Sunday, June 7, 2009

American Experience: Buffalo Bill (PBS, 2009)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran an interesting American Experience show from PBS on the life of “Buffalo Bill” Cody, a genuine scout in the American Indian wars of the 1860’s and 1870’s who was more or less recruited by a New York writer named Ned Buntline and promoted into the archetypal figure of the American West. The show is a good deal more sympathetic to Cody himself than some of the other depictions of him, which have regarded him as a ne’er-do-well hack whose entire story was Buntline’s invention — indeed, it depicts Cody as getting rid of Buntline early and achieving success on his own, more or less, with a shrewd business manager who helped him put together the famous “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” extravaganzae, live shows that were put on in stadia remodeled to resemble the Western topography of Cody’s Kansas-spent youth. The shows featured hundreds of performers (many of them Native Americans playing the “Indian” villains of the pieces) staging situations that purported to represent the real lifestyle of the pioneer West, and one critic pointed out that virtually all the clichés of the later Western movies originated in the scripts for Buffalo Bill’s shows.

The film did a good job of showing the extent to which William F. Cody reinvented himself as one of the earliest of modern-style celebrities, using the high-tech of his day — the railroads (which enabled him to tour his show throughout the U.S.) and steamships (which allowed him to take it to Europe for five years in the 1880’s), the cheap “dime novels” (actually newspapers with lurid color covers and fictional stories inside) in which Buffalo Bill’s (ghost-written, first by Buntline and then, when they had a parting of the ways, by Colonel Prentiss Ingraham) adventures appeared and the cheap printing systems with which he was able to run off full-color posters advertising his shows — and also tapping into the urban proletariat as his core audience, people who were living miserable lives as factory workers and the like but grabbed the chance to dream their way into the mythical “Wild West” Buffalo Bill’s shows represented.

William Cody’s story also seems quite modern in the way his star fell as fast as it had risen; a bitter divorce suit with his often-abandoned wife (perhaps this is where Edna Ferber got the idea for Yancy Cravat’s frequent disappearances from home and hearth in Cimarron!) which Cody lost (which meant he had to stay married to her, hard as that may be to believe in the modern era), and in which his predilections for other women and the high life in general were exposed; and also the rise of a new technology, motion pictures, which meant that audiences who’d once flocked to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West could now have the same sort of entertainment for a fraction of the price. Cody tried to beat the newcomers at their own game, sinking his life savings into a movie of his own — a story about the end of the Plains Indians wars with the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee — without realizing that he knew nothing about how to make a stirring, exciting film and didn’t bother to hire anyone who did.

The commentary to this film says that “filmmakers” had devised ways to use close-ups to draw people into a story instead of just portraying it from a distance — what the narration doesn’t explain is that as of 1913 that essentially meant one filmmaker, director D. W. Griffith; had Cody made Griffith (who at the time was chafing at the two-reel limit his employers at Biograph had imposed on him and was crying out for the chance to make feature-length films) an offer to direct an epic with a Western theme, the venture might have turned out quite satisfactorily for both men. Instead Cody directed the film himself and came up with something that, in one critic’s words, looked like “his Wild West show seen from the back of the stadium.” Buffalo Bill’s movie bombed and took his fortunes with it, and a man who had always wanted to retire (but could never afford to because he fell victim to a whole succession of con artists with get-rich-quick schemes) and said he didn’t want to die a showman had to hire himself out to a circus owner and keep performing, keep up the “Buffalo Bill” image, until his death in 1917.

One twist in the Buffalo Bill story I hadn’t known was that Ned Buntline, his first associate and the man who did more than anyone else to “create” the “Buffalo Bill” character, was not only a scapegrace who’d run out on several women and jumped bail more than once, he’d also been a member of the Know-Nothing Party before the Civil War and he apparently wanted to present Bill Cody as an example of the true 100 percent Anglo-Saxon American to whom the Know-Nothings wanted to restrict the country by closing down immigration (and their arguments about the “flood of immigrants” destroying “American values” and “American culture” sound all too familiar today!), and Cody himself, while hardly a progressive, didn’t share Buntline’s anti-immigrant mania and that was what led Cody to fire him. (Indeed, while Cody’s early shows had included vivid representations of Indian attacks on unarmed settlers and a gruesome re-enactment of how he took his first scalp, he treated the Native American performers in his troupe quite well and hung out with them when he wanted to get away from the pressures of celebrity.)

The Buffalo Bill story as presented here encompasses quite a few of America’s myths — the 19th century myth of the West cheek-by-jowl with the 20th century myth of celebrity — and the consciousness with which both William F. Cody himself and his business partners marketed his image for maximum commercial appeal is the beginning of a process that still goes on and will probably continue as long as there is a United States of America and a U.S. culture industry.