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Taken for Granted: In search of the real Wyatt Earp

The famed western law man's legend was more fantasy than fact.

April 01, 2011

Wyatt Earp, his gun-fighting days long over, was one of many real-life cowboys who, at the beginning of the 20th century, came to Hollywood in hopes of recreating their wild West on the silver screen.

The cowboy lifestyle having virtually disappeared, their knowledge of cows and horses was invaluable to early filmmakers. They were real cowboys seeking vicariously to become “reel” cowboys in the fantasy world of moving pictures. Earp and his fellow cowpokes frequented the studio lots, becoming friends with such screen idols as Tom Mix and William S. Hart. Earp allegedly taught Hart how to fast-draw, and others served as consultants, extras and stunt men. There is no evidence that Earp ever actually appeared in a cowboy movie.

Earp’s exploits had never been glorified in the pulp magazines that had created such Western legends as Buffalo Bill. Attempting to counteract newspaper accounts of his more illicit activities, including con games (he was arrested in L.A. in 1911 for attempting to pull a scam), gambling and horse theft, he struggled in vain to have the more heroic aspects of his life portrayed on film. Ironically, not until he passed away in 1929 at age 80 did a flattering, although controversial, biography appear. Written with Earp’s cooperation and exaggeration, author Stuart Lake created the myth of Wyatt Earp on which 22 feature films and the TV series were loosely based. The Hollywood names who have portrayed Earp on the screen include Randolph Scott, Ronald Reagan, Burt Lancaster, James Garner, Hugh O’Brien and, most recently, Kurt Russell and Kevin Costner. My sentimental favorite is Henry Fonda’s 1946 portrayal in the highly fictionalized John Ford film, “My Darling Clementine.”

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