The 'Code Of The West' Storyline | Setting The Scene - The Frontier Township
News stories about Paramount’s western-town set being destroyed by the Nov 2018 California wildfires refer to the lost set as ‘iconic’, due to its regular appearance in western film and tv dramas. (The most recent use has been in the ongoing Westworld tv series.) In fact, the same ‘iconic’ status could be granted to the other frontier-town standing sets seen in westerns since the 1930s. The first such is credited to pioneering western producer-director Thomas Ince, who in 1912 built 'Inceville' which occupied more than one site, and saw more than one western town built. (Pictured left is Ince's 1916 Hell’s Hinges, named for a town described in an intertitle as a “gun-fighting, man-killing devil’s den of iniquity”, which in the finale is burnt down by the hero, William S. Hart.)
Almost every major studio had their own western street at the back of their main lot in LA, and usually another one farther out which they leased from private ranch owners. The ‘studio ranch’ sets, not being in downtown LA, had more unspoilt scenic surroundings than the in-town 'backlot' ones. Few such standing sets remain as the western boom subsided at the end of the 60s, and one by one they either burnt down or were bulldozed. The few that survived have done so by opening up to the public as heritage-tourist sites, as with the just-lost Paramount Agoura Ranch site, which operated from 1927 on.
Overall, the continued reuse of standing sets made production of westerns economically viable during their 50s-60s heyday. In particular, it enabled dramas built around the 'code of the West' storyline. These could have different settings, such as rancher v homesteader, but the frontier ‘town-taming’ scenario would be the classic, where the hero has to bring the law (or perhaps, American values of decency, fair play etc) to a previously lawless wild-west cow-town. The resulting conflict would almost inevitably culminate in a historically unrealistic but ‘iconic’ scene - the showdown shootout on the town’s suddenly-deserted main street.
Below is a gallery of town sets. Most people might not know their actual studio names (e.g. Melody Ranch), but they will appear familiar as it is near impossible to grow up in western culture without encountering them over and over, portraying different frontier townships, fictional or historical (most famously, Abilene, Deadwood, Dodge City, Tombstone, Wichita).
The now-gone 'Corriganville' and [mouse over] '40 Acres' town sets. Every major studio had, for
most of their history, their own western set on their main lot in LA [like ''40 Acres'] …
and usually also a 'ranch' set just out of town [like 'Corriganville'] leased from private landowners,
for when more spacious, unspoilt surroundings were required.
Town sets required very little 'dressing' from one film to another. Paramount's backlot western
town set, seen here in 1957's The Tin Star, where it played an anonymous frontier
town, and [mouse over], the 60s tv series Bonanza (1959–73), where it
played a much larger place - the former silver-mining boom-town of Virginia City, Nevada.
western town at Agoura, which just burnt down, was one of the first to see regular use. Built
in 1927, it appeared in the first major western 'talkie', The Virginian ,
where it played a Wyoming cowtown. Below left are pair of screenshots of the Paramount Agoura
set from The Virginian , with Gary Cooper. It continued to be used for
western features, as with The Tin Star (1957) below right, and when that market
slumped, for tv series like the 1990s series Dr Quinn Medicine Woman and the current
Westworld tv series.
|If no standing set was suitable, occasionally a town would be purpose-built, as below with 20th Century Fox's Yellow Sky . The film's title is the name of the main setting, a former gold-mining boom town now a ghost town, supposedly somewhere near Death Valley - in fact near Lone Pine, California, which was a popular location for its rugged, rocky terrain.|
view of a town will often emphasise how small and isolated it is.
| Below, left:
The title town in 20th Century Fox's Warlock (1959), a mining town in the [Utah?]
mountains, was initially just a painted insert as seen here, with a familiar studio-backlot set
[mouse over] for the in-town scenes.
For Silverado (1985), the hilltop town that gives the film its title was built
for the film as a working set in New Mexico, and reused by later productions - Young Guns (1988),
Wyatt Earp (1994), Last Man Standing (1996), Lonesome Dove (1989), etc.
