By Geoff Mayer.

The below is excerpted from Hollywood’s Melodramatic Imagination: Film Noir, the Western and Other Genres from the 1920s to the 1950s (McFarland Publishers) by Geoff Mayer. All rights reserved.

While sensational melodrama is structured as a fundamental bipolar clash between moral absolutes, the specific moral, political and religious terms of this clash are not part of the aesthetic. They are rooted in the culture.”

Law and Order (1932)

This book is about melodrama, a much despised mode, often poorly understood, and the foundation of the American cinema. Melodrama is not a genre, an aberrant aesthetic form, or a mode that can be relegated to “somewhere in the distant past.” It is not tied to any specific moral system or culture. While it generates a wide range of genres, it does not determine the specific attributes of each genre. It does not, for example, determine what constitutes “good” and “evil.” Nor does it determine the character types, the settings, the iconography or the conventions of a genre. What it is does is structure the drama around the clash between  “good” and “evil” and provide a sense of “poetic justice.” The specific values embedded in notions of good and evil are determined by the culture and they shift from nation to nation, from region to region and from period to period. Above all else, melodrama reassures us that the world has meaning, that it is not an arbitrary universe dependent on fate alone.

In melodrama the personal is embedded in the social. Yet the specifics of the social, the moral values, are not determined by melodrama. They are decided by the culture. The raison d’être of melodrama is to establish an ethical universe and the most common form of melodrama, sensational melodrama,[1] accomplishes this by generating excitement through techniques such as emotional pathos and/or the visceral appeal of spectacle. But, as Christine Gledhill points out, the convergence between spectacle and the “interesting” depends for the “dramatic frisson of conflict on something being at stake.”[2] Hence, excitement and suspense “depend on our involvement at some level—of sensation, of empathy—in the contest between malevolent power and those struggling for survival or for justice.”[3] The cultural values underpinning melodrama emerge out of this conjuncture. In other words, while sensational melodrama is structured as a fundamental bipolar clash between moral absolutes, the specific moral, political and religious terms of this clash are not part of the aesthetic. They are rooted in the culture.

Melodrama: the “Genre-Generating Machine.”

Melodrama is not a genre. It is an overarching dramatic mode that functions, as Christine Gledhill points out, as a genre-generating machine.[4] In Britain in the early nineteenth century melodrama demonstrated its generic hybridity by “drawing together gothic, sentimental, folk, and urban working-class traditions [which] helped consolidate a flexible melodramatic mode capable of generating and shaping a diversity of theatrical subgenres.”[5] A myriad of sub-genres flourished in the United Kingdom including oriental, nautical, historical, domestic, romantic, cape-and-sword and temperance melodramas. In the United States a range of subgenres were imported from Europe along with nativist forms such as frontier, backwoods, western, civil war, and antislavery melodramas.[6] While melodrama involves a victim and oppressor, it does not determine the specific cultural attributes that constitute what it is to be a “victim” or an “oppressor.” As Williams and Gledhill point out:

Constituting an expressive mode of aesthetic articulation that shapes the operation of generic worlds, melodrama does not determine the specificity of locale, character types, décor, or situation that characterizes specific film genres. In a concept we retain from Peter Brooks, the most central function of the mode of melodrama lies in its recognition of the personalized virtues and vices of characters whose actions have consequences for others. The contest between them is not played out according to fixed moral values; rather it enacts a struggle for a felt sense of justice that operates differently within different generic worlds. The point is that although conflict between perpetrator and victim is shared across genres, any body can fill these positions, and conflict can be played out in innumerable ways.[7]

Law and Order (1932) - IMDb

February 1932 saw the release of two remarkable films based, essentially, on the same story. In February Universal released the western Law and Order, starring Walter Huston, and MGM released The Beast of the City, an urban melodrama also starring Walter Huston. The link between both films was W.R. Burnett. John Huston adapted Burnett’s novel Saint Johnson for Law and Order while Burnett co-wrote the screenplay for The Beast of the City although Ben Hecht, uncredited, made significant changes to the final script.  A comparison of both films demonstrates how melodrama provides the overarching dramatic structure for each film coupled with a powerful desire for a  “felt sense of justice.” Yet while melodrama provides the dramatic structure and the prevailing discourse, specific representations in each film are shaped by a mixture of generic conventions along with social and institutional factors. Both films end in a similar downbeat manner and each provides a depressing view of society in 1932. Yet eight years after Law and Order,  Universal released another adaptation of Burnett’s novel, an upbeat film intended to reassure a different audience with different needs and anxieties. This low budget series western starring Johnny Mack Brown demonstrates the protean ability of melodrama to adjust to changing historical circumstances and regional differences. The 1940 version of Burnett’s novel is a prime example of sensational melodrama while the 1932 films are not. The early films, all working within the aesthetic parameters of melodrama, are very much products of their time (the 1930s Depression) and rework the generic conventions of the western and urban revenge melodrama to project a sense of futility and despair – unlike the 1940 version. Above all else, melodrama reassures us that the world has meaning, that it is not an arbitrary universe dependent on fate alone.”

The 1940 film Law and Order is a sensational melodrama and, as I develop in chapter two of my book, there are substantial structural and ideological difference between series westerns, such as this film, and A budget westerns produced by the major studios throughout the 1930s. The series western, for example, was aimed primarily at a rural and small town audience with different interests and different values. This audience often voiced their opposition to many of A budget domestic melodramas produced by the majors, such as Rain (1932),[8] as they favored more “wholesome” films that offered sustained action, humor, spectacle and a clear-cut presentation of “good’ and .”evil.” This, of course, included series westerns starring popular cowboy actors such as Gene Autry, John Wayne, Johnny Mack Brown and William Boyd (Hopalong Cassidy). However, the major studios, such as MGM, Paramount, RKO and Warners,[9] were only sporadically interested in this market as their financial strategy was predicated on generating sizeable profits, calculated on a percentage basis, from the first run picture palaces in large urban centers, a market almost totally disinterested in the series western.[10] Yet, as I argue in chapters two and three, there was considerably hostility from exhibitors in provincial cities, small town and rural areas who were often forced to show socially/morally “objectionable” melodramas because of the block booking practices operated by the major studios. In this practice exhibitors not affiliated with a major studio were “encouraged” to take an entire “block” of films from a studio or distributor because of draconian pricing practices.[11] The resultant hostility from the regions was a significant factor in the censorship crisis of the late 1920s and early 1930s leading to Joseph Breen’s radical tightening of the Production Code in mid 1934.[12]

Hollywood and Populism: the “Earp” Template.

