Hide 'Em Cowboy: Quirky Westerns

ByABC News
January 31, 2006, 2:53 PM

Jan. 24, 2005 — -- Maybe Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin never shared a tent like Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal do in "Brokeback Mountain." But in 1968's "Paint Your Wagon," they did share a wife.

"Paint Your Wagon" never stirred controversy for advocating three-way marriage, even if movie posters promised that these riders are partners in "everything." The big-screen bomb is more infamous as Eastwood's first and only attempt at starring in a musical -- an excellent career move judging by his version of "I Talk to the Trees."

Tough guy Marvin actually became the William Hung of his day, with the so-bad-it's-good chart-topper "Wandrin' Star" -- a must-own recording for anyone who collects William Shatner albums.

Clearly, Hollywood has proved over the years to have a very open range. A year after "Paint Your Wagon," while "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" was still in theaters, Jon Voight donned a Stetson to play a Texas drifter in New York City who turns to male prostitution in "Midnight Cowboy," the first X-rated Oscar-winning best picture.

While "Midnight Cowboy" isn't exactly a Western, "Brokeback Mountain" heads into Oscar season as America's most-talked-about movie, and while many call the Ang Lee film controversial, it's hardly the first to challenge the traditional cowboy image.

With Academy Award nominations coming next Tuesday, even President Bush was asked about the film. "I'd be glad to talk about ranching but I haven't seen the film," the president said to a roar of laughter at a press conference this week, adding. "I've heard about it."

With "Brokeback" gaining momentum as a front-runner for best picture, it's worth remembering some of the many unconventional Westerns -- from art house films to B-movie schlock -- that took sex, drugs and all sorts of behavior society tends to shun out of the closet and into the campfire, where everyone could see it.

"One of the biggest mistakes is to say that anyone ever seized the sacred mantle of John Wayne and desecrated the image of the Western," says Michael Medved, radio commentator and co-author of "The Golden Turkey" movie award guides.

"The Western is like jazz. It's an American creation, but it belongs to the world. Everyone has had their say on the West, and they've been twisting it however they like. Why, everyone knows one of the Village People was a cowboy or at least he wore a cowboy outfit."

Perhaps that's why it wasn't so strange, six decades before Eastwood's classic spaghetti Western, "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," to see cowboys singing in Italian in Puccini's three-act opera "Fanciulla del West" (The Girl of the Golden West).

Still, there was an enduring, rock-solid cowboy image, the kind that was maintained by Roy Rogers and Dale Evans through 27 films and two TV series. The King of the Cowboys and the Queen of the Rodeo had one rule throughout their career: No public displays of affection.

As Rogers once famously said of his movies, "I get to kiss the horse." At least Trigger never complained.

Even through the staid 1950s, when John Wayne was the big screen's most bankable star, the home where the buffalo roam was a test ground for social change.

"Charlie's Angels" and "Laura Croft: Tomb Raider" might have a debt to pay to 1953's "Johnny Guitar," a film many consider the forerunner of female-driven action movies, starring Oscar winners Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge as feuding gunslingers who settle their differences in a kill-or-be-killed showdown.

It's interesting to note that according to Hollywood lore Crawford and McCambridge were feuding off-screen as well, with Crawford reportedly scattering McCambridge's costumes along the Arizona highway in a rage befitting her "Mommy Dearest" persona.

Eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes had already started sexing up the West several years earlier with his notorious take on Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, "The Outlaw," which placed more emphasis on Jane Russell's chest than the shootouts.

Hughes, an aircraft manufacturer, turned his engineering sensibilities to personally designing a cantilever bra to accentuate the 19-year-old Russell's already ample bosom.

Although "The Outlaw" was finished in 1941, Hughes spent nearly two years fighting censors to allow as much cleavage as possible. At one early showing, a San Francisco theater operator was slapped with an "offense to decency" charge.

Russell, now 84, claims the Hughes-designed bra was too uncomfortable to wear. Of course, she spent the latter part of her career as the spokeswoman for the Playtex Cross Your Heart Bra.

Certainly sex roles have played a bigger role in contemporary Westerns, and it's hard to think of a barrier that hasn't yet been broken. A transvestite rode off into the sunset in 1993's "Ballad of Little Jo," based on the life of Josephine Monaghan.

