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Monday, May 29, 2017

WANDERING DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE

WANDERING DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE
BLOGS, WHITTINGTON, ELVIS,
NOVELIZATIONS, COVERS,
AND CHARRO!
 
I must apologize upfront. This post started out to be an examination of the brilliant cover for the Gold Medal original paperback publication of Charro! by Harry Whittington, but a rabbit hole appeared and I disappeared down it on what has become a quest of dubious proportions.
 
It all started with a six-hundred word entry I was composing about Whittington’s novel (more on this later) Charro! for an upcoming entertainment book, 52 Weeks 52 Westerns, which I am co-authoring with my partner on the project, Scott Harris. Six-hundred strictly rationed words does not go very far. There were some unusual aspects of the paperback cover for Charro! I wanted to explore, but no space to do it. I kept the entry under the proscribed word count by promising myself I would give the cover six-hundred words of its own in a separate and expanded blog post...
 
Then I fell down the rabbit hole...In researching details of the cover, I came across further interesting (at least to me) information on the novel, the movie, and the novel’s author Harry Whittington. Six-hundred words turned into eight-hundred, then a thousand—and still my fingers were flashing across the keyboard. I even had to stop long enough to return to the top of what was now an article, and add the one-hundred, then two-hundred, then more words constituting this introduction. 
 
Talk about losing control of the process...
 
BLOG POSTS
 
The general consensus in our age of limited attention spans, is nobody will read a blog post over six-hundred words—maybe eight-hundred if they are really (really, really) interested. Anything longer—oh, look, shiny! 
 
I also regularly hear nobody reads blogs anymore. If you can’t say something in an Internet word-bite—basically a bumper-stickers’ worth of organized letters scrolling up a newsfeed—you might as well not bother.
 
These contemporary edicts are exactly why I have a blog—so I can write about anything at any length. It doesn’t matter if a post is so long it can’t be experienced without the reader’s lips getting tired. It doesn’t matter if the obscure subject matter can’t distract a magpie from a gleaming pop-top (does anyone still know what those are?). It doesn’t even matter if I ramble down rabbit holes or create metaphors of vague provenance—it’s my blog. It is a place where those who understand and share the oddities of my enthusiasms are willing to engage by staying the course and sharing their own thoughts in return.
 
My point? Oh, yeah...I’m supposed to be getting to the point...Here’s a whole bunch of self-indulgent words about minutia related to Charro!—the book, the movie, Elvis, Harry Whittington, cover artist Ron Lesser, and…(you get where this is going). Wander with me down this rabbit hole at your own risk... 
 
CHARRO!—HARRY WHITTINGTON
 
There wasn’t a genre of novel Harry Whittington couldn’t write. Known as The King of the Pulps—a title he shared with high adventure writer H. Bedford-Jones—Whittington was incredibly prolific, writing over two hundred novels. On one occasion, he gunned out seven in a single month! 
 
  
Whittington started his wordslinging career writing westerns, eventually producing thirty-five tales of six-gun justice. However, it was his hardboiled crime fiction for which he became revered.
 
  
In the 80s, near the end of his career, Whittington returned to the western genre, writing a fistful of entries in the Longarm series of Adult Westerns. The series, now numbering over 400 entries, was written by numerous authors under the pseudonym Tabor Evans. Whittington’s Longarm titles (Longarm On the Humboldt, Longarm and the Golden Lady, Longarm and the Blue Norther, Longarm in Silver City, Longarm in Boulder Canyon, Longarm in the Big Thicket) are highly sought after by collectors of his work.
 
  

  
CHARRO!—THE NOVELIZATION
 
Whittington was also a go-to guy when it came to writing novelizations of movies and television series tie-in novels. Most of these were work for hire—a one-time payment against which the author surrenders all rights to the work, including any future residuals. Work for hire contracts—often written under pseudonyms—were standard for almost all novelizations or TV series tie-in books. They were eating money for many authors while they worked on other mainstream or genre books of their own.
 
