Wednesday 18 January 2023

The Greatest Shootout in Wild West History

The history of the American West is filled with iconic clashes between the law and those who flouted it. The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, the Long Branch Saloon in Dodge City, the gunning down of the Dalton Gang in the Coffeyville Bank Robbery, the "Four Dead in Five Seconds," Elfego Baca's Frisco Shootout, Wild Bill's Dead Man's Hand... But none of those were as colourful as the shootout between M.H. Levy and J.M. Joiner in Bremond, Texas, at 3 o'clock in the afternoon on November 3, 1888. 

Bremond was a sleepy little town in Richmond County, Texas, about equal distance between Dallas, Austin, and Houston. It was one of those one-horse kind of towns with a single street running north and south on the rail line between the larger centres. On the east side was Schmidt's Saloon, and on the west, a few doors south, was Myatt's Saloon. Next door to Myatt's was the town barber. Hearne's store was on the corner and the postoffice beside that. At the time, Bremond's population hovered around 400 souls, and most visitors were drawn away to a nearby mineral spring spa. 

Into this peaceful, sleepy little town came Marshall Levy, spittin' fire over the accusations made against him by Joiner, the justice of the peace who was running for re-election. One witness to the eventual gunfight described a day in October of 1888 when Levy sidled up to him in the saloon. "I understand that you are against Joiner for justice of the peace, and I am glad to hear it." Introducing himself thus, Levy went on describe an encounter with Joiner some days before. Joiner was crossing the street out of Hearne's when Levy confronted him: "I understand that you have been telling around that I am a cow-thief; if you have, you are a damned lying son-of-a-bitch." Coolly, Joiner replied "I have only been reporting what others have said." Off he walked, leaving Levy fuming and ready to tell anyone who would listen of his contempt.  

Despite the cool and collected reply, Levy's rage about town had its effect on Joiner. On the day of the gunfight, he had been in and out of Schmidt's Saloon and worked up a tab of 31 drinks. The last came 15 minutes before the shootout. 

As Joiner entered the saloon for the last time, he ran into Walter Ditto and J.P. Darwin and asked them how his campaign was looking in the eastern part of the precinct. Darwin told him that sentiment was divided, which Joiner attributed to Levy's besmirching of his reputation. "Yes, I suppose so. Marshall Levy, the God damned cow-thieving bastardly son-of-a-bitch, is working against me in this election; and God damn the son-of-a-whore, I will kill him before night!"

Joiner then stepped up to the bar, already in a state of considerable intoxication, exclaiming to the bartender Tom Bates that he was too mad to eat on account of a "certain party" who was boasting of having cussed out the justice. "Tom, you know who I mean," he clarified. "It is Marshall Levy - A God damned cow-thieving son-of-a-bitch! I will fix him before night. If I don't, I want you or some other good friend of mine to kick my ass out of Bremond. You know, Tom Bates, that he can't curse me to my face." 

"No, not without fighting," the bartender replied. This was not the first time Joiner had been in the saloon cussing about Levy. Several witnesses agreed that he had been, in their words, "promiscuously" cursing and denouncing him for several days, calling him a "cowardly son-of-a-bitch," "cow-thief," "ring-tailed leader of cow-thieves," and other invective. Witnesses of those last fateful words in the minutes before the shootout only disagreed on the colour of the invective. One testified that Joiner had called Levy a "God damned lying, cow-thieving son-of-a-bitch," another a "God damned mother-fucking, bastardly son-of-a-bitch." According to the bartender Bates, Joiner's tirade ended with an intention "to fix the God damned thieving son-of-a-bitch before night, and I want some of his friends to go and tell him what I say."

And they did. Moments after Joiner and Bates left the saloon, Levy came in the other door. About an hour earlier he said he was fixing to go home to avoid trouble and let Joiner cool off. Unfortunately he did not stay gone. Levy enquired of Ditto and Darwin if Joiner had been making remarks about him. When told, Levy's lip quivered, his eyes welled up, and he said "I can't stand that." Darwin took Levy over to the bar for a drink.   

