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Film / Wild and Woolly

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Wild and Woolly is a 1917 directed by John Emerson, starring Douglas Fairbanks.

Jeff Hillington (Fairbanks) is the son of a rich New York railroad magnate. Jeff is a grown man (his age is not mentioned but Fairbanks was 34) who has a childlike obsession with The Wild West. He has his fancy apartment rigged up like a wild west scene, complete with tipi. He rides around Central Park on horseback, dressed as a cowboy. He lassos his butler.

Jeff's father has no idea what to do with his wastrel son, but fate intervenes when the citizens of Bitter Spurs, Arizona, approach Mr. Hillington about a railroad spur that they would like to be built to facilitate development in their town. Mr. Hillington, eager to give his son a taste of the West and eager to get him out of the office, sends Jeff out to Arizona to scout out the deal.

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Bitter Spurs is as modern as any other American small town in 1917. However, when the locals find out about the rich New York goofball, they elect to dress themselves up as a Wild West town, putting on old-timey clothes, changing the signage, and staging a fake shootout and a fake train robbery to keep Jeff entertained. Nell, the hotel owner's pretty young daughter, participates in the setup but starts to fall for Jeff for real.

Meanwhile, Steve Shelby, the corrupt Indian agent, learns that the government is coming to examine his books. Faced with the need to get out of town, evil Steve comes up with an idea: use the fake train robbery as the perfect pretext to make a real train robbery.


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Tropes:

  • Becoming the Mask: Jeff, a Cosplay Wild West hero, becomes one for real when Steve robs the train and kidnaps Nell. He also matures, realizing how silly he has been.
  • Blasting It Out of Their Hands: The townspeople fake this for Jeff, the rube.
  • Bullet Dancing: Jeff, who really is quite the Jerkass at the beginning, has a real gun with live ammo and makes his butler do the bullet dance. Later, the good folks of Bitter Spurs fake bullet dancing as part of the charade for Jeff.
  • Chekhov's Skill: He may be a complete jerkass to his valet but all his silly roleplaying does in fact prove that Jeff has become quite good at riding a horse, firing a gun, and lassoing people. All those skills prove handy when the pretend Wild West show becomes real.
  • Door Fu: Jeff, unable to reach his room on the second floor of the saloon due to the Indians laying siege outside, literally kicks a hole in the ceiling and hoists himself up. He later baits the Indians into trying to break down his door. After a bit he simply opens it up and they all go charging in—and fall right through the hole back down to the saloon on the first floor.
  • High-Class Glass: The rich New York man who laughs at Jeff galloping around Central Park ("Isn't he a nut?") wears a monocle.
  • Indecisive Parody: This film shows that even by 1917 the elements of the Western were so cliche that they were ripe for parody, as tropes like Bullet Dancing and Blasting It Out of Their Hands and Train Job are lampooned. But then in the last act everything is played perfectly straight, as Jeff rides to the rescue, catching the bad guy, rescuing the Love Interest, and even raising a Posse to capture the Indians.
  • Manchild: Jeff starts off as an unfortunate mix of immature child and spoiled aristocrat, making his butler bullet dance, living in a tipi in his room like a small boy might build a fort, and riding around Central Park pretending to be a cowboy.
  • New Old West: A modern-day 1917 small town that the local citizens dress up to look like a Wild West town. However, there are still Indians that can be used by the bad guy, and there are still trains that can be robbed.
  • Oh, Crap!:
    • When Jeff reacts to a "villain" pretending to molest Nell by pulling out his very real gun and shooting, the townsfolk are horrified. They quickly manage to replace Jeff's bullets with blanks.
    • This happens again when the Indians outside the saloon start shooting out the windows and the people inside realize that they are being fired on with live ammo.
  • Off-into-the-Distance Ending: A title card right at the end wonders how Jeff and Nell will get together since he's a New York aristocrat and she's an Arizona country girl. Then the last scene shows Jeff and Nell, married, living in an ornate mansion with liveried servants. The servants open the door to reveal that the mansion is right smack in the middle of the desert. Jeff and Nell hop on their horses and ride away as the film ends.
  • Stealing from the Till: Steve Shelby, the Indian agent in Bitter Spurs, has been embezzling from supplies. (This was Truth in Television, as the early Bureau of Indian Affairs was rife with corruption.) When he finds out that he's about to be exposed, he hits on the idea of using the pageant the town is putting on for Jeff to rob the train for real.
  • The Theme Park Version: What the people of Bitter Spurs put on for a gullible Jeff, namely, a stereotypical version of the Wild West, complete with shootouts, train robberies, a beautiful damsel, and a gang of bandits ("Wild Bill and his Dirty Ditch outfit").
  • Title Drop: Jeff's weekend excursion to the park and to the wild west movies at the theater are introduced with the title card "Only on Sundays is Jeff's imagination free to turn New York into the Wild and Woolly."
  • Train Job: The climax of Jeff's Wild West adventure is supposed to be a train robbery that Jeff will foil. But things turn deadly serious when Steve Shelby and "his Indians" rob the train for real and hold the town hostage.
  • You No Take Candle: The film gets super-racist in the last 15 minutes or so when the Indians under Steve's employ ride in and start shooting up the town. They say stuff like "Heap fine white squaw for big chief." In 1917.
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