Monday, May 31, 2010

Untrue West

The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray release of John Ford’s Stagecoach is a keeper––the film looks better than it has in decades and the disc comes fully loaded with a strongbox full of terrific special features. Unfortunately, the old hash about John Ford’s “discovery” of what would become his favorite filming location is reheated once again in the ironically titled video supplement True West: Harry Goulding and Monument Valley.

You know the story: Indian trader Goulding, worried by the plight of his starving Navajo friends, drives 650 miles to Los Angeles in a rickety old pickup truck––much of the trip on bumpy, unpaved dirt roads, mind you––armed with snapshots of the completely unknown Monument Valley to insist that Ford shoot his new Western there. Ford immediately snaps at the bait, flying pronto to Arizona with a crew of dozens of people–– in one version of the tale he even beat Goulding back to Monument Valley––to heroically save the Navajo and create an iconic American movie location.

At least that's the way it happened inside the brain of an ingenious studio flack. After spending more than seven years delving into the movies made in northern Arizona I haven’t uncovered a shred of proof that Harry Goulding had anything more to do with Stagecoach than renting the basement of his trading post as dorm room for a handful of crew laborers. Ford and the movie’s other top dogs didn’t even bunk in Monument Valley during filming, they stayed at the actual base of operations, the Wetherill and Colville Trading Post and Lodge in Kayenta, twenty-five miles away. So if Harry Goulding brought together John Ford and Monument Valley, why wasn’t his trading post leased as company headquarters? That seems to be the least Ford could have done to reward Goulding for the trouble he had allegedly taken to broker the deal. What’s more, if Goulding had played such a vital role in bringing Ford to Monument Valley, why was his Navajo rescue mission––surely a press agent's dream story––not mentioned in print until 1953, fourteen years after Stagecoach rolled into theaters and, conveniently, both Wetherill and Colville were dead?

Stagecoach is one of the great Hollywood films, written about and analyzed since the day it hit theaters in 1939, so it boggles the mind that no historian has taken the time to sniff around Flagstaff to dig up the truth about how it was created. The Coconino Sun, the town’s only newspaper in those days, covered Stagecoach‘s production from the moment Ford first came to northern Arizona to scout locations right up to its world premiere engagement––in Flagstaff, by the way, and not Los Angeles (that’s another reality long ignored by historians, but a story to save for another time).

So here are a few documentable, but less than legendary facts: In late September 1938, Flagstaff rancher Lee Doyle, who’d worked as Hollywood’s northern Arizona contact man since 1923, received a telegram from Stagecoach’s production manager asking him to help “look for locations in the Painted Desert and in Monument Valley.”

A week later The Coconino Sun reported that Ford and his associates met Doyle in Flagstaff to begin selecting locations and to make arrangements for bringing in a company of actors and technicians. Ford, Doyle and the rest of the Hollywood group checked into Wetherill and Colville’s in Kayenta; their signatures in the Lodge’s guest register, which survives in the Wetherill family archive, prove the scouting party stayed there for the remainder of their three day visit and not at Goulding’s in Monument Valley. Ford returned to Wetherill and Colville’s when filming began and he shacked there for the entire time he was on location. It's interesting to note that even though some spillover crew members were housed at his trading post, Harry Goulding wasn’t once mentioned by name during the three weeks The Coconino Sun covered Arizona filming.

There are a few other pesky details about the making of Stagecoach that have been ignored by the Ford/Goulding/Monument Valley mythologizers, including MGM records that confirm the studio had a film crew shooting second unit exteriors in Monument Valley for its Mickey Rooney sitcom Out West with the Hardys five weeks before Ford ever laid eyes on the place. What’s more, according to multiple Coconino Sun reports, Sedona was included as one of Stagecoach’s Arizona filming locations, chosen after Ford and his party made “motor trips over the Indian reservation and through Oak Creek Canyon, selecting sites for the different phases of the contemplated picture.” Sorry, movie fans, this buzz isn’t just spin–– it’s fact.––Joe McNeill

Friday, May 28, 2010

True West

The reclamation of Sedona’s film history continues! The June issue of True West magazine features excerpts from the Der Kaiser von Kalifornien chapter of Joe McNeill’s book, Arizona’s Little Hollywood: Sedona and Northern Arizona’s Forgotten Film History 1923-1973. True West has been in publication since 1953. When Executive Editor Bob Boze Bell received a copy of Arizona’s Little Hollywood, he was immediately intrigued. (Bob also hosts a segment, True West Moments, on the Encore Westerns channel.)

