The Various Versions of “The Virginian”

Original 1902 edition

July 14 is the birthday of author Owen Wister (1860-1938). Some credit Wister with giving birth to the western fiction literary genre with his 1902 novel The Virginian. I find the distinction to be somewhat nice; there had been western dime novels, autobiographies and non-fiction on the subject for decades prior to this. And what about the writing of Bret Harte, for example? For me, it is enough to say that The Virginian a landmark in the western genre, much emulated, and (I guess this is the point), a template for a certain formula that has been replicated thousands of times. Stop me if you’ve heard it: the hero, a man of strong morals and character, has several escalating encounters with an antagonist, finally dispatching him in an unavoidable shoot-out. In the secondary plot, he courts a civilized woman from back east, who eventually consents to marry him. This is th UR-plot of most westerns, you’ll agree. The Virginian codified it.

Wister was the grandson of the actress and author Fanny Kemble, and the son of a rich Philadelphia physician. He graduated Harvard law, and briefly practiced, although early success as an author (a well-received parody of The Swiss Family Robinson) allowed him to pursue his literary calling. Like his good friend Teddy Roosevelt, Wister was drawn to the far west and spent a good deal of time there, partaking of its culture and its landscape, recording its stories. The Virginian remains his best remembered book by far. In addition to several other novels, he also wrote biographies of Ulysses S. Grant, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Benjamin Franklin, and George Washington, and other non-fiction, often on western topics (there’s one on bison and bighorn sheep, for example).

As for The Virginian, here’s the crux of the story, with a little more shading. The titular (unnamed) character is a native of the state of Virginia who goes west to Wyoming and takes a job on a big cattle ranch owned by a wealthy Judge, eventually becoming foreman. The Virginian has courtly southern manners and a strong moral code, but is also taciturn and quiet, and his colleagues and acquaintances often tease him for being inclined to say so little. (This became a major western trope — the example that immediately springs to mind is Henry Fonda’s take on Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine.) The villain is one “Trampas”, a gambling, hard-drinking man of low character who is provoked by the Virginian’s obvious virtues and longs to take him down several pegs. The Virginian’s love interest in the story is the local schoolmistress, who hails from Vermont. And the Virginian’s best friend is a jovial, jolly guy named Steve. It couldn’t be much simpler. But it’s important to note that the book is proper literature, or close to it. Wister is an actual writer, and time spent with the book yields genuine rewards. It’s not, as some might suspect, pulp.

As happens with classics, The Virginian was adapted for stage and screen many times. As we are wont to do, today we thought we’d present a brief survey of them. The most astounding thing to contemplate about the many versions? Perversely, Randolph Scottwho actually WAS a Virginian, never starred as that character in an adaptation of the novel. It seems pretty crazy to me. Who, more than he was born to play it? But in a certain sense you could say that Scott’s entire body of work as a western actor was an adaptation of The Virginian. Now for the dramatized versions:

BROADWAY (1904-05)

Wister collaborated with Kirke La Shelle on the script for the first stage adaptation, which ran on Broadway from January to May 1904, and then again in October, 1905. Dustin Farnum played the titular cowpoke, a role he was to reprise onscreen a decade later, and which also paved the way for his starring part in the similar The Squaw Man. A later, touring production of the play in 1907 starred William S. Hart, which also set him on the trail to westerns.

FIRST SILENT VERSION (1914)

Cecil B. DeMille directed the first screen version of The Virginian, as an appropriate follow-up to his similarly western-themed The Squaw Man and The Call of the North, all 1914. Once again it starred Dustin Farnum. This silent screen version was 50 minutes long, which was then considered a feature. It was, in fact, one of the first Hollywood features. At this writing it is available to watch on Youtube.

SECOND SILENT VERSION (1923)

In the 1920s, when Hollywood had begun to get movie-making down to a science, it was common to-remake films that had been produced just a short-time earlier, when techniques were much cruder. The original The Virginian had been produced during the dawn of features; the impulse to remake it was natural. B.P. Schulberg produced this one, starring Kenneth Harlan and Florence Vidor. 

