Western Wednesdays: ‘Tumbling Tumbleweeds’

Welcome back to Western Wednesdays!  I apologize for losing sight of the trail last week — but let us be stern frontiersmen and women, and not dwell on past failings.

This past week, everyone (including myself) has been eating up the wild wild West in the form of Red Dead Redemption.  I’ve spent hours herding cattle, taming mustangs, and shooting horse thieves, thoroughly enjoying the experience of playing in this genre rather than simply watching it.   So when it came time to pick a film for this week, it was tempting to go for one that reflected the gritty nature of the game.

But then I thought hey, why not go for the exact opposite of Red Dead Redemption? Why not delve into a corner of the genre I’ve dodged thus far, and visit the singing cowboys?   Surely, there was no one more unlike the scarred John Marston than Gene Autry.  So, I selected Tumbling Tumbleweeds and prepared for some wholesome, musical fun.

Now, I had a very specific image of the singing cowboy. They were squeaky clean guys in pretty, fringe decorated shirts and ornamental gunbelts. They had horses with cute names.   They never got dirty, and their movie plots centered around rescuing lost little dogies or kids who wandered onto the prairie. If they shot a gun, it was never to kill, but to startle or warn.

So when the title card of Tumbling Tumbleweeds informs me that the Wild West was a lawless place, I just smiled and sat back, expecting a Toy Story brand of justice.   Then, it soberly informs me that this was the time of “range wars”, where cattle barons and settlers shot it out, the latter just wanting a bit of land to survive on. 

Range wars? This wasn’t the stuff Autry was supposed to dabble in. He was supposed to rescue ponies or puppies. Kid stuff.  Right? Wrong. Characters started throwing dynamite at each other in the first 5 minutes.  The bodies of men and horses are flying everywhere.   This is not the stuff Riders in the Sky taught me to expect.

Tumbling Tumbleweeds is full of 1930s slapstick, sure, and Autry never seems to get a speck of dirt on that absurd white hat.  But at its heart is a very authentic story centering on land and water rights, and how men resort to violent means to win them.  Autry may be riding along, singing a song, but his reverie is interrupted by meeting an old friend, riddled with bullet holes.

Lawmen tell Autry his friend is guilty of murder, but he knows better. Relying on his homespun loyalty, he sets out to clear his friends name, and realizes it’s a bloody and sinister plot with his family ranch at the core.    Autry may be a gentle cowboy who loves music, but when his family honor is at stake, he rides with blood in his eye.  No, it’s not exactly John Hillcoat material, but it’s surprisingly intense.

What I also found curious was the film’s costumes.  Apart from Autry, and his wagon of singing health tonic salesmen, everyone is wearing clothes from the 1930s.  (I thought the handcrank telephone might be an anachronism — but it turns out we had them out in Colorado by 1888, much earlier than I would have thought.) Though the film claims to be set in the lawless past, it does little to really set the stage.

But I wonder if this was actually supposed to be “the past” and not just a dusty 1930s present.  The frontier hung on well into the 1920s  (see The Professionals, Lonely Are the Brave, or even Legends of the Fall), and even the 1930s.  It wouldn’t have been particularly unusual to see cowhands walking around that looked like a 1860s tintype, and clashing up against modern fashions as they do here.

I suspect Tumbling Tumbleweeds just shrugged off authenticity, and just dressed their women in pretty clothes.   Even unintentionally, it’s a nice reminder of how slow things were to change out West, and how recent American history really is.

Throughout this feature, I’ve had a lot of fun shattering my own beliefs and expectations of Western movies.  It seems everything I ever knew about Westerns was wrong.  In a strange and meta way, we’ve invented as many myths about the Western genre as the movies themselves invented about history.

I suppose much of it is a postmodern desire for superiority — our Western movies are gritty, authentic, and real. Old Westerns were dorky, racially insensitive, and weightless. But even the most hardbitten Western hero hasn’t quite broken all but one or two of Autry’s Cowboy Code.

Modern visions may have acknowledged the grime and crudeness of the era more vividly, but even Autry’s West is a place where John Marston or Clint Eastwood wouldn’t dare to go unarmed.

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