“The Stranger” (Bernhard Minetti) appears to Johann Augustus Suter (Luis Trenker) on the steps of the US capitol with a vision of America’s future industrial might in the 1936 Nazi Western Der Kaiser von Kalifornien.

“I have lived in Arizona for 55 years and studied our unique history for at least 30 of those years, and I thought I knew a thing or two about the history of movies filmed in Arizona, but Joe McNeill’s new book knocked me right on my butt,” says Bob. “I had no idea how much of our film history has been mangled and flat-out forgotten (and, I'll bet you will agree). This is really a treasure chest of invaluable information for anyone who cares about a critical period in Arizona's long film history.”

For more information, visit––Erika Ayn Finch

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Film Rouge (Rocks) No. 2

Lizabeth Scott is a true Hollywood legend, a film noir icon. Her intriguing beauty, unforgettable smoky voice and commanding screen presence gave life to several of the most memorable femme fatales and “good girls gone bad” ever to delight movie audiences. I was honored in 2003 when Ms. Scott, who rarely grants interviews, agreed to share with me some memories of her 1946 visit to Sedona to film Desert Fury. “It holds up magnificently,” she said when asked her opinion of the picture today. “I find that’s true of all the films I made. I get an enormous amount of fan mail from 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds. I fit into their...[contemporary] personas. I can’t explain it, nor have they ever been able to explain it to me.”––Joe McNeill

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Rex Files

Rex, a.k.a. “King of the Wild Horses,” was a lot like human movie royalty: Captivating onscreen, out of ­control off it. His name may not be on the tips of people’s tongues these days, but Rex was a Roaring Twenties superstar, the first horse to get billing over human actors and a major box office draw in the late-silent period; his biggest hit, Black Cyclone (1925), was a blockbuster that reportedly grossed the then-astonishing sum of four million dollars. But Rex was also Hollywood’s original wild child, by all accounts one cantankerous critter, and stardom never reigned in his antisocial––okay, make that psycho––personality.

Beastly Rex had a tendency to violently assault any human that got too close and sensible actors refused to go anywhere near him, even though he always had a restraining rope tied around his foreleg out of camera view while filming. Years after their encounter, one old wrangler who’d worked with the Wonder Horse sputtered with awe, “I seen him throw an actor twen’y feet, once, an’ then tear his clothes right off him with his teeth!” Legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt, who had a chunk of his face removed by Rex while filming The Devil Horse in 1926, remembered his co-star as “a big, beautiful well-trained black, but every so often he would get mad and try to kill anyone near him.”

Rex was the blue-ribbon celeb in the movie livestock company owned by Flagstaff rancher/studio contact man Lee Doyle that included most of his regular four-hoofed co-stars: Lady, the heroine; Marquis, the villain; Paris, suspiciously described in a contemporary press report as “the juvenile and female impersonator,” and Moe and Eva, low comedy relief burros. Rex sired four look-alike offspring and he and his family appeared in almost half the movies made in Sedona during the 1930s, low budget kid pictures like Stormy and King of the Sierras that helped keep the area on Holly­wood’s radar until more expensive “A” Westerns made a comeback at the tail end of the decade.

