I have only had one encounter with a Western film, and I can barely recount all 30 seconds of it. While in search of another theater, I had accidentally walked into the middle of a showing of “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” As a result, the deepest impression any Western movie ever left me is a closeup of Clint Eastwood’s face as he squints his eyes in the sun.
Imagine my hesitation, then, as I entered Beinecke Library in search of the new “Celluloid West” exhibit, a display of movie scripts, posters and other bits and pieces from American Westerns. According to a blurb, this exhibit “investigates the ways in which screen writers, directors, producers and actors have embraced, challenged and shaped 20th-century American views of the West.”I knew, just from being a devoted follower of popular culture, that the main character within the Western is a sort of classic American hero, but if you were to ask me to define a view of the American West, I’d have nothing to say.
The wide collection of scripts, posters and lobby cards are laid out in glass display cases on the first and second floor of the Beinecke. At first glance, the exhibit lacks cohesion — there does not seem to be a clear place to begin looking, and a cursory walk-through would not let the viewer absorb much besides a few script titles and some scattered images. Upon closer examination (much closer, as many of the display cards contain dense, name-heavy paragraphs), the viewer may realize that the materials are in fact ordered by chronology beginning with the display case on your left-hand side. We see the script and ads for the first silent films, and as we snake our way around the glass case, we see the emergence of talkies and musicals. On the second level, smaller glass cases display relics from movies that would not strike a layperson as a typical Western: movies like “Dirty Harry” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” Many of the facts on the explanation cards were interesting but sometimes without enough context to make them feel significant.
This is a shame. The morning after my first attempt to understand the exhibit, George Miles, its curator, walked me around the displays, effortlessly summarizing movie plots and sharing back stories on the big figures within the film industry. I saw, in ways that were more than vague and abstract, that the progress of the Western film is closely intertwined with the development of the movie industry, the development of popular taste in America and the development of the roles of movie stars. As we looked at a collection of lobby cards for a musical Western, Miles explained that Western B-movies — though mediocre in quality — were produced so prolifically that they left a permanent imprint on American pop culture.
Without Miles’s guidance, I would have easily skipped over other golden points in the collection, including perhaps the best piece, a proposal for a film that had never been made. The report included a note from a reader at a film company. His opinion on whether the script should be adapted? “Typical western stuff where the tenderfoot blunders in to the bad man’s domain and makes good. A twist at the end that shows the bad man is the long former sweetheart of the tenderfoot’s mother but nothing else out of the ordinary in the story. Draggy and lifeless.”
Miles said he hoped the exhibit might expand traditional notions of the Western beyond saloon keepers and shoot-offs. The exhibit includes posters from the San Francisco-set “Dirty Harry,” for example, because the film draws on themes typical to Westerns, including a heavy reliance on setting. Similarly, a poster for “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” highlights a movie whose exploration of social conformity — another motif of Westerns — has been transplanted to a more modern West: 1950s Los Angeles.
For the viewers who know what to look for, the exhibit is rich, offering insights into the various stages of filmmaking and the way the American film industry took shape. But for those hoping to acquire a cohesive history of Westerns, it is too easy to leave the exhibit feeling that the frontier remains unexplored.