Sunday, June 26, 2022

Cinema: Westward The Women


Two nights ago I was watching another old movie on TCM – Turner Classic Movies, repository of old movies, hosted by charming group headed by Ben Mankiewicz, aspiring not only to entertain, but to educate to the culture and history of film. Every film gets an introduction, putting it in perspective, what to watch for, the back story. What a wonderful idea it has turned out to be! Why others haven't imitated, why movies just come up and you watch it or not and they aren't introduced or commented upon, why the personal connection isn't established, is a mystery to me.

But whatever. The other night, with nothing better to do that wouldn't cost me effort, I tuned into TCM and watched 1951's Westward The Women, directed by William Wellman. I think in 1951 television hadn't completely taken over and people just planned to go to the movies no matter what was playing. the TCM recent theme –they wisely have developed themes for various times, special actors, music directors, fashion, lots of themes – has been westerns that get the west with a different take. Westerns were venerable money makers, I guess ushered in by 1939's Stagecoach, often on TCM and which I like a lot, but by the late forties early fifties, they were getting old. The genre was very familiar by this time. The themes were traditional, the plots predictable, recurrent stars and directors, John Ford's Monument Valley every time he filmed, it seemed – so what are you going to do to break out of the mold?

Westward the Women seems to have been the brainchild of Billy Wilder, who was listed as the writer, and when it was brought to Wellman, a venerable western director, he said, sure, why not? It's a new theme on the recognizable genre. And indeed, when I watched, it did seem new, for a western. But it also seemed, somehow, familiar. I wondered what that was.

So here's the story, summarized by IMDB:

A trail guide escorts a group of women from Chicago to California to marry men that have recently begun settling there.”

Or, more extended:

“In a time when 'The West' pretty much ends in Texas and only California is slowly being populated by the white men, there's a severe lack of women among the workers on Roy Whitman's (John McIntyre) farm in the California Valley. So he goes back east to Chicago to recruit 150 women willing to become wives for his employees. From the candidates, he selects 138 who seem able to survive a months long journey across 'The Great American Desert' and the Rocky Mountains.”

So, that's descriptive, but as I thought about it, other things stood out. First, the setup. Roy is not just “an employer.” Somewhere quite remote but in the area of San Diego, I think, he has identified a valley where nothing grew before, but where he thought he could bring the lifeless to life. They said it couldn’t be done, but he did it. It's now a thriving and beautiful valley. “My valley,” he calls it. Proprietary. He couldn't have done it alone, of course, so he had men, a lot of men who built it, then worked it. A lot of men, in his valley. Not the brightest of men, but not the worst; ordinary men, kept in line and led by Roy. Yes, he's their employer, but he's also their leader, their brains, their guardian and their ideal. It's his valley.

So Roy reflects on his success, takes pride and pleasure in it, but then he thinks, something is missing. Brilliant as Roy is, he figures it out. It's women who are missing. We don't know what the men were thinking before this – pretty amazing that when the subject comes up, it seems new. Imagine that, women! The men are excited when the prospect is raised. Amazing – a new thought that hadn't occurred to any of them, as though they didn't know that women existed.

Roy figures there are women who would want to come out of the squalor of the East to come to a wholesome life in a paradise of a valley and marry the men waiting there. Sounds like a plan. He finds a hard-bitten foreman, Buck Wyatt (Robert Taylor), who will go back East with him, find some women who want to go west, and lead a wagon train back with him. Buck says he'll do it, but only for the money. The TCM commentators wry observe that it takes a western to find a name like “Buck Wyatt.”

So they go back and Roy has recruited the women, of all types, with all types of troubles that make the prospect of going west attractive. He signs them up at what looks like a hiring hall, as the women present themselves to be chosen, and the pictures of the men are posted individually on a board. The women take down the pictures, and each one has her intended mate – no need to match personalities, it's simply foreordained. They take more women than they need because they figure that they will lose about a third of them along the hazardous trail. The women hear that, but they'll take their chances.

The trail proves to be indeed hazardous, with Indians and weather hazards, some of the men who Roy has hired to go on the trail – good men, he assures Buck – get frisky with the women, and Buck has to send one back and kill one or two. In a latter stage of the trip some of the men and the women disappear overnight together – they won't make it to the heavenly valley, but in bailing out, they jeopardize the entire trip for the others. Roy wants to go back, but Buck objects that if he can't be successful, he'll never work again – at least, that's the excuse he gives for going forward – and the women follow his lead, refusing to go back, and Roy is satisfied with the way it is being completed. Then something happens and Roy dies – I'm not sure exactly what happened, because right then a friend from next door came by and I stopped watching for a little. But I got back in time to see him die.

They do get there, and the women insist that they have a day before they arrive to get themselves prettied up; they've been very masculine until then in what they wore, although the audience sees enough to be interested. Where do they get the materials to make themselves pretty, when they have had to jettison all their clothes along the way, to make the wagons light enough? Why, the wagon train men who are left go ahead to the valley and get the men to donate material that when the women come, they will be beautiful the way women are supposed to be.