Doyle bought Rex from Fox Film in 1931, but the “King of Wild Horses” was no stranger to Arizona. He’d filmed Universal Pictures’ Wild Beauty in Stafford, southeast of Phoenix, in 1927, and in August 1930, Fox began shooting a remake of Tom Mix’s Just Tony that it first titled Alcatraz, then changed to Wyoming Wonder and finally to King of Wild Horses that was to team Rex with newcomer John Wayne, fresh off his first starring role in The Big Trail. Unfortunately, the Rex/Duke team-up–– the “Star Steed” had more prominent billing in trade ads than Wayne––was permanently shut down after two days of second unit filming in Flagstaff.

Three years later, Rex had the lead in another picture titled King of the Wild Horses that has long been listed by some Sedona movie buffs as part of the area filmography––a few amateur historians even name local beauty spot Red Rock Crossing as a specific location site––but solid evidence that the Wild Horses production spent any time in Sedona has yet to surface. On the contrary, contemporary newspaper reports, Columbia Pictures’ publicity materials, and the American Film Institute Catalog all say that King of the Wild Horses was filmed on locations north of Flagstaff, primarily on the Navajo and Hopi reservations, as well as at Blue Canyon near Tuba City, and Fredonia in Coconino County. No existing print of King of the Wild Horses is available for viewing and not a single photograph or contemporary reference has been uncovered indicating any scenes from the film were shot in Sedona.

14 year-old Frankie Darro rides a chillin’ stand-in for the chilling Rex in the 1931 Mascot Pictures serial The Vanishing Legion.

Unstable Rex has been stabled in the Great Beyond since the 1940’s, but his superstardom was permanently memorialized in a kitschy painting created by child actor-turned-artist Charles de Ravenne that hung for years in the lobby of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel in Los Angeles. Titled “Hollywood Comes to Napoleon’s Aid, ” it depicts Napoleon riding across a wheat field followed by his staff, impersonated by some of the most recognizable Hollywood VIPs of the day. Rex is portrayed as a horse of a different color, docilely carrying natty character actor Adolphe Menjou (depicted as French military commander Marshal Ney) astride him. Also in the painting is another picture show stallion with a Sedona connection, silent cowboy star Fred Thomson’s Silver King, carrying United Artists head Joseph M. Schenck as a colonel of the Cuirassiers (artist De Ravenne appeared in Thomson’s 1924 FBO Western Thundering Hoofs when he was seven years-old). Other Tinseltown notables in the painting include Douglas Fairbanks Sr., who is pictured as a member of the Hussards de la Garde; le Maréchal Sid Grauman, Hollywood’s Chinese Theatre showman; William Powell as a Napoleon aide de camp; Ronald Colman, Clive Brook, John Gilbert and Erich Von Stroheim as Grenadiers; Groucho Marx as a dead trumpeter; and Charlie Chaplin as a drunken priest, clutching a bottle of champagne and refusing a drink of brandy from vivandière Marion Davies. It’s a sure bet that in real life bad boy Rex would have been vexed by the lot of them.––Joe McNeill

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Kid Stays in the Picture

It’s true! Billy the Kid was shot in Sedona! That’s star Robert Taylor at far right.

Billy The Kid was a wanted man in 1930s-’40s Hollywood. After the release of MGM’s big budget Billy the Kid in 1930 (directed by King Vidor and starring Johnny Mack Brown), the character made a brief reappearance (played by uncredited Lynton Brent) in Tom Mix’s The Texas Bad Man, released by Universal Pictures in 1932. The desperado laid low before resurfacing in Republic’s Billy the Kid Returns (1938), this time as half of a dual role played by “king of the cowboys” Roy Rogers in his second starring film.

Two years later, ultralow-budget Producers Releasing Corp. (PRC) initiated a Saturday matinee series with Billy the Kid Outlawed (1940), which rewrote history by changing The Kid from horse-thieving gunman to benevolent Stetsoned Robin Hood. “B’’-movie cowboy Bob Steele played him in the first six films, released during the 1940-’41 season. Steele was replaced by former Flash Gordon/Buck Rogers/Tarzan star Buster Crabbe, who headlined thirteen more PRC Billy the Kid cheapies between 1941 and 1943. In these, the real-life character’s name (or alias) Billy Bonney was changed to Billy Carson, reportedly because of complaints that the films glorified a notorious criminal. Crabbe continued with the series for twenty-three more films into 1946.