As the movie poster read: "In the Wild West, a woman had only two choices. She could be a wife or she could be a whore Josephine chose to be a man."

Missing from most old Westerns -- but certainly present in the Old West -- were blacks. African-Americans actually composed an estimated 5,000 to 9,000 of the 35,000 ranch and rodeo workers in the post-Civil War era, but you can hardly appreciate that watching classic films from what's called the "Golden Era."

1937's "Harlem on the Prairie" -- billed as the "World's First Outdoor Action Adventure with an all-Negro Cast" -- was a breakthrough of sorts. Star Herb Jeffries, a singer for Duke Ellington's orchestra, became known as "The Bronze Buckaroo" and starred in a series of sequels, including "Two-Gun Man From Harlem" and "Harlem Rides Again."

In a time of segregated theaters, Jeffries became what many consider the first original blacksploitation movie star, and his film played a big part in raising consciousness of African-Americans as pioneers.

Of course, you could easily challenge the motives of producer and co-director Jed Buell, who was eager to exploit the popularity of prairie sagas with novelties. "Harlem on the Prairie" was made almost simultaneously with "The Terror of Tiny Town," an all-dwarf Western, featuring little people on ponies, wearing oversize 12-gallon hats and running under swinging saloon doors for gags.

Many of the dwarfs summoned to Hollywood to play munchkins in "The Wizard of Oz" populated this Lilliputian frontier, and it's a film that dwarf actors of today reflect upon with disgust.

But then again, cheap laughs played their part in deconstructing the Western, too. When the Three Stooges, Abbott and Costello, the Marx Brothers, and Martin and Lewis ran low on ideas, they jumped in the saddle. About the most memorable thing in "Go West," one of the Marx Brothers' worst films, is the minor controversy sparked by Groucho's character's name, "S. Quentin Quale," a play on the term, "San Quentin quail," slang for "jail bait."

Along with paving the way for the likes of Billy Crystal in "City Slickers" and Mel Brooks' "Blazing Saddles," these comedies opened the door to endless variations on old themes. By the mid-1960s, "Billy the Kid vs. Dracula" was running as a drive-in double feature with "Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter" -- and let's just say they weren't fixed up on eHarmony.com.

"I haven't met a man yet that a bullet couldn't stop," says Billy, who quickly learns his adversary isn't a man, although he once was, many centuries ago. John Carradine would later regard his turn as the rootin' tootin', blood suckin' count as the worst role in his career, even worse than his role in "Satan's Cheerleaders."

By the end of the decade, drugged-out, crazy, psychedelic Westerns came into vogue. Andy Warhol chimed in with "Lonesome Cowboys" -- and how they cured their prairie blues I can only leave to your imagination.

Another underground classic, Alejandro Jodorowsky's "El Topo," was too violent, too surreal and too controversial for widespread release, even after John Lennon began championing the film. Lennon's one-time manager Allen Klein even stepped in to strike a distribution deal.

"El Topo" did break ground, however, by getting theaters to hold special after-hour viewings. Thus, "midnight madness" screening of offbeat films became a tradition and, within a few years, it would turn the likes of "Pink Flamingos" and "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" into cult classics.

We can also thank the popularity of the offbeat Western for giving "South Park" creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone a start in show business. Like all kids at the University of Colorado at Boulder, they had heard the tale of Alferd Packer -- infamous as the first American tried on charges of cannibalism.

In the rugged winter of 1873, Packer was trapped in Colorado's San Juan Mountains, along with five other prospectors. He emerged 65 days later looking suspiciously plump, although he denied all charges of wrongdoing and claimed that he killed only one victim, and that was in self-defense.

As legend has it, at the sentencing, the presiding judge told Packer, "There were nine Democrats in Hinsdale County, and you ate five of them," before sending him off to die.

While every University of Colorado student knows the story well, only the likes of Parker and Stone would think of turning it into their first film, "Cannibal: The Musical," with a movie poster that promised "All Singing! All Dancing! All Flesh Eating!"

"Brokeback" might not be everybody's idea of a wholesome Western, but perhaps we can all agree that cannibalism set to music is the ultimate in bad taste.

Buck Wolf is entertainment producer at ABCNEWS.com. "The Wolf Files" is published Tuesdays.