Stark says: Go West and find me a population!
In my brief tenure as Dedicated Western Reviewer for Pornokitsch, I’ve tried to take my mission seriously. I’ve wallowed in the bewildering technicolour depths of Soviet-era musical comedy westerns, I’ve crammed Disney’s Robin Hood into a pair of chaps, I’ve burned these hands on the most acidy of acid westerns, and sought out rare and mythical VHS tapes that feature James Earl Jones in a terrible wig, and a cameo performance by Jeremy Beadle.
And so, before the final show down, I’d like to thank you all (knowing that “you all” probably just means Jared reading my reviews with a pained expression) for sticking with me. I’ve learned a hell of a lot more about westerns than I imagined, indulged my taste for the musty and increasingly esoteric, and driven my local video store to distraction. So, thanks y’all.*
For my last real review, I thought it only right and proper to go out with a bang, and present you a real daisy: 101-year-old a silent parody western, which also happens to be the first ever western directed by a woman.
49-17 (written and directed by Ruth Ann Baldwin) caught my attention the minute I laid eyes on it, for the title alone. Most early Westerns I’d encountered were called things like THE COWBOY MILLIONAIRE or THE TRAGEDY OF RANCHO BILLY AT WHISPERING CREEK, and so of course, I was intrigued. A reference to 1849, first year of the gold rush when thousands headed west, I thought, and to 1917? That suggests a kind of revisionist self-awareness decades ahead of its time, which is totally my jam.
And here’s the interesting thing; I want to call 49-17 “ahead of its time” but I can’t, because on closer inspection, it is thoroughly, and fascinatingly, of its time.
49-17 is indisputably a parody western, one that tells the story of rich, retired east coast Judge Brand who longs to relive his days as a forty-niner in the Old West. But alas, it is 1917, and the world he pines for, with its freedom and mining camps and saloons, is long gone, reduced to aged outlaws-turned-showmen, who play parodies of themselves before thinning crowds.
And so the Judge has an idea. If the Old West he longs for only exists as a fiction, then that’s exactly what he’ll create. He puts his money to work, and sends his loyal secretary west on a mission to bring the derelict mining town of Nugget Notch back to life, by hiring in a population. Nugget Notch will become the Judge’s very own Old West: a personal theme park of the past. (Shades of Westworld here, fifty years before it came to be).
Baldwin’s portrayal of the worn-out West could easily have been heavy-handed or scathing, but for the most part, 49-17 manages to be a witty, rather charming parody of the genre. Good natured secretary Tom takes on the challenge because he understands what it is to have a dream himself (cue a lovely title card of him riding a pterodactyl). However, he soon finds that in 1917, “real” westerners are few and far between. He’s about to give up when he discovers – and here comes Baldwin’s first big meta-wink at camera – a hard-up Wild West theatrical troupe.
The troupe is losing money and audiences to other, more modern attractions, not even doing enough business to pay for the lights in the bar.
“That bum ’49 camp hasn’t drawn a cent for three days!” sneers one helpful onlooker.
Baldwin’s playful sense of irony is in full swing here, reminding us that we’re watching a fictional Western about a fictional Western troupe who are required to create a further fictional representation of the West.
Baldwin’s point? That the West has always been a fiction, woven from second-hand accounts and “true” tales of outlaws and lawmen; people creating their own caricatures and mythologies even as they lived.
And yet, she doesn’t condemn those who take solace, or indeed, are instrumental in creating and maintaining this fiction: she can’t, she’s one of them. Just as the Judge seems sincere in his wishes, Tom is taken in by the idea too, enchanted both by the troupe and by Peggy, the carefree daughter of storeowner Mr Bobbett. He finds delight in his “role” in Nugget Notch as newcomer Tom Robbins. Not even Gentleman Jim Raynor who plays the town’s gambler, and who spends most of his time brooding in corners and looming moustachily over Peggy, can dampen Tom’s enthusiasm.
When the Judge, in his fine top hat and suit, finally arrives at the site of his re-enactment, the troupe let off their blank-loaded pistols to welcome him in true Western style, only to be mocked by the Judge for their lack of authenticity.
“What a fine, tame bunch of westerners!” he declares. “How long would a plug hat have lasted in the old days?”
He proceeds to fling his top hat into the air and shoot holes through it with his real pistol, causing the troupe to flee in terror. Thus, Baldwin neatly manoeuvres the Judge into exactly the “role” he wanted, that of patriarchal landowner and sheriff, rolled into one.
The rest of the film is taken up with a classic, straight-outta-penny-Western-melodrama backstory. But Baldwin still manages to introduce some interesting themes; like the paradox of real criminals playacting their crimes in the present, and finally facing up to the repercussions of their actions as a result.
As the film progresses, Baldwin ramps up the absurdity of the situation with some delightful comic moments. During the Judge’s welcoming party, we see an actor outside, powdering his nose and practicing a few facial expressions before storming into the saloon in his role as the bandit. The Judge fires off a few rounds from his authentic pistol, scaring everyone, including the actor playing the robber, and order is restored. With this comic set piece, Baldwin isn’t only poking fun at the Judge and his ego. She’s parodying the entire Sheriff role, hinting at both the illusory nature of a patriarchal power system and the collusion and fictions that are necessary in order to maintain it. An apt subject for a female film director in Hollywood, then as now.
Baldwin began work as a screenwriter in 1913, but her career as a director was sadly short-lived, and was over by 1920. What’s interesting is that 49-17 was released only two months after another, far more sober Western called Straight Shooting, the debut feature of a young, twenty-three year old director named John Ford.
Straight Shooting – a now classic story of ranchers versus farmers in a battle for land rights – is as different a Western to 49-17 as can be, gritty where the other is witty, stony-faced where the other is tongue-in-cheek. But that in itself proves something vital: that the Western itself, even during its emergence as a cinematic genre, was never one thing. The juxtaposition of the two films shows us that from the earliest days, Western tropes have been handled in different ways. Nothing about the Western was ever sacred.
What’s a shame is that Baldwin’s career as a director of Westerns never advanced beyond one feature, whereas Ford’s… well, you know the story. Baldwin deserves to be better remembered, not only for her indisputable place in the canon of Western cinema, but for creating an accomplished film which looks at the fictional tropes that surround the genre, and asking: what even is a Western, anyway?
Well, I’ll tell you: a Western is–
EXT: CANYON DAY
STARK HOLBORN REELS BACKWARDS, A BULLET HOLE IN THE CHEST, ONLY TO STEP ON A RATTLESNAKE AND SLIP, TUMBLING HEAD FIRST INTO A GORGE
JARED STEPS FROM THE BUSHES, SMOKING PISTOL IN HAND
JARED: HA HA, THE SECRET WILL DIE WITH YOU, STARK!
STARK: (fading into distance) BUY NUNSLINGERRRRR…
*If anyone has an outlet for Western reviews, step right up! I have some humdingers in the bag, including more silent films, Bulgarian animated westerns and Goulash Westerns. We haven’t even talked about Goulash Westerns! Hello?
[Editor's note: Don't let Stark's sacrifice be in vain. Buy Nunslinger.]