MGM’s 1941 Billy the Kid remake with Robert Taylor was the first Technicolor movie shot in Sedona, but the studio with “more stars than there are in heaven” fretted over competition with millionaire Howard Hughes’ The Outlaw, finished early that same year, but not released for another 18 months, largely over censors’ objections to perceived erotic content and the camera’s leering fixation on Jane Russell’s breasts. Arizona location filming began in Tuba City, with additional photography slated for Sedona, but after two weeks Hughes abruptly ordered the production back to Hollywood without explanation. The Outlaw finally opened in San Francisco on February 5, 1943, but seven weeks later, after having grossed the then-tidy sum of $158,000, the eccentric Hughes, for reasons he never explained, pulled the picture out of circulation.

When Hughes decided to reissue The Outlaw in 1946, Hollywood’s self-censoring Breen office saw red over its naughty publicity campaign (“What are the two great reasons for Jane Russell’s rise to stardom?” and “How would you like to tussle with Russell?”), which led it to withdraw its seal of approval. Crazy-like-a-fox Hughes went ahead and re-released the picture anyway, to widespread local bans and canceled theater bookings. But proving there’s no such thing as bad publicity (especially when the buzz concerns sex), The Outlaw became a sensation despite widespread bad reviews, and eventually took in more than $3 million in the United States alone.––Joe McNeill

Jane Russell’s sultry pinup promoting The Outlaw became a pop culture icon. The dress is one of the film artifacts that will be on permanent display in Sedona’s proposed Arizona’s Little Hollywood Museum.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Sedona Fashion Gets Back in the Saddle!

A lot has changed in Sedona, including fashion, since Zane Grey’s The Call of the Canyon was filmed in the area in 1923, but the red rock skylines aren’t really fazed by the years. While Arizona’s Little Hollywood was in the works it was exciting to find that many of the backdrops from some of Red Rock Country’s most famous films are still accessible and unimpeded by houses and strip malls – what better locations for showcasing hot Western wear? Paris and New York may have the runways, but we have the red rocks. Even our well-heeled models agreed: Nothing compares to Sedona’s natural beauty (not even the chunky turquoise jewelry that had everyone at the photo shoot making their Christmas wish lists early). So saddle up and take a look at Sedona scenery and fashion, then and now. What would you rather be wearing?––Erika Ayn Finch

Inset: George O’Brien and Noble Johnson fight to the finish in Mystery Ranch (1932, Fox Film Corp.). Photographed in Sedona in 1932.

Inset: Gene Autry (l), Dick Jones (c) and Jack Holt in The Strawberry Roan (1948, Columbia Pictures). Photographed in Sedona in 1947.

Inset: Elvis Presley and unknown starlets in a publicity shot from Stay Away, Joe (1968, MGM). Photographed in Sedona in 1967.

Inset: Randolph Scott and Dorothy Hart in Gunfighters (1947, Columbia Pictures). Filmed in Sedona in 1946.

Inset: John Wayne and Gail Russell in Angel and the Badman (1947, Republic Pictures). Filmed in Sedona in 1946.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Sedona Movie Legends Walk of Fame

With more than sixty major feature films shot in Sedona between 1923 and 1973, and occasional TV, commercial and other productions ever since, the town holds a special place in movie history. On October 27, 2004, Sedona Main Street Program celebrated that legacy with the first “Hands through History” event. The five guests of honor who helped make movie magic in Sedona – Ernest Borgnine and Ben Cooper, co-stars of Johnny Guitar (1954); Sue Ane Langdon, co-star of The Rounders (1965); Bob Bradshaw, a local rancher who did late-era location scouting; Dwight Brooks, director, producer and CEO of Sedona Movie Studio, a local production company; and A.C. Lyles, the legendary Hollywood producer whose series of westerns breathed life into the genre in the 1960s – attended a cocktail party where granite plaques, each with their images and signatures, were unveiled.

