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WILD WEST MYTHOS
By Ric Carter
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HARRY OLIVER'S LEGACIES
Harry at Fort Oliver
"It was there on the marge of Lake Labarge that we cremated Sam McGee" goes the Robert Service verse, and I write this while camped on the marge (margin, shore) of Lake Laberge, just north of Whitehorse, Yukon on the Klondike Highway. The Klondike goldfields around Dawson City below the Arctic Circle saw the last, greatest, and nearly the briefest gold rush in history in 1898-1899, or so the guidebooks say. Not a few visitors now arrive here looking for traces of that rush. Such traces, real or manufactured, can readily be seen, usually for a price. Similar traces are offered near many old rush sites — I can cite California's Mother Lode and Julian and Whiskeytown, Nevada's Comstock Lode, various locales in Colorado, etc. The lore of Western mining wealth is alluring.
I've been asked, by a writer honorably trolling for quotes, what I think Harry Oliver's legacy is. Much of his work, professional and otherwise, was related to manufacturing such Western lore. Harry was one of the myth-makers, a fabricator and embellisher of legends that informed America's and the world's vision a couple generations ago, a purveyor of the Hollywood version of the Old West.
When most of us whose imaginations have been captured by Oliveriana visualize his work, we see his old adobe forts, his woodcuts and profiles of western characters, those precious Desert Rat Scrap Book issues we handle more-or-less reverently; and maybe we see his set designs and decorations for films like Viva Villa! and the Gold Gulch village. (Did that funny mining camp built for the 1936 World's Fair in San Diego influence the look of Ghost Town theme parks like Knotts and Calico, Virginia City, etc.? I don't know.) We think of Harry's promotions of ghosts and ghost towns, deserts and desert rats, a humorous glorification of a Gabby Hayes caricature of the desert southwest. This here Desert Rat Show is Paint Your Wagon moved south, to be deconstructed later into Blazing Saddles.
But this pseudo-Western legacy, which at least bears Harry Oliver's name, may be overshadowed by other, more anonymous work that's writ large upon the world. Regular visits to Knotts Ghost Town (and its Print Shop which always featured Desert Rat Scrap Books) were rarer in my Los Angeles suburban childhood, circa 1950s and 1960s, than the daily bakery wagon. Weekday mornings, down our tract-house street, came the Van De Kamps bakery van making home deliveries. Van De Kamps bakery stores dotted the landscape, at least in greater Los Angeles, and beyond, sporting a distinctive Dutch windmill. Harry Oliver designed that windmill. Those bakeries are mostly gone now but the windmill motif still remains.
Maybe a greater legacy lies in his cinematic work. Harry Oliver was nominated for the very first Academy Awards in set design, 1928 and 1929. But he started in Hollywood in the early 'teens; his work in that decade is cited as being a great influence on the German Expressionists. So maybe Harry's greatest, most widespread legacy lies in the look derived from Cabinet of Doctor Caligari and Nosferatu, seen in his own design of Mark of the Vampire. Yeah, Harry Oliver, master of darkness and mood.
I'm not the person to evaluate Harry's cinema work. I haven't seen enough of it and I'm certainly no film critic. But if we can judge a legacy by numbers, it's obvious that Harry's fine Old West work has been seen by hundreds of thousands while his commercial and cinema work has informed the visions of untold millions (who never saw his name). And which legacy is more exciting, more lasting? Decide for yourself.
And what's left now of Harry Oliver? A few shadowy mentions on the Internet, including sparse listings in some standard databases. A street bearing his name in his adopted hometown of 1000 Palms, California — hey, most set designers and self-published authors don't get their own street! A few old films with his name buried deep in the credits. Clippings in some news archives and library files. Some thousands of extant copies of his papers and books, with a possibility of some limited re-publication. A thin but devoted following. A pile of rocks at the PegLeg Smith monument in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California. Maybe a certain ambience that permeates Ghost Town theme parks around the West. Maybe a few carved wooden peglegs scattered around the desert wastes of the Coachella Valley and Salton Sink.
And then there are the memories of those us who felt our hearts pound and our imaginations soar whenever we chanced upon another issue of the Desert Rat Scrap Book, "America's only five-page newspaper and the only one you can open in the wind -- price just one lousy dime -- this offer expires when I do."
— 31 August 2005
While camping on Lake Laberge's infamous shores, I've been reading critical essays on semantics and on deconstructing Western history. Make that, "histories and media portrayals of the Conquest of the Americas and the West," the many viewpoints and motives and accounts that follow from Columbus to this day. These tales are often lies, deceits, misrepresentations, rewritten and reinterpreted many times. Each lie is a barrier between what was then, and what is now, and what may be.
Some deceits are unavoidable, partly because we see what we expect and want to see; and we have trouble seeing that which we haven't labeled; and once we label something, we have trouble seeing what else it may be, and what's beyond it. Other deceits are deliberate, for gain or to mask or assuage guilt or loss: the ommission or twisting of bothersome details; the fabrication of actions and motives and words; rationalizations, excuses, prejudices.
Is there an objective chronicle, a fixed base from which we can honestly look at the past and present and perform a truthful rewrite? If so, who selects that base? Or do we just accept that all histories are false and unfixable and urforgiveable, and pay more attention to the ways we tell our lies, the ways we see and depict ourselves and others? If so, who tells us which lies we can and will tell and how to tell them? And what matters? And who forgives?
I don't see Harry Oliver as playing a negative role in misrepresenting the Old West, any more than Mel Brooks (Blazing Saddles) or Tex Avery (Coyote and Roadrunner) or any other satirist or cartoonist. Light popular entertainments rarely dwell on the details and negatives of history — pre-Conquest peoples of the Americas wiped out most large animals in this hemisphere, enslaved and devoured each other, occasionally built oppressive empires, etc., all without outside help; but that reality usually doesn't seem funny, doesn't make for a good show.
Light popular entertainments DO all too often employ racial-social stereotypes, probably serving mostly as a shorthand. Cartoon blacks and Indians and orientals, etc., are much easier and faster to draw and recognize than "real" people, and serve primarily as backdrops and foils to the action.
Harry Oliver depicted a cartoon West, pointedly WITHOUT the demeaning stereotypes of Indians and Mexicans that were prevalent in his era. Harry was NOT an historian, nor a propagandist, nor a PR/marketing hack. He was an entertainer, an author, and illustrator of light entertainments — light-hearted, easy to consume shows that often poked careful fun at the prospectors and pioneers and pilgrims who made their way onto the Western scene circa 1850-1950. That these protagonists were displacing the aboriginal inhabitants was a detail he didn't dwell on but which didn't go unnoticed. Harry's most-cited quote is:
"I don't blame our Indians for being discouraged. They are the only ones to be conquered by the United States and not come out ahead."
So, what legacy falls to Harry Oliver? He knew he was a deceiver, a jokester, a "mirage salesman." He collected and created lies, lore, and legends of the Southwest, and he spread them around so as to keep an audience smiling and engrossed. He illuminated a frame of the American experience. He was a storyteller. We won't forget him.
— 1 September 2005
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