Outside Schmidt's Saloon, Joiner continued his "remarks" to Misters Holland and Harrison: "I have just been in the saloon telling Morehead that a party has been telling damned lies on me. I made the remark to Morehead that the party is a God damned cow-thieving son-of-a-bitch. I meant Marshall Levy, and I cursed him where I know he will hear of it. Marshall Levy is a damned cow-thieving son-of-a-bitch, and if he has any friends, I would like for them to go and tell him what I say."  Harrison, deftly, pleaded with Joiner to think his re-election and how this ranting might hurt his campaign. Joiner was having none of it. In a drunken rage he exclaimed that he would talk as he saw fit when he was mad. 

For several months before the gunfight, Levy's shotgun had been for sale in Roe Slaughter's store. In the minutes before it started, Levy rushed into the store, "pale and excited," to grab the loaded firearm. Slaughter asked what he meant to do with it. Levy replied that Joiner had been talking about him until he could no longer stand it, and he meant to make Joiner take back his words. The store owner's last words to Levy were "Don't do anything rash, Marshall."

Levy came back to Schmidt's saloon through the north door, exited through the south door, and found his quarry in front of Myatt's Saloon. Joiner was venting himself upon John Myatt, the saloon owner, and a Mr. Davis. Levy stepped off the boardwalk, rounded a wagon, and came to the middle of the street, about forty feet from Joiner. All heads turned to the quivering Levy. 

Levy shouted to Myatt: "Get out of the way, John!"

Myatt ran towards him, imploring him not to shoot.

Joiner flinched, and appeared to some to have been reaching for his own sidearm while raising his walking stick in the air.

A shot rang out. 

Joiner fell dead, blown apart by buckshot. 

Myatt grabbed Levy and begged "Are you crazy?!" With a glazed look somewhere between shock and satisfaction, Levy replied "I will kill any man who calls me a son-of-a-bitch! I am no son-of-a-bitch, and my mother is no bitch."

In the trial that followed, one of Levy's defenses after another fell. Lawyers argued that Joiner's language constituted an immediate threat, but the court determined that it was mere abuse. They then argued that Levy was justified in that Joiner's language was abuse against a female relation, which was a criminal offense. The court determined that the phrase "son-of-a-bitch" was, in fact, an insult to Levy and not Levy's mother. They even attempted to argue self-defense, on the grounds that Joiner was reaching for his pistol. The doctor who performed the autopsy, G.M. Stephens, found a fully-loaded Smith and Wesson five-shot pistol in Joiner's pocket. The court determined that you cannot plea self-defense if someone pulls a gun on you while you're trying to shoot them. 

Levy was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to five years in penitentiary. Thus ended one of the most linguistically colourful episodes in Western history.

And what makes this obscure case so important? The trial marks the first cited use of the term "mother-fucking" in the English language. 

Wednesday 4 January 2023

The Perils of Pauline and the First Female Action Stars

In December 2022, movie star Jennifer Lawrence came under fire on social media after a Variety interview in which she recollected her pride at being the first ever female action star. “I remember when I was doing Hunger Games," Lawrence said, "nobody had ever put a woman in the lead of an action movie because it wouldn’t work — were told — girls and boys can both identify with a male lead, but boys cannot identify with a female lead." 

Volunteer fact-checkers were quick to reply with names like Sigourney Weaver, Linda Hamilton, Michelle Yeoh, Pam Grier, Angelina Jolie, Milla Jovovich, Kate Beckinsale, Carrie-Anne Moss, and Uma Thurman. But one name that seems to escape even the most vehement critic of modern activists' urge to throw all past progress under the bus was Pearl White. It was Pearl White who dazzled audiences in 1914 with The Perils of Pauline, a 20-part serial that wowed audiences with stunts and daring. It also  introduced such words as "cliffhanger" to the English language and invented tropes that had become such staples of cinema that they had already become antiquated cliches before Jennifer Lawrence's mother was even born. About the only trope that didn't come from Perils of Pauline was tying women to train tracks... That was in The Hazards of Helen, an imitator that began later in 1914 and ran for 117 episodes. 

The Perils of Pauline was not the first cliffhanger serial, or even the first to star a woman. The year before, the Selig Polyscope Company released The Adventures of Kathlyn, a now lost 13-part series. Only a few clips, likely from the first reel, are known to exist. The cast was reunited in 1916 for a feature length version that is also lost. Kathlyn Williams was the star of both. 

Extant clips of The Adventures of Kathlyn.