After introductions and the screening of vintage film clips, the guests of honor cast their handprints in concrete slabs, which would be installed in Uptown Sedona in August 2006 as part of the Uptown Enhancement Project for streetscape beautification.

Borg­nine recalled that when he first came to Sedona “it was just a little hamlet, a little tiny town…there weren’t very many people here. Then, BAM! Next thing you know, it’s a city.” Cooper recalled that Sedona Lodge, headquarters for the Johnny Guitar company during their stay “had a big mess hall and they would bring in platters of food; they would have a platter of pork chops piled high, a platter of steaks piled high.” When asked if she had the chance to sightsee while shooting The Rounders, Langdon replied, “It was mostly just work, work, work – but where we worked was sightseeable. Where is there a place that’s not sightseeable here?”

A.C. Lyles, who’s worked for Paramount Pictures since 1928, was serving as a consultant to HBO’s Deadwood at the time and bursting with pride at the show’s success. “We just opened in England,” he said, “it’s been on four weeks and already is the highest-rated drama on Sky Network,” a British pay-TV service.

Actors Clint Walker, Edd “Kookie” Byrnes, Robert Horton, and Morgan Wood­ward were the guests of honor in February 2005 when the second “Hands Through History” evening brought more of the greats from Sedona’s western movie past back to town. Walker, who filmed Yellow­­stone Kelly there in 1959, joked, “It’s been 18 years [since my last visit]; most of this wasn’t here. I wondered, would I be able to find my way around?” His Kelly co-star, Byrnes, called that film “my favorite western that I’ve done.”

Robert Horton said, “I first saw Sedona [when we filmed] Pony Soldier in 1952. My wife and I came back in 1989 and it had changed; but the red rocks didn’t change, and I think the city should be very proud.”

Movie tough guy Morgan Wood­ward showed he has a soft spot for our town. He noted he filmed Firecreek here in the late ‘60s and “I can see that both of us have changed a great deal. I’m delighted to be back to celebrate this marvelous historical event that you’re carrying forward. Sedona is an absolutely beautiful place and I’ve never been among friendlier people.”

Passersby check out Uptown Sedona's "Hands Through History" installations.

A third “Hands Through History” event was held in May 2005, honoring Randolph Scott (Gunfighters, 1947), Tyrone Power (Pony Soldier, 1952), James Drury (The Last Wagon, 1956) and Dick Jones (The Strawberry Roan, 1948) for their roles in Sedona movies. Actress Donna Martell represented the deceased Scott, her co-star in the Tucson-filmed Ten Wanted Men (1955); Tyrone Power Jr. stood in for his father. To date, the last Sedona film star honored by Sedona Main Street Program has been The Strawberry Roan’s Gloria Henry, who cast her handprints in concrete during a visit to town in September 2007.––Joe McNeill

The Bod Squad

Northern Arizona has some beautiful sights––you just might never guess any of them were natural or outdoors after a viewing of Ameri­can An­them, one of the rare Holly­wood films shot on location there in the 1980s. Rather, through its odd lens, we see an Oak Creek Canyon where local beauty is defined by aspiring gymnasts with perfect hair and teeth. Indeed, we can forgive Ameri­can An­them viewers for thinking Flagstaff is a town of buff young residents spawned from genetic engineering experiments financed by a modeling agency and the lycra industry––but, unfortunately, not an acting school.

