Western Film WTF: The Texas Strip (1944) and Whip It (1980)

I am pairing these two short musical films because they are a terrific demonstration that history doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme, and Mark Twain is supposed to have said. Because these two films are so similar that it is impossible to believe one did not influence the other, and yet there is no evidence that they did.

The first film, from 1944, has country swing band The Music Makers placed stage left against a rustic country backdrop, swaying robotically as they play. The music video, from 1980, has new wave band Devo places stage left against a rustic country backdrop, swaying robotically as they play. Both have cowfolk leaning up against a fence and socializing. Both build their action around a man with a bullwhip using it to snatch the clothes off a woman.

There are differences. The Devo set is purposefully artificial, and has some extra bits of action, including a woman making potatoes, cowfolk sneaking off for coitus, and a cross-eyed woman shooting a can out of a cowboy's hand. Devo is not dressed like cowboys, unlike in the earlier video. Instead, they wear black shorts, sleeveless turtlenecks they sometimes use to cover their faces like Mort from Bazooka Joe, and their signature red, ziggurat-shaped plastic headwear.

Burt the film's are so similar that when "The Texas Strip" was rediscovered a few years ago, online publications touted it as the inspiration for the Devo video. In fact, the band has repeatedly, and credibly, offered their explanation: They were flipping through an old issue of a men's magazine, like "Dude," and found a story of a western dude ranch where the owner entertained guests by using a bullwhip to undress his retired burlesque artist wife.

I had thought perhaps it was that couple featured in "Texas Strip," and perhaps it is, but there is little information about who they are. The woman, who could double for Elizabeth Montgomery, was Margie Beeler, identified in a 1942 issue of Billboard as a stripper but in an AP article from the same year as a showgirl. Both might have been true. The man with the whip is sometimes misidentified as Bob Manners, but, no, Bob Manners was the leader of the Music Makers. There's no reason to even think the man in the video was a bullwhip expert, as this sort of thing is easily faked with velcro on clothes and a fishing line to pull the clothes off, which is how Devo seems to have done it.

Of the two films, although the Devo video is self-consciously odder, I find "Texas Strip" to be an authentic example of accidental American surrealism, from the intensity with with the Music Makers sway back and forth while performing to the extraordinary costume design — this film is set in a world where everybody wears Nudie-style costumes, even when just hanging out on a fence. 

Devo's cowboys just look like they went and bought some Wranglers. That's what I wear, and it shouldn't be enough to get me into a Devo video.


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