Even Kathlyn Williams was preceded in 1912 by Mary Fuller in What Happened to Mary, an Edison 12-part serial that was too early to employ the cliffhanger format. A cliffhanger, of course, breaks up the main action set pieces of a serial so that the audience is left in breathless anticipation of what happens next, and dutifully ensure they pay to see the next installment. What Happened to Mary didn't have cliffhangers, but it did coincide with a literary serial in the pages of The Ladies' World magazine. Presently, What Happened to Mary is a rare film, with only a couple episodes available online.

Extant episodes of What Happened to Mary.

Despite the pedigree of daring women preceding her, Pearl White and The Perils of Pauline became the smash hit that was remembered and satirized for generations thereafter. In it, grand old Sanford Marvin would like nothing more than to see the marriage of his son Harry to his ward, Pauline. Pauline, however, would like nothing more than to travel the world and lead a life of adventure. So a deal is struck that she will marry Harry after being able to live her life of adventure for one year... And this deal was struck not a moment too soon. Sanford passes from illness immediately thereafter, leaving Pauline in the care his his assistant Raymond Owen (or "Koerner" in the French release), along with a princely inheritance to be bequeathed to her on her marriage to Harry. But such fabulous wealth would be wasted on the girl... Owen enlists his network of criminal colleagues to ensure that Pauline never returns from her adventures.

This is the perfect setting for inventive ways to try and kill someone on screen. The first episode has Owen convince Pauline to begin her life of adventure with a ride in a balloon, which he orchestrates to fly off with her by herself. She gets hung up on the Palisade cliffs of New Jersey, and rappels down to a perilous ledge. Harry finally catches up and climbs down a rope to get her... Only to have Owen cut the rope! Fiend! When they manage to deflate the balloon and use its remaining rope to climb the rest of the way down, an accident knocks them out and Pauline is kidnapped by Owen's henchman, who locks her in a burning cabin! Zounds! Subsequent adventures take place in the Wild West, the High Seas, aero races, gypsy camps, and to the bottom of the ocean.    

Unfortunately, more of The Perils of Pauline are lost than remain. Of the original 20 episodes, only 9 are known to exist. These are the Pathé version, in which Owen is renamed Koerner to curry anti-German sentiment in the months before The Great War. These episodes have since been retranslated back into English. 

The first episode of The Perils of Pauline,
followed by each subsequent, extant episode.

Pauline eventually settles down from a life of adventure, but Pearl White did not. She would go on to star in a series of three serials across 1914 and 1915: The Exploits of Elaine, The New Exploits of Elaine, and The Romance of Elaine. These an subsequent serials like The Iron Claw (1916), Pearl of the Army (1916), and The Fatal Ring (1918) established White as "The Queen of the Serials." She was even notable for doing her own stunts, though she did have stand-ins for the most dangerous among them. That didn't save her from injury, however. Spinal damage during The Perils of Pauline dogged her entire life, and she only found relief for it in the drugs and alcohol that eventually claimed her. White died of liver failure in Paris in 1938. 

She did live long enough to see a remake-in-name-only of The Perils of Pauline. Universal Studios acquired title from Pathé for their own serial in 1933 that bore no resemblance to the original. This version, starring Evalyn Knapp, involves more globe-trotting archaeology in the Golden Age of Hollywood adventure film tradition. Weird decades-later remakes that have virtually nothing in common with the original are not a new phenomenon.

The complete 1933 Perils of Pauline.

Then in 1947, Paramount released their own Perils of Pauline. But this version was not a remake... It was a biographical film about Pearl White herself and her rise to fame, cashing in on the Gay Nineties aesthetic that was starting to permeate post-WWII film.

1947's The Perils of Pauline.

Perils of Pauline
 also inspired countless parodies, homages, and imitators. "The Peril of..." became an easy go-to title for studios pitching dangerous adventure in any locale. The medium of serials and the genre of Northerns were lampooned in Dudley Do-Right of the Mounties. The Perils of Penelope Pitstop (1970) by Hannah-Barbera took the serial tropes and applied to a spin-off of Wacky Races (1968-69), which was itself inspired by The Great Race (1965), Blake Edwards' somewhat overlong and insensitive satire of silent films. 

It's frankly surprising in our glut of streaming content that some enterprising conglomerate hasn't dredged up The Perils of Pauline for a tongue-in-cheek historical comedy. Maybe Jennifer Lawrence can star in that and be the first ever woman to play Pauline?