Yet at the time, Anthem’s story of gorgeous yet angst-ridden aspiring Olympians probably gave its producers good reason to think they were going for the gold. Young audiences in the Reagan era did backflips for its brand of coming-of-age movie. Like Risky Business (1983), Dirty Dancing (1987), even 1984’s Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo (starring the one-and-only Boogaloo Shrimp), Anthem features young hunks and babes learning about themselves, finding love and butting heads with older folks who Just Don’t Understand. In Anthem’s case, the young and the leotarded just happened to live in Northern Arizona. It boasts every cliche of a vintage ’80s date-night film, making the movie a time capsule not of what life in America was really like in those days, but of that era’s self-consciously hip filmmaking trends. A DNA test on its script would find dominant genetic strands of Flashdance (1983). Like the earlier film, it’s got plenty of strobe lights and shots of flowing water bouncing off taut flesh during backlit workouts. As if that wasn’t enough, Anthem has its lead character, played by real-life Olympic jock/first-time actor Mitch Gaylord, welding – just like Flashdance’s Jennifer Beals – to the very same pulsating beat. As icing on its cake, Anthem throws in some schmaltzy 1970s’ vintage Rocky heartstring-tugging, all wrapped in flashy visual packaging inspired by music videos. MTV was still only a few years old, and its hip, edgy ability to attract young audiences was the envy of every other form of media. Moviemakers in particular scrambled to copy the MTV form, hoping to gain some refracted cool: Music was the star, rapid-fire editing sought to grab short attention spans, and in more cases than Holly­wood would ever have dared to admit, plot took a backseat to style. Let American Anthem stand as Exhibit A.

The razor-thin story finds Steve Tevere (Gaylord) at a crossroads. He had it all: High school football stardom, world-class potential in gymnastics, popularity with his fellow dudes and a loving, supportive family. Suddenly, his father loses his job, and Steve is forced to make adult decisions for the first time. Should he follow his dream of competing for a spot on the U.S. Olympic gymnastics team? Or should he dilute his pursuit and continue working as a mechanic to pitch in when his family needs him most?

Deep down, Steve has an even bigger question he needs answered: Can he ever win the respect of his self-pitying, T-shirt-wearing dad?

Obviously, romance has to come into this mix. Cue the arrival of Julie Lloyd (Janet Jones), a beautiful gymnast who’s left New York to prove something to herself and her family (they don’t understand, either). Together, against the daring and competitive background of the gymnastics world, Steve and Julie resolve their personal crises; Steve even wins a warm, approving grin from his misty-eyed dad – now wearing a crisp sports shirt!

“The new reigning prince of filmmakers.” That’s what the Los Angeles Times called American Anthem director Albert Magnoli, a music video veteran, when his first feature, 1984’s Purple Rain starring Prince, brought in more than $75 million at the box office. Coincidentally––or not––more than one critic noticed American Anthem’s story bore some suspicious similiarites to Prince’s smash.

For Mitch Gaylord, who won a gold, a silver, and two bronze medals in gymnastics at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games, his acting debut was a revelation. “I had no idea how much work went into making a film,” the then-25-year-old said at the time,“and the best way I can describe it is that it’s like a giant jigsaw puzzle they put together piece-by-piece – a group effort, not just the actors and the director. It’s like you’re part of a team really creating something.”

Janet Jones, then 23, had her first starring role as Julie in Anthem, after small roles in The Flamingo Kid (1984) and A Chorus Line (1985). As a senior in high school, Jones represented her hometown of St. Louis as a disco dancer competing on the TV show Dance Fever. She became a series regular, and in 1988 married hockey legend (and future Arizona Coyotes head coach) Wayne Gretzky.

Arizona locations were key to Magnoli’s “vision”: “It’s important for me to bring a certain style to the picture and when I came to Arizona and saw the colors of the landscape it was obvious what that would be. If you use very definitive combinations of certain colors and images in an artistic fashion, something starts to happen in the audience. And it’s that visceral reaction we’re going for.” He added that “the isolation, the majestic mountains and dramatic skies provided the perfect setting for the characters in this story.”

