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Mary Etta Morse & The 25th Anniversary of the Movie TOMBSTONE

July 25, 2018

Mary Etta Morse & The 25th Anniversary of the Movie TOMBSTONE

This is Mary Etta Morse with my latest column for the OutWest Scout. I sat down with OutWest's "BJ" this week and we chatted about one of her favorite movies, TOMBSTONE. I'm posing with the Director's Cut DVD of the film including a replica of Wyatt Earp's illustration of Tombstone as it was on October 26, 1881.

ME (Mary Etta): It's fun to sit down and chat with you! I've got a few questions. First, I know your name is Bobbi Jean Bell, but that's such a mouthful! Did you have a favorite nickname growing up?
Bobbi Jean (BJ): Hey there, Mary Etta, I've been looking forward to this time together. I did have a couple nicknames growing up - a good friend of the family saw me in my cowgirl outfit when I was probably 7 or 8 years old, I was wearing my brother's Roy Rogers gun and holster set, and he named me "Slim Jim." And my Granddad affectionately called me BJ, which I always liked.

ME: "BJ" - that's so darned cute! And you can call me "Etta" - it's short, just like me!
Ok, let's get down to business! This Saturday, July 28, is the annual NATIONAL DAY OF THE COWBOY. Since many of us only know about the cowboy through movies - have you got a favorite?

BJ: Growing up, we didn't watch a lot of TV but Westerns were often the show of choice. GUNSMOKE and BONANZA were two favorites. (My Dad got to know actor Jim Arness during the few months Arness attended Beloit College - he always like to remind us of that during the opening titles of GUNSMOKE and I had the privilege of meeting Mr. Arness during my years at the Autry Museum). For the purposes of today's conversation, let's talk about...TOMBSTONE!

ME: Yes! One of my favorites too...that cast has some of the most handsome men! Sam Elliott is my favorite - what a voice! It starred Kurt Russell, Val Kilmer and Dana Delany. Why do you like this movie?
BJ: I remember the anticipation around it's opening. I was in my second year as a volunteer and docent at the Autry Museum and we were all excited! Visitors always wanted to talk about Tombstone's history and it's infamous shoot out. Common questions we were asked involved details of the historical event and the well known names: Wyatt, Virgil, and Morgan Earp, Doc Holliday, Johnny Behan, Curly Bill, the Clantons, the McLaurys, Frank Stillwell and others. And, let's not forget the ladies - Big Nose Kate, Mattie Blaylock, Allie Earp, and Josephine Marcus,

To prepare for tours and meeting the public I studied up reading everything I could get my hands on beginning with Stuart Lake's popular myth making book WYATT EARP: FRONTIER MARSHAL which was published in 1931, shortly after Wyatt's death in 1929. It's a great place to start, especially to understand how and why Wyatt and his brothers became iconic characters for the mythmakers of the West. But, to really understand you've got to read lots more!

Since 1993 a plethora of terrific books have been published about Tombstone - its mining history, the characters, the gunfight itself, and the lives of the participants after Tombstone. There's even a Wyatt and Josie Cookbook! One of the most interesting is Anne Kirschner's LADY AT THE O.K. CORRAL:THE TRUE STORY OF JOSEPHINE MARCUS EARP. A fascinating read, Kirschner follows Josie's and Wyatt's adventuresome years together across the West, Southwest, and into Alaska. They experience feast and famine, high life and tent living - in some ways their life AFTER Tombstone is more compelling and engaging than the days when they first met. 

ME: Memories of seeing the film for the first time?
BJ: 2018 marks its 25th Anniversary!
It opened on December 24, 1993, Christmas Eve Day. I remember thinking it was odd to have a film with such a violent story open over the Christmas Holiday - but that wasn't going to keep us away. We went on Christmas Day. I was surprised that it was a sold out house. Even with all the hype, Westerns just didn't seem to pack houses then. My husband, Jim, was a big fan of the West so he was happy to be there. I was eager to see how the director, George P. Cosmatos, would frame the story. Would he be true to history? Or extend the myth? We sat deep in our seats and were ready for the ride.