Scott Simmon writes that “something about Wyatt Earp and the O.K. Corral has made the story the single most extreme example of a Western-history phenomenon.”[13] The Earp story was never filmed in the silent period.[14] Hollywood’s interest in Earp followed the publication of three very different and historically inaccurate books between 1927 and 1931: Walter Noble Burn’s romanticized history Tombstone: An Iliad of the Southwest (1927): Billy Breckenridge’s Helldorado (1928), a trenchant attack on Earp and Stuart Lake’s highly romanticized celebration of the Earps in Frontier Marshal (1931). Lake’s “biography” fashioned Earp into a savior hero that provided a narrative template for many westerns.

Between the first screen version of this event, Law and Order (1932), and the most famous screen version, John Ford’s My Darling Clementine in 1946, there were, at least, eight other films that retold this story: Frontier Marshal (1934), The Arizonian (1935), Law for Tombstone (1937), In Early Arizona (1938), Frontier Marshal (1939), The Marshal of Mesa City (1939), Law and Order (1940) and Tombstone, the Town Too Tough to Die (1942).[15] Each version, except the first (Law and Order), followed the same narrative formula. A hero reluctantly takes on the position of town marshal and with the assistance of his brothers and Doc Holliday eliminates the lawless elements. He then leaves town.

Will Wright in his book Six Guns and Society. A Structural Study of the Western, divides the genre into four plot types. The most important being the classical plot which dominated the genre between the start of his survey, 1930, and the mid–1950s. The classical plot, Wright argues, “is the prototype of all Westerns. …the story of the lone stranger who rides into a troubled town and cleans it up, winning the respect of the townsfolk and the love of the schoolmarm.”[16] The determining factor in Wright’s study is the relationship between the hero and society. He argues that in the “forty-year period from 1930 and 1970 ‘there were four significantly different forms of this relationship which seemed to change with time, particularly after the war [the Second World War].’” While the characterizations of the key protagonists, the heroes, the villains and society, were essentially the same within any one plot structure, there were significant differences across structures, across different historical periods.[17] In the period from 1930 to the mid–1950s, the classical period, the story of the reluctant hero who is recruited to save his community dominates the western according to Wright.[18] The classical plot, Wright argues, involves the integration of hero into a community that requires his special skills to protect it. This describes every film version of the Earp story between 1932 and 1946, except the first version, Law and Order.

Wyatt Earp and the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

John Huston & the Origins of Noir: Law and Order (1932) | Lokke Heiss

Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp was born in Monmouth, Illinois on March 19, 1848, the fourth son of Nicholas Porter Earp. For some years he worked a variety of jobs, including stagecoach messenger and professional gambler. In Lamar, Missouri, Wyatt was appointed constable after replacing his father in the position. Although Wyatt’s reputation in Lamar was tainted by allegations of embezzlement, he was appointed to law officer positions in Ellsworth, Kansas, Wichita, where he was appointed Marshal, and later in Dodge City. In Dodge City he met John Henry “Doc” Holliday after Holliday saved his life during a saloon fight. Holliday was a former dentist who preferred the life of a gambler to dentistry.

Wyatt Earp, with his second wife Mattie and his brothers James, Virgil, Morgan and Warren moved to Tombstone in 1879 in the hope of acquiring wealth and social standing in the local community. Virgil was appointed town Marshal while Wyatt, on occasions, assisted him as his deputy. Wyatt also worked as a deputy sheriff for Pima County and as a faro dealer after buying a share in the Oriental Saloon. Wyatt, keen to be elected sheriff, tried to solve a series of stagecoach robberies by persuading rancher/outlaw Joseph Isaac “Ike” Clanton to identify the culprits. Clanton was ready to make the deal but before he could act the men responsible for the robberies were killed. After Wyatt let it be known that Ike gave him the information, Clanton turned on the Earps. On the night of October 25, 1881, after a series of drunken threats against the Earps, Clanton was arrested and jailed for carrying a firearm. He was also fined $25. The next morning Tom McLaury objected to Clanton’s arrest and Wyatt hit him over the head with his gun during an argument. Tom’s brother Frank, along with Billy Clanton, continued to harass and threaten the Earps until Virgil, Morgan, Wyatt, and Holliday decided to confront the cowboys. On their way to the fight, Virgil passed a shotgun to Holliday who placed it under his trench coat.

Hollywood’s versions of the ‘Earp story’ between 1932 and 1946 demonstrates the protean qualities of melodrama, its ability to transform through different periods by selecting different ‘realities’ in accordance with the prevailing value systems.”

As the Earps moved along Fremont Street towards the O.K. Corral, Cochise County Sheriff John Behan persuaded them to give him a chance to disarm the cowboys. When this failed the Earps and Holliday continued along Fremont Street past the rear entrance to the O.K. Corral. The shooting lasted a bare 30 seconds. Doc Holliday killed Tom McLaury after hitting him in the chest with a shotgun blast. Morgan Earp was wounded after being hit in the shoulder by Billy Clanton. Billy was killed by Wyatt. Frank McLaury shot Virgil in the calf and also wounded Holliday before both Holliday and Morgan killed him. Holliday’s bullet hit him in the chest while Morgan’s bullet hit him in the head. Ike Clanton ran away after pleading with Wyatt not to kill him. Wyatt responded to Ike’s plea with the famous line: “The fightin’s commenced. Either get to fighting or get away.”[19] William Claiborne and Wesley Fuller also ran away after the firing began.

