Wyatt Earp: fact and fiction
This post is in two parts. Part 2 tomorrow!
There are certain men and women of the old West who have attained a larger-than-life status and have been mythologized into heroes. Novelists and Hollywood screenwriters in particular have busied themselves building these people up into legends. One thinks of Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane, Billy the Kid, Jesse James, George Armstrong Custer and Wyatt Earp.
The process started with some of them even while they were still alive. Sensational magazine articles and dime novels appeared about Jesse and Billy in the late 1870s and early 1880s. Other figures took time to ‘mature’ into legends, and it is not always clear why some of them ‘made it’ and others didn’t: why, for example lawmen such as Bill Tilghman, Heck Thomas or Virgil Earp, well known in their day, have faded into some obscurity, while relatively minor characters – Wyatt Earp, for instance – have become such icons.
I almost hesitate to write about Wyatt Earp because there are so many knowledgeable people out there, far more so than I, and many of them have strong opinions about him, pro or anti; they can be quick to go on the attack against anyone who transgresses against their viewpoint! There is a whole field of so-called ‘Earpiana’, with countless books and articles written about the man, and though I have read some, such as Stuart N Lake’s pro-Wyatt Frontier Marshal or Frank Waters’s anti-Wyatt The Earp Brothers of Tombstone, I have by no means read them all.
So I do not set myself up as a great expert here. But I have probably seen most of the Western movies that featured Wyatt Earp, and I was an ardent follower of the TV show as a boy. More recently I have read two interesting books, Casey Tefertiller’s Wyatt Earp: The Life Behind the Legend (1997) and Allen Barra’s Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends (1998). Both authors have clearly done a lot of research, and both manage to come across, as far as I can tell, as balanced and authoritative.
I obviously can’t here, in an article on this blog, do a whole bio of Wyatt Earp. You need to read the books for that. But I can just illustrate a little how he has been portrayed on the screen and how that may differ from the reality, inasmuch as we know it.
The early days
Popular interest in Wyatt Earp started while he was still alive. He didn’t die until 1929, in Los Angeles, and his widow, Josie, whom he had met in Tombstone, lived on until December 1944, jealously guarding her husband’s memory and defending his reputation. (I say widow and husband, though in fact no marriage certificate for the two has ever been found – still, technically wed or not, they were most certainly a couple).
Wyatt was clearly something of a celebrity. Raoul Walsh told how Charlie Chaplin had met him and said, “You’re the bloke from Arizona, aren’t you? Tamed the baddies, huh?” Big Western stars of the silver screen befriended him in his old age, glitterati like Tom Mix and William S Hart. In 1923 Earp wrote to Hart, “Many wrong impressions of the early days in Tombstone and myself have been created by writers who are not informed correctly, and this has caused me a concern which I feel deeply.” One is tempted to say you ain’t seen nothing yet! Hart and Mix were pall-bearers at Wyatt’s funeral. They toyed with the idea of a silent movie with Wyatt as hero but that never happened. The nearest we got was when Hart included a cameo Wyatt Earp in his film Wild Bill Hickok (1923), now tragically lost. Wyatt was played by a certain Bert Lindley. It isn’t quite clear what Wyatt Earp was doing in a story of Hickok, but there we are!
There was even a suggestion that Wyatt had appeared in a Western himself. In his autobiography Allan Dwan insists that Earp appeared in The Half-Breed, which Dawn directed with Douglas Fairbanks and which was released in 1916. Dwan wrote, “Earp was a one-eyed old man in 1915 but he had been a real marshal in Tombstone, Arizona and he was as crooked as a three-dollar bill. He and his brothers were racketeers.”
In fact, Allen Barra reckons the old man as extra in The Half-Breed was Texas John Slaughter, not Wyatt at all.
Wyatt and Josie talked a lot about a biography, hoping that it would make them some money. The couple had made and lost a great deal over the years and always seemed indigent. Josie’s gambling habit didn’t help.
They allowed themselves to be interviewed by potential biographers. It didn’t help that Wyatt was a naturally taciturn person, reluctant certainly to brag but often even to talk about the frontier days. Nor did it help that the first possible writers were so bad at writing. John Flood, a mining engineer who had met the Earps in 1906 and who was an expert typist, interviewed them at length and came up with an indescribably bad manuscript that made the dime novels look tame. It never found a publisher.
