Updated: May 17
“Sometimes too much drink is barely enough” (Mark Twain)
At one moment in the excellent 1985 Western Silverado, Paden (Kevin Kline) enters a large saloon, looks around admiringly and says to the owner (Linda Hunt), “Compliments to you Miss Stella. This is what I call a saloon.” Stella replies, “Thanks. That's what I call it too.” Paden tells her that he is something of an expert on saloons: “I know what I'm talking about.” Stella: You like a good saloon? Paden: It's the only place I'm happy. Stella: Me, too! What's wrong with us?
It seems to me that saloons are almost an essential ingredient of the Western. Few are the oaters that don’t figure at least one at some moment or another, and occasionally they are central to the action. Saloon brawls, either semi-comic or destructive and brutal, were a standard feature of big-budget pictures and small. John Wayne reckoned that he took part in 500. He counted? How many drunken customers have been ejected through the batwing doors and landed in the dusty street? How many quick-draw shoot-outs have taken place within a saloon's not always ultra-salubrious (or even very solid) walls?
Saloon ladies Time and again in Western movies there were two dames for the hero to hover between, and one was a rather prim-and-proper lady but the other was often a saloon gal, which made her less respectable but perhaps, ahem, livelier.
In historical fact (not that Western movies ever had much concern with historical fact), ‘respectable’ women did not go to saloons, a tradition that lasted until World War I and beyond. Perhaps this partially explains the prominence of ladies in the prohibition movement. During Prohibition in the US (1920 – 33) film makers could hardly show saloons in their pictures at all, and if cowboys ever did enter one it was to order a sarsaparilla. (When Prohibition was repealed, President Franklin D Roosevelt asked the states not to permit the return of saloons. Spoilsport.) Many Westerns were made in a time when Hays Office disapproval, self-censorship and bourgeois proprieties prevented such words as prostitute or whore ever being pronounced, but euphemisms such as saloon gal or shady lady were universally understood. Certainly prostitution was a common feature of the Western saloon. However, not all women who worked in saloons were prostitutes. Often their job was to entertain the guests, sing for them, dance with them (typically at 75¢ a dance), and perhaps flirt with them a bit – inducing them to buy drinks and patronize the gambling games. Such women often earned a commission on drinks bought. Base of operations Sometimes saloons were almost central to the Western plot. They were the headquarters of the crooked town boss, invariably dressed in a suit. There’s some historical background to this. In a time of increasingly restrictive legislation, as well as corrupt law officers, many saloon owners turned to criminal activities to supplement their incomes. Few honored the statutory closing hour (often midnight), and many welcomed petty gambling and prostitution. The need for protection from further legislation and the fear of tighter police enforcement drove some saloonkeepers into politics. Many of the most colorful personages in Chicago's history, for example, such as ‘Bathhouse John’ Coughlin, Michael ‘Hinky Dink’ Kenna, John Powers and Edward ‘Foxy’ Cullerton, were saloon men.
In places where literacy levels were low, the bar provided the principal center for the exchange of information; a savvy saloon man/politician could turn that into votes. Saloons often provided a safe for valuables, later on a telephone for emergencies, a newspaper for those who could read one, and a bowl on the bar for charity collections. City saloons became labor exchanges and union halls, as well as providing a place to cash paychecks. On busy streets and downtown, the saloon provided a restroom. And in all areas of the city, the purchase of a drink allowed access to the free lunch sideboard. This feature usually offered only cold foods, but competition could make it elaborate. Great crooked saloon owners/town bosses in Westerns for me were Victor Jory, Lyle Bettger and David Brian. I also like John Dehner in Powder River, Paul Kelly in Frenchie, Scott Brady in Arizona Bushwhackers, Humphrey Bogart with a derringer in The Oklahoma Kid, John Smith (from Laramie), also with a derringer, inWaco, Willis Bouchey in Five Guns to Tombstone, and of course we mustn’t forget Al Swearingen and Cy Tolliver in HBO’s Deadwood. But there were so very many. You probably have your favorite.
They would all have henchmen, thugs to do their dirty work (rarely did they personally engage in fisticuffs or shoot-outs, unless maybe with a sneaky derringer – though David Brian could slug it out) and classic henchers were the likes of Lee Van Cleef and Leo Gordon. Victor Jory was saloon owner Bruce Cabot’s henchman in Dodge City but soon graduated to being a crooked saloon owner in his own right.
Western movies with saloon as focus Saloons as focus of the Western occur especially in movies about Judge Roy Bean, such as The Westerner or The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean. His watering hole The Jersey Lilly in Langtry, Texas served as courthouse too. Actually, the saloon seemed to be the only building in town. Many are the Western movies in which, in the absence of a proper edifice, the saloon was pressed into a service for court to be held. Usually the bar was closed, pro tem.
