Decades ago, I lived in a house on a street called Cattle Drive. The house was located in West Natomas, Sacramento, back when that region was a wide-open and empty flood plain. The area is still a flood plain, but it’s no longer wide-open or empty. Filled now with houses, apartment complexes, strip malls, and sprawling business “parks”, those green acres surrounding the Garden Highway were once lush and rich for growing rice, but not much else. I cannot tell you the numbers of agapanthus plants and citrus trees that I planted in the hardpan soil, only to watch them die in the clayey layer that is completely impenetrable by roots.
Too many flora paid the price for my education in the natural compaction of a layer of riverbed soil. I finally plopped a little fan palm tree into that hardpan clay. The thing took root and grew to enormity.
I nonetheless never took root in that inhospitable place. I lived there for a couple of years, and, on weekends, I painted a few landscapes of scenes that no longer exist: a cornfield with birds flying overhead; goldenrod on the banks of the Sacramento River; rice fields at mid-day. Those paintings I gave away to friends and family (for real, that term once existed outside of retail marketing ploys). And I dreamed of the day when I’d be away, far far away from the flooding Sacramento River and the cold winter fog, the blazing dry summer heat, and the flatness of it all.
The foothills folks call the Sacramento dwellers “flat-landers”, and for good reason. There’s more than a slight tendency for the River City citadins to possess a flat-earth-society mentality. Maybe it’s more a matter of their way of thinking about themselves, more than about the dense impervious earth on which they stand. They tend to think of themselves as the only civilization for miles around. For many miles around. To this day, the city slickers hold themselves high above the people in the foothills, especially when those city lovers re-locate to the unrefined woods to escape the crime, filth, and unhealthiness of life in the big little city.
That clash of “cultures” goes back, way back, to the settling of the West. The TV Western is the surest way to accurately and succinctly tell those tales of uppity, rich-pocketed but narrow-minded urbanites versus the shrewd sodbusters without pompous advanced degrees, but with a humbling understanding of life.
The Golden Age of the TV Western in America was the 1950s, an era when the movie studios were struggling to survive the paying public’s post-WWII distaste for whatever it was that the studios were churning out for the masses. Film noir was tried, and briefly caught fire, more as a celluloid genre than as a realistic or even entertaining story. The world, along with America, had seen evil, and had fought it, and through the grace of God and the guts of heroic men and women, had defeated it. A flick that featured incurable sickness of the mind, and an alluring woman who would really get the gruesome demented ball rolling, that product brought quick bucks. That fast infusion of cash for the Hollywood studio came with an awful price:
The family unit wasn’t gonna put up with that fatalistic lurid fare for long. Not when the TV screen, little as it was, could present half-hour morality plays that appealed to the innate and virtuous sense of right and wrong, good vs. evil. “Bad and badder” can only go so far, and then it’s over and gone.
A guaranteed profitable formula was needed, one that would attract those advertising dollars that made possible the televisual story. Clearly, the content of the 1950s films became the problem. It’s once again the problem, the only problem for the Movie-Makers, no matter where they pitch their corporate tent.
Movie westerns had made millions for the Warner Brothers studio which then decided to formulate television plots from those old films. Most of the episodes of the entire first year of “Cheyenne” consisted of remakes of WB westerns. Old file footage was used to save even more money! Recycling old plots, scripts, scenes, even wardrobes from flicks of the past became crucial for the “new” productions from the aging and ailing studios.
Ha! Today’s U.S. cinema-trash can’t even be recycled, not even those CGI concoctions that replaced stunt actors and a sense of reality. The list of “offensive” content grows larger with each Chinese New Year.
An entirely new remake of the remake of the worn-out franchise must be contorted and replicated, with ever-diminishing earnings and ever-increasing alienation from the American people. The Anti-Heroes of a hollowed-out Hollywood have cut that industry down to its true pygmy size of two-faced, yellow-bellowed villains attacking the virtuous, the valiant, and the captivatingly lovely — and getting away with it, riding off into the sinking sunset of anti-American cowardice.
Nope. Heroes can’t be streamed from the stream of that bilge water. The Suits poisoned their own water hole!