Often these types of books sold well, but rarely rose to bestselling levels. However, Whittington wrote the second of Ace Books’ The Man From U.N.C.L.E. paperback original tie-in series, The Doomsday Affair, for which he was paid $1,500 on a work for hire basis.  The Man From U.N.C.L.E.  TV series was at the peak of its phenomenal popularity at the time and the book went on to become an international bestseller. In the US, it placed in the top five paperback best-sellers for 1966—with a whopping ten printings in the first six months. While they were not contractually obligated to do so, Ace Books never paid Whittington anything beyond the initial work for hire payment of $1,500.
 
 
 
While other writers raced through work for hire novelizations or TV tie-in books, often doing no more than one sloppy draft to get the quick paycheck, Whittington never phoned in his work. As a result, his novelizations are always worth reading.
 
Case in point, Whittington's novelization of the Elvis Presley movie Charro! is among his best work in the Western genre. 
 
To take timely advantage of a movie’s initial release, many novelizations are written based only on a brief script outline known as a treatment. As a novelization’s author is rarely privy to the full elements of characterization, mood, and tone of a finished film, a novelization can be substantially different. The best novelization writers rely on their own imagination to flesh out motivations, plot points, and even create new characters in order to produce a coherent story. In the hands of a top pro like Whittington, the novelization can become a special entity all its own—as with Charro!
 
Charro! is an excellent novel based on a bad film. Whittington developed his story from a film treatment entitled Come Hell, Come Sundown by Frederick Louis Fox. The title for the film was later changed to Charro!—An odd choice since charro is a term applied to Mexican horseman, particularly those who participate in rodeos. As the character of Charro (portrayed in the movie by Elvis) is neither Mexican nor a horseman, and there is nary a rodeo in sight, it is nothing more than a cool moniker. 
 
Fox’s original treatment, Come Hell, Come Sundown, contained many violent and sexually related scenes. The director of the movie deemed these too objectionable and excised them from the final script. Whittington didn’t have any such proclivities, putting all the sex and violence back in when he wrote the novelization, making his book much better than the film on which it is based. 
 
The conflict at the heart of Charro! revolves around a gold-plated Mexican cannon belonging to Emperor Maximilian, which has been stolen by an outlaw band. The Mexican army, various Mexican thugs, and bounty hunter Jess Wade are after the $2,000 reward for the return of the cannon. As the story progresses, the outlaws want to ransom the cannon back to the town from where it was stolen. By this time they have trapped Wade into working with them as they use the cannon to terrorize the town into capitulation. Tension and violence soak Whittington’s take on the story, written with the lean muscular prose for which he was renown. 
 
CHARRO!—ELVIS
 
The lead role in the movie Charro! was supposed to be filled by Clint Eastwood, which will make perfect sense a paragraph or two from now. When Eastwood wisely made himself unavailable, Elvis—a fan of Westerns—jumped into the fire having only seen the same film treatment—filled with sex and violence—as Whittington used as the basis for his novelization. Elvis believed this was his big chance to break away from popcorn musicals and show his acting chops. 
 
Money was paid to the Colonel (Elvis' notorious manager) for Elvis’ services—allegedly $850,000, which was more than half the film’s budget. Contracts were signed. And then Elvis was handed the shooting script, which was a weak shadow of the treatment on which he had based his agreement to participate...Unhappiness ensued, but by then, Elvis was legally obligated to fulfill the role.
 
On the positive side, it would still be a movie where he wouldn’t have to break into a hit-bound ditty at the drop of a guitar. He would however record the theme (Charro) to be played over the credits, and one other song (Memories), which was not used in the film.

He grew a scrubby beard for the movie, but felt so self-conscious, everyone on the set (including Colonel Tom Parker his ownself) grew beards to support him. 
 
The film was a modest hit, but not well received by Elvis’ legions of fans, who didn’t want to see him in movies where he didn’t croon half-a-dozen songs on screen. Perhaps if Charro! had been written to resurrect the Gene Autry/Tex Ritter singing cowboy genre, it would have fit Elvis’ image better.
 