Although Virgil and Morgan were wounded in the fight, and Doc Holliday was superficially grazed along his lower back, Wyatt emerged unscathed. Sheriff Behan tried to arrest Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday but Wyatt refused to accept the arrest after telling Behan he would answer to what he had done. Wyatt and Holliday were eventually arrested after Ike Clanton filed murder charges against them. After conflicting versions of the event, the pre-trial ended on December 1, 1881, with Judge Spicer ruling that there was insufficient evidence to convict Wyatt Earp or Doc Holliday.

Hollywood’s versions of the “Earp story” between 1932 and 1946 demonstrates the protean qualities of melodrama, its ability to transform through different periods by selecting different “realities” in accordance with the prevailing value systems. The appeal of this story is easy to understand. A savior hero who protects a weak and threatened community. To intensify audience involvement the narrative employs familiar devices such as suspense, spectacle, thrills and romance. But these narrative devices are not unique to melodrama. What is unique is the depiction of a world predicated on an “irreducible manichaeism.”[20] It is this manichaeistic structure that assimilates the prevailing social values that determine the qualities embodied by the hero, heroine and the villain. Thus the mechanics of melodrama operate on two levels. The “vertical level,”[21] the clash of “pure psychic signs,”[22] the hero, heroine and villain, and the “horizontal”[23] where these social archetypes are deployed within a regular pattern of emotional highs and lows. In this manner melodrama, to the annoyance of some critics, eliminates the middle condition[24] to focus on the external clash between whole characters and, in the process, avoid any sustained focus on divided characters who are torn between competing, and viable, moral positions. Thus polarization in melodrama serves not only a dramatic function but also an ideological one. It is the way in which the underlying social and cultural values of the drama are clearly identified [25] It is these values which determine the terms upon which the story is resolved. For example, in each version of the Earp story filmed between 1932 and 1946 the determining value system was populism. Except the first (1932) version.

Law and Order (1932)

The film was based on W.R. Burnett’s 1930 novel Saint Johnson, a fictionalized account of the Earps during their period in Tombstone. Burnett, ever fearful of a lawsuit from Earp’s widow, made a number of name changes. Wyatt becomes Wayt Johnson, Doc Holliday is Brant White, Virgil Earp is Luther Johnson and the gunman Deadwood is based on Morgan Earp. James Earp is Jim Johnson and the Clantons are the Northrups. However, you may wonder why Burnett bothered with these name changes as his Note at the start of the novel acknowledges that his story was, in actuality, based on the conflict between the Earps and the Clantons in the “southeast corner of Arizona”[26]:

It may interest the readers to learn that the “Alkali” of the story is drawn in part from the old Arizona frontier town, Tombstone…. Two of the principal characters, Wayt Johnson and Brant White, are drawn in part from two of the Old West’s most famous men: Wyatt Earp, Dodge City and Tombstone peace officer, and Doc Holliday, gambler, gunfighter and wit. The story itself is based on the event leading up to and arising out of the Earp-Clanton feud.

The novel begins with Luther as town marshal of Alkali and Wayt the Federal deputy marshal, by appointment. Wayt desperately wants to be the next sheriff of San Miguel County. Known as “Mr. Law and Order Johnson,”[27] he is also determined to eradicate the lawless elements such as Poe Northrup and his family along with Frame Tod. In the process Wayt needs to remove the current sheriff, Fin Elder, a close friend of the Northrups. Wayt is supported by his brothers Luther and Jim, the gambler Brant White and the gunman Deadwood. Wayt also has a share in the Golden Girl Saloon with co-partner Ed Deal. Despite Luther’s warning that the town “ain’t ready for law and order nohow, and you’re getting yourself in trouble trying to give it to ’em,”[28]Wayt orders his friends to control their shooting, a warning that Brant White has trouble accepting when he tells Wayt that “law and order don’t go in this here city if the object is to arrest a cattleman, no sir! Shoot it out with ’em, Wayt, and there’s an end on it.”[29] Wayt rejects Brant’s advice and tells him:

“Boys,” he said, “you act like yearlings. Trust me, that’s all I’m asking you. I’m aiming to take over this town ’fore long. And I’m telling you, she’s ready for law and order and she’s going to get it.”[30]

With the support of the city council Wayt imposes a city ordinance prohibiting the carrying of firearms. This upsets Poe Northrup and the other cattlemen, especially Frame Tod who describes Wayt as “Mr. Rectitudinous Johnson”[31] and accuses him of only being out for himself and the Johnsons. Frame tells Wayt that he missed “his calling…. He should’ve been a gospel-expounder. Look at him there! Ain’t he a proper man with his nice black suit fit for a corpse. Yes sir.”[32]

Law and Order (1932) - IMDb

When the cowboys threaten to ignore the ordinance against the carrying of firearms, and shoot at Deadwood, Brant tells Wayt that “them boys need killing. Why can’t you let us loose some, Wayt, and give us a little elbow room.”[33] Wayt, however, refuses to let the Northrup-Tod bunch provoke him and he asks Brant and Deadwood to let “me play my own game…. You know I can’t be standing for no two-gun work and Luther and me wearing badges.”[34] Nevertheless, there is a limit to his patience.

    Wayt and his group have, up to this point, the support of Judge Williams and the local citizens. This changes following the attempted robbery of the Holmesburg stage[35] and the murder of the driver and one of the passengers. The robbery exposes Wayt’s weakness, his brother Jimmy who was involved in the holdup. After Jimmy runs away Wayt locates him and takes him to Elderville where he fabricates an alibi for him. Distressed, Wayt tells Jimmy that “As a deputy marshal I’m in as deep as you are, so shut your mouth.”[36] Forced to form a posse Wayt tells Brant, Luther and Deadwood that: “I aint looking for these road agents and I ain’t aiming to find ’em…. If we should happen to run into these fellers, kill ’em and no palavering. I don’t want nary one of ’em alive.”[37]

When they come across two members of the holdup gang, one already dead, the other is murdered by Brant. Things begin to fall apart when rumors circulate regarding Jimmy’s involvement in the robbery. Wayt, searching for a way out, ponders the possibility that, as Federal deputy marshal, he might be able to “find some excuse and stage a killing that might solve his problem.”[38] It is clear in Burnett’s novel that Wayt is not a savior figure. He is willing to kill to protect his brother and his own interests. He is a complex, morally problematic character. He has, according to Burnett, “a rigid sense of order, [and] the extravagance and lawlessness of the frontier offended him; and born with a somewhat exaggerated sense of his own worth and importance, the swaggering insolence of the badmen, the two-gun men, infuriated him.”[39] His reputation before coming to Akali was poor. In Dodge City he was known to be “as dangerous as any of the lawless element.”

