Texas Movies: Hollywood, TX

Why it’s not our Texas.

July 1991By Comments

When I was a Texas farm boy, back in the late thirties and early forties, one of my daily chores was to round up the cows for evening milkings. Never mind that I rode bareback on a swaybacked, half-blind old horse through limited stretches of scrub oak and mesquite shinnery in search of four docile, dehorned critters with pet names like Olive Oyl and Daisy: I turned such bucolic expeditions into dangerous trail drives, shooting marauding Indians or cattle rustlers on the run, issuing cowboy yodels meant to soothe my spooked “herd” to avoid the inevitable stampede when lightening flashed and thunder crackled. Most of the time we were tracked by hungry wolves and cutthroat bandoleras.

Sometimes I rode away from my bovine responsibilities to rescue a certain country princess who occupied my heart from fourth through seventh grades. When I caught up with her dastardly kidnappers, I merely beat them up if the princess appeared unharmed; had they so much as mussed her precious brown hair, I resorted to six-gun justice. Best not to mess with ol’ Tex King in them days, especially if he was fresh from the Palace Theater in Cisco, where for 9 cents he likely had learned $1 million worth of code-of-the-West punishments from Buck Jones, Tom Mix, Ken Maynard, and Bob Steele.

The rootin’-tootin’ Texas that Hollywood exported via the Palace Theater somehow seemed more authentically Texan than did the flesh-and-blood Texas where I picked cotton, slopped hogs, or joined pickup football games on corn-stubble fields; it seemed so because I wished it so, the magic of fantasy being ever so much more satisfying than life’s mundane drudgeries. I think I willed myself to believe that Eastland and Callahan counties lay too far east to qualify for cowboy magic but that just beyond Abilene, maybe — out there around Sweetwater or surely in the far reaches of El Paso County — Texas Rangers and stern marshals were, indeed, shootin’ and ropin’ two-legged varmints ‘round the clock.

Visiting my Uncle Raymond’s Bar-T-Bar Ranch just west of Putnam, I was chagrined to learn that his cowboys wore no guns and drove cars to their homes at night instead of sleeping under the stars by their horses after drinking boiled coffee around lonely campfires. Having never once witnessed a fistfight, a six-gun showdown, or a single cattle rustler twisting in the wind from a Bar-T-Bar tree limb, I concluded that Uncle Raymond didn’t know beans about ranching; no wonder he could attract only dull cowboys content to mend fences, kick out salt blocks, and castrate little calves!

As a beardless soldier among fellow GIs from all over, I soon realized that not only dreaming Texas farm boys took their cues from Hollywood. Everybody called me Tex; my family name inspired many to ask whether I might be connected to the famed King Ranch, an honor that I found increasingly difficult to disclaim. But playing Tex had its downside: Fellow soldiers scoffed when I shot only marksmen scores on the Fort Dix rifle range rather than the sharpshooter scores they expected; my assumed equestrian talents were exposed when a semi-spirited steed easily unhorsed me at a Staten Island riding stable. Only after that grabbing, graceless public spill did it tardily dawn on me that I myself had come to believe I might be the incarnation of the movie Lone Star cowboy. That moment has since led me to ponder, when observing—on-screen or off-screen—bumptious big-hat businessmen, yeehawing barstool Bubbas, or sassy-talkin’ sweet young thangs, the question of whether Texas life has more nearly imitated Hollywood art or vice versa.

Yes, many of Hollywood’s Texas depictions are overblown clichés or romantic bushwa. But what I did not realize, until viewing old films in my maturity (or reading such books as Don Graham’s Cowboys and Cadillacs: How Hollywood Looks at Texas) was that a fair number of truths have been presented along with myths and legends. Hollywood cattlemen who hated the notion of sod-busting farmers fencing in the ranges, of oil wells fouling the land, or of wild towns becoming tamer cities perfectly reflected the suspicion with which rural Texans—and some not so rural—have for generations viewed social change. And in making various land-grabbers the villains of the Texas frontier, Hollywood was not far off the mark in showing that “progress” is more often championed by those likely to profit from it, such as bankers, real estate developers, booster businessmen, and their captive politicians.

