Hollywood horse havoc

Review of “Falling from Horses” by Molly Gloss.

 

Roy Rogers and his palomino, Trigger. Trigger was one of the most famous horses in Western films, starting with his debut in Under the Western Stars in 1938.
Classic Media

Falling From Horses
Molly Gloss
330 pages, hardcover:
$25.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014.

 

Modern movie directors are expected to go to extremes to earn the disclaimer that “No animals were harmed” in the making of their films. It’s easy to chuckle at the thought of studios hiring, say, cockroach wranglers. But the latest novel by Oregon writer Molly Gloss might make readers appreciate the need to enforce standards for humane treatment, not just for animals but for human beings as well.

Falling From Horses is set largely in Hollywood in the late 1930s, when the movie industry cared little for the welfare of animals or even human stuntmen. In a folksy, easy cadence, narrator Bud Frazer looks back on his life, recalling the months he spent trying to succeed as a movie cowboy when he was 19 years old. “Well, I was foolheaded in those days, looking for ways to get myself into trouble — carrying too much sail, as we used to say,” Bud reports.

Bud grew up in Echol Creek, Oregon, on a ranch that his parents later lost. His little sister died for reasons that become clear as Bud’s story unfolds, in chapters that alternate between his life in Oregon and in Hollywood.

On the bus to Hollywood, Bud meets Lily Shaw of Seattle, who is determined to become a great screenwriter, an aim she only achieves after many hard knocks. As Bud and Lily scramble to gain a toehold in the movie industry, they maintain their platonic friendship, which is based mostly on seeing movies together and discussing them.

Bud learns that the cowboy film heroes he grew up admiring aren’t what they appear to be — many of them are “fakes who couldn’t ride worth applesauce.” He also discovers how dangerous filming horse scenes is, especially on shots of battlefields rigged with trip wires and cliff-jumping scenes. Dozens of horses are killed in the business, and several riders are severely injured.

Gloss’ detailed picture of Hollywood’s Golden Age is rich and enlightening, capturing the struggles of low-level movie cowboys as well as those of ambitious women like Lily. Bud’s family’s ranch life and hardships serve as a stark counterpoint to the glossy Western myth that filmmakers created. It’s as though Gloss has flipped over the burnished surface of classic Hollywood Westerns to show the messy stitching underneath.­