FIRST TALKIE VERSION (1929)

Despite the existence of a future remake this version, directed by Victor Fleming, is generally considered the classic big screen Hollywood version, despite being somewhat experimental in its techniques. It was Gary Cooper‘s first western and first talkie, which gives it a kind of iconic status. Cooper not only speaks the immortal lines “Yep” and “Nope”, but the most famous of all: “When you call me that…smile!”, which has somehow gotten mangled in the popular idiom to “Smile when you say that”, the ultimate western taunt. Cooper was actually from Wyoming, which makes it amusing that this was the first time Hollywood thought to employ him in a western. BTW, ironically he was coached in his Virginia accent by none other than the aforementioned…Randolph Scott! Walter Huston makes for a charming Trampas, always slapping guys on the back and buying them drinks with a big smile on his face, trying to get them to join his gang. The cast also includes Mary Brian, Chester Conklin, Eugene Pallette, Helen Ware, and George Chandler.

RADIO VERSION (1936) 

Lux Radio Theatre was a terrific show that specialized in adapting popular movies for radio listeners, in a time when there was no such thing as television, let alone home video. Cooper reprised his role as the Virginian, aided by Charles Bickford and others. It was directed by Helen Mack! Listen to it here. 

LAST BIG SCREEN VERSION (1946)

A solid Technicolor remake of the perennial classic with Joel McCrea in the title role gamely stepping into Gary Cooper very large boots and doing a mighty good job of it. While it’s gotten lost in the shuffle, it’s probably the definitive version in terms of quality and story-telling structure: recall that the Cooper version was made at the dawn of talkies. Brian Donlevy is well cast as Trampas, with Sonny Tufts, Fay Bainter, William Frawley and Barbara Britton also in the cast.

THE TV SHOW (1962-1971)

Naturally most Americans of a certain age know THIS version best, as it was on television screens for nearly a decade. And now, a personal connection to the material. As if my actual name (Travis) weren’t cracker enough, a family friend nicknamed me “Trampas”, called me that throughout my childhood. It took me years to connect it with The Virginian, and surely it was the tv show version he was referring to. Doug McClure played Trampas on the show. James Drury played the titular character. Lee J. Cobb played the Judge for the first four seasons. Drury has a dedicated website! Check it out here.

TV MOVIE (2000)

Clearly the reason for the existence of this lackluster made-for-TV movie version was someone going, “Ya know what? No one’s made a new version of The Virginian for over 30 years!” But nothing beyond creating an inoffensive entertainment went into the justifying of the effort — that is nothing beyond, well, a terrific cast: Bill Pullman, Diane Lane, John Savage, Harris Yulin, and Dennis Weaver, with the original TV Virginian James Drury in a cameo.

STRAIGHT TO VIDEO (2014)

Ron Perlman (Hellboy, Sons of Anarchy) plays the Judge in this one, overshadowing (even on the poster, ouch!) country singer Trace Adkins, who plays the title character. It’s a very low-budget affair.

****

Now, a little straight shooting. You’ll note that, despite its status as a classic, the last big screen version of The Virginian was over 70 years ago and the tale has somewhat lost steam since the regular TV series ended nearly 50 years ago. My theory as to why is that, as the founding story of the genre, it is now too simple to effectively remake. For over a century folks have been working variations on it. Now we have come to require those variations in the basic western tale, whatever they be. We need them like chilli needs hot sauce. My instinct is — and western fans may hate me for this — the next version ought to be an opera! Simple tales like this lend themselves perfectly to opera, and there’s even a precedent for it. David Belasco’s The Girl of the Golden West was made into an opera by Puccini. And anyway, western fans needn’t hate on it. Make it a country music opera — there’s plenty of precedent for that, too. Hell, if no else writes it, I will! The Virginian is in the public domain now, I do believe. Yep!