- Celluloid Pueblo: Western Ways Films and the Invention of the Postwar Southwest by Jennifer L. Jenkins
Jennifer Jenkins’s Celluloid Pueblo details Western Ways Films, a small independent film company run by husband-and-wife team Charles and Lucile Herbert of Tucson, Arizona, from 1936 to the early 1960s. The author argues that through cinematic representations the Herberts were integral to the creation of iconic images of the Southwest. Their films [End Page 113] on the “exotic” flora, peoples, and landscapes of Arizona and Northern Mexico helped establish the visual imagery of the broader borderlands region; yet as the author shows, the films consistently challenged stereotypes of the Southwest.
The book begins with an interesting biographical section on the Herberts. Charles was a veteran of both world wars, a brilliant, artful film-maker with ten years work at Fox; Lucile was a southerner with charm and business skills. Both were always up for adventure; their lives a cycle of intense, productive filmmaking, followed by economic setbacks, and then by recovery and rebirth. The human story behind Western Ways is one of the best parts of the book. Scholars likewise will find intriguing Jenkins’s methodology, particularly the fact that she brings her research trials into the narrative. She discusses the challenges of “media archeology,” the process of analyzing decades-old, highly flammable nitrate films that have been stored in boxes, frozen, and sometimes spliced together with cellophane tape. Readers come to agree with Jenkins that it is a miracle the reels survived at all. Jenkins also includes details on dating unmarked reels, a process that includes comparing the existing film with clothing styles, historical buildings, roads, and changed landscape features.
Throughout the text Jenkins discusses in great detail 10 of the 113 existing Western Ways film reels. By analyzing promotional film narratives, shots, framing, subjects, and editing, she shows convincingly that the films both reinforced and challenged stereotypical photographic and cinematic images of the region. The ten films include works on the Spanish era missions of Sonora and Arizona, the modernization of Sonora after the Mexican Revolution, and several films on indigenous life (dancing for tourists at the Fred Harvey Hopi House at Grand Canyon, life at the regimented Presbyterian Western Navajo Boarding School, work as silversmiths and rug-makers, service as Apache scouts). Others detail mule rides and aerial tours at Grand Canyon and women shopping in modern department stores in the booming Sunbelt city of Tucson. One of the more telling films focuses on an epic struggle to transplant a giant saguaro cactus for a building project. The reel exhibits a common Western Ways theme: emphasizing human conquest via technology of the harsh but visually stunning southwestern desert.
While Jenkins’s analysis and conclusion generally are convincing, there may be some debate about Western Ways’ impact on national culture and in establishing the regional visual identity of the borderlands. The film company’s work was featured in publications such as Family Circle, Arizona Highways, American Cinematographer, and publications of Bell Labs, Ford Motor Company and Greyhound Bus Lines; however, claims that the films influenced the epic westerns of John Ford and larger visual representations of the region are debatable. Overall the book’s deep analysis of film and use of terminology may lose readers in its details. [End Page 114]
Celluloid Pueblo should appeal mainly to a specialized, scholarly readership in film studies and related fields; it may be of interest to general students of visual representations and image creation in the Southwest. To those familiar with the region, and especially Tucson, Jenkins’s book on Western Ways Films provides a welcome glimpse back in time to a beloved area.