So they arrive, the women tell the men of the valley to line up, that they will do the choosing, and they match to men to the pictures they have been carrying with them. The next day there is a mass marriage, one by one, as the new couples do it proper before bedding town with each other. Hardbitten Buck is about to ride away when the prettiest of the woman comes over and stops him from mounting up on the horse. Where are you going, she says. I was just waiting for you to come and stop me, he answers. Happy ending as the two of them get in line themselves.

One thing I left out is one of the men who sign on with the wagon train. That man is a very short Japanese guy, who acts as Buck's Sancho Panza, helping all the time, cooking, and being sexless. Maybe he was gay, or maybe just a little foreigner. Oh, Cisco – Oh, Pancho! Laugh laugh laugh.

As with many movies, I really don't know why, but I liked it. They made a decent job of it, and even if the characters were stock, they were well enough played so that I liked it.

And then the theme gnawed at me. What was it? What was the familiarity? A perfect valley that Roy made, but he forgot about women? It hit me – sounds like the Bible to me. Now, if Roy had been God, he would just have taken some ribs from the men and made women, but given the western setting, going back East would have to do.

I wondered if the perfidious men to attack the women and the ones who take off were fallen angels.

I wondered if Roy's not making it all the way back, after all those arduous days in the wilderness, but taking satisfaction in the knowledge that the mission would be fulfilled has some Moses in it.

I wondered if the women carrying men's pictures had some predestination in it, and some idea that in the end it's the women who choose, was an idea of popular culture that maybe the scriptwriters shared.

The hostile Indians – I wonder why they were hostile and didn't just welcome this alien culture to their land that was being stolen? – that's pretty standard fare for westerns.

The lining up two by two. Isn't that Noah's Ark?

And as I said, the little Japanese companion, Ito Kentaro, as Sancho Panza.

And then the handsome hard-bitten man gets the prettiest girl – that's movie culture for sure.

Anyway, who knows what was in the writers' minds – besides Frank Capra being responsible for the story, Charles Schnee was the responsible for the screenplay – but maybe mixing up genres is what the clever ones seem to do. Like familiar flavors in new wrappings. Or familiar wrappings with new flavors.

I dunno.


Budd Shenkin

Monday, May 30, 2022

Where Killers Go To Die


I like to get them in a vice.

I really don't have to squeeze,

It's not bad if I do,

I can do it,

I can watch them squirm as I squeeze.

It's not bad to watch,

Especially if their wives watch them,

Not the girl friends,

The girl friends I can take from them,

Distribute them, send them on, watch them scram.

Sometimes the wives like it, and that's even better, really.

I like them all to know who's boss.

They could never squeeze me,

I was never in a vice.

They couldn't.

They were too stupid or too weak,

I was always stronger.

I never shit my pants or pissed myself,

I could always find the lever –

Their wives, their mistresses, their children, their banker.

There was always something,

Sometimes something they wanted,

But usually something they feared.

The walls of the vise threaten to close,

To squeeze.

As you go further to the top,

Deal with the more powerful,

The smarter,

The craftier,

You would think it would get harder,

And maybe it does,

But there is always something,

Something they need,

Or something they fear.

The higher you go, the more they have to lose,

If they've gotten what they want,

They're even more fearful of losing it.

So I squeeze.

Or more commonly, I threaten to squeeze,

And they watch someone else who is squeezed,

And they fear.

The higher the squeeze, the greater the loss,

The more the watchers fear.

Then, I can do anything.

They can't touch me.

I don't go to the hospital, not at first,

I have the hospital come to me.

Why not?

Everything they have, they owe to me.

Without me, we would be just another country.

We would have treaties,

We would take our place with the others,

We would get in line,

We would be disregarded,

We would sink,

We would have nothing,

We would be nothing,

We would be in the vice of others,

We would fear.

We would answer to the bankers,

We would squirm.

Except for me,

And what I've done,

And they know that,

And they know what I can do to them

If they fuck up,

If they don't keep me well,

If they make me weak,

If they don't do their job.

I'm not going to another country.

I've given them everything,

I've taken care of their wives and their children,

And their aging and weak and decrepit and disgusting parents.

I've made them privileged,

I've made the wealthy, some of them,

I've made them what they are,

And I can still break them if I want.

But I won't have to,

Because they love me,

Because they worship me,

Because they don't know what would happen if I died,

Because they don't want to lose me,

Because they want me in charge,

In charge of the vice.

I am not a stupid man,

Far from it.

I beat them all,

For what it's worth.

I know it's all temporary, here on earth,

Free of a future life,

Which these fools believe in, some of them.

And others don't, but act as if they do.

I know that sooner or later,

Things end.

I know the end will come sometime,

And I have prepared for it,

Right here.

I don't need to descend.

I don't need to give up what I have,

I don't need to abase myself,

I don't need to retreat,

I don't need to weaken,

I don't need to surrender,

I don't need to watch those idiots come out from where I put them,

Those who are still alive.

I can call my own shots,

My people can turn the screws for me,

The vice is still there,

And they know it.

I'll stay right here,

And when it's my time,

I'll go quick, right here,

When I choose,

With whom I choose,

How I choose,

But it will be quick,

Maybe a few days, or a couple of weeks,

Let them wonder,

Let them guess.