In 1927 a Chicago journalist, Walter Noble Burns, who had scored a hit with the hyperbolic Saga of Billy the Kid, published his Tombstone: an Iliad of the Southwest in 1927, angering Wyatt and his wife Josie. It seemed that their last hope of a decent income, a biography, had been snatched away from them.
But they did not give up. In June of 1928 Wyatt and Josie had a series of perhaps six meetings with Stuart Lake, a magazine writer and wrestling promoter. They also exchanged letters. While Lake was working on his book, Billy Breakenridge, Johnny Behan’s deputy in Tombstone, brought out his own version of events in an autobiography, Helldorado, Bringing Law to the Mesquite, ghosted by a skilled professional writer, WM Raine. This of course painted a far from heroic portrait of Earp and told the story from the Behan/Democrat/Cowboy angle.
Pro and anti
Even years before, Wyatt had to read both wild claims of his superhuman abilities as lawman without peer and equally extreme comments on his activities as a criminal desperado – and once he was dead, there would be no limit to what was said and written about him. Wyatt Earp lived with fiction. Even in the period of his fame, especially in Tombstone, supporters and opponents, and a very partisan press (the pro-Earp Tombstone Epitaph and the anti-Earp Nugget) were vociferous in their approval or their condemnation of Wyatt and his brothers. Standards of probity and integrity in the media were, we like fondly now to assume, lower then. Politics (urban pro-Earp law-and-order Republicans versus pro-Sheriff Behan good-ole-boy rancher Cowboy Democrats) were conducted on an inflammatory level that makes even present-day polarization look tame. Innuendo had nothing to do with it. Downright falsehoods and libel were printed as truth. Most contemporary accounts of Wyatt Earp (newspaper articles, diaries, speeches, oral history) displayed a bias that to us today is quite shocking.
After Wyatt’s death in 1929, Josie made Stuart Lake’s life a misery as she nagged him about the book and what it should contain and not contain. She wanted, for example, no mention at all of how she had been Behan’s girl and then had an affair with Wyatt in Tombstone, or of Wyatt’s desertion of his common-law wife Mattie.
But Lake did his homework. In Tombstone, AZ he interviewed some of the people concerned and he found the transcript of the Spicer hearing. He read such back numbers of the Epitaph and Nugget as had survived various Tombstone fires. But the 1920s became the 1930s and still the book was not ready.
In 1930 William P Burnett published a novel, Saint Johnson, a tale of brothers’ vengeance in Tombstone. It did not mention the Earps by name but was clearly an account of their exploits. Hollywood sat up and took notice. Law and Order, starring Walter Huston as Frame Johnson (Wyatt Earp by any other name), went into production at Universal. Harry Carey Sr was the Doc Holliday-esque Ed Brandt. Brian Garfield said, "[T]his may well be the definitive Wyatt Earp movie." He could be right. It’s very good. Of course it was not ‘historically accurate’ but then using a fictional hero cuts both ways; you can’t be accused of monkeying with history. Still, Josie was on the attack. But Barra says that Burnett headed her off at Universal studios “and the two spent an afternoon drinking tea and talking and becoming absolutely charmed with each other.”
In June 1931, Stuart Lake’s Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal was finally published. Rather to Lake’s surprise, it was a huge hit. Depression America, in an era of Dillinger, Al Capone and Bonnie and Clyde, ate up the story of a tough hombre taking the law into his own hands and gunning down the bad guys. Lake called Earp "the greatest gunfighting marshal that the Old West knew" and said in his introduction to the book, to give you a flavor:
The lover of swift and decisive action, Wyatt Earp's achievements surely must be of interest in themselves. His taming of Mannen Clements and fifty cowboy killers in the streets of Wichita; his play against Clay Allison of the Washita in the Plaza at Dodge City; his protection of insignificant Johnny-Behind-the-Deuce against a Tombstone mob; the sanguinary battle of the O. K. Corral, his sawed-off shotgun duel with Curly Bill--tales of these exploits could not fail, even were they meaningless, to stir a reader's blood. Through them Wyatt Earp moves steadily, surely, sagaciously, implacable on, guided by a philosophy fitted to his surroundings, to which he gave fullest expression in admonishment of Ike Clanton, braggart outlaw, cow thief and murderer.
