Westerns, Musicals, and the Battle for America's Soul

I know we're living through a new Golden Age of Television, and this year's battle for the GOP nomination is the best new program I've seen in a long time. I was worried when they decided to turn the Rubio character into a clown, since they already had a world-class clown in the cast. But, at least so far, the writers have been able to come up with new ways to push the stakes farther along. The reintroduction of Romney looks like it could be really good. And the offshoot programming they are running, on CNN and Fox News among others, has been even better than Bravo's behind the scenes "Watch What Happens" programming. I'm certain Jeff Lord and Van Jones will get a spin-off.

You know, sometimes, when you devote your professional life to the world of film and television, you can have doubts. I don't know anyone, even the biggest supporter of the arts, who hasn't in the quiet of his own thoughts, wondered if the fifty bucks he just donated to a local theater group might have been better spent buying a homeless person a couple of meals. But then I am reminded that the worlds we create via film and theater and TV have become our de facto reality. We take our cues from the TV characters we love, not from the real people we know. We wait for the talking head who is tuned into our own private wavelength to speak, and then we can validate our own opinions.

I don't know much about tax policy or how to handle Lebanon. I really only know a lot about movies. (And the Washington Redskins, pre-Daniel Snyder, back when I used to care.) So, I'm going to offer a cinematic take on our current political situation.

America is a leader in world cinema, but the type of movie we are known for today - namely spectacles - wasn't an American invention. We have the Italians to thank for that. But we have "created" two important genres: the Western and Musical. Neither may be much in favor today, but trust me when I say, they once roamed the silver screen as giants.

The Western says a lot about our national ethos. The theme of most great Westerns is that the individual is greater than the society around him, and that his problems, be they personal or societal, can best be solved with a gun. Jimmy Stewart may have brought civilized law to the West in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, but he needed John Wayne and his deadeye marksmanship to take out the brutish Lee Marvin beforehand. Wayne, to this day, is the heroic symbol of American individualism. At the conclusion of the movie that launched his star, 1939's Stagecoach, he rides off into the sunset with the golden-hearted whore Claire Trevor as the wise and cynical Thomas Mitchell pronounces them "saved from the blessings of society." For those liberal Easterners who can't comprehend the national passion for guns, I suggest watching a bunch of Westerns as the best education.

Shift to the musical, with its roots back east on Broadway. It is the ultimate communal endeavor. Whether it is Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland gathering a bunch of spunky kids together to put on a show, or wealthy upper crust types like Gene Kelly and Millard Mitchell raising the curtain at the end of Singing in the Rain to help out another spunky kid, in this case Debbie Reynolds, there is the spirit of camaraderie. You may fight a gun battle alone, but staging a musical requires a virtual communist collective of collaboration. (I am trying to sell "communist collective of collaboration" to the Sanders people but they are worried CCC might be linked with KKK, and well, it's a big mess.) In your standard musical, the artistic types always snag someone with deep pockets to finance the endeavor. Liberalisms's classic benevolent rich helping out the less fortunate. For those gun-toting cowboys who can't understand the two coasts and their passion for the welfare state, check out a string of MGM musicals and feel the joy of tapping your toes with your fellow man.

I'm offering this as a bit of a history lesson. Westerns and musicals have been around for a very long time. This divide is nothing new in our country. In the early days, in fact, the two genres actually blended. You had singing cowboys. You even had, gasp, a black singing cowboy in the person of Herb Jeffries. Now, none of these movies were very good, but they existed.

Sadly, subsequent attempts to join together the two threads of American democracy resulted in such awkward products as Paint Your Wagon, and well, not much else. Sure there have been musicals set in the West - Oklahoma at the top of that list. But they aren't westerns. Not really.

So, my hope today is that someone will unite out country by making a real, first-class musical western. Or western musical. I don't want to argue over nouns and modifiers. I just want our country to be whole - or great - or whatever other positive adjective you want to use. I'm looking at you, Coen Brothers.

Alas, where is George Murphy when we need him?