Hollywood probably has reflected much more than it has shaped the racial attitudes of Texans. Early films presented Mexicans as treacherous greasers who cheated a cowboy at cards and then stabbed him in the back (A Tale of Texas, 1909), sold liquor to Indians (A Romance of the Rio Grande, 1911), kidnapped Tom Mix and then took a bribe from a woman to release him (The Heart of Texas Ryan, 1917). And time after celluloid time, General Santa Anna’s hordes butchered brave Texans at the Alamo con mucho gusto. Without denigrating the courage or sacrifices of Alamo defenders, I find it difficult to believe that Mexican troops were uniformly as cowardly and blood-thirsty as Hollywood made them. Most notoriously virulent was 1915’s Martyrs of the Alamo (released in 1927 as The Birth of Texas), in which no Anglo female escapes sexual harassment from drunken Mexican soldiers before the battle and no Alamo defender escapes the worst possible atrocities. I know of no movie before the revisionist Seguin (1981) that told of Mexicans who fought against Santa Anna at the Alamo; such tejanos were lost to Hollywood history, as were black cowboys and buffalo soldiers. The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez (1983), based on an incident in which a turn-of-the-century Mexican farmer killed a sheriff because of a misunderstanding of language, gave an evenhanded and sensitive interpretation of events; in an earlier time, the movie could not have been made.

Not until Giant (1956) do I recall seeing a movie in which some sympathy was displayed for Mexican Americans, when Rock Hudson was forced to thump a redneck Texan who insulted his Latino daughter-in-law and her baby; the movie ended with a brown baby and a white baby happily gurgling in a playpen, obviously symbolizing a better racial climate to come. Few would deny that improvements have since occurred, but in the era when Giant mirrored a rather common prejudice, a lone Latino on the Midland High School football team was refused a bed by an Abilene hotel, Cuban baseball players in the Longhorn League were often refused service in West Texas restaurants, and as an aide to a Texas congressman, I was aware that we dealt with two different sets of “leaders”—one Anglo and one Latino—in every town in the sprawling 16th Congressional District. When an official of the League of United Latin American Citizens complained of substandard housing, plumbing, and streets in the Latino quarters of Texas, numerous newspapers and politicians attacked him as a lying demagogue. Giant more nearly told the racial truth than did the so-called Anglo leadership of the period.

With the possible exception of the Japanese (following the passions aroused by Pearl Harbor), no ethnic group has been more maligned by Hollywood than the American Indian; a high percentage of savage capers have occurred in films of the mythical Texas. What is remarkable is that for so many years and reels, the right of frontiersmen or settlers to push out or even to exterminate an established people and culture was so universally assumed: Manifest destiny rides again! Indians were depicted as stubborn spoilsports who refused to see the benefits of the white man’s “civilization”; for a group allegedly so savage, they made terrible fighters and could win only by sneak attacks upon small wagon trains, isolated settlers, or Army scouting patrols whom they hugely outnumbered. Even then, a single heroic John Wayne was likely to kill less-skilled redskins by the boatload; as soon as surviving Indians heard the bugles of cavalrymen riding to the rescue, they turned tail. So heartless, painted, and howling were Hollywood Indians that my most recurring nocturnal fear as a boy was of my family being scalped in their beds. I, of course, would be taken into hellish captivity. The horrid fate of women and children kidnapped into a brutal, pagan way of life became a Hollywood staple.

If you took movies at face value, you would hardly know that black Texans exist. They have been pictured largely as camp cooks, farm workers, or domestics; you learned nothing of their lives. Movie blacks from Texas apparently had no families or dreams, existing only to work or to become the target of lynch mobs. The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982) carefully cast one black prostitute and then just as carefully matched her with a lone black Texas Aggie when the celluloid Aggies visited the Chicken Ranch bordello. Black Like Me (1964), the film version of John Howard Griffin’s fine nonfiction book about passing as black so as to experience typical racial humiliations firsthand, was a clichéd mess with few identifying Texas marks; it seemed to be set in some ill-defined generic South.

Outside of the cowboy legend, the most-persistent Texans have been ugly Texans and obnoxious oilmen. Dr. Strangelove (1964) presented a “threefer” ugly Texan in Slim Pickens: military nut, rightist, and cowboy rolled into one; Pickens happily rides a bomb down to Russian soil, waving his hat and hoo-hawing like a rodeo cowboy.

The first oil picture I recall—Boom Town (1940)—was sympathetic to wildcatters Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy; it depicted Burkburnett in 1918. From what my father related of the Ranger boom, Boom Town faithfully reproduced the muddy streets, crowded hotels, high prices, feverish ambitions, street whores, tough wildcatters, and “oil-field trash” of boomtown strikes. I now know, however, that Gable’s argument to a jury (when charged with anti-trust sins) that wildcatters deserved credit for settling and developing the West not only begged the legal question but also was a distortion of history.

