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My New Book!
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Tuesday, June 25, 2024

June 25, 2024: WesternStudying: Wild West Shows

[75 years ago this week, the first network TV Western, Hopalong Cassidy debuted. Few genres have been influential for longer or across more media, so this week I’ll AmericanStudy Hopalong and other Westerns—add your responses & analyses in the comments, pardner!]

On how a mega-popular medium can embody the worst and best of America at the same time (and in some of the same elements).

As part of this January post on origin points for Columbia Pictures (trust me, it makes sense in context), I noted that I’ve thought a good bit in recent years about how under-remembered Vaudeville is compared to its significant influence on 20th century American culture. At least part of the reason for that gap, it seems to me, is that it can be difficult to remember older cultural forms that were based on live performance, and thus harder to pass down than media that were overtly captured and preserved (whether in print, recordings, video, etc.). And thus we’ve also failed to adequately remember a late 19th century cultural medium that was just as popular and influential in that period as Vaudeville would become a couple decades later: the Wild West Show. As that hyperlinked list illustrates, there were numerous popular such shows touring the nation in the last couple decades of the 19th century; moreover, the most successful of them, Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, was so popular that it staged performances just outside of the grounds of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition for the entirety of the six-month-long fair, offering as that article indicates a genuine competitor to that hugely prominent attraction.

In all likelihood, one of the specific pieces that was featured in many (if not all) of those 1893 Buffalo Bill Wild West Show performances was The Red Right Hand, or, The First Scalp for Custer. That excellent hyperlinked Time magazine article by Ijeoma Oluo (adapted from her 2021 book MEDIOCRE: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America) describes that particular performance of Cody’s in detail, as well as its links to his overarching self-mythologizing and the narratives of the American West which it and he embodied. It is of course no secret that the genre of the Western too often featured depictions of and roles for Native Americans that were stereotypical at best and white supremacist at worst, as exemplified by perhaps the single most famous recurring shot in film Westerns: Native Americans coming over a hill/ridge to threaten the white protagonists. So it’s pretty significant to note that those narratives were quite present in this early iteration of the genre (perhaps the earliest, although dime novels were at least contemporary with the Wild West Shows in the late 19th century), and indeed that Buffalo Bill’s version was even more aggressively violent, focused not on threatening Native Americans so much as on white people’s righteous (in this highly constructed story) revenge.

There’s no getting around those discriminatory layers to both Bill and his Show and the genre of the Western more broadly, but it’s important to note that there were other, quite distinct and even opposed (and certainly more positive) ways that he and his Show engaged Native Americans. Exemplifying those more positive possibilities was Cody’s longstanding friendship with the Sioux Chief Sitting Bull, a relationship that included (but was not at all limited to) Sitting Bull’s many years of performances as part of Bill’s Wild West Show. As this piece on the Buffalo Bill Center of the West website puts it, Native American performers like Sitting Bull “generally were treated and paid the same as other performers. They were able to travel with their families, and they earned a living not possible to them on their reservations.” In this blog post on Native American pop culture performers I highlighted the actor Jay Silverheels, who had the chance to act in multiple mid-20th century Western films and as a result help change the way that medium depicted Native Americans; Sitting Bull reminds us that there was a longstanding legacy of such performers, one that connected to the equally complex and multi-layered genre of the Wild West Show.

Next Western tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Westerns you’d analyze?

Monday, June 24, 2024

June 24, 2024: WesternStudying: Hopalong Cassidy

[75 years ago this week, the first network TV Western, Hopalong Cassidy debuted. Few genres have been influential for longer or across more media, so this week I’ll AmericanStudy Hopalong and other Westerns—add your responses & analyses in the comments, pardner!]

On how the TV show built on an established character, and two important ways it changed things.

When Hopalong Cassidy premiered on NBC on June 24th, 1949, it did so as an extension of nearly a half-century of cultural representations of the character. Hopalong was originally created in a 1904 short story by author Clarence E. Mulford, who would over the next thirty-five years write 28 novels and numerous additional stories about the character. Even more popular were the 66 films produced between 1935 and 1948 (for an average of nearly five films per year, if you’re counting), all starring William Boyd in the title role. So when Boyd bought the rights to the character from Mulford and to the films from producer Harry Sherman, sold those rights to NBC, and began playing the character in the TV series in June 1949 (and in a radio show that launched around the same moment), he knew that he and the show would have a built-in, longstanding, and multimedia audience, making this first TV Western not nearly as much of an unknown quantity as that phrase might suggest.