After Wayt is presented with an affidavit claiming that Jimmy participated in the Holmesburge stage robbery, support for him within the community falls away, especially after local businessman Marcus Wingett tells him that “some of the faithful is [sic] getting worried.”[40] Although he denies Jimmy’s involvement in the robbery, the pressure on the Johnsons escalates until Wayt realizes that he will never be sheriff and his pent-up violence erupts and he tells Brant and his brothers that “for the last year or so I have been doing my best to make Alkali a fit place to live and I don’t say I’m done but there’s a few fellas in this town that are aching to be settled and I’m not fixing to disappoint them”[41]:

Brant and Wayt’s brothers knew what this meant. Wayt’s enemies had pushed him too far. He would never stop now until things were settled to suit him. Smith and Deadwood, who had known Wayt only during his Alkali days, had no idea to what lengths he would go. They had never seen him, as Luther, Jim and Brant had, go into a saloon, where there were at least a dozen men who had threatened to kill him, and cut loose indiscriminately with two six-shooters.[42]

After Wayt’s name is removed from the ballot for sheriff, he tells Brant and his brothers that he is “fed up. I done my best for the citizens of this community, but they’re aiming to be bossed by cattle thieves and tin horn politicians. That’s their business. But when it comes to send us threatening letters and bullets and banging away at Luther with a shot-gun, that’s ours! Now I ain’t aiming to break the peace but I hereby declare that not one inch of lip will I take from ary citizen, tin horn or such.”[43] As he heads towards the North End Corral to confront Poe Northrup, Frame and Joe Tod and El Guero, Wayt tells Luther that “I’m done with law and order.”[44]

Wingett attempts to dissuade Wayt and his men from proceeding to the North End Corral and tells Wayt that “You’re aiming to kill ’em, Wayt Johnson … and it ain’t got nothing to do with law and order nohow. It’s your finish in this community.”[45] Wayt disregards Wingett’s advice and in the ensuing fight Poe Northrup and Frame Tod are killed, Joe Tod, Luther, Deadwood and Brant are injured while Wayt escapes unscathed. During the fight Walt Northrup runs to Wayt who tells him: “Fight or git.”[46] Walt “gits.” El Guero, a Northrup supporter, rides away before the start of the gunfight.

Unlike other versions of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Burnett depicts the fight as the final break between Earp and the citizens of Alkali. When the Alkali Herald declares that the Johnsons should be sent to the Yuma penitentiary,[47] Wayt realizes that he is “through in Alkali.”[48] Even though Wayt, Deadwood, Luther and Brant are exonerated by Judge Williams, community attitude continues to harden against them. Wayt is removed from office and censured by the Federal marshal for his part in the killings. After Jimmy is murdered by El Guero Wayt finally breaks down: “He wanted to go out into the street with a shot-gun and kill. He wanted to see men fall before him, because of Jim.”[49] Now totally estranged from his community (“He was a stranger to Alkali”),[50] Wayt realizes that “all his carefully laid plans had come to nothing, and he didn’t care.”[51] He sells the Golden Girl Saloon and Luther withdraws his candidacy for town marshal. Brant and Wayt kill El Guero and then leave Akali with Luther and Deadwood. With all of Wayt’s dreams shattered, Deadwood tells Brant that Wayt “don’t seem to give a damn for nothing nohow.”[52] The novel ends as they ride away with Fin Elder still in control of the town:

Wayt said nothing. The four of them rode along in silence. At the edge of town they turned south and hit the trail for War Bonnet.[53]

Burnett’s novel is not a melodrama. It is almost impossible to discern any perception of virtue and there is no presentation of poetic justice. Wayt is no savior and the narrative traces his alienation from his community, not his integration. While Burnett’s novel was almost impossible to film in 1932, John Huston cleverly adapted the story and reached a similar point by the end of the film. He transforms the Earp prototype (renamed Frame Johnson) by eliminating his corrupt tendencies and accentuating his self righteousness and morally rigid, evangelical qualities. These attributes in the film are not directed towards self-interest but into an anti-gun treatise via Frame’s obsession to eliminate the six-shooter from Tombstone, and elsewhere. In this manner Huston’s adaptation refuses to endorse the prevailing populism of the 1930s and by the end of the film Frame is a broken man, estranged from his community with nothing to show for it except the death of his brother Luther and friends Ed Brandt and Deadwood.

Law and Order. 1932. Directed by Edward L. Cahn | MoMA

In the film Wayt Johnson becomes Frame “Saint” Johnson (Walter Huston), Brant White is Ed Brandt (Harry Carey), Jimmy is omitted and the gunman Deadwood (Raymond Hatton) remains along with Frame’s brother Luther (Russell Hopton) although he is no longer town marshal of Alkali. Frame Tod, a villain in the novel, is omitted and the villains are Poe Northrup (Ralph Ince) and his brothers Walt (Harry Woods) and Kurt (Richard Alexander). The crooked sheriff Fin Elder (Alphonse Ethier) is retained along with the head of the local council, Judge Williams (Russell Simpson).

After leaving an unnamed western town at the start of the film, where the audience learns that Frame is the man who cleaned up Kansas and killed thirty-five men, one man for each year of his life. Frame, Luther, Brandt and Deadwood camp under a signpost pointing to Alkali in one direction and Tombstone in another. Around the campfire the men sing My Pretty Quadroon, a traditional Civil War song involving a slave grieving for his lost love. During the evening Frame tells the group that it was not the “Injuns” that caused trouble in the West, it was the six-gun. He pulls out his six-shooter and tells them: “They made a mistake when they passed that out. Even made the skunks brave.”

