Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Winning the West

Narrator (Spencer Tracy): This land has a name today and is marked on maps. But the names and the marks and the maps all had to be won, won from nature and from primitive man.

I don't remember if "How The West Was Won" was the first movie I ever saw at a movie theater.

It might have been. As I have mentioned in this blog before, I grew up in a small town in central Arkansas that had an old–fashioned single–screen movie theater downtown (and a drive–in on the outskirts of town). It wasn't unusual for it to take two or three years — or longer — for first–run movies to arrive in my town.

By that time, of course, they were no longer first–run movies. Many had probably already been shown on TV by the time they made it to my hometown theater.

I have vague memories of seeing "How The West Was Won" — which made its American debut on this date in 1963 (it premiered in the United Kingdom about four months earlier) — on the big screen.

In those days, the theater used to distribute cards that indicated which movies were showing on which days during whichever month it happened to be, accompanied by mini reproductions of the movie posters that were on display in the lobby and outside the theater. "How The West Was Won" had two dozen mug shots of the stars who were featured — and that caught my child's eye.

I was old enough, by the time I saw the movie, to read some, and I remember reading what I could of the card and pointing out the stars with whom I was familiar. My parents were both teachers, and my mother started teaching me the alphabet and how to read before I was in first grade.

I don't remember hearing the word "epic" before I saw "How The West Was Won," but that movie has always been my personal standard for what an epic should be — a big, sprawling movie so big it took three directors, two dozen Hollywood stars and thousands of extras to tell the story of Westward expansion in the 19th century.

And what a story it was.

Oh, sure, it was a sanitized version of American history, glossing over many of the more painful chapters, but it was still a good story. It was so sanitary that children could — and did — watch it without suffering any trauma. And, if the adults in the child's family didn't mind tap dancing around some sticky subjects.

As many stars as "How the West Was Won" had, only one that I know of — Debbie Reynolds — was in it practically from start to finish.

Sometimes I think it should have been called "The Story of Lilith Prescott," but I guess that wouldn't have attracted viewers.

Also, I suppose it would have been hard to give that kind of billing to just about any actress — even one as popular as Reynolds — over stars like Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda or John Wayne, even though those three actors had relatively small roles when compared to Reynolds'.

(Another thing. It probably would have been hard to justify a $15 million budget in 1962 for a movie in which Reynolds was regarded as the major star. She was a popular star in her day, as I say, but she was never the kind of bankable star Stewart, Fonda and Wayne were.)

Even though I was quite young when I saw it for the first time, I will always be glad I saw "How the West Was Won" on a big screen.

It was made for the wide screen. It was simply too big to be confined to a TV screen.