"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Thursday, August 3, 2017

I Married Wyatt Earp (NBC TV, 1983)

Sadie tells it from her side

Even when Wyatt Earp was alive there were very partisan views on him and the Earp clan. In Tombstone, the ‘Cowboy’ faction, supported by County Sheriff John Behan, the Democrats and The Nugget newspaper, did all they could to undermine and indeed slander and libel the Earps, who, they thought, were the very devil. Others, the Republican law-and-order party, supported by The Epitaph, on the contrary, saw the Cowboys as nothing but violent, criminal, backward trash and the Earps as the pioneers of progress.
Wyatt Earp in old age. Great car.
After Wyatt died in 1929, the debate went on unabated. It even amplified. Pro-Wyatt accounts, super-fueled by Stuart N Lake’s best-selling hagiographical and sensational Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal (1931) and rapidly taken up by Hollywood, largely ruled the day but the other side fought back hard: while Lake was working on his book but before it was published, Billy Breakenridge, Behan’s deputy in Tombstone, brought out his version of events in an autobiography, Helldorado, Bringing Law to the Mesquite (1928), ghosted by a skilled professional writer, WM Raine. This of course painted a far from heroic portrait of Wyatt Earp and told the story from the Behan/Democrat/Cowboy angle.
Rival accounts
In 1941, Eugene Cunningham’s classic work about the gunfighters of the West, Triggernometry, came out. It relied on the Breakenridge story and was far from flattering about Wyatt Earp. And Allie, Virgil’s widow, had started talking to a young writer, Frank Waters. Allie disliked Wyatt and detested his wife Sadie ("a strumpet"), and wanted to give much greater prominence to her beloved Virgil. Waters lodged his manuscript with the Arizona Pioneers’ Historical Society but it was not published till 1960 when all Earps of Wyatt’s generation were dead but Wyatt was all the rage thanks to ABC’s The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp (more legend than life) which was a huge hit on TV. Waters’s book comes across as almost obsessively anti-Wyatt. The writer had evidently swallowed the Cowboy/Nugget/Behan line as unquestioningly as those who made Wyatt a spotless TV hero.

In 1945 the heroic Earp myth had been reinforced by John Ford in My Darling Clementine, an historically very bad film but an artistically great one, and the John Sturges-directed Gunfight at the OK Corral in the late 1950s underlined this reading of events. The pendulum swung from side to side.

Revisionist Westerns of the 1970s reverted to anti-Earp sentiment. In Doc (1971), Wyatt Earp (Harris Yulin) was a corrupt and vicious politician.

Sorry about all this historical and bibliographical background (though if it interests you, try my post on Wyatt Earp in Fact and Fiction) but it was in this climate that in 1976 a book came out entitled I Married Wyatt Earp: The Recollections of Josephine Sarah Marcus Earp, Collected and Edited by Glenn G Boyer (University of Arizona Press).  In 1983 Osmond Productions took this book, with a screenplay by IP Rapoport (only this and & 1988 TV Western to his credit) and made a TV movie screened on NBC.
The whole book is dubious, to say the least. Mr. Boyer has written a lot on Wyatt Earp but this effort seems to have dodgy credentials. Did he really interview Mrs. Earp at length and get a verbatim account? He may have done. Certainly the TV movie is a very pro-Mrs. Earp tract.

Now, I Married Wyatt Earp is a made-for-TV movie, with all that that implies – too many climaxes of the action followed by fades-to-black, for one thing. Furthermore it stars Marie Osmond, Donny’s sister, as Sarah Marcus (or Josie, as she is referred to throughout; in fact Josie was a name she adopted later in life and preferred. At the time she was universally known as Sadie). Ms. Osmond was a very amateur actress and not even a good singer – at least, she may have been good at 1970s pop songs, I wouldn’t know, but she certainly couldn’t handle Gilbert & Sullivan or other Victorian music in the movie. Still, she has a brave stab at it.
They tried
Sadie/Josie introduces the story in 1942, sitting before Wyatt’s tombstone in Los Angeles and tells us that so many false stories have been told about Wyatt (which was indeed the case) that she will now reveal (cue for flashback) the truth. But either her memory was seriously faulty – and we could forgive an elderly lady that – or she was plain untruthful, which I fear is the more likely. For the heavily (and perhaps understandably) partial account she proceeds to give is almost as much historical hokum as all the other cinematic versions and it contains misrepresentations of the facts (aka lies) in abundance.

Still, let us not discount this version. To be fair to it, it is closer to the facts than many other movie Earps. Several of the real occurrences are recounted and there are few really glaring perversions of history. Nothing like John Ford having Old Man Clanton and Doc Holliday killed at the OK Corral, for instance, as in My Darling Clementine. Events are telescoped (you have to in a 100-minute film) and key characters are omitted – there is no John Ringo, for example, or Curly Bill or Indian Charlie. And the ending is patently false – a complete fabrication – though whether this was Mrs. Earp’s faulty recollection, Mr. Boyer’s belief or the TV company’s commercial happy-ending preference is not made clear.

Bruce Boxleitner (from Tron) is Wyatt, and it must be said that the producers did try for an authentic look to the characters. Boxleitner’s Wyatt is vaguely blond, as he really was, though almost invariably portrayed in movies by dark-haired actors (faded photographs darkened the fair hair). Virgil (Ron Manning) is pudgy-faced as the photographs show him (I always thought Slim Pickens would have been a good Virgil). Doc Holliday (Jeffrey DeMunn) looks vaguely like the real one. Ike Clanton (Charles Benton) reasonably so. Mr. Boxleitner is a less charismatic actor than some previous Earps but like Ms. Osmond, he has a go.
Bruce is Wyatt
Of course straight away Wyatt is introduced as “Marshal Earp” and clearly shown as the marshal of Tombstone. Brother Virgil was marshal of Tombstone for a time but Wyatt never. In fact, though for a short period a deputy US marshal, Wyatt was never marshal of anywhere, not even Dodge, only constable, assistant marshal or deputy. But as in all Wyatt Earp pictures, he gives the orders, bossing Virgil and Morgan around. Sadie and Stuart Lake preferred him as principal.

