Thursday, October 1, 2009

"Saddle Up! - Part Twelve"

Actors who played classic roles in westerns great and not so great remember their experiences for posterity, as imagined by me because I never met any of them and the best I can do is make it up.



“During World War II, Hollywood was strapped for bullets. They were needed on the battlefield.

“There were rumors production on westerns would have to shut down, because, you know, how do you make cowboy pictures without bullets? The issue was debated at the highest levels. It was said the president himself weighed in, F.D.R. being a particular fan of Hoot Gibson. Finally, the decision came down that, like baseball, westerns were a national institution, essential to home-front morale. The studios were ordered to keep crankin’ ‘em out. And as good patriots, they did.

“The caveat was that the ‘bullets problem’ had to be worked out. Westerns needed to be ammunition-free, or the genre was dead for the “duration.”

“It’s not like westerns ever used actual bullets. It was more how it appeared. For example, those little loops ‘round the back of your holster where you kept your replacement ammunition? There had to be something in there. Otherwise, the audience is wondering, ‘What’ll they use to reload?’

“Someone thought of the idea of paper bullets, which were foil-wrapped pieces of cardboard shaped like bullets. The things looked like bullets, at least from a distance. But what happens when you have to, at least, pretend to reload? You can’t slip cardboard bullets into your six-gun. The bullets would bend. Wooden bullets were also considered, but they had a hard time making them shiny.

“Then they wondered, ‘What if they keep shooting and never reload?’ Truth be told, they didn’t reload that much before. Still, it looked pretty phony, shooting forever without putting in new bullets. But, you know, there was a war on, and everyone had to do their part. Our part was looking like dumbasses by never reloading.

“Unfortunately, moviecraft being what it is – the power of illusion and all – everyone thought we were using bullets even when we weren’t. Westerns fans started boycotting the pictures, complaining that we should be saving those bullets for the Nazis and the Japanese, instead of wasting them on owlhoots and Indians. I tried reassuring people that we weren’t using bullets anymore, but they didn’t believe me. They’d hear the “Pow! Pow!” – which the studio inserted later – and believed we were squandering ammo.

“Producers started brainstorming about ways of bringing bad guys to justice besides shooting them. Finally, someone suggested the bullwhip. Whoever he was, the man deserves a medal. He single-handedly saved the wartime western.

“The whip was the perfect alternative. It was made of rawhide, which wasn’t rationed, so it didn’t hurt the war effort. Whips also struck terror into the hearts of the bad guys. Outlaws had no problem being shot, apparently, but they wanted no part of the sting of the lash.

“It was the time of my big break. When the war started, a lot of the stars joined up to fight. Gable, Jimmy Stewart, Gene Autry. I couldn’t enlist ‘cause I only had one kidney. This made me ‘available’ for pictures. It’s a funny thing. Before the war, I couldn’t get arrested in the movie business. In a way, ‘Pearl Harbor’ was the luckiest day of my life.

“Being a big, strapping fellah, they, naturally, put me in westerns. At the time, it seemed like a dicey career move – starting in westerns when they were moving away from bullets – but as is often the case, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

“It was down to three of us for the lead role in Whip Crack in Laredo! The studio issued us bullwhips and we were sent home to practice. The winner would be the one showing the greatest aptitude. Three days later, one fella had taken his eye out. The other fella injured his cat. All I did was bring down our dining room chandelier – before my wife told me to practice outside. I got the job as the least terrible of the three.

“The actors playing the bad guys made a fuss about working with me, because my whip cracks were supposed to miss them, but sometimes they didn’t. The first day of shooting, I flicked off a fella’s earlobe. Don’t think the Actors Guild didn’t make a stink about that! I had to pay all his doctor bills. Good thing it was a person, though. If I’d nicked up some animal, they’d have probably kicked me out of the business.

“After a while, though, I became pretty skillful. I got so good, the Sound Department didn’t have to put in those whip-cracking sounds anymore; I could make them myself. From then on, I just kept improving. I’d go out on promotional tours – I remember once, this kid in the front row was really heckling me. ‘You’re a fake! You couldn’t whip cream!’ I didn’t say a word. I just carried my whip to the front of the stage, and I flicked the popcorn out of his bag.

“One kernel at a time.”

“When the war ended, the old Good Guys came back, packing loaded six-guns. Realizing my heyday was ending, I left show business and went into real estate. I own a big chunk of the San Fernando Valley.

“The down payment on my first property?

“Bullwhip money.”

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