History Features

Wyatt Earp’s First Film

William S. Hart’s Wild Bill Hickok

wyatt-earp-western-cinema

It was quite natural for Wyatt Earp to gravitate to Gower Gulch, the intersection of Sunset Boulevard and Gower Street in Hollywood, where unemployed Southwestern cowboys gathered daily in search of work in the new moving picture industry. Many old pals from his Arizona, Nevada and Alaska days were there. They would swap tales, warmly recalling the dead past as old men so often do.

They also took note of the growing popular interest in all things Western, for as the generation that had tamed the West began to fade away, the public could not get enough of their adventures—both real and imagined. The movies offered hope for one final payday for old men desperate to support themselves in their waning years. Buffalo Bill Cody, Charlie Siringo, Emmett Dalton, Henry Starr and Bill Tilghman all tried their hand at the newfangled moving pictures. Earp, always on the lookout for the main chance, saw Gower Gulch as one last boomtown.

Earp met several important Hollywood players, for stories of his Western adventures had circulated throughout the new film community. Directors Alan Dwan, John Ford and Raoul Walsh all sought him out.

Ford, who knew how to spin a tall tale with the best of them, claimed a warm Earp friendship. “I knew Wyatt Earp,” he told film historian and director Peter Bogdanovich in 1967. “In the very early silent days, a couple of times a year, he would come up to visit pals, cowboys he knew in Tombstone; a lot of them were in my company. I think I was an assistant prop boy then and I used to give him a chair and a cup of coffee, and he told me about the fight at the O.K. Corral. So in My Darling Clementine, we did it exactly the way it had been.”

Of course, historical accuracy is not among the many virtues of Ford’s transcendent 1946 version of the Tombstone saga. So either Earp or Ford, or both, could not get the story straight.

Earp’s closest friends in Hollywood were William S. Hart and Tom Mix, the two leading Western stars of the silent era.  Earp had hopes of having his Western exploits, or his version of them, brought to the screen. He had been stung by several books and articles that had cast him and his Arizona adventures in a bad light. Hart had written the editor of...

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