After all, the word saloon derives from the Italian salone, a big room, perhaps for receptions or events, and the French salon, a living room or parlor, and then by extension a place where musical and literary events took place (and nowadays, or pre-Covid anyway, the word for big expos and trade fairs in enormous halls). The Western saloon was often the biggest and most convenient place to accommodate public meetings. In Hays City, Kansas, before a church was built the first services were held in Tommy Drum’s Saloon (most saloons were closed on Sundays). Some movies show this, such as The Deadly Companions, where some rough types object to the bar being closed and a preacher holding forth.
According to the website legendsofamerica.com, the first place that was actually called a “saloon” was at Brown’s Hole on the Wyoming–Colorado–Utah border, conveniently sited for outlaws. Established in 1822, Brown’s Saloon catered to the many trappers during the fur-trading days. The Online Etymology Dictionary tells us that in the United States saloon evolved into its present meaning by 1841, and by the late 1850s the term had begun to appear in directories and be common usage for an establishment that specialized in selling beer and liquor by the drink, with food and lodging as secondary concerns in some places.
When gold was discovered near Santa Barbara, California in 1848, the settlement had but one cantina. However, just a few short years later, the town boasted more than 30 saloons. In 1883, Livingston, Montana, though it had only 3,000 residents, had 33 saloons. Not a bad ratio, that. In Leavenworth, Kansas, there were about 150 saloons and four wholesale liquor houses, and cattle towns such as Abilene and Dodge boasted huge numbers of saloons, catering to the drovers who brought herds up from Texas to the railhead. It was said that in Leadville, Colorado at the height of the mining boom there were seven churches but 120 saloons and 110 beer gardens, not to mention dozens of brothels and gambling houses besides.
The action in a Western like Destry Rides Again is centered on the saloon and Universal built an impressive set for it. The place is grand and there’s plenty of smoke and gambling and there are fights, notably the daring duel between Marlene Dietrich and Una Merkel. Brian Donlevy, who was not in my view cut out for many Western roles, was at his best as a saloon enforcer. He’d been excellent as that in Barbary Coast and he was terrific in Destry.
Another Western in which the saloon figured largely and was the main character’s base of operations is Warlock. In the movie version (from the novel by Oakley Hall) Clay Blaisedell (Henry Fonda) arrives as tough-guy clean-up-the-town marshal and he and his partner, Tom Morgan (Anthony Quinn), set up shop in a saloon they buy, doing it up into the fancy French Palace and importing rich drapes and Chinese silk sheets from San Francisco. Much of the action takes place here, and it will become a pyre at the end, when one of the pair (there is a slight suggestion that they might be lovers) will receive there a kind of Viking funeral.
There is, of course, something very Wyatt Earp/Doc Hollidayish about the Blaisedell/Morgan partnership, and Wyatt Earp himself was, for much of his life, a professional saloon man. He had part ownership of the gambling concession at the Oriental in Tombstone and in later life would own a succession of saloons all over the West, such as the White Elephant in the mining boomtown of Eagle City, Idaho, four saloons and gambling halls in San Diego, California between 1887 and 1896, and the Dexter in Nome, Alaska in 1900, curiously promoted as “The only second class saloon in Alaska.”
The Long Branch The most famous saloon in Dodge is of course the Long Branch, ruled over by Miss Kitty in Gunsmoke. The story is that some soldiers from Fort Dodge were playing ball with some cowboys on the understanding that the loser would construct a saloon, and the soldiers lost, and so the saloon was built on Front Street. legendsofamerica.com tells us that “The saloon was purchased by Chalkley Beeson and William Harris in 1878 [Harris named it after his hometown of Long Branch, New Jersey] and through their efforts, it soon became the most popular and refined place for the cattlemen of Dodge City. Chalkey Beeson’s five-piece orchestra played nightly for the entertainment of the cattlemen.”
The saloon was the site of a gunfight on April 5, 1879, between 'Cock-eyed' Frank Loving and Levi Richardson. Loving accused Richardson of making disrespectful advances towards his wife, and the two got into an argument that turned into a gunfight across a table. Loving was grazed on the hand by one bullet; Richardson was shot three times and died. Town Marshal Charlie Bassett arrested Loving, but on April 7, a coroner′s inquest ruled that Loving had acted in self-defense and he was released without charges.
Professional gambler and noted shootist Luke Short purchased a controlling interest in 1883, which led to the so-called Dodge City War. The establishment burned down in 1885 and was never rebuilt, though there is a modern reconstruction as a tourist attraction in a different part of town.