While the character might not have been new in 1949, the genre of the TV Western unquestionably was. Even though the first few episodes were edited versions of existing Hopalong films (before original TV episodes began to be produced and aired), they still aired once a week in a scheduled time slot on a national television network. And I would argue that this represented a significant evolution in the existing form of storytelling known as the serial—not the 19th century genre of serialized print publications that audiences could acquire and then read when and how they wanted; nor the early 20th century genre of film serials that required going to a movie theater to catch the new episode; but a serialized TV show, gradually released installments that every audience member would watch in their own home but all at precisely the same time (particularly in that early era before later evolutions like reruns and home video). Phrases like “appointment television” and “must see TV” emerged down the road to describe particular shows or time slots, but in truth those concepts were never more relevant than for this first generation of TV shows, which audiences had to see at that precise moment or risk missing out on that part of the story entirely.

Perhaps that serialization contributed to the immense popularity of the Hopalong TV show, or perhaps it was just the built-in audience for the character by then—but whatever the case, the show was indeed a mega-hit, and that popularity led to other significant cultural shifts. To cite one of the most individually striking examples, in 1950 the character of Hopalong Cassidy was the first licensed image featured on a children’s lunchbox, and shortly thereafter sales for the Aladdin Industries lunchboxes overall rose from 50,000 to 600,000 per year. That’s just the tip of the iceberg of the more than $70 million worth of Hopalong products produced in 1950 alone, much of it directly targeted kids as the primary audience—as illustrated by the reference to “Hopalong boots” as a desired present in Meredith Wilson’s hit song “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot like Christmas” (1951). Kids had no doubt been part of the audience for Western films (and books, and radio shows, and etc.) throughout the genre’s history, but the TV show’s popularity nonetheless reflected a potent evolution and emphasis of that children’s entertainment side to this cultural form.

Next Western tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Westerns you’d analyze?

Saturday, June 22, 2024

June 22-23, 2024: Kyle Railton on the Simpson Trial

[On June 17th, 1994, O.J. Simpson was arrested by the LAPD. The subsequent trial featured a number of individuals whose stories have a great deal to tell us about America, then, now, and overall, so this week I’ve AmericanStudied a handful of Simpson trial figures. Leading up to this special weekend post from one of my favorite young AmericanStudiers!]

Hey everyone, my name is Kyle Railton and I am an upcoming senior in high school. As you can tell by my last name, I am the son of the legendary professor Ben Railton, and writing for my dad’s blog has been on my bucket list for a while, so it is an honor to get the chance! I have been semi-interested in the O.J. Simpson trial for some time, hearing occasional things about how he was guilty, the lawyers messed up, the gloves, etc., but I only became very invested in the past year, when I began a school project about the case. It was in my American Legal Studies class, and I chose to read The Run of His Life, the book by Jeffery Toobin, which quickly fascinated me about every aspect of the case: the media, lawyers, drama, and especially the defendant–O.J. Simpson.  

As I continued to learn more about the case, a couple of parts of the case bothered me the most. I will preface this by stating that I do believe that O.J. committed the crime, despite the mistakes from the prosecution and the alternate theories proposed by the dream team. Firstly, I believe that the trial did not deliver justice, as America’s justice system is supposed to do, implied by the name. One of the main focuses of the American Legal elective I took this past school year was to study what justice was, and how courts are expected to promote justice through application of the law. However, I saw this entire case, specifically the outcome, as not proper justice, because many external factors influenced the not guilty verdict. For example, the media played a crucial role since the discovery of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, negatively affecting and manipulating perceptions of the trial to the public, even before the jury was selected. Many people saw the police as “mistreating” O.J. Simpson when rather the LAPD had treated O.J. Simpson like royalty many times in the past, and he was close with many officers. Additionally, race was almost certainly a deciding factor in the case, which was exacerbated by the media and constant coverage of the case. While it is obvious that Mark Furhman was extremely racist–a Nazi even–and the LAPD has a horrific history of racial prejudice and police brutality, these facts had nothing to do with O.J. Simpson’s case. As mentioned in Toobin’s book, they were specifically used as the “race card” to get Simpson free. The reason I see this as a massive injustice is because there is lots of racial profiling in the court system and police forces across America, but this case was not an instance of racist police officers framing an African American man. Now, it is completely understandable why many would believe that the LAPD framed O.J., but this use of the “race card” only opens the world up to criticism when actual racist incidents come, as they too often do because then Americans claim that it is just another use of the “race card.” I remember a hilarious quote from a show I watched with my family based on the O.J. trial, which goes something like, “O.J. Simpson is the first defendant to get acquitted because he is Black!” Race has never been a black-and-white subject in America, and while it is unfortunately impossible to change the past and convict O.J. Simpson, it is possible to build and grow as a nation, which starts with learning from the history of America’s complicated justice system. 