This breathless tone (and slightly dubious grammar) continues throughout the book, and it does make quite hard reading at times. Lake got a lot right and more than a little wrong but it comes across as hagiography. Key events were omitted. Wyatt Earp, Frontier Gambler, Conman and Philanderer probably wouldn’t have sold so many copies. Or maybe it would…
The worst aspect of the book is that in order to give an air of authenticity, Lake credited to Earp, in quotation marks and in the first person, long speeches that Lake had written himself or copied down from other speakers. This made Wyatt appear dishonest and even boastful (which he never was) when certain facts turned out to be wrong or others came to light. For example, according to Lake, Wyatt was always the top lawman, Marshal of Dodge and Tombstone, whereas in reality Wyatt was always a deputy or assistant. You wouldn’t know it from Hollywood but Wyatt Earp was never Marshal of anywhere. His brother Virgil was Marshal of Tombstone for a time, and most of the Earp brothers, including Wyatt, were appointed deputy US marshals for short periods. As a young man Wyatt had been a constable, back in Missouri. But he was never ‘Marshal Wyatt Earp’ of Dodge or Tombstone in the Hugh O’Brian way, and still less Marshal of Wichita, where he was for a short time an auxiliary or deputy, until he was fired.
Lake also came up with the story of the long-barreled pistol supposedly presented to Earp by dime novelist Ned Buntline which gave him superior firepower. This Colt Buntline Special became famous, of course, in the Wyatt Earp TV show. No such pistol has ever turned up and the Colt company has no record of such an order. It may have existed (see our article on it here) but we have little or no hard evidence for it.
But Buntline or not, the Stuart Lake story of the bold lawman who could do no wrong was swallowed hook, line and sinker by thousands and thousands of readers and has passed into that zone where legend becomes fact. What many people ‘know’ about Wyatt Earp starts here.
On the screen
The movie rights to Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal were sold to Fox in 1932, for just $7,500, which Lake split with Josie. The film Frontier Marshal came out in 1934 and starred George O'Brien as "Michael Wyatt" and Alan Edwards as "Doc Warren". Josie was on the warpath again and threatened to sue if the actual names were used. Rather oddly in view of the success of the book, the movie sank without trace. I haven't seen it and it’s hard to find but it is said to be a standard oater, without the class of Law and Order.
Other pseudo-Wyatts followed. In 1935 Charles Vidor directed and Dudley Nichols (of Stagecoach fame) wrote The Arizonian for RKO, with Richard Dix as ‘Clay Tallant.’ In 1937 Universal brought out Law for Tombstone, directed by and starring Buck Jones, with Jones as ‘Alamo Bowie.’ Though he wasn’t Earp as such, he still had Doc Holliday (Harvey Clark) as pal. And in 1938 it was Columbia’s turn as Bill Elliott, as ‘Whit Gordon’ in In Early Arizona wore the badge. All these tough good guys cleaned up Tombstone Earpishly. And Errol Flynn was a kind of Wyatt (named Wade Hatton) cleaning up Dodge in Warner Brothers’ energetic Dodge City, directed by Michael Curtiz, in 1939.
Then, in 1939 too, Fox took another stab at Frontier Marshal, this time with Randolph Scott and Cesar Romero in the lead parts and directed by Allan Dwan. The real name Wyatt Earp finally appeared, so Randolph Scott had the honor of being the first in a long line of celluloid Wyatt Earps (well, apart from Bert Lindley’s cameo). Romero played "Doc Halliday". Filmed on the tenth anniversary of Wyatt's death, it had all the Lake-inspired myths firmly in place. Josie was hired as consultant, a decision Fox certainly came to regret for she spent the whole time saying, “Oh, Mr Earp would never have done anything like that” and insisting on rewrites. Being consultant didn’t stop her threatening to sue, for $50,000, but Dwan talked her down, as Burnett had done before.
Frontier Marshal was a box-office hit and contributed greatly to fixing the mythic Wyatt Earp in people’s minds. It’s an entertaining Randolph Scott oater, limited but still well worth a watch. The film is one of the least accurate portrayals ever of Wyatt Earp. For example, "Curley" Bill kills Doc Holliday then challenges Wyatt to the gunfight at the OK Corral. But it certainly accelerated the already fast-growing legend of Wyatt Earp, frontier lawman par excellence.
But there was to be a reaction. In 1941, Eugene Cunningham’s famous (and famously sensational) work about gunfighters of the West, Triggernometry, came out. It relied on the Breakenridge story and was far from flattering about Wyatt Earp.