Undecided which way to go, peaceful Alkali or the wild township of Tombstone, Brandt cuts cards with Frame and when Brandt wins, with “aces and eights,” he chooses Tombstone. “Aces and eights,” the notorious “dead man’s hand,” foreshadows the tone of the film. Deadwood reinforces this fatalistic omen by telling them that the “life we’re following we’re going to get a bellyful of lead for breakfast sooner or later.” The four men arrive in Tombstone at night to a montage of gambling, dancing girls, street fires, corruption and the sense of a community out of control. It is election night for the position of sheriff and the Northrups, who are endorsing the corrupt Fin Elder, terrorize and murder anyone who doesn’t vote for him. This includes buying the votes of a wagonload of Native Americans, controlled by a white man, heading for the voting booth after selling each vote for a dollar.[54]

When Judge Williams is alerted by Ed Deal (Dewey Robinson), a bartender in the Golden Girl, as to Frame’s reputation, the judge offers Frame the position of deputy marshal. Unlike the novel, where Wayt is already deputy marshal and desperately seeks the sheriff’s office, Frame has to be convinced by Williams and the town council. After he accepts, he asks Brandt, Luther and Deadwood to help him and they immediately come into conflict with the Northrups. When Luther reminds Frame that Tombstone doesn’t want law and order, Frame replies:

Well, somebody has got to do it. Someday the six-guns will be out away and it will be a fit country to live. But until then I’ll do my share.

The film, unlike other versions of the Earp story, rejects the notion of a weak community in need of a savior hero. Although he stops the lynching of Johnny Kinsman (Andy Devine), he then proceeds to carry out the lawful execution of the young man. After he bans the carrying of firearms in the town, his relationship with the community deteriorates. The town also resents his appointment of Luther, Brandt and Deadwood as his deputies as Judge Williams warns Frame that it “looks like you are trying to take over” Tombstone.

After Luther kills Kurt Northrup in the Golden Girl Saloon, Frame insists that his deputies must also give up their guns. This proves a fatal mistake as Brandt, without his shotgun, is ambushed and killed by the Northrups. Brandt’s murder, along with the growing hostility from the town, pushes Frame over the edge and the distraught lawman abandons his plans to bring law and order to Tombstone. He warns the locals “there is a reckoning to be done before I quit, as God is my judge.” This “flawed Old Testament” moralist[55] vows to get even with them “to the last drop of my blood.” Luther, on the other hand, is more fatalistic and tells the group “here’s where we get our belly full of lead for breakfast.” At dawn at the O.K. Corral, which is also referred to as “the O.K. Barn,” Frame, Luther and Deadwood confront Poe, Walt Northrup and their gang. Everybody dies, except Frame, and the shootout concludes when Frame shoots Poe in the back as he attempts to escape.

The final minutes in the film, one of the bleakest in the genre, sees Frame tell his dying brother that “it was my fault, Lute.” With his head bowed over his horse, Frame leaves Tombstone after throwing his badge to Judge Williams (“well, you’ve wanted law and order and you’ve got it”). A high angle image of his departure, devoid of music, is accompanied by the plaintiff sound of church bells. It shows Frame riding past the townspeople and away from Tombstone. The break between the hero and the community is complete.

In a schematic, linear perception of the genre, as in Wright’s study, Law and Order should appear twenty years later as it has more in common with High Noon which was released in 1952.[56] The narrative movement in both the 1932 version  of Law and Order and High Noon is one of estrangement between the hero and his community. Genres, however, do not always move in a neat manner. As Christine Gledhill points out, they are “cyclical, coming around again in corkscrew fashion, never quite in the same place.”[57] Instead of a structuralist approach which removes any consideration of the film’s dramatic mode, melodrama, it is more productive to consider Law and Order within the context of other melodramas produced in the same period (1930–1932). Scott Simmon, for example, points to the cross-generic associations between the western and other genres during this period.[58] He argues that Law and Order, along with King Vidor’s Billy the Kid (1930), “fused the gangster ethic to William S. Hart’s Old Testament gunfighter morality”[59] as it contained not only the “expressionist emotional bite of a hard-boiled gangster film,”86 but also the “darkness of the horror cycle.”[60] He cites the George O’Brien gothic western Mystery Ranch (1932)[61] as further evidence that it is the “dark forces within European expressionism that these lawmen must fight. Walter Huston’s character [in Law and Order] does not merely evict darkness from Tombstone but recognizes it within himself, which contributes to his defeat as he rides from town, head bowed.”[62]

The Beast of the City (1932)

Simmon, correctly, argues that Law and Order “has other meanings arising from cross-formulations with other genres”[63] While he cites Little Caesar (1931), largely because W.R. Burnett also wrote the novel on which Little Caesar was based, there is an even stronger parallel between Law and Order and MGM’s The Beast of the City. Both films were released within two weeks of each other in February 1932 and The Beast of the City was scripted by W.R. Burnett, with assistance from John L. Mahin who worked on the dialogue and continuity. Ben Hecht also contributed to the screenplay without a credit. The working title for the film was City Sentinels and it developed, according to the Hollywood Reporter,[64] from a meeting between Louis B. Mayer, the head of production at MGM, and President Hoover with the stated aim of producing a film that would restore respect for the police. Their aim for the film is articulated in the prologue:

Instead of the glorification of cowardly gangsters, we need the glorification of policemen who do their duty and give their lives in public protection. If the police had the vigilant, universal backing of public opinion in their communities, if they had the implacable support of the prosecuting authorities and the courts—I am convinced that our police would stamp out the excessive crime—which has disgraced some of our great cities. President Herbert Hoover.”

The meeting between Mayer and Hoover followed complaints from civic and other groups about the celebration of the gangster in Hollywood films such as The Doorway to Hell (1930), Little Caesar and Public Enemy (1931). In April 1931 the controlling industry body, The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association (MPPDA), effectively curtailed the gangster cycle by establishing guidelines for “the proper treatment of crime” in films. This made it very difficult for the studios to continue with the classic gangster film.[65] The Beast of the City emerged as a result of a desire to celebrate the police, not the gangster. Yet something did not go to plan and the film presents a picture of a corrupt society where vigilantism becomes the only viable option.