Heroes - inspirational heroes - are not so hard to find nowadays on the home front. Those domicile-theatre wide-screens feature the ripened harvests of Yesteryear. Riding to the emotional rescue of a dispirited audience are all of those American Western Shows of the Golden Age of TV. Many of them were initially broadcast before my time; indeed, I watched most of them in syndication as a youngster and young teenager. I recall racing home after school to watch re-runs of Wagon Train. That show then got cancelled and replaced by some dopey Soap Opera, or the creepy Dark Shadows, or whatever else appealed to my older sisters, but not to me!
As BabyBoomerCulture began to infest TV-land, I steadfastly rebelled against the entire onslaught of the slavish mass marketing to the blob of brats. In the hills of northern New Jersey, Debra the Kid stayed true to her love of the West. No one was gonna tell me that the urban cowboy was real, or even handsome. The Marlboro Man, the Men of the Ponderosa, and Cheyenne Bodie are the ultimate models of a real hero, the strong silent type whom the loudmouth politically correct jackanapes tried to vilify and rub out.
As usual with those ignorant wusses, it wasn’t even a fair fight. I therefore decided that I was gonna stand up for Him, the Western Hero.
Many were the times when I deeply enjoyed going to a formal metropolitan event and sporting a cowboy hat and the antiquated leather saddle-bag that I’d bought at an antique store. Many more were the times when I looked at the In-Crowd, and I became even more solitary and set in my ways to stand outside of the Group, and defy their accepted and approved social trend, as determined by The Clique.
Oh, I wasn’t rude. Far from it. I was the polite, decent soul, silently observing the vulgarity of the elites, the beautiful people, those young adult druggies who succeeded in only one thing: statistically lowering the life expectancy of a vast horde of people born into comfort and class advantages in a land of liberty.
For a child who had had to separate herself out from a family-herd of poor and self-made victims, to then have to witness her peers, a snobby mob of wealthy and self-made victims, that horrifying sight gave me pause, great pause, as to the commonly accepted reasons for ruinous individuals.
Being told that He “had it rough”, that pity-pretext no longer applied to my reasoning mind. That boy had it good, very good, and he still chose to dissipate himself. Being told that She needed a better education to save her from a life of enslavement to an abusive man, I couldn’t piece together the logic of why another gal, with very little formal schooling, was able to show fortitude and a fierce will in raising her sons to rise above where she’d come from. Hearing that the Youngest didn’t inherit the farm and went bad because of it, that cause-and-effect did not square with another Youngest who’d inherited only his genes and went on to succeed as an admirable schoolteacher.
The lame excuses from generation to generation are always the same, albeit spruced up with the latest verbiage and lingo. Going from shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations happens mostly because of the people forced to wear shirts that don’t fit them. A happy society is one in which the individual knows his rightful and beneficent place in life, and knows how to benefit, monetarily and emotionally, even spiritually, from that place.
People being shoved to where they ought not go — those money-making decisions have become lucrative and hideously corrupting industies, especially within the educational world. A child treated like chattel, to be passed along in school to make the teachers and the educrats look good, so they can thereby get more of those brownie-point grants — there is the seed of destruction of that individual and of that school. I feel no compunction about what happens to the teacher; she started to sell her soul when first she handed out a grade that was not earned by the student.
In the cattle drive of life, those frauds are found out faster than they expect. The worthy expectations of wrong being discovered and punished; of good being rewarded, rather than lied about, besmirched, and pooh-poohed; of excellence triumphing; and of failure being confronted and properly dealt with — those realities make up the little morality plays that drew, and continue to draw, millions to TV Westerns bearing these bold, dynamic and emblematic names:
Cheyenne (1955-1963), starring Clint Walker as Cheyenne Bodie, the handsome, talented hunk of humanity. This loner and ex-frontier scout was raised by the Cheyenne Indians after they killed his parents and adopted him to raise him right.
Have Gun Will Travel (1957-1963), starring Richard Boone as Paladin, the original man in black and knight errant. This professional gunfighter’s a graduate of West Point. After the Civil War, he takes up selling his skills through an admirably pithy business card. His base of operations is Hotel Carlton in San Francisco, when the city was merely lawless, was filled with loose morals, and was not the epicenter of prurient human interests.
