I watched a popular western called “3:10 to Yuma" last night. One of the special features included on the disc was a segment about some of the movie production concerns. An important element of just about any film is set design, and during an interview one of the set designers spoke about how the ‘town’ set was designed. As most of us are aware, “the West” is a body of myths and legends that have been perpetuated and built upon throughout the years via popular literature and films. It occurred to me while watching this segment that many of my (and probably many others’) conceptions about the stereotypical historic western town layout are based upon movie sets. Movie sets, however, are designed around considerations such as providing adequate camera and crew accessibility to areas or visual lanes for shot setups, which may have little bearing on the realities of how 19th century western towns were actually built.
Every western ever made features a saloon complete with swinging doors in the center of town, and nearby is inevitably a two story hotel (complete with second story railing through which a gunman must inevitably break as he is shot and falls). A bank, a dry goods store, jail, post office, feed store, land office, and rail depot are other typical fixtures found on screen. Almost never see houses 'downtown'! Western studio towns usually depict a single strip, with facades of the aforementioned buildings having zero-foot side setbacks on either side of a dirt road. While measurements are not available to me, my impression is that the central dirt road right-of-way often appears in westerns to be quite wide by modern day standards - perhaps 120 feet from façade to façade. Wooden structures dominate, however, the town bank and the jail are usually depicted as brick buildings.
How much historic reality is reflected in Hollywood frontier town design? There must necessarily be some kernel of truth to their depiction of the built environment unique to that time and region, or early audiences (westerns were among the first type of films ever produced and in the early days often employed actual ‘cowboys’) would never have connected with the films. But given the ephemeral nature of many western communities that developed around some resource extraction it seems unlikely to me that there would be as many permanent structures as we seem to see. What economic realities, for instance would be involved in constructing a two story brick building in an area not particularly near brick yards? Were brick yards fairly common out west in that era?
Perhaps some of the planners around here that live, work, or have spent time Out West could provide this hopeless easterner with a clearer picture of where reality ends on screen and the stereotypical myths surrounding 19th century western towns begins.