 CHARRO!—THE MOVIE
 
As a film Charro! is a mess—a meta mash-up of tail chasing styles. Originally, it was green lighted for production on the understanding it was to be Hollywood’s stylized spin on the mega-popular Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone and the Euro Westerns of other Italian and Spanish directors. This was the meta tail chasing part, since Spaghetti and Euro Westerns were already foreign spins on the original Hollywood oaters.
 
Based on his laconic Spaghetti Western stardom in films like The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly, it’s easy to see why Clint Eastwood would have been conceived as perfect for the lead role. Whatever his reasons for passing on the movie, Eastwood’s choice was far better for his career than trying to stop this trainwreck by his presence alone.
 
The effort to capture the lightening of a standard Hollywood oater, seen through the six-gun kaleidoscope of European-style gratuitous sex and violence on horseback in foreign locations posing as the wild west, then translating it all back into a new Hollywood Western only stylized like a foreign version of a Hollywood Western, but with all the gratuitous sex and violence removed, proved too much for director Charles Marquis Warren.
 
Better known for his television work on Gunsmoke and other early TV series westerns, Warren struggled when trying to direct for the big screen western. The idea of what Charro! was intended to be was clearly too much for him to grasp, and Warren retreated behind the safety of his television experience. It would be the final outing of his undistinguished career as a movie director.
 
Take the run on sentence from a couple of paragraphs above, describing the intent of the film and associated challenges, then dump it into a bucket of made-for-TV movie molasses, and you have Charro!—a zebrapottomus crossed with a lamaphant raised by a pig-in-a-poke. Can you say schizophrenic hybrid disaster? I knew you could... 
 
CHARRO!—THE COVER
 
Now your brain hurts, it’s time to return circuitously to the subject of novelizations, specifically the cover for the paperback novelization of Charro! 
 
Charro! isn’t only an outstanding novel. The Gold Medal first edition paperback has an awesome cover by Ron Lesser. Known for his iconic posters for Clint Eastwood films, Lesser illustrated covers for hundreds of paperback westerns, mass market softcovers, and movie posters. What makes this particular cover exceptional is the addition of the illustrated dancehall girl on the holster. The first time I saw the cover, I thought the dancehall girl was an aftermarket doodle. But it is an example of Lesser’s gift of artistic genius—He gleaned the detail of the dancehall girl on the holster from the novel, then added it as a unique touch. 
 
Interestingly, the cover blurb calls the book a novel, not a novelization—a subtle, but deceptive difference. Only Whittington’s name appears on front cover, perpetuating the deception of a novel. On the title page, small print indicates the book is based on a story by Frederick Louis Fox. This type of treatment was very unusual for a novelization—presenting it as if the movie was based on the book instead of the other way around. 
 
There is also another related oddity…Charro! is the novelization of an Elvis Presley movie. This should have been considered a huge marketing coup. But if so, why is there no tie-in photo of Elvis in his role as Charro on the cover? Why is there no mention of it being an Elvis movie—not even on the back cover? Inquiring minds want to know.
 
Perhaps there were contractual issues at the time regarding the use of Elvis’ image. Maybe there was a dispute between the publisher and the movie studio over the novelization. Or possibly the book was so much better than the final shooting script, it became an embarrassment to the director/screenwriter of the movie. 
 
There is also a chance the situation ensued because Whittington put the original sex and violence from the treatment back into the novelization. This, as stated, didn’t mesh with the director’s puritanical standards, which had originally caused the sex an violence to be removed from the treatment.
 
Whatever the reason, Charro! is a less than inspired movie. It is, however, an inspired example of a genre Western, a novelization, Harry Whittington’s writing chops, and the type of cover painting I’d love to have hanging on my wall.
 
This rabbit hole still has several off-shoots, but they are best left unexplored. There are plenty of other rabbit holes waiting for me to fall down.

2 comments:

  1. Great post. Whittington is a big favorite of mine.

    ReplyDelete
  2. The director's name was Charles Marquis Warren? Well, now we know where Quentin Tarantino got the name for Samuel L. Jackson's character in The Hateful 8

    ReplyDelete

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