The Rifleman (1958-1963), starring Chuck Connors, Johnny Crawford and Paul Fix. The heart-warming and thought-provoking adventures of a Wild West rancher/homesteader and his son. He’s got a customized Winchester rifle with rapid-fire and his precision aim.
Wagon Train (1957-1965), starring, initially as the Wagon Master, Ward Bond, and then John McIntire; Robert Horton, and Robert Fuller. The period is post-Civil War. The setting starts in Missouri and proceeds, with the wagon train, westward ho — through the plains, deserts, dry flats and swollen rivers of America, traveling onward, toward the Rocky Mountains.
Bonanza (1959-1973), the quintessential family Western, starring Lorne Greene, Pernell Roberts, Dan Blocker, and Michael Landon. The period is somewhere around 1860. The setting is the Ponderosa, the 1,000 square miles (640,000 acres) on the eastern shore of Lake Tahoe.
I offer a heavy sigh here — and a fair warning regarding the first two seasons of Bonanza. The network and RCA (Radio Corporation of America), which owned NBC, were selling COLOR, or, to be more exact, COLOR TVs, more than a good storyline. Those early episodes nearly killed this show outright. The plots were awful; the scripts were, consequently, ghastly. The strong acting, however, of the four principals, was that strong so as to permit a third season-reprieve by the Suits. Adhering to strict budgets also did the performance trick for this family of unmarried men.
Until this past month, I’d only viewed, during my childhood, portions of Seasons 3 to 6 of Bonanza. Even then, I must have been concentrating mainly on the scenery and the horses. The character development among the four males is . . . frustrating. Even Casanova “Ben” Cartwright is not fully fleshed out, at least in terms of all of those broken hearts that he left behind, down in New Orleans!
The brouhaha over Pernell Roberts and his exit/being fired/walking off the show, after Season 6, detracts from the natural gifts, spoken as well as singing, of this actor. In my literary opinion, the character of “Pa” and that of “Adam” were in conflict right from the start of this show. For whatever reason, the commanding authority of this father figure was, at times, intermixed with a gentle, conciliatory role, one of mediation. That portrayal of a calming influence was also a fixed part of the “Hoss” character; and it’s never wise to establish two characters performing the same function. The eldest son was thus left with slim pickings to fully flesh-out a role.
Given the unyielding nature of Mr. Roberts, the dominant thespian personality of Mr. Greene, and the unwillingness of the producer to risk expanding and deepening the roles of any of the Cartwright men, there was no wiggle-room in which Pernell could play his part. Even within his constricted space, he nonetheless made his mark quite well. Oftentimes, the real sibling rivalry took place between Lorne Greene and Pernell Roberts!
Maybe Uncle Adam might have worked for an actor so fiercely intent on developing his stagecraft.
The target audience of the TV western during the entire 14-season run of this series demanded reliability, stability, and people they could count on to “be there,” to “not let them down”. That type of expectation by the viewing public was an indication of the rough, rocky and precarious social waters of the mid-1960s through the 1970s. Ironically, what began as a new and fresh approach to the TV western had to stay a steady, if not monotonous, course to stay on the air.
It’s very telling whenever any fictional character must provide a firm and consistent hand for children, as well as for adults, while the foundations of their world crumble from the “societal upheaval” that became the calling card of the destructive money-people in America and their minions, the Boomer Brats.
How quaint is the notion of telling an uplifting story that stretches the mind toward a higher plane of thought, and the heart toward a more noble impulse? Perhaps not as quaint and obsolete as the modern “entertainment” moguls wish us to believe.
Sometimes the cattle drive becomes a rutted road with one too many ruts. The strong but nurturing world of the filmed American western thus disintegrated, along with all of those “family values” that the pandering politicians felt free to mock, decades ago; but now must pay fraudulent lip service to — at least in public.
A Western starring Adam Cartwright, all on his lonesome, having to rope in all of those wandering beeves, and mend those fences along those 640,000 acres, until he solemnly arrives at the inescapable conclusion that he needs help; and he needs to be of help to others:
There’s a cattle drive worth waiting for!