Posted by Susan Doll on March 19, 2012
The recent success of Hugo and The Artist has sparked interest in the silent era and film history in the press and among the public. This attention has already waned, but, in an era when silent film is completely off the radar of most movie-goers, entertainment reporters, and bloggers, the focus was nice while it lasted. As a film studies instructor, I have taken advantage of both films to help my students connect to silent film in a way previous classes could not. After spending a week grading midterm papers, I am proud of my students who wrote about the films with depth and feeling, analyzing everything from the differences between silent and sound-film acting to references to movies or historical figures to the filmmaking techniques used by the directors. I was gratified that students applied what they had learned about Georges Melies and his special effects to draw comparisons to the CGI-laden films of their generation, and I was touched by their passionate declarations that the pioneer should never be forgotten. Though some of my colleagues dismissed the Oscar-winning The Artist as a pleasant trifle, my students recognized the visual techniques director Michel Hazanavicius used to complement the actors’ performances and to compensate for the lack of spoken dialogue. I liked The Artist very much, but their observations and discoveries made me appreciate the film even more. Recognizing techniques, references, and ideas beyond the level of plot is like having the keys to unlock any film, and, once my students realize this, they are excited by the possibilities.
The prominence of Hugo and The Artist combined with my students’ clever critiques of both films reminded me of another movie set in the silent era that references historical events and real-life film legends. Directed by Blake Edwards, Sunset features Bruce Willis as cowboy star Tom Mix and James Garner as Wild West legend Wyatt Earp. In honor of both Bruce Willis and Wyatt Earp’s birthday, which is today, I thought it fitting to bring some attention to this film.
The story is loosely based on the last phase of the famous lawman’s career when he served as a technical adviser on Hollywood westerns. Edwards, who made several films about the illusory nature of show business and the dark side of the film industry (S.O.B; Victor Victoria; The Party), set the film in the late 1920s, but his focus is not the technological revolution wrought by the coming of sound. Instead, Edwards concentrates on another aspect of Hollywood in the late 1920s—the consolidation of power in the studios, putting creative and financial control in the hands of studio moguls. The 1920s milieu as depicted by Edwards was an allegory for the Hollywood of the late 1980s, when the corporate-owned studios had wrested creative control from the auteurs and major directors of the film school generation (late 1960s to early 1980s). In Sunset, behind the onscreen heroism, romance, and fantasy is an off-screen world dominated by liars, users, pseudo-talents, and power-crazed executives with delusions of grandeur.
Bruce Willis costars in one of his early big-screen leading roles. In keeping with the film’s allusion to contemporary Hollywood, Willis plays Tom Mix as a version of his own star image—the charismatic smart-aleck who is as quick with a quip as he is with a gun. Garner, a recognizable star of small-screen and big-screen westerns from another generation, complements Willis with an understated, authoritative performance as Earp. Willis’s and Garner’s status in the film industry at the time mirror that of their onscreen characters as brash newcomer and respected veteran, novice and mentor. Like Earp, who was basking in his glory as an icon of the real West in the 1920s, Garner plays his part like he has nothing to prove.
Edwards draws an interesting analogy between movie stars of the 20th century and Wild West legends of the 19th century by positing them both as “products” of the press. Reporters exaggerated and mythologized the lives of both movie stars and western figures to sell newspapers, dime novels, and fanzines. Earp pokes fun at Mix’s supposed heroism in the Spanish-American and Boer Wars, neither of which he participated in. But, as Mix notes, “If it’s in print, it’s gotta be true.” Earp hints that his own exploits were also the stuff of myth: When a scriptwriter asks him if their cinematic re-creation of the Gunfight of the OK Corral was “really the way it was,” Wyatt responds, “Absolutely, give or take a lie or two,” which becomes the catch phrase of the film. Edwards is constantly warning us not to believe what we are seeing despite his use of historical figures and real-life events, just like all of Hollywood trades in illusion, fantasy, or outright lies despite any claims to history or fact.
Unfortunately, reviewers did not heed these warnings, even after the opening credit sequence—a cliched western scene in which a cowboy rides his dashing steed to rescue a damsel in distress from an out-of-control wagon. Viewers are led to believe that the scene is part of the main narrative of Sunset until the credits are over, and Edwards pulls back the curtain, so to speak, to reveal that it is a movie within a movie—and therefore make-believe. Thus, he sets us up from the beginning not to believe what we see. Apparently reviewers did not get the point, because most were ruthless in their condemnation of the film for being inaccurate and for mixing historical legends of the Wild West with movie stars and 20th century gangsters. Even the illustrious Roger Ebert wondered in his review what Wyatt Earp could possibly have in common with Tom Mix. I guess he missed their exchanges about image, mythmaking and the role of the popular press in both—a key part of Edwards’ message.