[Next series starts Monday,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Simpson trial figures or stories you’d highlight?]

Friday, June 21, 2024

June 21, 2024: Simpson Trial Figures: Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman

[On June 17th, 1994, O.J. Simpson was arrested by the LAPD. The subsequent trial featured a number of individuals whose stories have a great deal to tell us about America, then, now, and overall, so this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of Simpson trial figures. Leading up to a special weekend post from one of my favorite young AmericanStudiers!]

On two of the many reasons to better remember the victims.

First things first: we don’t and shouldn’t need any reason to better remember the two people murdered in June 1994 beyond that simple and horrible fact. They and their families and loved ones were by far the most profoundly and tragically affected by this case, and there’s nothing more important to say than that. I’m going to leave this first paragraph short in order to make those points as clearly and concisely as I can.

Beyond those individual and most important reasons to include Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman in a series like this one, it’s also the case that better remembering them helps add significant issues into the conversation. With Nicole, the most prominent such issue is an absolutely crucial and (due to many of the factors I’ve written about this week) at times frustratingly minimized one: domestic violence. While they were overshadowed by the Mark Fuhrman recordings (which certainly were horrific in their own ways, as I discussed in Tuesday’s post), the multiple recordings of Nicole calling 911 to report OJ’s incidents of domestic violence comprised one of the most blatant representations of these issues in our collective history, and were (or at least damn well should be) impossible to ignore. In recent years, increasing attention has been paid to the fact that the vast majority of mass shooters have histories of domestic or intimate violence that predate and seem clearly related to the explosions of mass violence, and in its own way the OJ trial overall and Nicole’s story specifically foreshadowed and can add to this 21st century conversation.

While Nicole’s murder was thus frustratingly and tragically predictable given that prior and escalating history of domestic violence, Ron Goldman’s murder could not have been more random, an incredibly horrific instance of “wrong place at the wrong time.” There are plenty of details of Goldman’s life and identity that would be worth highlighting to better remember him, from the overtly inspiring (such as his volunteer work with children suffering from cerebral palsy) to the tragically unfulfilled (such as his ambitions to open his own restaurant). But I would say the very fact of the randomness of Goldman’s murder, especially when linked to those details of his individual identity and life, makes an important point in its own right: that every victim of violence, such as all those killed in mass shootings, represents a fully, complicatedly, vitally three-dimensional human, with all the different layers, small and big, mundane and inspiring, that comprise us all. I’m not sure there’s a better reason to do everything we can to limit violence of all kinds, nor a better individual representation of those tragic realities than Ron Goldman.

Special post this weekend,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Simpson trial figures or stories you’d highlight?


Thursday, June 20, 2024

June 20, 2024: Simpson Trial Figures: Kato and Kardashian

[On June 17th, 1994, O.J. Simpson was arrested by the LAPD. The subsequent trial featured a number of individuals whose stories have a great deal to tell us about America, then, now, and overall, so this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of Simpson trial figures. Leading up to a special weekend post from one of my favorite young AmericanStudiers!]

On how the trial shaped two forms of celebrity culture, and an important alternative.