The townsite in Warlock, above, was 20th Century Fox's, distinctive for being built on a hillside with a sloping main street. It can be seen in many of their 50s westerns, such as the 1957 Samuel Fuller b&w widescreen film 40 Guns, right, where it plays Tombstone.
Right: the climactic shootout and [mouse over] the final 'ride-away' shot from 40 Guns, showing 20th Century Fox's distinctive town site with its sloping main street.
Lawlessness flourished in frontier towns either because it was the railhead for cattle drives [e.g. Abilene, Dodge City, Wichita], or was a mining-camp boom-town [e.g. Deadwood, Tombstone]. In reality, the 'wild west' period for these towns mostly lasted only a few years, as the railhead moved, or the gold or silver mining petered out.
Right: The real Deadwood gulch and miners' camp in its lawless 1870s heyday, seen in an undated engraving and [mouse over] a photo taken in 1876, the year the gold rush led to Custer's fatal campaign in South Dakota's adjacent Black Hills.
Below: Screen depictions of Deadwood Camp, first in the 1953 WB Doris Day musical Calamity Jane [below left] [note how the WB western-street backlot buildings are too tall here], and [below right] the tv series Deadwood (2004-2006; sequel upcoming 2019), which uses the old Melody Ranch street set [est. 1915], here always jammed with a large cast of extras in order to depict the town 'booming'. (The 2nd shot, of the wagon train arriving, is a behind-the-scenes still - note the traffic light.)
|Below, left and
right: Two major standing town sets were built in the 1930s, each for a major production, based
in each case on a popular novel of the day about a frontier 'Territory' which achieved US Statehood.
Below: RKO's Encino set was built for their most expensive production up to then, the 124-minute Cimarron , which covered the development of the fictional Oklahoma-territory town of 'Osage' from its founding in the famous 1889 land rush, till 1929.
|Below: 'Old Tucson'
was built outside the city of Tucson by Columbia Studios for their 125-minute Arizona
(1940), to portray Tucson as it was in the 1860s - a busy crossroads town which would soon become
capital of Arizona Territory.
Despite the distance from Hollywood, 'Old Tucson' would appear in dozens of films, some of which added new in-period buildings to meet plot requirements - see listing below right.
|Old Tucson was
a mix of wood-frame and mud-brick buildings, as seen here from this pair of shots from Rio
||Some of the westerns
filmed at Old Tucson:
1950s: Winchester '73, Broken Arrow, 3:10 To Yuma, Gunfight At The O.K. Corral, Buchanan Rides Alone, Last Train From Gun Hill, Rio Bravo
1960s: Cimarron, Heller In Pink Tights, The Magnificent Seven, Mclintock!, Hombre, The Way West, Young Billy Young, El Dorado
1970s: Dirty Dingus Magee, Monte Walsh, Rio Lobo, Wild Rovers, Dirty Little Billy, Wild Rovers, Yuma, Death Of A Gunfighter, Joe Kidd, The Life And Times Of Judge Roy Bean, The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing, Posse, The Outlaw Josey Wales
1980s: Tom Horn, Calamity Jane, I Married Wyatt Earp, Three Amigos, Stagecoach (TV movie), The Quick And The Dead (TV movie), Red River, Gore Vidal's Billy The Kid
1990s: Young Guns II, Tombstone, Posse, The Quick And The Dead, Geronimo, Buffalo Soldiers
Kansas was another famous cowtown, and in a sense the most depicted onscreen as it was the setting
of the longest-running prime-time TV drama in American history: CBS's Gunsmoke
(1955–1975). As this was such a longrunning series, Dodge was portrayed by a range of town
sets [list here].
The screenshot here is from the opening titles, showing Marshall Matt Dillon facing off with
a nameless bad guy on a deserted main street, and shooting him (though we never see the outcome).
