Weird Westerns: Ghost Patrol (1936)
"Ghost Patrol," a 1936 Western starring Tim McCoy, has neither ghosts nor a patrol in it. Properly, it is categorized as a Weird Western because there is a slight science fiction element to it, in that the film tells of a group of desperadoes who have kidnapped a scientist who has developed a machine that can shut down electrical systems from a distance.
Being desperadoes, they adapt it to their decidedly Old West idea of doing things, so instead of holding up the postal stage coach, they use the device to knock postal airplanes out of the air, which they then rob.
There isn't much more to the story. Both the scientist's daughter and a Department of Justice Agent played by McCoy show up, there are a few gunfights, and everything is resolved quite quickly. The film was produced by Puritan Pictures, an independent studio with a poverty budget but a taste for sensationalism, producing social issues films alongside war movies.
I'm not sure how "Ghost Patrol" got caught up in this mix — Puritan's owner, Sam Katzman, owned another company, Victory Pictures, that specialized in Westerns, and that's where McCoy made a lot of his films. "Ghost Patrol" would seem more at home there, but, then, it's only a Western because people dress like cowboys.
This is the oddest element of the film. It genuinely seems to be set in 1936 and seems to have been written as a gangster film. All the villains talk like gangsters, and McCoy is a g-man. And yet they dress in cowboy duds, ride horses, and get from town to town on wagons. Most of it is filmed on a decrepit Western backlot (the Brandeis Ranch, built by playboy Omaha department store scion John Brandeis as a sort of Western-themed playground) that we're told is a ghost town because the local mine shut down.
Very little of this makes sense in a film set in 1936, and I am going to go ahead and guess that the film only became a Western when McCoy signed on. It gives the film an additional science fiction element, a sense that if you leave the confines of Los Angeles, you leave modernity, and everything outside it is still just as it was in the Wild West.
I have to say I find the fact that McCoy is a Department of Justice agent who dresses like a cowboy to be utterly delightful — the DOJ administers the FBI, so you would expect the agents to be dressed in suits and ties, like in "Twin Peaks" and "X-Flies," or at least in red shirts and khaki slacks, as in "Silence of the Lambs."
No. McCoy didn't just dress as a cowboy, he dressed like a French satire magazine's conception of a cowboy. He favored massive, sombrero-styled 10-gallon hats and enormous neckerchiefs tied around his neck like the scarf Tom Baker wore as Dr. Who. McCoy was an unsmiling man with grim, haunted features, and at first there is something ludicrous about the way he dresses. He's frequently shown standing next to other cowboys, and at first you wonder if he didn't dress this way to make fun of them.
But after a while, it starts looking sort of badass. There is always something impressive about men who go too far with their fashion, like Elvis with his pompadour and gold lamé suit or David Bowie in his Ziggy Stadust costume. The clothes stop existing for functional reasons and instead become a way of letting you know that the person wearing them is excessive in some way, and therefore interesting in some way.
And McCoy was interesting, even if he is poorly remembered nowadays. He was the son of Saginaw, Michigan's police chief who was on the road to a professional career (possibly as a priest), even attending a Jesuit college, who went to a Wild West Show and was so taken by it that he dropped out to work at a ranch in Wyoming. He never lost that Jesuitical passion for education, though, and quickly developed a relationship with and expertise concerning the local Indian tribes, including the sign language used as the Lingua Franca of Plains Indians.
These sorts of claims are often hokum, and I generally view them with a jaundiced eye, as Hollywood was notorious for spinning tall tales about their actors and their expertise. But McCoy helped create a 30-minute documentary on Native Languages for Standard Oil Company in 1946, including a scene in which he warmly interacts with Native Americans, speaks sign language with them, and then, embarrassingly, lectures younger Natives on the history and meaning of the sign language.
Nonetheless, the scene is in earnest, and seems like an awful lot of work for someone who is just pretending to have learned sign language. I have also compared his sign language to a few resources on the subject, and to my inexpert eyes he seems to at least be attempting authentic Plains Indians Sign Language, although I cannot attest to its accuracy.
I suspect McCoy's costume was a product of his background in Wild West shows — he toured with the Ringling Brothers and eventually owned one of his own show, which went bust. Because Wild West shows were essentially Western-themed circuses, the costumes tended to be oversized, and gaudy, so that they would still seem spectacular from hundred of feet away.
McCoy wasn't the only screen cowboy to favor spectacular costumes — Tom Mix wore a hat so large that, in a flood, he could have flipped it over and rode it as an emergency pontoon, and Roy Rogers always looked like he was costumed by somebody at Wrangler who was in the middle of a fever dream. But there was something about Tim McCoy that made his costume feel even more avant garde. It may have been his self-seriousness, or that fact that he largely appeared in very low budget Westerns, or the fact that nobody else in his film was costumed the way he was.
Whatever the reason, the most fantastical element in "Ghost Patrol" is McCoy's costume. It should have received its own credit. Heck, it should have had its own trailer, personal assistant, points on the back end, and final cut of the film.