Perfect – except that, due to the MTV-style breakneck editing, the “majestic mountains” of Sedona are seen only in a few quick flashes. In fact, most filming took place away from the red rocks, in the surrounding Coco­­nino National Forest, including the scenes that take place at Steve’s treehouse (see, I told you he had some growing up to do!) and at his secret practice space (where Gay­lord spends a lot of time spinning on a high bar mounted between two trees). One of the film’s better set pieces, a wild ATV chase through the forest that climaxes with Steve’s kid brother Mikey (9-year-old actor R.J. Williams) hanging from a high cliff, was shot on a road cut to the rim of Oak Creek Canyon especially for the film.

Nobody did summersaults over the reviews that greeted American Anthem when it opened in June 1986; Roger Ebert, for one, dissed it as “dumb and predictable.” It took in $4.8 million in the U.S.; the year’s box-office champ, Top Gun, another slick MTV-ish flick, took in $176.8 million – and not once did Tom Cruise walk on his hands dressed in day-glo.

The Anthem performance of Gaylord – who would later be “part of a team really creating” Ameri­­can risciò (1990, aka American Tiger), Animal Instincts (1992) and Sexual Outlaws (1994) – scored him a Razzie Award nomination as “worst new star.” In perhaps the cruelest cut of all, he lost to Howard the Duck.––After decades of obscurity, American Anthem was released on DVD in 2009 as part of the Warner Archive Collection.

Film Rouge (Rocks) No. 1

A film noir photographed in bright, cheery Sedona? And in Technicolor no less? Yep. That’s Lizabeth Scott coming between John Hodiak (left) and Wendell Corey in the innuendo-laced 1947 crime drama Desert Fury. Filming locations included spots in front of the Nuns Formation (pictured here) and the main drag of nearby Cottonwood, which was rented in its entirety for a couple of days to stand in as the fictional burg Chuckawalla, Nevada.

Nice Shootin’, Siegfried!

I’m not surprised that the chapter in Arizona’s Little Hollywood raising most eyebrows is the one on Der Kaiser von Kalifornien, the obscure 1936 Nazi propaganda Western filmed in Arizona and California. Let’s face it, the idea of a rootin’ tootin’ goosesteppin’ buckaroo is foreign to most Americans. But the Nazi Western didn’t just materialize out of nowhere, it evolved from a legion of cowboy entertainment that began filtering into German culture during the nineteenth century. Luis Trenker’s screenplay for Der Kaiser (which he also starred in) was influenced by the writing of Karl May, whose adventures of the fictional Mescalero Apache chief Winnetou and his Teutonic companion Old Shatterhand in the Wild West remain the German-speaking world’s biggest-selling series of novels. The swastika, then known as a Native American symbol for good luck, was often incorporated into the illustrations of the Winnetou books; some historians suspect this is where young Adolf Hitler, a May fanatic, first encountered it. None of May’s Western tales reached the screen until 1962, when the West Germany/Yugoslavia co-production Der Schatz im Silbersee (The Treasure of Silver Lake), a loose adaption of his 1890 novel was a smash hit, blitzkrieging continental box offices and sending the Eurowestern movie craze down a trail that would wind directly to The Man With No Name.

May never set booted foot in the American West and neither did Erich Rudolf Otto Rosenthal, a wildly popular German stage performer who adapted the handle “Billy Jenkins” and was billed as Der Koenig der Cowboys (The King of the Cowboys) while Roy Rogers was still in fringed diapers. Jenkins was the Teutonic equivalent of “Buffalo Bill” Cody, the sharp-shooting front man of a traveling Wild West show that toured Germany and other European countries for more than two decades before the Nazis seized power. Even though he was half-Jewish, Jenkins became a member of the Nazi Party in 1933 and at the same time changed his surname from Rosenthal to Fischer, his Gentile mother’s maiden name. Granted Aryan identity papers and official sanction by the Nazis, he remained active as a cowboy showman well past the start of World War II.