The film opens with the traveling theater company arriving in Tombstone (nice saguaro scenery) with five singing girls (dont Marie) in a stage followed by a hack and a wagon. Of course they are held up, i.e. the famous robbery in which Bud Philpot is killed happens to them. Right. Earl W Smith, playing unshaven Frank Stilwell (Stillwell in the movie credits) tries to kiss Sadie and steals her ruby rings. The other girls panic but Sadie is cool and brave, natch. The Earps arrive in a posse, stay just long enough for a spark between Wyatt and Sadie, then depart in pursuit of the bandits. The girls arrive in Tombstone and immediately smarmy Sheriff Behan makes eyes at Sadie. But she rebuffs him.

In reality, of course, Sadie rapidly became the kept woman of Behan. She always denied this, or glossed over it anyway, and in later accounts, paper and celluloid (in old age she was invited onto the set of a couple of Earp movies as advisor) she always insisted that this part of the story be excised. In I Married Wyatt Earp, she abandons Behan right away, realizing he is a deceitful cad.
A sensational saucy photograph said to be of Sadie,
and used by Boyer on the cover of his book
Wyatt does not at first court her, however, for he is married. He is decent and long-suffering towards his wife Mattie, who, he tells Sadie, is “drunk, sick and dying” (no mention of addiction to laudanum). Mattie (Dee Maaske) is shown, bed-ridden and haggard, refusing Wyatt a divorce. In actual fact, former-prostitute Mattie was never married to Wyatt but was his common-law wife. When Wyatt and Sadie fall in love in the film, Mattie very conveniently dies. She did not, of course. Wyatt left her for Sadie and she returned to prostitution. All this history was too unsavory for Sadie (and maybe for 80s mainstream TV viewers) and is quietly changed.
More reliably id'd as Sadie
The Earps, and Wyatt in particular, are of course the good guys. This is understandable; it’s marketed as a Sadie/Josie-based account and is bound to be partial. Wyatt is tall, tough, polite, and honest. He is shown as part-owner of the Oriental saloon (in fact he had a quarter interest in the faro concession) but there is nothing disreputable about it. He engages Sadie as a singer there and of course she entrances the crowd (despite her shouty 70s-pop voice).

The Clantons are out-and-out baddies, cruel louts who drink and deserve what they get. They take guns from the hardware store (without paying!) and tell Sadie, who is in the store because she is staying with respectable owner Jacob Spiegler (Ross Martin) and his wife, that he and his gang will be waiting at the OK Corral. So it is Sadie who carries the message.
The real Wyatt
Then we get the classic and inevitable walk-down of the three Earps and Doc Holliday. But we also get brave Sadie with a Winchester in Fly’s photographic parlor covering unnamed Clantonites so that they cannot shoot the Earps from the window. Well, it could have happened, I suppose. Oh look, there goes a flying pig.

The gunfight is quite well staged, short and loud. After it there is no hearing or inquest. We move to Christmas when Wyatt gives Sadie a volume of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s love letters and she soppily quotes Browning at him. Just then, by the Christmas tree, both Virgil and Morgan are shot in the back by a shotgun blast through the window and Morgan dies instantly. This is how it really happened, remember. She said so.

Wyatt decides that all the Earps and Sadie will go to California with Morgan’s body so with a large armed escort his party drives out to Benson (not Tucson) to take the train. And this is where history is really abused big time.

The Earp party is shadowed by a Clanton posse (Ike had run away at the OK Corral fight – which is true) and just before the Benson station the Earp supporters ambush the Clantons and shoot them down. Meanwhile, Wyatt is getting his family onto the train. There is another blast through the window but this time Wyatt takes Doc’s sawn-off shotgun and shoots down both Stilwell and Ike Clanton. At this point Doc announces that their work (their revenge work, he must mean) is done so there is nothing to stop Wyatt going off with Sadie to California. Framing shot through the railroad car window of Wyatt and Sadie kissing, Fin.  

This really is a bit naughty. As Mrs. Earp had introduced the story by telling us that she would recount what really happened, and by no stretch of the imagination could this possibly have happened, we are left with the unsavory conclusion that the whole story, by Boyer, Josephine Earp or both, was a pack of lies.

The film was directed by Michael O’Herlihy who had done the Disney ‘Western’ Smith! Some of the acting verges on the adequate.

See it, once, as part of the Earp canon. It's available on YouTube, here. But don’t expect too much.




  1. Very interesting account, Jeff. I note you don't refer to John Sturges' 1967 film "HOUR OF THE GUN" which shows a much more shaded side to the Earps. Whether it is any more truthful, I am unsure.

    1. Hi Jerry
      I have reviewed Hour of the Gun (see http://jeffarnoldblog.blogspot.fr/2010/12/hour-of-gun-ua-1967.html). It contained one of the better Wyatt/Doc duos in the shape of James Garner and Jason Robards.
      However, the supporting actors are unmemorable and the picture lays itself open to attack by needlessly showing a block-capital introduction reading THIS PICTURE IS BASED ON FACT. THIS IS THE WAY IT HAPPENED. The movie may have been slightly more accurate than previous versions in a few respects but as it has some preposterous hokum about Wyatt and Doc going down to Nogales and having a showdown with Clanton, leaving him dead in the dust, it shouldn’t really have claimed so much. Nobody blames Western movies for a lack of veracity. Except when they claim veracity.
      That's what I think, anyway!