precaution, they substitute Jeff’s ammunition with fake bullets and only carry blanks themselves.

Unfortunately, the evil government Indian agent smells opportunity, and uses the situation to incite the local Indians into a real uprising, hoping to make off with the loot from the train in the confusion. Meanwhile, his slimy Mexican sidekick, Pedro, absconds with the beautiful Nell. With the town under siege, it is now up to Jeff to get to his weapons cache and fulfill his wildest fantasies while putting down the Indians, salvaging the payload, and rescuing the girl.

Throughout it all, Fairbanks electrifies the film with a presence that is arguably as powerful as any that has ever graced the screen. He is constantly in motion: waving his six-shooter ecstatically, pumping friendly arms with his firm, manly handshake, and vaulting nearby furniture with graceful ease (walking around would simply not be able to convey the youthful exuberance he exudes). His most impressive feat, when the Indians have him pinned down in the hotel bar underneath his room, is to leap up and grab a beam overhead, using it to swing up and kick a hole through his own floor so that he can climb in and retrieve the live bullets. He’s a real live wire, this one.

Clearly, even by 1917, the western was already well-established enough to be spoofed, and this film gently chides the genre conventions before good-naturedly surrendering to them. It is also odd to think that, when Wild and Woolly was made, Arizona had only been a state for five years, and was in reality not so far removed from its lawless frontier days as a US territory. Woven throughout the story, though, there is definitely a sense of value attached to the “manly” virtues of courage, strength, and heroism embodied by the myths of the Old West.

This much is clear, even from the beginning of the film, where Jeff is largely a naive figure of fun. His bedroom is a veritable shrine, with gun racks lining the walls under dynamic paintings of cowboy life. Jeff himself squats in the corner, reading a western novel in front of a teepee and eating his meals from a pot of beans cooking over a fire. He torments the butler with lasso tricks and feats of sharpshooting, and mocks the sissy easterners who woo his sister with roses (when he meets the right girl, he plans to carry her off in his manly arms). Forced to work in his father’s dreary offices during the week, Jeff lives for Sundays, when he dons his cowboy outfit and rides his trusty horse through Central Park (much to the amusement of the promenading city slickers). Later he will pay a visit to the local movie-house to catch the latest western feature.

When he arrives in Arizona and steps off the train and into the fictional Wild West that has been prepared for his benefit, the townspeople have difficulty maintaining their composure in his presence. Inevitably, as soon as he has stepped out of the room, their solemnity gives way to peals of laughter at Jeff’s enthusiasm for the whole thing. Part of what makes this whole portion of the film so hysterical is that it foreshadows a time when the national infatuation with the mythology of the frontier turned precisely this sort of thing into profitable, tourist-attracting theme-park fodder.

After the town is saved, Jeff has gained a new self-awareness and apologizes for the trouble he has caused for everyone. Then, having stood still for too long, he runs out, leaps on his horse, and gallops out to board the moving train as it departs, waving farewell to his new friends on the platform as the train disappears out of sight. But this can’t be the end, as a title card soon acknowledges; a western romance cannot end without a wedding. One final scene establishes that Jeff and Nell are now married, and living in a large and elegant house. Jeff is not unhappy by these trappings of civilization, however, for right outside the door waits his trusty horse and a whole gang of cowboys ready to accompany him as he rides off into the sunset.

Wild and Woolly appears all the more sophisticated for its time in the way that it seems to acknowledge that the portrait of the Old West that exists in the popular imagination is largely a constructed thing. Ultimately, of course, the joke is on the jokers when they must rely on Jeff and his familiarity with the fictional tropes of the western to save them from the genre bogeymen that they have unleashed. Thus the film gleefully recognizes the artificiality of the western while powerfully affirming western (and therefore American) morality and values. The frontier may never have existed quite as we imagine, but Jeff reminds us that foreign invaders must still be repulsed, evildoers apprehended, and women rescued. Want to buy a Liberty Bond?

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~ by Jared on March 4, 2009.

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