Friday, January 24, 2014

Forgotten Books: SAINT JOHNSON by W.R. Burnett (1930)

Here’s a mighty peculiar book. This novel bears the following information prior to the title page:

Why Burnett went to such lengths to change all the names - and then tell the reader what he'd changed them from - is unclear. At the time of the book’s publication, Wyatt Earp had been dead for over a year. I can only guess Burnett may have feared trouble from Wyatt’s feisty widow, Josephine.

In many places the novel inches close to history, while in others it wanders into Western fantasyland. Come to think of it, though, as books about Tombstone go, that could be said about danged near all of them.

Saint Johnson was published in 1930, on the heels of the first two books that introduced Wyatt Earp to the mass public. Those books were Helldorado, written by Billy Breckenridge (a minor member of the anti-Earp faction) and Tombstone: An Iliad of the Southwest by Walter Noble Burns. The book purporting to be Wyatt’s own account, Stuart Lake’s Frontier Marshall, would not appear until 1931.

All three of those books were part lies and part truth, and the tradition continues down to this day, when historians and Earpophiles are still trying to figure out which is which.

The advantage Saint Johnson has is that it doesn’t really pretend to be true. A more-or-less accurate Virgil Earp is called “Luther Johnson,” and a slightly subdued Doc Holliday is played by “Brant White.”  Morgan Earp has two stand-ins: “Jimmy Johnson,” whose only resemblance is blond hair and being the youngest brother on the scene, and “Deadwood,” a gunman who fills Morgan’s shoes at the Gunfight at the “North End” Corral.

In real life, Wyatt Earp’s behavior leading up to the famous gunfight appears to have been driven by personal ambition. He wanted to be elected sheriff, a position that would allow him to collect taxes and keep a healthy percentage for himself.

The motives of “Wayt Johnson,” however, are both more and less complicated. As the book opens, Wayt is so pro-law that his nickname is “Law and Order” Johnson. His Achilles heel is his youngest brother Jimmy, the weak link of the family. Jimmy’s an unskilled an unlucky gambler, has poor taste in women and friends, and resents his older brothers’ interference, making him susceptible to the machinations of their enemies.

When Jimmy gets involved in a conspiracy to rob a stage - and the robbery results in murder (based on the real life hold-up of the Benson stage) - Wayt breaks the law to keep Jimmy out of it. He goes downhill quickly after that, deciding law is overrated and itching to kill his enemies. After the gunfight, Wayt’s bloodlust is temporarily sated, and he returns to his Law and Order ways. But only until brother Jimmy is shot in the back by his enemies . . .

In real life, James (or Jim) Earp was the oldest brother in town. He’d been injured in the Civil War and was a saloon keeper rather than a lawman. I could never figure why two of the early Earp movies, My Darling Clementine and Gunfight at the OK Corral, portrayed Jim as the younger brother and used his troubles to motivate Wyatt. Now I just might know. It’s quite possible that both those screen stories were influenced by this novel.

Saint Johnson was the basis of the 1932 movie Law and Order, starring Walter Huston as “Frame” (not Wayt) Johnson. Harry Carey played the Doc Holliday stand-in and Raymond Hatton was Deadwood. The film was remade in 1953 with Ronald Reagan in the lead. I haven’t seen either version, but the action apparently takes place in Tombstone rather than the fictional Alkali.

I’ll be talking more about those two Overlooked Films on an upcoming Tuesday.


Jerry House said...

According to IMDb, the 1937 Johnny Mack Brown 13-part serial WILD WEST DAYS was also based (at least in part) on this novel. LAW AND ORDER was also remade in 1940, and also starred Johnny Mack Brown, with Fuzzy Knight and head Mouseketeer Jimmie Dodd in supporting roles.

Evan Lewis said...

Cool. Thanks, Jerry. I might have one of those Mack Brown movies around here.

Anonymous said...

I've seen the 1953 version. Russell Johnson was in it, playing Jimmy. IMHO, it was a not-bad, although routine, medium-budget Western. Reagan did not seem to think much of it. In his autobiography, he mentioned it in passing, and said, "I can only excuse it because it was a Western."

Evan Lewis said...

Did old Ronnie have any pithy remarks about Bonzo Goes to College?


There were actually two film versions of SAINT JOHNSON released the same year, both starring Walter Huston. The first, as you noted, was LAW AND ORDER. In the second, BEAST OF THE CITY, the setting was updated to present-day (which is today, Prohibition/Depression era) Chicago, and Huston was a captain of homicide, unexpectedly transferred to command of an outlying precinct in the sticks, then, just as unexpectedly, bumped up police chief. Wallace Ford played his ne'er-do-well kid brother, a junior detective who, in debt, goes on the take. Jean Harlow is Ford's squeeze, a moll associated with the gangster faction, a thinly fictionalized Capone mob, that stands in for the Clantons. Jean Hersholt (who would become identified with a much more benign character years later in the DR. CHRISTIAN movies) as the Capone figure. A shootout between the cops and the mobsters in a mob-owned night club is the analog for the gunfight at the OK Corral. W.R Burnett co-wrote the script. He later said he thought it was as good as LITTLE CAESAR or SCARFACE, two other classic gangster films with which he was associated.