Thursday, October 9, 2008

King of the Bullwhip

Back in March the folks at The Bijou Blog posted “Literary Depictions of the Movie Matinee Experience,” wherein Rich Mendoza pondered the lack of literary descriptions of the early twentieth century bijou experience. There was a contest for readers to send in whatever passages they could find describing the simple act of going to the movies. My mind went immediately to Rebecca Wells’ Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and the chapter where Vivi and her friends enter the Shirley Temple look-alike contest. (You can read my entry here) And whaddya know? Little ol’ me won, and Bijou Bob sent along one of the original Matinee at the Bijou press kits circa 1982, filled with nifty goodies. (My detractors will be quick to point out that I was also the only person who actually sent anything in, but leave us not dwell upon mere technicalities.)

However, even as I wrote up my entry it occurred to me that my father was an untapped source of afternoon theater experiences. So I called my father one Saturday afternoon, and I tapped him. We talked for well over an hour, and I asked about all of it -- how old he was, what he saw, if he remembered the décor of the buildings or what he thought about the movies.

Oh what I found out.

As a matter of fact, I learned so many interesting things about his experiences that I have to divide what he told me into chapters. This is the first of three.


Glamorous art-deco theaters have been well documented and photographed, but I don’t think people realize the importance of the little second run theaters in introducing classic films to a new generation. After World War II, the movies had to compete with a new form of entertainment – television. It took a long time for Hollywood to take the challenge of TV seriously and embrace the medium as a new venue for their films. In fact, Metro Goldwyn Mayer was one studio that refused to allow its stable of actors to even appear on television. Eventually there were local, then national programs which showed old movies, but when my father began seeing films in the late ‘40s, the only way to see The Wizard of Oz or Mutiny on the Bounty was through second-run releases.

The Wayne Theater was narrow, with only one aisle down the middle and no balcony. It was so small that it didn’t even have the means to pop popcorn. “They had imported popcorn,” my father recalled, “In big bags behind a counter.” The Wayne Theater did not show first run movies, only B films, second run films, and serials. My father recalls seeing a lot of film noir there as well. (“When you were eight years old?” “Yeah.” “Did you understand any of it?” “No, but who cares? It was the movies.”) However, what really attracted my father to the Wayne Theater was The Cowboys.

Just listing their names conjures fabulous images: actors like Wild Bill Elliot and Rocky Lane, Whip Wilson and Big Boy Williams, and characters named Red Ryder, the Cisco Kid, the Durango Kid and Chico Rafferty. (“Excuse me?” I said to that last one. “You heard right. His mother was Mexican and his Father was Irish.” In a genre fraught with nasty racial stereotyping, there’s a bit of early diversity for you.) But the name that stood out most in my father’s mind, one I could tell from his voice held special memories, was Lash LaRue.

I had never heard of Lash La Rue.

“Sure! Guy with a whip, always wore black. Looked a lot like Humphrey Bogart. You know, Song of Old Wyoming? Eddie Dean and Jennifer Holt were in it. You remember Jennifer Holt; she was Tim Holt’s sister.” (Discussing the actors in Cowboys with my father is like an eerie family reunion where I have a feeling I should know these people and I don’t.) I don’t know how my father can rattle off all these facts, but he’s been watching Cowboys for sixty years and I take him at his word. Lash La Rue? I needed to investigate this.

LaRue as the 'Cheyenne Kid' in SONG OF OLD WYOMING (PRC, 1945)(From Minard Coons)

As the photo shows, La Rue did indeed look a lot like Bogart. For his role in Song of Old Wyoming (1945) La Rue chose a black outfit with white piping, which became the look he had throughout his career. No one could mistake La Rue for a singing cowboy, and that was his intention. He made many B films at PRC Studios in the ‘40s and ‘50s, and as his name suggests, his trademark was his use of a bullwhip to bring down his foes. There is an unsubstantiated Internet rumor that Lash La Rue coached Harrison Ford to use the bullwhip for his role as Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) (I don’t believe it, but I like the continuity of the image). What is absolutely certain is that Steven Spielberg had Lash La Rue in mind while he created the Indiana Jones character, and Anthony De Longis, the man who coached Ford for his role in the 2008 movie, was inspired by La Rue and the whip-wielding characters who came after him.

(If you want to learn more about Lash La Rue, go where I went: The Old Corral at I could summarize more, but this site is the best. Chuck Anderson has rounded up information on scores of the cowboys, villains, stuntmen, and those little-known players essential to the B-Western genre. And if you need live action thrills, go to YouTube and look up “Lash La Rue.” If you haven’t seen Lash fight El Azote in King of the Bullwhip (1950), then you ain’t seen a cowboy film.)

After careful research and viewing of archival footage (i.e. – YouTube) I can only say that… those films were bad. Low budget. Thin plots. Footage constantly reused, both from earlier in the movie and other films from the studio.

And yet…

Those aren’t the things you care about when you’re eight years old. You only care that you’re out of the house and off on your own, you’ve got a whole afternoon of movies with cowboys and bad guys, horses and chases and action. Even at that age you can feel that being in a darkened theater is a place apart. Cliff-hanging serials and Lash’s whip action weren’t about reality; they were about possibility. For whole afternoons, those possibilities were my father’s only reality, and he, like so many others of his generation, never forgot how that felt.

I think the reason my father was such a fan of Matinee at the Bijou was because their format was how he grew up seeing movies. In the early ‘80s home video was only just beginning. There was the late movie or the Sunday movie, and the local UHF stations might have a movie host or two, so you could see High Noon or She Wore a Yellow Ribbon on occasion. But nobody showed serials. The first time he saw that MATB was showing serials, he was gone.

“All right fans!” he shouted. “They’ve got Crash Corrigan!”

“They’ve got what?”

“Not ‘what,’ ‘who.’” My father gripped the arms of his Lazy-Boy, eyes widened with disbelief that a child of his should have lived so long without knowing Mr. Corrigan’s fine body of work. “Sit down, Mar. Pay attention. This is educational.” And it was. (You’ve got to have a cool name like “Crash” in order to carry off what amounts to argyle socks and scaly BVDs. Trust me.)

From my father I learned that some really great cinema comes in small segments, and that sometimes something can be so bad that it can actually be kind of good. I learned that the improbability of a cliff-hanging ending makes it that much more fun to watch, that much more engrossing. The more impossible the premise, the more you are transported to a different world. More importantly, I learned it doesn’t matter if the film is a classic or B list, if the theater is an architectural landmark so small they have “imported popcorn” or your own darkened living room – what matters most about viewing films is your own willingness to suspend disbelief.

Details matter. It’s just not always the details that you’d expect.

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