Wednesday, October 23, 2019

This Day in Literary History (Zane Grey, Prolific Creator of Westerns, Dies)

Oct. 23, 1939— Zane Grey, a bored dentist who took up writing and quickly became synonymous with Westerns that became omnipresent in bookstores, movie theaters and TV sets, died at age 67 of heart failure in California.

Graham Greene invoked, with considerable irony, the influence of Grey on contemporary literature in his screenplay for The Third Man. In a moment of comic relief in the novelist’s dark vision of postwar Vienna, author Holly Martins, a woebegone generator of pulp fiction, stumbles when he finds himself in an unexpected exchange with a questioner at a lecture in the city:

MAN: “What author has chiefly influenced you most?”

MARTINS: “Grey.”

WOMAN: “Grey?  What Grey?”

MARTINS: “Zane Grey.”

The English moderator at the lecture then steps in:

CRABBIN: “Oh, that is Mr. Martins' little joke, of course.  We all know perfectly well that Zane Grey wrote what we call Westerns—cowboys and bandits.”

In other words: Grey wrote genre fiction—hardly to be taken seriously.

Grey never was acclaimed as a stylist, but millions of readers regarded him as a top-notch storyteller. And scholars of popular culture should take him very seriously indeed as someone who achieved considerable commercial success.

To be sure, Grey was not the inventor of the Western (John Jakes, in his introduction to Great Tales of the West, credits two Eastern authors, James Fenimore Cooper and William Gilmore Simms, as the “grandfathers” of the genre).

But, through relentless self-disciplined and travel to many locales, Grey put out, in roughly three decades, book after book—60 westerns alone—that readers snatched up eagerly: titles such as Last of the Plainsmen, Heritage of the Desert, West of the Pecos, and his most successful work, Riders of the Purple Sage.

Gifted with unquenchable energy, Grey soon transplanted the genre to a medium where the wide-open spaces celebrated in this literature could be enjoyed in nearly literal form: the motion picture.

Far earlier than other authors such as crime novelist Joseph Wambaugh, Grey recognized the importance of this medium and sought to control the product. In 1920 he even formed his own production company, Zane Grey Pictures Inc. When Jesse Lasky bought the firm several years later, the unit would comprise the core of westerns made under the aegis of Lasky’s company, Paramount Pictures.

According to John Milton Hagen’s Holly-Would!, at one time, every one of Grey’s books had been adapted for the screen. I am unable to prove or disprove that assertion. But the entry on Grey in the Internet Movie Database lists 117 story credits for him.

Among the actors who appeared in films based on his work were such luminaries as John Wayne, George Montgomery, Tim Holt, Randolph Scott, Buster Crabbe, George O'Brien, Tom Mix, Roy Rogers, Barbara Stanwyck, and Richard Dix.

As another medium—television—searched for new content in the 1950s, the work of Grey resurfaced through the efforts of a longtime admirer, Dick Powell. In 1956, the veteran actor-director launched the first anthology series devoted entirely to westerns, Zane Grey Theatre

Its half-hour format eventually limited Powell’s initial determination to adapt all of Grey’s novels. But by the end of its run of more than 100 episodes in five seasons, it aired pilot episodes for such western series as Trackdown, Black Saddle, The Westerner, Johnny Ringo, and most famously, Chuck Connor’s long-running The Rifleman. And one of the writers on its staff, Aaron Spelling,  became one of the most successful producers in TV history.

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