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An Irreverent Guide to Texas Movies is...well, Irreverent

April 27th 2009

Book Covers - State Fare

State Fare:  An Irreverent Guide to Texas Movies. Don Graham. TCU Press. 2008.

Lights, camera, action!  On September 24, 1900, Thomas Edison’s men began filming the shambles that was Galveston. Only two weeks before, a powerful hurricane had devastated the island city. The earliest image of Texas in the movies thus started “with a documentary of disaster.” So begins Don Graham’s smart little history, State Fare: An Irreverent Guide to Texas Movies. 

During the industry’s infancy, the leading movie producer in Texas was Frenchman Gaston Melies, founder of San Antonio’s Star Film Ranch. Between 1910 -1911, Melies produced over seventy films, including The Immortal Alamo (1911), the “first significant movie made in Texas.” Actor Francis Ford (brother of legendary film director John Ford) appeared in Melies’s feature, as did a group of cadets from the Peacock Military Academy, who played General Santa Anna’s troops. 

But Texas was not destined to be the motion picture capital.  California beckoned. Despite Melies’s “valiant efforts to turn San Antonio into a mecca of moviemaking,” Graham observes, “it was another town in the West, Hollywood, that soon dominated the nascent film industry.” In late 1911, Melies departed Texas for the West Coast.

Graham divides his study into six chapters, several of them cleverly titled:  “When the Shooting Started,” “The Strong Silent Type,” “A Handful of Texas Steers,” “Grade A Texas Beef,” “Tex Messaging,” and “Schmaltz Across Texas.” He assesses a number of motion pictures, iconic, middling, and minor.

A highly opinionated writer, Graham lambasts and lauds with aplomb. He avers that two films contend for the title of “worst Texas movie ever". They are Lovin’ Molly (1974) and Dr. T and the Women (2000). The former motion picture, which “gets everything wrong,” starred Tony Perkins and Blythe Danner and was helmed by Sidney Lumet.  Perkins “plays a cowboy who wears L.L. Bean shirts (over a black Tee shirt) and flat-soled shoes; he looks ridiculous.” 

Graham pans the latter movie as “deeply misogynist” and deems the film’s director, Robert Altman, “vastly overrated.” He also savages Warren Beatty’s performance in Bonnie and Clyde (1967).  Graham declares that Beatty “is consistently annoying, mainly because he is so in love with himself.” In sum, one “can see how stylish and avant-garde the film seemed in 1967, but much of that energy seems now to be rhetorically empty; the [movie] is about nothing except Beatty’s ego.” 

Nor does Graham spare Beatty’s pal, Jack Nicholson. In the modern Western The Border (1982), “Nicholson acted for one of the last times before he started mailing in cartoonish caricatures of himself.”  Furthermore, Graham flays director John Lee Hancock’s The Alamo (2004), “another leaden ode to Texas’ most famous battle.” He particularly skewers the acting of Jason Patric (Jim Bowie) and Dennis Quaid (Sam Houston). Graham quotes a waggish New York Times critic who quipped that “Patric and especially Quaid…affect the kind of grim determination often found in laxative commercials.”  Although Graham commends Billy Bob Thornton’s portrayal of Davy Crockett, he concludes that The Alamo is ultimately “more of an expensive reenactment than a movie.” Ouch.

Graham, however, smiles on other performers and films. He praises two talented character actors, the “always reliable” Ben Johnson and the “always superb” Warren Oates. Moreover, Graham applauds director Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway (1972), which “remains very watchable.” Steve McQueen, its star, “wears a dark suit with an open-collar white shirt and looks great all the way through the film.”  Graham opines that a “shoot-out in a seedy El Paso hotel is one of the best gunplay sequences that has ever been filmed. McQueen handles a pump shot-gun like nobody else.” 

He also compliments North Dallas Forty (1979), Pete Gent’s roman a clef about the Don Meredith-era Cowboys. This feature, which starred Mac Davis and Nick Nolte, “is one of the best football movies ever made.” And Graham asserts that Tommy Lee Jones’s The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005) “has a stark originality, great visual honesty in its depiction of the material culture of the Southwest, and a sure sense of character and redemption.” (But he puckishly adds that the decomposing body of Estrada “resembles Little Richard”!)

Graham adeptly analyzes four iconic movies:  Red River (1948), Giant (1956), Hud (1963), and The Last Picture Show (1971). “No Texas films before are as rich as these and few afterwards come close,” he affirms. “Taken together as a continuous narrative of mythmaking,” these four classics define “the founding, the growth of empire, the ironic decline, and the death of the central trope of Texas film mythology:  the cattle kingdom in all its glory.” Graham particularly admires the latter motion picture, “an elegiac goodbye to the West, and a deeply pessimistic portrayal of the shoddy civilization created in its wake.”

Following JFK’s murder in Dallas, Texas yahoos and reactionaries “took a drubbing” from Hollywood.  Consider, for example, Slim Pickens’s Major King Kong in Dr. Strangelove (1964) and Ed Begley’s General Midwinter in Billion Dollar Brain (1967). Midwinter, Graham writes, was “a demented right-wing Texan who dresses in K-Mart leisure wear and has a war room…where he practices shooting at cut-out targets of Hitler and Stalin.”

Graham, who teaches at the University of Texas in Austin, is an authority on Lone Star pop culture. A prolific scholar, his books include Cowboys and Cadillacs: How Hollywood Looks at Texas (1983), No Name on the Bullet: A Biography of Audie Murphy (1989), Giant Country: Essays on Texas (1998), and Kings of Texas: The 150-Year Saga of an American Ranching Empire (2003). He has also edited Lone Star Literature:  From the Red River to the Rio Grande (2003) and Literary Austin (2007).  Additionally, Graham serves as writer-at-large for Texas Monthly magazine.

Like so many books published today, State Fare lacks an index. This is disappointing. Unfortunately, Graham’s study also omits two significant, though flawed, LBJ period films:  Sam Peckinpah’s Major Dundee (1965), starring Charlton Heston, and Arthur Penn’s The Chase (1966), featuring Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda, and many other stars. For an excellent analysis of these two Great Society Westerns, see J. Hoberman’s The Dream Life:  Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties (New York:  New Press, 2003).

State Fare is part of the recently launched Texas Small Books series from TCU Press.  Other volumes include Judy Alter’s Extraordinary Texas Women, Texas Country Singers by Phil Fry and Jim Lee, and Carlton Stowers’s Texas Football Legends, all published in 2008. More volumes are on the way.  The concise, pocket-sized books are reliably researched, thoughtfully written, and affordably priced.  Cinema enthusiasts and Texas history students will appreciate Graham’s incisive, entertaining study. And cut!

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