The hero in The Beast of the City, police captain Jim Fitzpatrick (Walter Huston), shares many of the same characteristics as Frame Johnson in Law and Order. He wants to re-establish law and order in a community out of control and his aim is to put gangster Sam Belmonte (Jean Hersholt), a thinly veiled portrait of Al Capone, behind bars. However, a corrupt judicial system frustrates Fitzpatrick’s desires. Soon after the film begins, after the court allows Belmonte to escape justice once again, Fitzpatrick is demoted to a quiet suburban precinct in Glendale. After attracting positive publicity following the capture of a couple of bank robbers, the mayor (Elmer Ballard), seeking favorable publicity in an election year, replaces the Chief of Police Burton (Emmett Corrigan) with Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick, delighted to be in charge, spells out his approach in a speech to his officers:

The Beast of the City (1932) - IMDb

We’re going to start with a clean slate, see? I don’t know a thing about any of you. Good, bad, efficient or inefficient…. Every man keeps his job he’s got now until he proves to me he’s worth a better one or he has no right on the force at all. I’m not fighting you and you’re not fighting me. We’re going to fight together. Now this town has become about as rotten as an open grave. Only some of you have got so used to it you don’t hold your noses anymore. Well, we’re going to clean it up, understand? We’re going to knock over every speakeasy, hook [brothel] shop, wheel joint and gin mill from South Canal to North Haven. We’re going to keep pulling in every monkey until they get so tired of it they’ll all want to lie in the tanks or leave town…. If I don’t get results there’s going to be a shake-up like the inside of a cement mixer. I’ll get results if I have to put a patrolman at the head of the vice squad and precinct captains back to teaching rookie drill.

Although Fitzpatrick enjoys early success in closing down some of Belmonte’s speakeasies, he is betrayed by his younger brother Ed (Wallace Ford) who is seduced by Daisy Stevens (Jean Harlow), Belmonte’s former “stenographer.” She “recruits” Ed after a night of drinking and sex.[66] Desperate to fund Daisy’s expensive lifestyle, Ed accepts money from Belmonte for information that allows his illegal shipments to move through the city without police detection. Jim, in an attempt to reinvigorate Ed’s languishing career, assigns him to look after the transportation of a large sum of money. The younger brother, however, betrays his mentor and tells Daisy about the shipment. She passes this information to Pietro Cholo (J. Carrol Naish), Belmonte’s chief henchman. Unaware that two police detectives, Tom (Warner Richmond) and Mac (Sandy Roth), are keeping watch on the assignment, Ed allows Cholo’s men, the Gorman brothers, to knock him down and steal the money. However, in the ensuing chase, Mac and a young child are killed by the robbers. When one of the robbers incriminates Ed, Jim disowns his brother. Jim’s depression intensifies when the court fails to convict Ed and the Gorman brothers of two counts of murder.

Ed, desperate to redeem himself in the eyes of his brother, accepts Jim’s suggestion to goad Belmonte into a gunfight while he is celebrating the court’s verdict in his night-club. Jim, sickened by a corrupt judicial system, abandons the possibility of legal action and becomes a vigilante. After Cholo shoots Ed, the nightclub erupts in gunfire as Jim’s colleagues (disillusioned police officers) and mobsters trade shots at each other. During the prolonged gunfight, similar to the ending in Law and Order, Jim, Ed, Belmont, Daisy and the gangsters perish. The film’s closing image shows the mortally wounded Jim reaching for his brother’s (dead) hand on the floor of the nightclub.

The Beast of the City emerged as a result of a desire to celebrate the police, not the gangster. Yet something did not go to plan and the film presents a picture of a corrupt society where vigilantism becomes the only viable option.”

A novel, The Beast of the City, was published by Grosset and Dunlap to coincide with the release of the film in 1932. It was written by former newspaper reporter, editor and playwright, Jack Lait. The front page of Lait’s novel points out that it was “adapted from the original motion picture story of W.R. Burnett.”[67] It includes a number of production stills from the film. In other words, it is what is known today as a “movie tie-in.” A comparison between the book and the film is revealing. The film differs from Burnett’s script with substantial changes most likely made by Ben Hecht. The script/novel is a sentimental, heroic presentation of the police in general and Fitzpatrick in particular. In the novel’s ending, for example, instead of the film’s bleak final image showing Fitzpatrick and Ed dead on the floor of the nightclub, it depicts a last minute rescue by Fitzpatrick where he saves Daisy and his son. Fitzpatrick in the novel, unlike the film, is not a vigilante, but a savior hero. The setting for his heroic deed is Belmonte’s hunting lodge fifty miles out of the city and the gangster has kidnapped Daisy, a reformed character in the script/novel, and Fitzpatrick’s son Mickey (Mickey Rooney). After Ed dies trying to rescue them, and just as Guiseppe Belmonte is about to shoot Daisy:

The Beast Of The City - Film | Park Circus

A big man bristled in, a revolver in his hand. … Fightin’ Jim Fitzpatrick’s gun took the final toll of the Belmonte gang, leveling a surprised Guiseppe where he stood. “That’s one rap you won’t beat,” he breathed. And Fightin’ Jim made his way through the chaos of broken furniture and crumpled bodies, to the body of Ed, the last of his own flesh and blood.[68]

After recovering his son Mickey, the novel ends on a sentimental note as Jim tells his son Mickey:

“Come here—while I pin my star on a man who died as a copper wants to die—his duty, Mickey, was his honor.”

And Fightin’ Jim pinned the chief’s sparkling star over Ed’s heart.[69]

This was the film Louis B. Mayer and President Hoover expected—a sensational melodrama involving pathos and last minute rescues as it celebrates its populist hero. Instead, they received a film that replicated the downbeat tone of Law and Order. In the western Frame Johnson is alienated from his community. Distraught and devastated, he is psychologically “dead” as he throws his marshal’s badge away in contempt. Similarly, Jim Fitzpatrick at the close of The Beast of the City is literally dead. Both men abandon their attempts to establish law and order. Both are abandoned by society. The Beast of the City was not a B picture and it starred Walter Huston, Jean Harlow and Jean Hersholt. Yet it soshocked Louis B. Mayer that despite having commissioned the film at Hoover’s request, he relegated it to the lower half of the company’s double features and refused to promote it.[70]

Law and Order (1940): Singing, Comedy, Action and a Populist Hero.

