CARD PLAY AND THE COWBOY HERO
- The stereotypical cowboy hero plays cards and plays them well. Inevitably he can spot a crooked dealer and handles cheaters quickly and efficiently. Yet the cowboy hero is an amateur, and he naturally suspects the honesty of all professional gamblers. The game of choice in Westerns is poker, not just because it was historically the game of choice in the West but because, unlike other games of chance, successful poker play depends less on the intellectual skill of the cowboy hero than on his individual character. Inevitably, card play scenes in Westerns are placed early so that they will develop the hero’s, or the villain’s, character. How a man, or occasionally a dance hall girl, plays cards often determines how he will respond in other situations in the film. The man who can play honestly and skillfully but without emotion, who can win as well as lose with equanimity, is a man deserving our respect. The cowboy hero must know all the tricks used by cardsharps but never use them himself—and he must know how to deal with those who deal crookedly. Thus in My Darling Clementine (1946), we see Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) casually call out the professional gambler (Earle Foxe) for cheating. In the same film, Doc Holliday (Victor Mature) proves his superior poker skills to all players throughout his part of the West.
Historical Dictionary of Westerns in Cinema. Paul Varner. 2012.
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