If Boom Town glorified wildcatters and oil, sixteen years later, Giant spit in oil’s eye. Texas oilmen were particularly incensed by one scene in which the then-sacred 27.5 percent oil-depletion allowance was bad-mouthed at length; the Texas congressman for whom I worked got letters suggesting some Hollywood-sponsored communist plot! Hud was also publicly attacked, by pro-oil Texas congressmen, but like Giant, was popular with the Texas masses. Hollywood has so conditioned its audience that the Texas oilman never stands a chance against the Texas cowboy in a showdown.

The most pro-oil film I have seen—Waltz Across Texas (1982)—fittingly filmed in and around Midland with oil money, made an honest try at presenting the case for risk-taking independents who must compete with the majors. But it was so obviously preachy and so slowed by an old-fashioned professional-feud-turns-into-personal-romance between a Texas wildcatter who drilled by eyeball and instinct (Terry Jastrow) and a beautiful Ivy League by-the-book geologist (Anne Archer) that it defied any but oil fanatics to hang on until the interminable end.

Perhaps what ultimately stands out, in any reckoning of Texas films, is what has not been done or has been handled once-over-lightly. Urban Cowboy (1980) effectively treated the lives of petrochemical workers removed to Houston and the efforts of such house-trailer waddies and their gals to recapture the Texas myth. The very real ills of urbanized Texas, however—homeless people, crowded slums, pollution, illegal or unlettered Latin immigrants living below poverty level, the disorientation that results from massive relocations, the shortage of money to deal with urban problems—has hardly been touched on film.

Texas since the big oil bust of the mid-eighties has been all but ignored, though there is rich material in the careless lending policies of failed financial institutions and the inattentive politicians who neglected to police them. Behind those policies, which led to a domino effect of business tumble downs, personal bankruptcies, and massive unemployment, were interlocking factors of traditional wheeler-dealer values, political cronyism, unbridled greed in the boardrooms, and that mindless expansion always urged by “a bigger and better Texas” boosterism. You’d never know the bust happened.

Likewise, Texas minorities—and that includes career women—have been ignored as to their more subtle exclusions, their changing roles, their accomplishments despite a playing field tilted against them. How rough the frontier women had it has been shown by Hollywood, yes, and even rural and small-town Texas women of a later time have been depicted; Bill Wittliff’s Raggedy Man (1981) was on the mark as to World War II social attitudes and exploitations of women; Places in the Heart (1984) gave us Sally Field as a young widowed farm woman struggling to survive during the Great Depression. But of their descendants—city women struggling for even footing in what still remains too much a man’s world—we have seen nothing. If one depended on the Hollywood view, Texas has been frozen in a time warp.

What seems passing strange, considering the importance of football in the Texas culture and even in its literature, is that only one good, honest football film has been produced: Peter Gent’s North Dallas Forty (1979), which treated the brutal hypocrisies of professional football. Some good books have come out on Texas high school football—I can think of half a dozen—but nary a good film.

What has been done well on occasion is the Texas small-town story. I suppose the classic is Larry McMurtry’s Last Picture Show (1971), which perfectly captured the fifties, high school rituals, restless hometown souls imprisoned in the wide-open spaces, the encroachment of oil on the older horse culture. What perhaps set the movie apart is that it took into account the good and the sensitive of small-town life as well as the bad and the dumb.

Tender Mercies (1983) and The Trip to Bountiful (1985) were both written by Horton Foote, for my money the best playwright and screenwriter Texas has produced when it comes to nonsensational human stories of Texas people. His Tender Mercies is an excellent film about attrition and change, as applied to both people and places.

As one who had a bit to do with The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, I should beware naming the worst Texas film of my experience. Nonetheless, I feel compelled to nominate Lovin’ Molly, the 1974 perversion of Larry McMurtry’s early novel Leaving Cheyenne. Hastily shot by director Sidney Lumet as if he were wearing track shoes, it made every error possible. In Lumet’s Texas, ranchers wore overalls and clodhopper brogans; they sowed and reaped like Delta dirt farmers; West Texas became a land of lush green growth that—in McMurtry’s words—“might be Missouri, might be Vietnam.” How bad was this film? Well, consider that during an early screening, McMurtry heard a woman behind him sobbing throughout; finally turning to see what sort of person might be moved to tears by such a mishmash film, McMurtry found—appropriately enough—that the crying lady was his own agent. God knows, in that case Hollywood had given the lady reason enough to cry.

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