Critics in 1905 and 1906 liked one thing and one thing only about The Spoilers; it was manly. Nobody foresaw Rex Beach's great literary career from the get go, because what he was writing was not considered great literature. Not even close. What it
was considered was great adventure, a la Jack London. Using his first hand experience in the Yukon and the imagination of a romantic soul, he produced an adventure peppered with a manly amount of mush, just right for a macho public desiring adventure. I
deal for the movies.
Which is exactly what it became. Again and again and again and again. And again. And Rex Beach became a man of, for and about the movies as well. His fiction continued to turn into motion pictures, and he became more and more involved in each one.
Beach's connection to the West and his taste for the cinematic experience brought great success for him in an era of rebirth, rebuilding, expansion and new wealth.
Westward expansion, the ultimate romantic notion within the American dream, was coming to a close, but Alaska was still an unsullied frontier. The motion picture was just beginning, and the "talkie" had yet to happen when The Spoilers was published, so
the two frontiers presented quite a new world of communication, entertainment and adventure, and it all landed in Rex Beach's lap.
Between 1877 and 1892, a few men who saw themselves as nation-builders
managed to accumulate huge fortunes. Andrew Carnegie (steel), John D. Rockefeller
(oil), Charles Pillsbury (flour), Andrew Mellon (banking), Phillip Armour
(meatpacking), Gustavus Swift (meatpacking), J. P. Morgan (banking), Cornelius
Vanderbilt (railroads), Marcus Daly (copper), John Jacob Astor and James Duke
(tobacco) were only a few of them. Duke found and used a new cigarette-rolling
machine that could turn out 100,000 cigarettes a day. Duke also put together the
American Tobacco Company by combining the four largest cigarette
companies. These men saw expansion to the West as an economic opportunity
requiring a combination of rail transportation using free land, raw materials, cheap
labor, new technology. The first transcontinental telegraph line was completed in
1861, and a huge, expanding market of consumers for everything manufactured
flourished in the new West. In the period from 1860 to 1914, the foundation for a consumption-based economy was built.
By 1896, Alaska had been acquired by purchase from Russia in 1867 for $7 million in
gold. At the time, William Seward was Secretary of State in the Grant
Administration. (The Alaska Purchase was known by skeptical observers as
"Seward's Folly.") Both Hawaii and Alaska were territories and did not become
States until the 1950s.
Before entering World War I in 1917, it seems appropriate to mention a film that
so revised and perverted history that it deserves comment. The power even then --
1914 -- of Hollywood's foray into historical filming was a product so dreadfully
racist it stands as a monument to falsity. The film, The Birth of a Nation, was based
on a novel by Thomas Dixon. Jr., The Clansmen. Produced by D. W. Griffith, The
Birth of a Nation was seen by some two hundred million people between 1915 and
1946 in the United States and overseas, where it scored particularly impressive
triumphs in Germany and South Africa.
The America of the 1920s was not scarred by the Great War that ended for
Americans on November 11, 1918. The return of its soldiers was welcomed by a
paper-strewn parade up Fifth Avenue. The Jazz Age was off and running, even
before the war ended. The 1920s was also a period of prolific new writers who had
"experienced" war and could do so with a new dimension. There were publishers
who saw the potential and opened for business. Simon & Schuster opened their
doors in 1923, but its first product was not really a book, but the first Cross Word
Puzzle Book in 1924. Its sales plus the sales of dictionaries geared to the puzzle put
Simon & Schuster in the black quickly. Charles Scribner & Company was one of the
post-Civil War publishers and G. P. Putnam was one of the pioneers.
American publishers opened offices in London, and British publishers followed
suit but for different reasons. The Americans were in London to find European
authors, while UK publishers like the Oxford University Press and Macmillans were
in New York for the business available and the profits to be made. After the Civil
War and the end of American expansion westward, people began reading even more
than ever, probably because of the growth of public libraries.
The 1920s, in spirit at least, began with the closing of the bloodiest conflict the world had ever witnessed. A tired country welcomed back her men at arms with open arms.
People also spent a good deal of their time at the movie theater and listening to the radio watching and listening to others do the things that they couldn't.
Film became one of the most important cultural and financial forces, and Rex Beach and his Spoilers were in the driver's seat for their own little corner of the whole market. Beach was the first American to retain movie rights to his fiction, and the or
iginal film of The Spoilers (the silent version), was one of the first American feature length films.
The Western had begun to leave an indelible mark on the world. Thanks to Hollywood, virtually everyone knows the ingredients of the Western--the lassos and the Colt .45s; the long-horned steers and the hanging trees; the stagecoaches and the Stetson hats
; the outlaws and the lawmen; the gamblers and the gunfighters. Rex Beach took the moviegoer even further west, and with this promise, extended the American mind to be able to grasp onto a much-needed frontier.
The Western may be the perfect vehicle for silent narrative film, since it values action over language. The Western hero is the possessor of physical strength, stamina, and an innate sense of the right thing to do; he rejects eloquence, refinement, and s
uperior intelligence as standards of measure. In the early twentieth century, he holds special appeal for audiences because he functions as the antithesis of Eastern, industrialized culture. In an era of assembly-line and factory labor, especially for the
working-class citizens who made up a majority of early audiences, the Western hero returned a sense of purpose to labor, and added to labor's appeal through a new setting and a sense of excitement.
The Western hero is serious not only in his labor, but also in his outlook. Although the cowboy was present in silent Westerns as early as 1904, most of the early films featured Indians and trappers as heroes. The cowboy's screen image, in the beginning
a product of popular Eastern myths about the West, came to embody those myths while also blurring the distinction between "film West" and "real West" in the casting practices of the Hollywood studios. This blurring of history and myth occurred in the por
trayal of other Western types as well.
Beach took life for what it was, and for him it was very successful. He all but gave up novels and their film counterparts in the last 20 years of his life, turning to gardening as a more common pastime. He was a very rich gardener, though. Rex Beach
was able to frolic among the flowers for the end of his life, because he had spent the earlier part of it working hard at the unique task of subtly capturing the nation's hearts.
Garraty, John A. and Mark C. Carnes, eds. American National Biography, (New York : Oxford University Press, 1999), 388-389.
Brinton, William N. An Abridged History of the United States, Available from:
http://www.us-history.com/the_frame.html. Accessed May 1999.
Library of Congress. Edison's Timeline for Inventing Entertainment, Available from :
http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/edhtml/edtime.html Accessed May 1999.