Allie, Virgil’s widow (Virgil died in 1905) now started talking to a young writer, Frank Waters. Allie disliked Wyatt and detested Josie ("a strumpet") and wanted to give much greater prominence to her beloved Virgil. Waters lodged his manuscript with the Arizona Pioneers’ Historical Society and it was not published till 1960, as The Earp Brothers of Tombstone, when all Earps of Wyatt’s generation were dead but Wyatt was all the rage on TV. On re-reading now (I found a first edition in a used book store in Brighton, England in 1990 and read it then), it comes across as almost obsessively anti-Wyatt. Waters had evidently swallowed the Cowboy/Nugget/Behan line as unquestioningly as those who made Wyatt a spotless hero. The book is sarcastic and I think the word that best describes its tone is snide. In the blurb we read:
This book reveals the story of Wyatt Earp’s tragic love affairs and his three marriages. It shows vividly how the current national TV hero was in reality an itinerant saloon keeper, card-sharp, gunman and confidence man.
Still, in some ways it was a useful corrective and it did unearth facts that we now take for granted and which had been completely ignored by Lake (and the Hollywood and TV people). Josie wouldn’t have liked it one bit. But she was now dead.
More film versions
There was another Law and Order in 1940, with Johnny Mack Brown as ‘Bill Ralston’, and in 1942 Paramount cashed in with Tombstone: The Town Too Tough to Die, with Western vet Richard Dix, back to clean up the town, this time though actually bearing the name Wyatt Earp. He was in fact a whole generation older than the real Earp had been, but never mind. He was sidekicked by (a rather pallid) Kent Taylor as, once again, 'Doc Halliday'. This last film is a bit dated and, honestly, pretty corny now, but it benefits from some good performances, notably Edgar Buchanan as Curly Bill and the splendidly villainous Victor Jory as Ike Clanton. Because Fox had got dibs on Lake, Paramount went with Walter Noble Burns’s book – this had the advantage that Burns had died ten years before and wasn’t around to be difficult on set. Once more the script plays fast and loose with the facts - in fact it's historical hogwash - but it’s a fun watch today.
Between November 1940 and February 1941 The Outlaw was filmed – though not released until February 1943 – a Billy the Kid story with a wooden Jack Buetel as Billy, Thomas Mitchell as Pat Garrett (in perhaps his worst ever performance on film) and Walter Huston ridiculous as Doc Holliday. It was a perfectly dreadful movie, and what Holliday was doing in a Billy the Kid story is a mystery, but it has vague interest in that Huston thus played both Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday - an honor Val Kilmer was to repeat – see below. And since we are on the subject, let’s not forget that Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country in 1962 starred two Wyatt Earps – Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott.
My Darling Clementine
The first really fine Wyatt Earp Western movie, which Josie Earp did not live to see, came along in 1946 with My Darling Clementine, directed by John Ford, with a magisterial Henry Fonda as Wyatt, and Victor Mature imaginatively cast as Doc Holliday. Even Josie probably couldn’t have found fault with Fonda’s Earp, a veritable picture of nobility.
The Winston Miller screenplay developed the Sam Hellman script for the Dwan film, loosely adapted from Lake’s Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal. Doc is not a dentist from Georgia but a surgeon from Boston (as he had been in Frontier Marshal), and the Earps arrive as cattlemen, which immediately brings them into conflict with the rustling community, led by Walter Brennan as Old Man Clanton.
Clementine is a marvelous tale of good and evil which is unburdened by actual adherence to the facts. Ford himself said that it was historically accurate, a frankly preposterous claim. He recounted how, as a young man, he had met Wyatt Earp who “told me about the fight at the OK Corral. So in My Darling Clementine we did it exactly the way it had been.” As Old Man Clanton was killed in Ford’s version of the fight and so was Doc Holliday, it is rather difficult to believe that Ford was following Earp’s recollections to the letter. There is no John Behan, there are no factions, James Earp (the oldest brother) becomes the darling baby brother gunned down by the Clantons, the shootings of Morgan and Virgil happen before the gunfight and justify it, and so on with errors ad pretty well infinitum. In many ways this doesn’t matter; Western movies are entertainment, not documentaries. It’s only when they claim factual accuracy that I object.
But it’s a fine, fine movie, one of the all-time great Westerns, and as Barra says, “One of the most highly regarded films in the history of American cinema.”
Back tomorrow with more Earpery!