Eight years after the release of Law and Order in 1932 Universal decided to adapt W.R. Burnett’s novel as part of their series of Johnny Mack Brown westerns. In 1940, as in earlier years, Brown starred in eight westerns, with running times of just under one hour, each year for the studio. If the 1940 film is reduced to a broad story outline and compared with the 1932 film they would appear to be very similar. A former lawman (Frame Johnson in 1932, Bill Ralston in 1940) comes to a western town (Tombstone in 1932, Rhyolite in 1940) under the control of a corrupt Sheriff, Fin Elder, and a brutal family of cattlemen (the Northrups in 1932, the Daggetts in 1940). With the assistance of a gambler (Brandt in 1932 and Brant in 1940), and a drifter (Deadwood), the hero cleans up the town and kills the villains. Along the way he stares down a mob wanting to Lynch a young man (Johnny Kinsman in 1932 and Jimmy Dixon in 1940), bans the wearing of guns in town and reluctantly takes on the role of marshal when the villains murder a political rival during the election for the position of sheriff. He is supported, at least initially in the 1932 film, by Judge Williams and the town council. He renews his friendship with Ed Deal, a bartender in 1932 and saloon owner in 1940, and rides away at the end in both films.

Law and Order (Lucky Ralston) (1940)

This comparison is misleading. Both films are melodramas but different types of melodrama. The 1940 film is a representative example of sensational melodrama. It is a reassuring film with a stark bipolar structure involving a strong hero who eliminates those elements threatening a vulnerable community. The film’s narrative movement, unlike the 1932 film, is one of integration. The storyline is relaxed and highly predictable and the film, designed to comfort, not confront, its target audience of rural and small town people. The film’s predictable storyline is reinforced by the casting, most notably Johnny Mack Brown who was a familiar actor to this audience. After a brief stint as a leading man at MGM in the late 1920s and early 1930s, he began starring in series westerns in 1935 and continued making six to eight low budget westerns each year for the next seventeen years. In 1940 he starred in eight westerns for Universal. In each he played, with name changes, the same affable, but tough, western stereotype. This sense of familiarity was bolstered by the supporting actors. Fuzzy Knight, the comic relief, was the sidekick in each of Brown’s eight westerns in 1940. Also, in five of these films Nell O’Day co-starred as his leading lady. The rest of the cast comprised many actors who specialized in series westerns, including Harry Cording, Ethan Laidlaw, Ted Adams and Earle Hodgins as the villains along with Robert Fisk as slightly shady Ed Deal. Veteran low budget screenwriters Sherman Lowe and Victor McLeod did not have to spend much time on exposition as audience expectations were firmly established early in the film, if not before the start of the film. The emphasis in the series western[71] was on performance, on gunfight, fistfights, horse riding stunts, broad comedy, songs, a little romance, an action based climax and powerful sense of retribution. No psychological realism, no convoluted plots or morally flawed heroes and no bleak endings.

The 1940 film opens with action during the film’s credits. Bill Ralston (Johnny Mack Brown) and Deadwood (Fuzzy Knight) are traveling to Rhyliote by stagecoach. This provides the pretext for a comedy sequence from Deadwood which is immediately followed by an action sequence as gambler Brant (James Craig) boards the moving stage from his horse, hotly pursued by the Kurt Daggett (Ethan Laidlaw) and his gang. Ralston saves Brant and the stage arrives in Rhyliote as Jimmy Dodd, as Jimmy Dixon, and the heroine Sally Dixon, played by singer, dancer and expert horsewoman Nell O’Day, sing a lively duet, “Oklahoma’s Oke with Me.” This becomes the pattern for the rest of the film. Action, songs, comedy and a little romance. The action includes the requisite fist fight between the hero and chief villain Poe Daggett (Harry Cording) as well as a horse race to showcase Nell O’Day’s equestrian skills.

Unlike the grim climax to the 1932 film, which strips away any sense of romance and heroism in its grim shootout, the 1940 film heightens the visceral aspect with Ralston and Deadwood involved in a prolonged chase across the prairie (the Iverson Ranch in Chatsworth) after Brant is shot in the back by Poe Daggett, This provides the motivation for prolonged spectacle as the film’s camera truck captures the riders at full tilt as they perform a series of stunts. The action is interspersed by comedy in the form of Deadwood’s trick pistol. The film’s epilogue, always upbeat in a series western,[72] ends with a laugh as Deadwood reprises his slot machine routine with a black cat—only this time when the machine pays out it takes the form of a litter of black kittens, not coins.


[1] Instead of the term “classical melodrama” I describe films based on action, thrills. spectacle, comedy and romance as sensational melodramas, the most elemental form of melodrama. Others, such as Linda Williams, use the term blood and thunder melodramas. See Linda Williams, “Tales of Sound and Fury …’; or the Elephant of Melodrama,” in Christine Gledhill and Linda Williams, eds. Melodrama Unbound: Across History, Media and National Cultures (Columbia, Columbia University Press, 2018), 215. See also Mayer, Hollywood’s Melodramatic Imagination. Film Noir, the Western and Other Genres from the 1920s to the 1950s (Jefferson, McFarland & Company, 2022),49-94.

[2] See Christine Gledhill, “Prologue,” in Gledhill and Williams, Melodrama Unbound.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Christine Gledhill and Linda Williams, “Introduction,” in Gledhill and Williams, Melodrama Unbound, 4.

[5]  See Gledhill, “Prologue,” in Gledhill and Williams, Melodrama Unbound.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Gledhill and Williams, “Introduction,” in Gledhill and Williams, Melodrama Unbound, 4.

[8] This argument is developed extensively in chapters two and three of Mayer. Hollywood’s Melodramatic Imagination.

