Competing Frontiers

The moving picture has entered into a new phase of development. It has outgrown the small clothes of theater and fiction. Producers are beginning to realize at long last that they must not go to "proved" sources so much as to original sources of material.

— Frances Taylor Patterson, North American Review, 1937

While censorship dismantled the production of historical gangster films, from 1932 to 1935, the studios were equally unable to produce another Cimarron. For Hollywood, 1931 and 1932 were the worst years of the Depression, and the studios produced few expensive American historical films. Prestige westerns such as The Big Trail, The Great Meadow, and Cimarron gave way to more modest gunfighter adaptations such as Destry Rides Again (1932), Law and Order (1932), and Frontier Marshal (1934). Decades later, film and cultural studies of the western claimed that the genre disappeared with the conversion to sound.1 Due to the financial "disasters" of The Big Trail and Cimarron, studios supposedly handed the worn genre to Poverty Row and Gene Autry. According to historical tradition, it was only in 1939 with the release of John Ford's Stagecoach that the western returned.

This powerful myth has thrived over the years on a very narrow but highly structured definition of the western genre pushed by Robert Warshow, John Cawelti, Will Wright, and John Tuska in the 1970s. The classic western, though roughly reflecting widespread cultural beliefs about

America's frontier past, was supposedly incapable of a critical interpretation of western history. Even more than the Hollywood gangster genre, the western was said to dramatize the definitive national myth. Rigidly constructed, it employed set binary oppositions (cowboy versus Indian, white versus red, civilization versus savagery), predictable conflicts and resolutions, and simple formulas unsullied by the course of time. Film historian Peter Stanfield recently corrected the fallacy of the "empty" decade of the 1930s,2 but like his predecessors, he defined the essence of the western as the frontier cowboy-and-Indian paradigm. Though recovering part of the "lost trail" of 1930s westerns, Stanfield's conservative definition excludes much of the studios' historical development and remixing of the genre.

It is true that the powerful western myth, hallowed in the silent era, disappeared from major film production during the Great Depression, but the western did not. Filmmakers such as Darryl Zanuck, Edward Small, and Cecil B. DeMille did not develop a film genre or cycle within the circumscribed structuralist rules of late twentieth-century film history. Instead, they spent much of the 1930s reinventing the western, trying different approaches and historical topics and mixing cycles and genres. Cimarron's eclectic, conflicted, multiracial, feminist West provided a rich and unfamiliar historical approach to the American cinema's most enduring genre. For filmmakers who remembered The Covered Wagon or The Iron Horse, Cimarron meant both a redemption of the prestigious silent westerns and a transformation of their mythic discourse of heroic progress into a more self-conscious presentation of American history. Between Cimarron's release and the explosion of the "superwestern" in 1939, Hollywood tested the borders of major western filmmaking as never before. Between 1933 and 1938, the historical western was a rich and contested frontier where issues of racial instability, the myths of gender and heroism, and national narratives of progress fought within conflicting strategies of film production. There were western musicals, Mae West vehicles, frontier epics, critiques of frontier epics, narratives about mixed-blood Americans, and biographies of frontier women.

Many of the films discussed in this chapter descended from authors who scorned traditional views of history and chose to write their revisionist accounts of the American frontier as historical novels. Like Edna Ferber, James Fenimore Cooper (The Last of the Mohicans, 1826) and Helen Hunt Jackson (Ramona, 1884) sought more accurate views of the past, often courting controversy and the disdain of professional historians. But their more accessible historical novels also captured the wider popular audience denied to their colleagues' moldering texts. Their conviction to articulate a new historiography, both in form and in content, and to reach a larger audience significantly influenced screenwriting's impact on the production of American historical cinema. It also drove filmmakers John Balderston, Lamar Trotti, Darryl Zanuck, Frank Lloyd, and Howard Esta-brook in many irreconcilable ways.

Film Making

Film Making

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