I have always found Wyatt Earp’s final years fascinating because he inadvertently participated in the mythologizing of the Old West by earning a living as a technical consultant in the movies. How bizarre it must have been for Earp to see phony re-creations of famous frontier towns or actors in make-up re-enacting the exploits of real-life figures he had known. Earp officially consulted on the glossy westerns of Tom Mix and on the more naturalistic dramas of William S. Hart, though countless directors claimed the famous lawman also confided Wild West truths to them, including John Ford. Alan Dwan maintained that he cast the old lawman as an extra in The Half-Breed starring Douglas Fairbanks, though Earp biographers dispute this. Earp’s name pops up in many biographies of famous figures of the period, attesting to the way he was embraced by the Hollywood “colony”—as the insiders’ circle was called back in the day. At the conclusion of Sunset, Earp takes a train to return to the real West after “cleaning up Hollywood” by solving a murder mystery with Mix; in reality, he spent the last years of his life at 4004 W. 17th Street in Los Angeles. According to writer Adela Rogers St. John, Mix wept openly at Earp’s funeral in 1929.
Though Edwards plays fast and loose with the facts for his own purposes, I still get a kick out of recognizing the references. His stepfather’s father, J. Gordon Edwards, was a director during the 1920s, and he likely heard the stories, rumors, and legends of the time first-hand. When Sunset was released, much was made of Malcolm McDowell as Alfie Alperin, a character identified as a fictionalized Charlie Chaplin. In the storyline, Alfie had gained fame and power through his portrayal of a comic character known as the Happy Hobo, a take-off on Chaplin’s Little Tramp. Like Chaplin during that era, Alfie owns his own production studio and has become a giant in the film industry. But, Alfie Alperin only echoes Chaplin’s career trajectory, because nothing in the comic’s real life suggests the abusive, incestuous brute that McDowell portrays. Instead, Alperin is more likely a composite of those megalomaniacal studio moguls and producers who espoused wholesome values in their films but were a bit twisted in their personal lives. Alfie’s tendency to break out bits of his old act during conversations and meetings reminded me of the stories of Jack Warner, who had begun as a performer in vaudeville. Apparently, Warner liked to “entertain” captive audiences at industry functions, formal parties, and during staff meetings by telling his ancient jokes or breaking into song. Like the characters in the movie, people around Warner endured his hammy antics because he wielded power over many of them. Also, I recognized the subplot involving the blackmail of Alperin as a nod to a famous Hollywood scandal. Alfie was squelching information about an incident aboard his yacht that led to the death of his first wife—an echo of the killing of Thomas Ince aboard William Randolph Hearst’s yacht in 1924.
One of Sunset’s most outrageous in-jokes is the Candy Store, a Hollywood brothel in which the girls were made up to resemble actual movie stars. When Tom and Wyatt visit the Candy Store as part of their investigation, they run into women who appear to be Greta Garbo, Janet Gaynor, and Pola Negri. As they are about to exit, a Mae West look-alike strolls by muttering something humorous under her breath, though the film’s 1920s time frame is too early for West’s heyday in Hollywood. The idea of prostitutes made up to look like movie stars will sound familiar to fans of Curtis Hanson’s 1997 film noir L.A. Confidential, which was based on a book by James Ellroy. A cathouse consisting movie star look-a-likes is a legendary tale about old Hollywood that was given validity in writer Garson Kanin’s memoir Hollywood. Kanin describes “Mae’s” as an exclusive establishment frequented by film industry employees and actors during his early years as a Hollywood screenwriter. The prostitutes, who resembled Myrna Loy, Carole Lombard, Ginger Rogers, Claudette Colbert, and other leading ladies of the Golden Age, were expected to research the latest onscreen appearances, on-set gossip, and off-screen innuendos of the stars they impersonated to appear more authentic and to fulfill their customers’ fantasies. Kanin suggested that men went to Mae’s to satisfy the fantasies hinted at but never delivered in the stars’ films or to relieve the tensions of working with the real actresses on the set.
While Sunset is not as coherent or well scripted as The Artist or Hugo, and the main female characters are dull, offensive, or downright annoying, the film has more to offer than reviews of the time suggested. As in Hugo or The Artist, the history that serves at the basis for the story is not intended to be historically accurate. If you liked the way that Hugo and The Artist used film history to suggest something about the artistry or nature of cinema, give Sunset a try. It’s truthful enough, give or take a lie or two.
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