Right: The opening of the Gunsmoke tv series and [mouse over] the 1940 Technicolor Dodge City.
|Below: Gunfight At The O.K. Corral (1957) is set, as per Wyatt Earp's actual career, initially at Fort Griffin [Texas], then Dodge City [Kansas] and finally Tombstone [Arizona], mixes Paramount's backlot western street [below left] and Old Tucson [below right] exteriors, including the climactic shootout.|
was another 'cowtown' which boomed briefly when it became a railhead for shipping Texas cattle
northeast. (Wikipedia: "From 1867 to 1871, the Chisholm Trail ended in Abilene, bringing
in many travelers and making Abilene one of the wildest towns in the west.")
Pictures had a modest in-town backlot western street, plus a ‘ranch’ town set they
came to share with Warner Bros.
High Noon (1952) offers the best look at Columbia’s main western backlot, and is the classic example of the ‘town-taming’ scenario, with many trouble-is-a-coming-deserted street scenes. (It was meant as a contemporary moral fable re Hollywood's cowardice about the anti-Communist witchhunt of the time). In fact, the limited size of the Columbia backlot (you can see modern industrial poles just beyond in the high-angle shot below) meant the film had to shoot scenes on other such sets, such as WB’s ‘Laramie Street’ and Melody Ranch.
|Left and below:
Noon was the forerunner of a large cycle of 50s b&w tv series largely set in a frontier
town. Some were made by syndication outfit Ziv TV, like Tombstone Territory,
about a pre-Earp fictional town sheriff of 1881. Like many of these series, it seems to have
used the WB lot, seen below in a screenshot from the 1973 Westworld.
|The WB lot was then much in use with series such as Maverick, Lawman, Sugarfoot, Bronco, Colt .45, and Cheyenne. The group PR stills below left (showing 7 stars from 5 shows) don't include Cheyenne, shown in the pair of stills below right. Cheyenne (1955-1963), starring Clint Walker, was actually the first hour-long western tv series, whose success turned WB into the main tv-westerns producer of the time. The WB backlot western set thus got the most screen exposure.|
settings demand a different approach, with the downtown buildings being stone rather than wood.
Studios have a variety of other backlot street-sets suitable for this, with names such as 'Midwestern
Street'. The Shootist (1975) is set in 1901 in a Carson City, Nevada, which
now has electricity, telephones and horse-drawn tramcars. It's portrayed onscreen by a combination
of the real Carson City's preserved heritage buildings and the 'Midwestern' street on the WB
main backlot. For Heaven's Gate (1980), inspired by a real 1890s range war,
a brickwork town representing Casper, Wyoming, was built - though more resembling the real Caspar
of the early 20C.
|LA itself has
been progressively built up, or rather built over, and even the out-of-town studio ranches are
being swallowed up. (To avoid union-overtime rates, they were all 30 miles or less from LA.) One
solution to creeping modernity has been building the western town the script calls for in a remote
location. Mexico has been the obvious first choice for western scripts, with a town built outside
Durango for various John Wayne films etc. But even this approach can have its limitations, as the
pair of PR stills below from The Magnificent 7 shows - mouse over for the reverse
angle and you can see the uncropped original showing the factory smokestack just beyond the bordertown
||Spain proved another
option. Several western towns were built in Europe’s only desert, in Almeria province, southern
Spain, for the 4 Sergio Leone 1960s ‘spaghetti westerns’. Shown here are images from
the first, A Fistful Of Dollars (1965), and the last, Once Upon A Time
In The West (1968). (For the last, Leone shot a few scenes in the US, but complained so
much of the west was now spoiled by modern structures.)
has been another popular choice, with towns built on the eastern, drybelt, side of the Rockies,
for films such as Unforgiven (1992), The Assassination Of Jesse James
By The Coward Robert Ford (2007), and Open Range - see screenshot below.
Above: The classic main-street-showdown finale: two cowboys (played by Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall) finally face off against the ruthless local landowner's gang in this screenshot from the 139-min Open Range , filmed in Alberta, the Montana town of 'Harmonville' being purpose-built.
Storylines In Review 2018