ME: So, what did you think?
BJ: The wedding scene was a shocker. It doesn't get mentioned much in the articles and reviews of the film. Of course, like all films, the true events that happened over a number of months were condensed into a shorter time span. Val Kilmer's Doc Holliday was brillant and so memorable. All his scenes quickly became my favorite - especially the ones between Doc Holliday and Johnny Ringo - one upping each other in Latin, Ringo gun spinning and Doc cup twirling. Delightful!

ME: Doc had a lot of lines that are now famous. Like, "I'm Your Huckleberry." I like that. To me, it means "I'm the right person for the job." LOL! Can you imagine saying that while interviewing for a job?
BJ: The script is filled with memorable one liners that flow with the action brilliantly. Most are delivered by Doc with the camera catching his pasty skin, moustache, and captivating eyes. Wyatt shares a few. Do you recall the scene at the train station? Wyatt is after Frank Stillwell, and vengeance will have its day. "You called down the thunder, well now you've got it. Tell 'em the law's coming. You tell 'em I'm coming and hell's coming with me."

This train station scene is right out of the history books. He gets his man that day, Frank Stillwell. At the time of the movie, the firearm Wyatt used to kill Stillwell was on display at the Autry in an exhibition case with other artifacts relating to the Tombstone's history. Standing at that case, sharing the stories behind the artifacts with visitors continues to be memorable for me. I often wondered what that firearm would tell us, if it could only talk! Another important piece on display was the handmade drawing Wyatt made in 1919 that was a map of the area including streets and buildings that were part of the October 26, 1881 event.

ME: Another favorite line of mine is delivered by Doc to Billy Clanton (played by Thomas Hayden Church - always loved him in the TV series "Wings). Billy comments that Doc is so drunk he's probably "seeing double." It's Doc's witty, spontaneous reply that makes us smile in our seats even though we know trouble is brewing. "I have two guns, one for each of you."
BJ: (Laughing) Yes, that's a favorite of mine too. The first time we experienced these lines we were so surprised, I think. If you've read a lot, or seen other films, at least up to this point, there was very little humor in the story or the portrayal of the characters. Unless you're enjoying a movie like "Blazing Saddles" the West isn't a place for comedy. Yet, this reminds us that these were flesh and blood men who could express humor. The more the film progressed, the more I was able to let go of the true history I knew and relaxed enjoying the pure drama and humor of the film. Great script, superb acting. It holds up to the test of time, as enjoyable today as it was in 1993. 

ME: Doc uses the term "daisy" a couple of times, as in "You'll be a daisy if you do!" said right after the shoot out. Do you know the reference?
BJ: The phrase "pushing up daisies" was popular in the time period and was a reference to death. Upon dying the body returns to the ground and ultimately provides nutrients for flowers. "You'll be a daisy if you do" is quite a threat, isn't it? In other words, "Take me on and be prepared to meet your maker."

ME: Is there a favorite quote of yours - perhaps less well known?
BJ: Yes. Again, delivered by Doc Holliday and one that speaks volumes down the centuries. It's as true today as it was when spoken in 1993 with reference to an earlier time.
"Is there a more dangerous man than one who knows he is bound for death sooner than later?" What a profound thought. Stated by Doc, it clearly explains his fearlessness in the face of death. Today's headlines scream of tragedies caused by the suicide bomber, the terrorist, the zealot. Yet, who wouldn't want a friend with the same intense loyalty like Doc's for Wyatt on your side?

And...there are 2 references to "room service" in the film. If you are a fan of the romance that blossoms between Wyatt and Josie...well, enough said!

ME: In the studying you've done, is there anything about this iconic moment in history that surprised you?
BJ: Many things! 
1. Visiting Tombstone first hand, walking into the actual buildings that still exist and the museums there, along with armchair reading led to a new understanding of the time and place. At the Autry, there's a large framed document showing all the mining claims. Mining hardly makes an appearance in Tombstone movies, yet it was the main industry. Thousands of residents were living in canvas tents, on top of each other, and the stamp mills were running constantly. I can only imagine what it was like to live in that environment - constant loud noise from the mining operations and the challenges of living so close to others. Mining was not for the feint of heart, it was hard work under dangerous conditions. I wonder what impact the noise had on people's nerves.