Like the Amerikaner Buffalo Bill, Jenkins was the hero of dozens of popular German-language pulp novels, often partnered in his fictional adventures with a Native American sidekick named Hunting Wolf. Despite decades of popularity, Jenkins never appeared in a feature film, although there were a number of Western movies made in Germany dating back to the silent era. As late as in the closing days of the Weimar Republic, a little more than two months before Hitler became Reich Chancellor, Der Goldene Gletscher (The Golden Glacier, 1932), a talkie Western drama about political corruption set during California’s Great Gold Rush of 1849, was playing in German cinemas.

America played the propaganda game, too. In 1944 Monogram Pictures released Enemy of Women, ostensibly a peek into the malevolent love life of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. Independently produced by Minneapolis-based theater operator W. R. Frank, The New York Times' reviewer called the film “a miserable consequence.”

Der Kaiser may have been the only Nazi Western to shoot scenes on location in the United States, but there were a trio of others produced during the Third Reich: Wasser für Canitoga (Water for Canitoga), the comedic Sergeant Berry (both starring German matinee idol Hans Albers and directed by Herbert Selpin, who it is believed was murdered by the Gestapo in 1942 for openly criticizing the German navy during production of the anti-British melodrama Titanic), and another genre parody, Gold in New Frisco, directed by Paul Verhoeven, an actor who played a supporting role in Der Kaiser; all three films were corralled into theaters in 1939. Both Berry and New Frisco were released with English-language titles, perhaps in an attempt to make German audiences think they were Hollywood product, and not surprisingly, three of the four Nazi Westerns fixate on the lure of gold and the lethal greed of American free enterprise.

Wasser für Canitoga’s plot revolves around the shopworn cowboy movie cliché of capitalist schweinhund sabotaging the water supply of a gold mining town, but the film also has a musical production number that foreshadows the glitzy rawhide extravaganzas Roy Rogers would churn out at Republic Pictures during the 1940s (although the slight bawdiness of “Good bye Jonny, Good bye Lilly,” the tune warbled by Hans Albers, would have brought a blush to the cheeks of “Queen of the West” Dale Evans). The idea of fascist cowpokes crooning a cabaret ditty in a Wild West saloon (which even has a revolving disco-style mirror ball hanging from the ceiling over the dance floor) may seem weirdly off kilter to Americans who grew up visiting Miss Kitty’s Long Branch saloon on TV, but “Good bye Jonny” enjoyed musical life far beyond Canitoga and went on to become a pop standard on the Fatherland’s Hit Parade. After the fall of the Third Reich, “Jonny’s” political loyalty stampeded stage left when its tune was appropriated as the basis of “Auferstanden aus Ruinen” (“Risen from Ruins”), the national anthem of Communist East Germany from 1949 until Deutschland’s reunification in 1990. The anthem’s music is officially credited to left-leaning composer Hanns Eisler, who fled Nazi Germany for the United States in 1933 to avoid persecution for his political views; by the late 1940’s the composer was accused of being “the Karl Marx of music” by finger pointers on the House Committee on Un-American Activities and he voluntarily returned to East Germany. But in 1950, West German tunesmith Peter “King of the Evergreens” Kreuder had a showdown with Eisler in the International Court of Justice, charging that the opening measures of “Ruinen” was plagiarized from “Good bye, Jonny,” which he had co-written eleven years earlier with lyricist Hans Fritz Beckmann.

The Western movie continued to be used as a propaganda tool in Germany well past the end of open warfare. In 1966, East Germany’s state run Deutsche Film-Aktiengesellschaft studio (popularly known as DEFA) kicked off a series of ideological “bratwurst” Westerns that featured Native Americans as the good guys and whites as the villains, a concept that allowed for transparent propagandizing of Yankee “imperialism.” The first of these Indianerfilms, Die Söhne der großen Bärin (The Sons of Great Bear), was adapted from a novel written by East German communist author and historian Liselotte Welskopf Henrich. Directed by Czech Josef Mach, with up-and-coming Serbian actor Gojko Mitić starring as Sioux warrior Tokei-Ihto, these Marxist cowboy and Indian yarns added a Cold War spin to the “Plight of the Red Man.”–– Joe McNeill