|Walter Brennan and Gary Cooper in “The Westerner”
We celebrated the life and work of actor Walter Brennan this weekend at the Josephy Center. Grandpa McCoy of TV’s “Real McCoys” bought a ranch in Wallowa County in 1940, long before he played on television, but well into an acting career that stretched from the silents to “Rio Bravo,” “The Westerner” to “The Over the Hill Gang.” Brennan was a political conservative who admired the Actors Guild, and a WW I vet who’d suffered mustard gas (and said later that if offered the chance to volunteer again he would decline). He built and owned a motel and movie theater in Joseph, was in on the founding of a rodeo named Chief Joseph Days, and walked Main Street, ate at the Gold Room, and in general saw himself as another resident of Wallowa County.
Some local wags have it that he came to Wallowa County as a friend of silent film star Eugene Pallette, a notorious right winger who feared apocalypse and built a heavily armed and provisioned retreat far up the Imnaha River. Pallette, it is said, planned to blow the Imnaha Canyon shut if the bad guys—communists, Asians, whoever—came to get him.
In contrast, Brennan bought a working ranch, and worked it. He moved here because son Mike’s North Hollywood agriculture teacher (yes, Hollywood had ag teachers and the Brennans had chickens in the yard) had taught in Enterprise, and when Walter said he was looking for a ranch and thinking about Jackson Hole, the teacher steered him to Wallowa County.
Son Mike carried on the ranching and farming, and grandchildren and great grandchildren still live and work here. A gaggle of heirs—some of them coming from California for the event, joined biographer Carl Rollyson and actor Kevin Cahill for our three-day celebration, which included watching “The Westerner” and a one-man play of the “Old Character,” crafted by Rollyson from Brennan’s own words and played by La Grande teacher and actor Kevin Cahill.
What did we learn? That Brennan started in New England, didn’t much like school, worked hard at many things, volunteered for service in WW I, where he saw heavy action, was gassed, and from which he later suffered from what we now call PTSD. After the War he worked for a time in a bank, which he hated, and married Ruth, a local sweetheart, quit the bank, and headed West. In California, Brennan made a fortune in real estate—then lost it. He had done some acting in the East, and in California found work as a stuntman and extra, finally finding speaking roles in “Barbary Coast” and “Fury,” and soon winning three Oscars for best supporting actor. He is thought of as the quintessential character actor, a man who worked at his craft, his accents and his appearance (“do you want me with teeth or without,” he would ask directors). In all, Brennan appeared in over 200 motion pictures and scores of TV shows.
Why did he buy a ranch? “Doesn’t everybody want to be a cowboy?”
And here he could be a kind of cowboy, shoot squirrels, eat lunch, and promote Chief Joseph Days with cowboy neighbors. I suspect that some of Walter’s Wallowa County friends shared his right wing political views, but when he was here being a local attending to local things seemed more important. It’s also worth noting that he named his motel The Indian Lodge to honor, he said, Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce Indians who were wrongly kicked out of the Wallowas.
I guess for white folks the West has always been a place to create and recreate the self. And movies have been vehicles to review history and human story—and to explore the issues of the day.
Or, as writer friend Molly Gloss would say, of telling and retelling the same story—stranger comes to town to resolve some kind of dispute and save the schoolmarm or barroom floozy.
But the nature of the disputes is interesting. We watched “The Westerner,” in which Brennan plays Hanging Judge Roy Bean and Gary Cooper is the stranger who comes to town to resolve the dispute between cattlemen and sodbusters and ends up with the sodbuster’s daughter. What an interesting reminder that all of agriculture was not—and is not today—on the same side of an issue.
My thought is that, in time, Walter Brennan realized that sodbusters and cattlemen were all operating on land that had been lived on and with by Indians for millennia. “The Westerner” did not address the issue—not an Indian to be seen in that version of post Civil War Texas. It was years before “Little Big Man” and “Dances With Wolves” took Indians seriously…
but decades after Walter Brennan had become a Westerner, found the Wallowa Country, and named his motel The Indian Lodge.
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