Monday, June 10, 2013

What makes a western?

Western Movies: A Guide to 5,105 Feature Films by Michael R. Pitts (McFarland) can certainly be described as exhaustive. It includes listings for any western film you can think of, as well as many you might not even think of as western movies. Some have titles like Quebec and Harpoon. Remember the 1983 movie Never Cry Wolf about a scientist who spends a winter in a remote area of Alaska to study wolves? That's in here.

Although the title mentions "feature films," Pitts lists movies that were made for television, including those Hallmark Channel romances like Loves Comes Softly. We find musicals like Naughty Marietta and The Harvey Girls, plus such films as The Sugarland Express set in more contemporary times. There are movies we might regard as science fiction, like Westworld and Alien Encounters, plus some Charlie Chan and Bowery Boys movies.

There is even a Cary Grant movie. Didn't know Cary Grant ever made a western? Turns out it is The Howards of Virginia, a 1940 Revolutionary War drama. Other westerns are set in equally unlikely places, such as Hawaii, Africa and Europe.

So I am not sure how Pitts defines western, but I am not sure how I would define it either, and better a definition that's too broad than one that's too narrow.

Pitts skimps a bit in summarizing the plots of these 5,105 movies, and a rating system might be helpful, but he does list every cast member, including the bit players. Using the index one can discover that the actors making the most western movies were not heroes like John Wayne and Tom Mix, but people you've probably never heard of like Steve Clark and Tom London.

With a little digging, fans of western movies can discover all sorts of intriguing trivia. Did you know Roy Rogers made two westerns under the name Dick Weston? (I can remember once seeing Rogers play a villain in an early Gene Autry movie.) People, other than Cary Grant, you might never expect to find in a western include Louise Brooks (she made two near the end of her career, including one with John Wayne), Audrey Hepburn, Henny Youngman and Hugh Hefner.

In one appendix, Pitts even lists the names of many of the movie cowboys' horses. Do you remember that Rex Allen's horse was named Koko? Do you even remember Rex Allen? For those who do (and for almost anyone else who enjoys western movies), this book will be a treasure.

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