The OJ trial was such a media circus (to the point that the very phrase “media circus” has become almost synonymous with these events) that it not only featured a celebrity client and celebrity defense attorney (both of which I wrote about in yesterday’s post), but also spawned a number of additional celebrities. There’s plenty of competition for which was the nuttiest—a list that includes the judge, for crying out loud—but I would have to declare OJ’s vagabond houseguest Kato Kaelin as the winner of that bizarre contest. I don’t know if Kato was the first person in American history to become and remain famous for being famous, with absolutely no discernible talents or achievements beyond the fame itself. But he most definitely exemplified that trend at a still-early period in its development—and given the ways in which over the subsequent three decades the genre of reality TV has created an entire cottage industry dedicated to producing countless more such famous-for-being-famous individuals and communities, it’s fair to say that no legacy of the OJ trial was more culturally significant than that of Kato Kaelin’s bizarre yet inarguable celebrity status.

I don’t think any 21st century individuals better exemplify that famous-for-being-famous trend than do the Kardashians, and it’s thus far from a coincidence that that family’s rise to fame likewise began with the OJ trial. Entrepreneur and attorney Robert Kardashian wasn’t just a longtime friend of OJ Simpson’s who became part of his defense team; he was also a thoroughly private citizen who through those contexts and events became one of that moment’s most public and famous figures. Or, more exactly and even more tellingly, whose own fleeting such fame in 1994-5 helped open the door for multi-generational familial fame over the subsequent decades, for his ex-wife Kris Houghton (formerly Kardashian) (now Jenner) and their four children (Kourtney, Kim, Khlo√©, and Rob Kardashian) to become one of the 21st century’s most wealthy and influential media empires (I wish that felt more like hyperbole than it does). Individual fame like Kato Kaelin’s is striking but relatively powerless; Kardashian-level fame brings with it a great deal of 21st century power.

That final hyperlink is to Kim Kardashian’s podcast The System, which highlights the case of a wrongfully-accused and -incarcerated individual (Kevin Keith) in an effort to change the criminal justice system more broadly. When it comes to this week’s blog subject, obviously there are complicated OJ trial echoes around the phrase “wrongfully accused,” although I genuinely don’t imagine Kim is making that connection. But I would also highlight one of the more striking individual scenes from The People v. O.J. Simpson, depicting Robert Kardashian (David Schwimmer) at a Father’s Day brunch with his four kids. Kardashian’s fame is on the rise and his kids are excited, but he instructs them that “in this family, being a good person and a loyal friend is more important than being famous. Fame is fleeting, it’s hollow. It means nothing at all without a virtuous heart.” Of course the moment (a fictional one created by the show’s writers) feels deeply ironic given what would go to happen to those four kids. But I would argue that Kim’s podcast reflects the continued presence of this alternative possibility, for this family and for all of us—not one that opposes fame or celebrity per se (they will always be part of our society), but one in which meaningful actions remain more important than fame.

Last figure tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Simpson trial figures or stories you’d highlight?

Wednesday, June 19, 2024

June 19, 2024: Simpson Trial Figures: Johnnie Cochran

 [On June 17th, 1994, O.J. Simpson was arrested by the LAPD. The subsequent trial featured a number of individuals whose stories have a great deal to tell us about America, then, now, and overall, so this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of Simpson trial figures. Leading up to a special weekend post from one of my favorite young AmericanStudiers!]

On two distinct and even opposed sides to a legal career, and how they complicatedly came together in the OJ trial.

In his autobiography A Lawyer’s Life (2001), Johnnie Cochran (1937-2005) writes about how Thurgood Marshall’s victory in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) helped inspire his lifelong legal activism. Marshall, Cochran writes, “confirmed that a single dedicated man could use the law to change society.” As Cochran’s own legal career began to take shape in the 1960s and 70s (particularly after he left the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office to start his own private practice), he consistently represented African American clients who were also underdogs, fighting against institutional racism and other layers to the white justice system and power structure. Whether he lost those cases (as with Leonard Deadwyler, killed by the LAPD while driving his pregnant and in-labor wife to the hospital in 1966) or won them (as with Ron Settles, a college athlete who died while in police custody in 1981 and whose family received a sizeable settlement from the city), Cochran established himself over these decades as a preeminent voice using the law for both civil rights and challenges to the powers that be.