2. Today, we all know the basic story and the names of the main characters. References abound in cartoons, comics, ads, monologues, etc. I assumed that these men were as well known in their own time as they are today. Not true! Although the newspaper, The Tombstone Epitaph, reported the 1881 Gunfight of the O.K. Corral events, most of the populace didn't have a clue who the Earps and Holliday were. John Clum, Epitaph editor, tended to side with the Earps and business owners. Competing newspaper, Tombstone Nugget, took the opposite side supporting rural interests along with the Clantons and McLaurys. News of the funeral for Tom and Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton was headline news and was very well attended. Again, until the funeral was promoted few residents were aware of the conflict between the Earps and the so called Cowboys.

3. The historical Johnny Ringo is a fascinating character, an equal to Doc. At 14, while traveling by wagon from Wyoming to to California with his family, he witnessed the death of his father, Martin Ringo. Martin stepped off the wagon and his shotgun accidentally discharged, entering the side of his face and exiting the top of his head. Today, when studying what motivates a person's behavior we look at their childhood - I've often wondered how that event shaped Johnny's life and outlook.

4. At the end of the movie, Robert Mitchum as narrator, shares the basic facts of what happens to the major characters. We learn that Wyatt died in 1929 in Los Angeles and "among the pall bearers at his funeral were early Western movie stars William S. Hart, and Tom Mix. Tom Mix wept." In 2009 Jim and I opened our first OutWest Shop location in Old Town Newhall, CA. just a few doors up the street from two bungalows that were used by Tom Mix as dressing rooms while filming in Newhall. More importantly, we were within walking distance of the home of William S. Hart - a place Josie visited several times after Wyatt's death. I was privileged to be on an active member of the board of the Friends of Hart Park and learned more of Bill Hart's history and his longtime friendship with Wyatt and Josie. Below is a photo of his livingroom where he entertained regularly, showed films to his often famous guests, and displayed many of his cherished Native American baskets and rug collection as well as Charlie Russell sculptures and artwork.

ME: In this movie, the "Cowboys" weren't the good guys, were they? How has the image of the Cowboy changed over time?
BJ: What an excellent question and a great subject for another conversation!
You are correct, Etta. The term "Cowboy" has been feared and revered, ridiculed and honored, bad guy and good guy over time. In this film, the Cowboys wear red sashes and are the "bad guys" - brutish rustlers without redeeming value of any kind. They run up against the "good guys" who are stylish dressed in contemporary 1880's business attire and arrive in Tombstone as entrepreneurs. These rough Cowboys are no match for the fast acting, gunslinging, fearless men who believe they are on the right side.

ME: Are there events happening this year to commemorate the 25th Anniversary?
BJ: Tombstone hosted a very fun event just a couple weekends ago, 25th Reunion and Freedom Days.

ME: Recommended reading?
BJ: Here's a quick list of some of my favorites:
Peter Sherayko's a personal friend, he was "Texas Jack" in the cast and was involved with the choice of guns and gear used in the film. His book, TOMBSTONE: GUNS & GEAR is a must have for the serious collector as well as fans of the film.

Newspaper - Tombstone Epitaph
Peter Sherayko - Tombstone: Guns and Gear
Nicholas R.Cataldo - The Earp Clan: The Southern California Years
Casey Tefertiller - Wyatt Earp: The Life Behind The Legend
Paula Mitchell Marks - And Die In The West: The Story of the O.K. Corral Gunfight
Ann Kirschner - Lady At The O.K. Corral: The True Story of Josephine Marcus Earp
Bob Boze Bell - The Life and Illustrated Times of Wyatt Earp
Bob Boze Bell - The Life and Illustrated Times of Doc Holliday
Bob Boze Bell- Classic Gunfights, Vol II: Blaze Away!
John Clum - It All Happened in Tombstone

ME: Thanks for sitting down with me, BJ! This was fun!
BJ: It's always fun to find ways to connect the past to the present, isn't it? Watching the film again was so enjoyable. I noticed things I didn't see all the other times...the close ups on eyes and lips must have taken its inspiration from Sergio Leone's famous gunfight in "The Good, The Bad and the Ugly." He was a revolutionary filmmaker and has influenced many directors. So many details I picked up this time!

Note: All the Old West style distressed wooden signs are handmade and available to order. Just click the sign for its link to the website. To see our entire Old West Sign Collection click here.

MARY ETTA (ETTA) MORSE writes for the OUTWEST SCOUT, the blog of OutWest Shop.
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