[9] In 1932 and 1933 Warners released six ultra low budget series westerns starring John Wayne. However, these films were, in essence, little more than remakes of Ken Maynard’s silent westerns with Wayne dressed to match shots with Maynard. Wayne’s series was motivated by the studio’s desire to utilize the spectacular stock footage they owned from Maynard’s westerns when he was under contract to First National in the late 1920s. Wayne’s six films were consequently filled with spectacular action footage highlighting Maynard’s expert riding and stunting abilities in medium and long shots. All Wayne was required to do was fill-in the gaps between the action sequences. Later in the decade, the studio returned to the series western in a failed attempt to capture a portion of the rural and small town market dominated by Gene Autry. Between 1935 and 1937 Warners produced twelve singing westerns starring Dick Foran. However, they failed to attract a large audience with the films averaging a profit of about $50,000 per film – a reasonable amount for an independent producer but considered a commercial failure by a major studio with high overhead costs.

[10] See Mayer, chapter two.

[11] See Ibid., 104-105.

[12] See Mayer, chapters two and three, especially the crucial role played by Joseph Breen in making sure the narrative of William Wyler’s 1940 version of The Letter, starring Bette Davis, was consistent with his determining censorship principle of compensating moral values.

[13] Scott Simmon, The Invention of the Western Film (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 203), 215.

[14] Bert Linley appeared as Wyatt Earp, a minor character, in the 1923 film Wild Bill Hickok starring William S. Hart.

[15] I am discounting Universal’s 1937 serial Wild West Days as it has absolutely nothing to do with Earp and the shoot-out at the O.K. Corral despite the fact that author W.R. Burnett gets a screen credit for the story.

[16] Will Wright, Six-Guns and Society: A Structural Study of the Western (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1977), 32.

[17] Ibid., 33.

[18] Ibid., 40.

[19] Zaresh Haman, “‘Get to Fighting or Get Away:’ The Gunfight at the O. K. Corral,” StMU History Media, November 3, 2017.

[20] Peter Brooks, The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama, and The Mode of Excess (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1995), 36.

[21] See Ibid.

[22] See Ibid., 35.

[23] See Ibid., 36.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] W.R. Burnett, Saint Johnson (New York, A.L. Burt Company, 1930).

[27] Ibid., 11.

[28] Ibid., 9.

[29] Ibid., 31.

[30] Ibid., 32.

[31] Ibid., 51.

[32] Ibid., 52.

[33] Ibid., 58.

[34] Ibid.

[35] In pointing to the importance of the Holmesburg stage robbery in the lead-up to the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Burnett was drawing upon the real-life attempted robbery of the Benson Stage on March 15, 1881, seven months before the O.K. Corral gunfight. The Sandy Bob stage out from Tombstone on its way to Benson was attacked by one man, leading to the death of the driver, Bud Philpot, and a passenger, Peter Roerig. When the horses bolted, the robber took off, thereby missing out on the Wells Fargo haul of $26,000 in silver. The main suspect was Doc Holliday, especially after his common-law wife Kate Elder signed a complaint against Holliday – which she withdrew after she was arrested by Virgil Earp for drunk and disorderly conduct. She also refused to testify against Holliday in court and the case was dismissed. There was, however, one other incriminating matter. Immediately after the failed robbery Holliday searched for Billy Clanton, a man he never met before. There was some speculation that Billy could identify Holliday as the stagecoach bandit and Doc wanted him out of the way. Billy was one of the first killed at the O.K. Corral. See Joyce Aros, “The Benson Stage Debacle,” Tombstone Times,

[36] Burnett, 96.

[37] Ibid., 101.

[38] Ibid., 129.

[39] Ibid., 130.

[40] Ibid., 157.

[41] Ibid., 188.

[42] Ibid., 189-190.

[43] Ibid., 191-192.

[44] Ibid., 216.

[45] Ibid., 225.

[46] Ibid., 228.

[47] Ibid., 235.

[48] Ibid., 236.

[49] Ibid., 270.

[50] Ibid., 275.

[51] Ibid., 276.

[52] Ibid., 297.

[53] Ibid., 305.

[54] Scott Simmon points out that “historically Arizona’s Native Americans had no votes to cast, let alone to sell, until more than half a century after the 1880s.” Simmon, 212.

[55] See Ibid., 213.

[56] See Wright, 74-75. Scott Simmon,  on the other hand, argues that visually Law and Order “would not look out of place twenty years later in the noir era.” Simmon, 213.

[57] Christine Gledhill, “Rethinking Genre,” in Christine Gledhill and Linda Williams, Reinventing Film Studies (London, Arnold, 2000), 227.

[58] Simmon, 213.

[59] Ibid.

[60] Ibid.

[61] See Mayer 27-32.

[62] Simmon, 213.

[63] Ibid.

[64] html.

[65] Ibid.

[66] There are a number of scenes in Beast of the City, including Daisy Stevens (Jean Harlow) seduction of Ed, that are similar to the blatantly sexual sequences found in many “Pre-Code” films. This includes Daisy telling Ed: “I don’t mind taking orders [from Belmonte], but there is one decision that’s always up to me.” Also, their erotic sparing includes Daisy’s suggestive movements on a couch. This follows her gyrating dance for Ed. He responds by grabbing her arms:

            Daisy:  Say, that hurts a little bit.

            Ed:       And you don’t like to be hurt, do you?

            Daisy:  Oh, I don’t know. Kinda fun sometimes if its done in the right spirit.

Later, when Daisy is trying to get information, she lays down on a bed next to the drunken Ed.

[67] Jack Lait, The Beast of the City (New York, Grossett & Dunlap, 1932).

[68] Ibid., 199-200.

[69] Ibid., 200.

[70] See html.

[71] See Mayer chapter two.

[72] See Chapter Two of Mayer, Hollywood’s Melodramatic Imagination for a detailed discussion of a rare exception, the 1939 series western Wyoming Outlaw starring John Wayne.

Geoffrey Mayer teaches film studies at La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia. He is the author of Encyclopedia of American Film Serials (McFarland, 2017), Historical Dictionary of Crime Films (Scarecrow, 2012), Encyclopedia of Film Noir (with Brian McConnell, Greenwood, 2007), and Roy Ward Baker (Manchester University Press, 2004).

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