At the same time, that evolving career gained Cochran prominence as a successful defense attorney, a role that offered him opportunities to defend celebrity clients. One of the most famous and controversial such clients in the years before the OJ trial was Michael Jackson, whom Cochran defended when he was accused of child molestation in 1993; Cochran was instrumental in helping Jackson settle that case out of court with the accusers’ families. (Cochran’s final case was another such famous celebrity trial, helping get Sean (P. Diddy) Combs acquitted on bribery and weapons charges in 2001.) The vast majority of those celebrity defendants were likewise African American, a clear and important throughline in Cochran’s legal work and career to be sure. Yet by nature of their celebrity, wealth, networks of influence, and other factors, those defendants were much more part of the power structure than opposed to it, and in a case like Jackson’s it’s fair to say that Cochran also used the power structure to help Jackson reach that private settlement and avoid any legal repercussions to the troubling charges levied against him.

Any defense attorney who practices for decades is going to have multiple, varied, and even opposed types of clients, of course. But these layers to Cochran’s career were particularly complicated in their relationship to each other, and nowhere was that complexity more noteworthy than in the OJ trial. As I highlighted in yesterday’s post, Cochran and the team based a significant portion of their defense on the LAPD’s histories of institutional racism and police brutality, linking Cochran’s legal activism to OJ’s status as a Black man accused (and potentially, they argued, framed) by that power structure. Yet at the same time, as I wrote in Monday’s post, by the 1990s OJ was a wealthy celebrity, and one who had a famously friendly relationship with the police prior to his arrest. Cochran famously noted that he worked “not only for the OJs, but also the No Js,” a statement that both reflects his overarching career ambitions and yet acknowledges (or at least implies) that this particular case diverged from those goals. Did the OJ case also undermine those broader and inspiring civil rights efforts of Cochran’s? That’s a much bigger question than a blog post—one of many crucial ones raised by this case.

Next figure tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Simpson trial figures or stories you’d highlight?

Tuesday, June 18, 2024

June 18, 2024: Simpson Trial Figures: Mark Fuhrman

[On June 17th, 1994, O.J. Simpson was arrested by the LAPD. The subsequent trial featured a number of individuals whose stories have a great deal to tell us about America, then, now, and overall, so this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of Simpson trial figures. Leading up to a special weekend post from one of my favorite young AmericanStudiers!]

On a longstanding context for the trial’s most infamous figure, what he frustratingly added, and where it’s gone since.

As I highlighted at the end of yesterday’s post, the Simpson trial can’t be separated from a very recent example of LAPD racism and brutality, the Rodney King beating. Back in a 2019 post I linked the Rodney King story to a pair of much earlier and even more sweeping LAPD horrors, and I’d ask you to check out that post and then come on back for some further Simpson trial thoughts.

Welcome back! That longstanding, if not indeed foundational, intersection of the LAPD with stories of institutional racism and police brutality offers a crucial context for a story that came to dominate much of the Simpson trial: that lead detective Mark Fuhrman was an inveterate racist who had brought that perspective into every part of his job, and thus (the defense argued) could conceivably have framed Simpson for the murders. The defense could make that argument in large part because of a striking and shocking layer to this story: that there existed hours of recordings of Fuhrman spewing his racism and hate, drawn from a series of conversations (beginning in 1985 and all the way up to 1994) with screenwriter Laura McKinny who was working on a script about police. Not unlike what I said in yesterday’s post about the cable news coverage angle of the arrest and trial, this multimedia evidence for LAPD racism and corruption represented a significant evolution of prior histories, and unquestionably changed the course of the trial and history as a result.

As you might expect, Mark Fuhrman didn’t keep his job after those recordings were made public—even the LAPD apparently has its limits when it comes to racist cops (or perhaps to convicted perjurers, since Fuhrman pleaded no contest to perjury charges stemming from the trial). In the decades since he has become a prominent media commentator on all things law enforcement and the justice system, writing books, hosting his own short-lived daytime talk radio show, and, most tellingly I would argue, as a Fox News pundit (WARNING: that’s a direct link to a short video from Fox News). I call that last job most telling because over the three decades since the Simpson trial, police brutality and even racism have gone from clearly agreed-upon flaws of the system to, for a significant percentage of Americans it seems, necessary features of that system. To hear Mark Motherfucking Fuhrman call teenager Mike Brown “the aggressor” in the 2014 police shooting that led to Brown’s death is not just to find one’s self through the looking glass, but to get a particularly clear sense of how these conversations and issues have changed over the last three decades.

Next figure tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Simpson trial figures or stories you’d highlight?