The Last of the Western Elite

DATELINE: Butch & Sundance

Rakish mistakish Seated on each end.

  Bowler League?

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid are inevitably the guys with raindrops falling on their heads.

When the American Experience doc series takes on their story, we feel that the light ditty that sent them over the cliff of fame is unnecessary to the real truth of tragedy.

The little film is more about the Pinkertons and modern technology of 1900 with marked bills, detailed descriptions, and Morse Code. Butch and Sundance could wear bowlers better than most, but the famous picture dogged them and doomed them.

On the tail end of the Western tale, they were actually weaned on the early dime novel adventures, becoming the last of a breed in the days after Jesse and Billy. They were dainty, dynamite train robbers of the Robber Barons, and that did them in.

Taking stage names that were part of the show, Butch Cassidy protected his family name by assuming the name of a paternalistic role model named Cassidy. Sundance took his name from the town where he spent much time.

Extrovert Cassidy and introvert Sundance were methodical and almost passionate in good manners for not shedding blood. They had a Robin Hood network of followers and supporters. Some claimed the Wild Bunch had 500 followers, all dedicated to Cassidy.

The two men were ultimately, if not homoerotically,  devoted mostly to each other, whether you throw in the beard of Etta Place or not. She left them in Argentina and they could ride off into the sunset together.

Alas, not knowing geography, language, or customs, they ended up as a murder-suicide duo, hopelessly entwined unto death. The real story doesn’t need a cute song to sum up their lives.

 

 

 

Wyatt Earp: Brave, Courageous, and Bold?

DATELINE:  American Experience PBS

Not the Real Earp

The American Experience TV series on PBS did not delve into the hundreds of film portrayals of Wyatt Earp during their hour-long documentary. That might have extended the show to two hours. It is simply the life of Wyatt Earp.

There are no clips from the TV series, or the John Ford movies. The OK Corral stuff is covered, probably because it could not be avoided. It’s given no emblematic quality, nor meaningful symbolism, other than as a chaotic gunfight.

You might be more surprised at how often his name was misspelled over the years in print.

The biography features many, many photographs, many of which may never have been seen by fans of the Western hero.

He was one of those legends who walks on both sides of the law, and it may be hard to excuse his vindictive streak. He went after enemies with obsession.

Ultimately living until 1929 in Los Angeles, he wanted a movie to exculpate his reputation. These would arrive in spades, but only after he died a disappointed old man.

The final decades of his life were spent in endless travel—from Alaska to the middle-America, where he tried his hand at running saloons. That was not far from his youthful endeavors, when he was bouncer at a series of brothels and took up with an endless supply of prostitutes.

Handsome, taciturn, and a loner, he invariably had fallings-out with family, brothers, and even Doc Holliday. He was a hard man, exactly what you might expect from the epitome of a Western hero.

The documentary is not moving, nor special, with the usual

Boston Hits a Low Spot: Trolley Cars Underground

DATELINE: Boston’s First Big Dig

dig down No-park Street Station

American Experience presents some interesting little films that collect amazing movie clips and photos. They then intersperse them into literate narratives.

This one is narrated by Michael Murphy and tells the fascinating history of how Boston became the first major subway system in the United States. The documentary is oddly titled The Race Underground, which is misleading and has unfortunate connotations outside the point.

Explaining how people associated the underground with dead bodies six feet under, there was a general belief that travel beneath the Earth was unnatural, if not demonic. The electric trolley ended man’s inhumanity to horse.

When big dig excavations down Commonwealth Avenue uncovered Revolutionary War graves, you might find the point being made as a warning.

Tracing the electrification of motors to Frank Sprague, an independent inventor who tried to shy away from that behemoth of American technology, Thomas Edison, he sold his electrified trolley systems. It didn’t matter much because Edison inevitably bought him out and took his name off the product.

Without Sprague, the underground subway would be a dark and dirty trip, filled with soot and fright.

We enjoyed seeing the old trolleys in turn of the century film with destinations to North Cambridge and Roxbury Crossing. And, the information was new to us: how Boston was in the 1890s one of the most congested cities in America, worse even than New York—a rivalry Bean Towne would prefer to lose.

You don’t have to be a local Bostonian to enjoy this little film, but having traveled on the rapid transit when Scollay Square was a stop, we found it a delightful trip back in time.