A Superb Novella - But Was It A Good Television Version?
It is one of the tragedies of American literature that the most promising writer of the turn of the nineteen into the twentieth century died in 1900 at only the age of 29. His name was Stephen Crane, and he is remembered to this day for his splendid novel of war and coming of age THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE. It was published in 1895, and established Crane as a leading literary figure. But few realize that he wrote other novels, three of which were pretty good: MAGGIE, A GIRL OF THE STREETS, GEORGE'S MOTHER, and THE THIRD VIOLET. In these he looked at urban life in the 1890s and (in THE THIRD VIOLET) the "Bohemian" lifestyles of the artists in New York City. He also wrote poetry in books like WAR IS KIND, and short stories and several novellas, the most notable being THE OPEN BOAT, THE BRIDE COMES TO YELLOW SKY, and THE BLUE HOTEL. It's amazing he got all this in, as well as extensive newspaper reporting (including reporting on two wars) in his brief life. One imagines that his effect on American writing would have been extraordinary had he lived another thirty or forty years.
Fortunately his best work remains astoundingly good. One of his best tales is THE BLUE HOTEL, which is about the power of myth. The Blue Hotel is representative of the growth (and supposed civilizing) of a large western city. To it come several people, including an immigrant from Sweden, a Cowboy, an Eastener,and a young teenager named Johnnie. The Swede has read about the great, wild west, and he keeps expecting to see Indians and Cowboys (not like the modern one he meets). He thinks of a place where a six gun settles everything. The hotel manager and the others try to steer him straight, but he keeps insisting. It does not help that he gets more and more belligerent in his view of the west because he's drinking. He gets into a card game with Johnnie, the Eastener, and the Cowboy, and gets really upset when he accuses Johnnie of cheating. Storming out of the hotel, he leaves the others so upset, that they all voice a desire to beat some sense into him for insulting them. They don't have to. Going to another bar, he gets into a needless argument with a gambler there, attacks the gambler, and gets stabbed to death. At the story's end, it turns out that Johnnie was cheating.
The story is deceptive in it's structure, and it isn't until one reads it two or three times that one realizes how Crane is ripping off a false veneer. The Swede is actually closer to the truth about the West than the Manager and the others admit. Yes, the city has all the modern conveniences and appearances of the eastern or coastal cities, but violence is closer to the surface than it would appear. The gambler, for example, is a married man with a family, but he just happens to carry a concealed knife on him for "emergencies". The belligerence of the Swede is due to drink in part - but the others just demonstrate it constantly at the drop of a hat (including the manager, who should know better).
What I find interesting in this television version is that the Swede, who is the victim in the story, is played by Vincent Price. It was rare for Price to play such a dramatic part (hardly his normal horror or science fiction role), and one wonders how he handled it. Also, it was the only time Price appeared in any drama (or acting part) with Lee Van Cleef, playing the cowboy. An interesting opportunity to watch two leading actors (usually playing villains) in more ordinary parts opposite each other. I really wish this was revived some time, so that we could see what it was like.
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