Not always high class Many saloons, especially early ones, were very rudimentary affairs, tents, shacks or even an old wagon. Bars were just a plank over some barrels. We rarely see these in Western movies, being more used to grand palaces with a painting of an unclothed lady over the bar (and a mirror, to be carefully taken down just before the fracas) and with a railed second floor.
Of course saloons gained all sorts of familiar names, which you’ll often hear in Western movies, such as watering trough, bughouse, shebang, grogshop, and gin mill.
The whiskey served in many of the saloons was rough stuff made with raw alcohol, burnt sugar, and a little chewing tobacco. No wonder it took on such names as Tanglefoot, Forty-Rod, Tarantula Juice, Taos Lightning, Red Eye, and Coffin Varnish. Dos and don’ts There was quite a strict code of etiquette to be observed in a Western saloon (apart from not shooting the piano player). For example, you were expected to offer to stand the man next to you at the bar a drink. If a stranger arrived and didn’t make the offer, he could be asked why he hadn’t done so. Even worse was refusing a drink, which was considered a terrible insult, regardless of the vile liquor that might be served. On one such occasion at a Tucson, Arizona saloon, a man who refused the offer was taken from bar to bar at gunpoint until “he learned some manners.” However, if a man came in and confessed that he was broke and needed a drink, few men would refuse him. On the other hand, if he ordered a drink, knowing that he couldn’t pay for it, he might find himself beaten up or worse. Saloons of the old West were very racist by modern standards. Indians were excluded by law. An occasional black man might begrudgingly be accepted, or at least ignored if he happened to be a noted gambler or outlaw. If a Chinese man entered a saloon, he risked his life. Mexicans tended to keep to their own cantinas. Entertainment Faro was by far the most popular game of chance in Western saloons, even more than poker, but every imaginable form of gambling was also to be found, brag, three-card monte, chuck-a-luck, craps, and so on. Bret Maverick famously said that his pappy had always told him to steer clear of all these inventions of the devil. “Stick to poker” was the paternal advice.
Increasingly, a piano became part of the house entertainment, or an automatic player-piano or pianola was installed in the absence of a ‘professor’ to tickle the ivories. When Oscar Wilde visited Leadville he is said to have remarked in a saloon, "Now here, for example, in this charming boîte de nuit, I see the only rational method of art criticism I have ever come across. Look there, over the piano." He pointed at the notice which read PLEASE DO NOT SHOOT THE PIANIST. HE IS DOING HIS BEST. "What is the mortality rate among American pianists, do you know?"
1880 was a landmark date because it began the demise of warm beer. In that year Adolphus Busch introduced refrigeration and pasteurization of beer with his Budweiser brand.
Draw! Shootings in saloons were so commonplace in Western movies that you’d think they happened every day. But they didn’t. Still, copious cheap liquor, hot tempers and ubiquitous firearms weren’t really a good combination, and so lethal gunplay did occur, especially if a gambler had been cheating.
Famous saloon deaths included those of Wild Bill Hickok in Nuttall and Mann’s No. 10 in Deadwood, South Dakota on August 1, 1876, shot in the back of the head by Jack McCall; Bob Ford, Jesse James’s assassin, gunned down in his own tent saloon in Creede, Colorado on June 8, 1892 by a shotgun-wielding Edward O’Kelley; and Texas gunman John Wesley Hardin, who, on August 19, 1895, was also shot in the head from behind, by Constable John Selman in the Acme Saloon, El Paso. You see, face-to-face quick-draw showdowns were rare…
Reader JM wrote me, “I would mention in the saloons top list Yellow Sky ... and The Law and Jake Wade saloons for their brilliant finales, Joe Kidd where the saloon becomes a train station and Unforgiven where Gene Hackman finally becomes almost human.” Actually, there was quite a run of ruined saloons in ghost towns in Westerns. The bad guys still seemed to gather there, even if there was no booze.
And reader Richard says, “Perhaps the strangest saloon customer in a western was the vampire/gunfighter in the 1959 movie Curse of the Undead, who apparently liked whiskey along with blood.”
Decline and fall The traditional saloon was in decline many years before Prohibition. Beginning in 1893, the Anti-Saloon League began protesting against such establishments. In 1895 the League became a national organization and quickly rose to become the most powerful prohibition lobby in America.The automobile took patronage from what was clearly a pedestrian-streetcar institution. Nickelodeons competed too. Increasing numbers of employers demanded abstinence during the workday. City health departments enacted regulations that eliminated many features of the free lunch table. Finally, World War I brought not only an attack on anything that seemed remotely German but also a temporary ban on brewing. The days of the classic saloon were numbered. But not for us, not in our Western movies. There, it remained an absolutely essential ingredient.