Then I'll emerge and quash their guesses,

And then disappear again,

And crush somebody,

So they all can see,

And let them wonder.

And when I go,

There will be a parade,

Weapons, troops, lamentations,

And fear.

With him, they will all say, with him,

We were safe.

We were secure.

We had dignity.

We needed him.

It will be the grandest funeral of all time.

But not yet.

I'm still in charge.

I have to take care of some details.

I have to make sure that my people have what I want them to have.

I have to make some adjustments.

But it's not my time yet.

So I'm not going anywhere.

Budd Shenkin

Saturday, May 14, 2022

We Were More Than A Contender


The Greeks said – was it the Greeks? – that you can't judge a life until it's over. Well, hers is over. Mine isn't, but hers is. So ours is. Or is it? Actually, I doubt it. I'm still married, it's just that my wife is dead.

“Dead.” That's such a Germanic word. “Passed.” Now, that's Romantic. And I like romantic, but I also like germanic, because it's blunt. But with Ann, I want it to be romantic. Because, after we met and fell in love in 1977, from then on, it was the two of us. We were like two atoms in a molecule, circling each other constantly, drawn together, defining the world in terms of the two of us. So, even though she is dead – that's the bluntness of it, the finality of it – I still see the world in terms of the two of us. The two of us. Even when we fought, even when we were dissatisfied, even when we were frustrated, it was the two of us.

So, I tried to do her justice, now that she's dead, when I gave my speech about her, her eulogy. You can read it and even see and hear it here. Eulogy is all the good stuff, all the praise, the case for her, without ignoring the reality of dilemmas of life, of challenges of life, of ambiguities of life. It's the emphasis and the tone that makes it a eulogy. It can be a trap. You can be led to sugarcoat, which I'm alert to, and maybe inclined toward, so I have to be careful. You can think, what's the harm in looking at the bright side, and who's going to object? The line between optimism and positivity and sugar-coating can be indistinct. I wonder what she would have thought. I don't know. She always surprised me. Her will to independence, especially of thought, was ineffable. It entranced me even as it frustrated me. But not always frustrated. She might have let me get away with thoughts, but she didn't have to agree with me. That was our relationship, back and forth.

So, at least you could say that our marriage has progressed to another stage, because I still carry her inside me, of course I do, because we loved each other and we were close to each other and we revolved around each other for 45 years. Maybe – you who know me well know that I think that virtually everything in life can be illuminated by a sports analogy – maybe we have gone to another season of our marriage, where one member of the team has retired. Their tradition lives on into the new season.

So, I keep remembering us together. I miss her at specific times. When the Supreme Court commits its outrage on Roe v. Wade, on the issue she was so passionate about, I want to share it with her. I want to share the trials and travails and the victories of the Warriors – that was more of my concern, but still, she was a willing participant. I miss her especially then, I want to share it with her, the way we did. Do I get sad that I can't? Yes, some, I do. But then I have an interesting reaction. I feel good about missing her. Every time I miss her, I realize how much I did love her. I did. So my sadness makes me happy.

I look around our house, which it sounds so strange and illegitimate now to call “my house.” It's still our house. I look around at the things we did together, and the things she did by herself. Deciding on making the old disused dining room into a TV room and buying everything in it together, or at least the couch and chairs and cadenza that the TV rests on. The tables she bought by herself, and the rug. We did well together, but she could do quite well by herself. It's us. I miss her, but it's good to have the stuff that was ours, that is ours. I like the memories, mixed with sadness, but that sadness makes me happy.

So then I think, maybe ultimate judgement is for others, but on the other hand, no one knows it intimately the way I do. So I can take my crack at it. What do I think?

Basically, I think we did it. We went the full distance, almost 45 years. We could have bailed. We could have been irreconcilable, we could have failed to put in the effort, we could have surrendered, we could have stopped working on it, we could have kept our distance, we could have undercut one another, we could have been bitter, we could have failed. We could have stopped caring. I could have resented her illness and taken advantage. So many things could have happened. We could have come apart. But we didn't.

We stayed together. In every sense of the word. We kept getting closer. We revolved around each other. We overcame the obstacles to be a functional pair, always improving. We stayed together spiritually. That's really the essence of it. We cared, and we helped.

One time a few years ago, before the pandemic, we were coming back home from Hawaii, arriving at OAK on the Hawaiian Airlines flight that gets in at about 8 PM. We grabbed a cab and were headed home. After 10 minutes of so, the cabby glanced at us and said, “Pardon me for asking, but how long have you guys been married?”

“I guess about 38 years now,” I answered. “Why?”

“Well,” said the cabby, “You know I get all kinds of people here, and I've never heard a couple speak so tenderly to each other. You wouldn't believe what I hear! People really tear each other up! But you guys are so tender.”

Me, I was unaware of it, I just thought we were doing what we usually do. But this cabby had a large store of experience. A wise cabby knows the score.

So what I think is this: we had a championship season that lasted 45 years. No “could have.” We did it. We had a championship season. We went the distance.

Budd Shenkin

Wednesday, April 27, 2022