One of the pleasures of reading books rather than just blogs or other flexible online entities is that books allow me to see that I’m not the only one whose fumbles bounce over the goal line to score for the bad guys in a final product. Better is when the writer is superior to me. Best is when that writer is also a scholar whose skill makes me envious.
Such is the case of the new book by Jeanine Basinger, chair of film studies at Wesleyan University and the author of numerous brilliant works of scholarship—all accessible to the average reader (quite an achievement, for an academic). The Star Machine (New York: Knopf, 2007) is a delightful and eye-opening look at the workings of the studio system in Hollywood, primarily during the thirties and forties. I’m only about a quarter of the way through it, for I keep stopping to look into something or other because of a point Basinger has made. I’m having such fun that I have no desire to hurry through.
But that doesn't mean it's a perfect work. On page 82 of the book, Basinger writes:
John Wayne spent a decade as a singing cowboy.
That made me whoop, “I’m not alone!”
My newest project entails watching quite a number of the 1930s “poverty row” Westerns where Wayne first excelled. I haven’t seen all of the movies he made at that time, but I’ve seen a lot of them. Oh, and I also have an interest in the “singing cowboy” phenomenon.
But, before I would let myself get too excited, I decided to check and see if there really was any way Wayne could be counted as a singing cowboy. After all, I did remember The Man from Utah (1934), where Wayne does seem to be handling a guitar during the opening sequence and something that could be deemed singing is going on—but the movie seems to have had second thoughts, substituting stock rodeo footage to fill things out rather than more “songs.” Could there be more, enough to characterize his career before Stagecoach (1939)—when he became an A-list star—as that of a “singing cowboy”? Let’s see… his first starring role in a Western was for The Big Trail (1930). Nope, no singing there! What about Two-Fisted Law (1932), where he plays “Duke” for the first time? Nope. Well, then… “Ride Him,Cowboy” (1932), where he rides Duke? I don’t think so.
What about other movies he made for Robert Bradbury, director of The Man from Utah?
Well, wait a minute. Bradbury certainly does have Wayne playing “Singin’ Sandy Saunders” in Riders of Destiny (1933) and dubbed a singer for him again in Lawless Range (1935). And there may even be a couple of others (Bradbury directed Wayne frequently). But, of Wayne’s more than fifty movies in the 1930s leading up to Stagecoach, there can’t be more than a couple I have missed where Wayne “sings”—not in any fashion at all.
But you knew that. Just as I did. Just as Basinger does. She would never argue that Wayne really was a “singing cowboy”—and certainly not for a decade.
Still, she will have to live with that claim, one that she certainly never intended to make, just as I will have to live with the knee-slappers in my books—though I, too, never intended to say what I did.
Whatever else may happen, I hope ‘the book’ never dies. Mistakes like Basinger’s (and mine, if I am lucky) can actually serve a positive purpose. I might never have looked into the attempt to portray Wayne within the “singing cowboy” craze of the mid-thirties had it not been for her—and I must admit to having learned something as I did (but that’s for my own next book).