Arts Listings

Books: Max Brand: The Agatha Christie of the B Western

By Phil McArdle, Special to the Planet
Tuesday July 25, 2006

Max Brand was the pseudonym of Frederick Faust, a pulp writer who had ambitions as a serious poet. Or as he preferred, a serious poet whose day job was spinning cowboy yarns.  

Born in 1892, Faust grew up in Modesto, where he was orphaned at 13 and trapped in grinding poverty. Some of the work he did as he eked out a living on farms and cattle ranches was so hard it damaged his heart. He changed schools frequently. School yard fights left scars on his face and a chip on his shoulder. Faust showed genuine literary talent at Modesto High School and, in 1911, when his teachers offered to help him enroll at the University of California, he accepted instantly. He had an overwhelming desire to put ranch life as far behind him as possible.  



Faust was happy in Berkeley. Responding to campus life with zest, he contributed a flood of poems, stories and articles to The Occident, The Pelican, and the Daily Californian. He met Dorothy Schillig, his future wife, and he made many friends (including one on whom he later based his famous character, Dr. Kildare.) Professor Leonard Bacon, himself a poet, recognized Faust as a promising writer. Bacon’s seminar on mythology and epic poetry had a profound effect on Faust, permanently influencing his poetry and fiction, and they became lifelong friends.  

But campus authorities eventually noticed the riotous side of Faust’s life—his heavy drinking, public brawling, and casual violations of university rules. Despite pleas from Bacon and others, he was expelled in his senior year. It was a devastating blow. But he made his way to New York City and took the first steps toward establishing himself as a writer.  

For Faust, 1917 was truly a miraculous year. His professional literary career commenced with the sale of a poem to the Century Magazine. Dealing with the death of his father, it opened powerfully:  


They drew the blinds down, and the house was old  

With shadows, and so cold — 

Filled up with shuddery silence like held breath;  

And when I asked, they told  

Me only that the quietness was death.  


His fiction appeared regularly in such magazines as the All-Story Weekly and Argosy. His long association with Hollywood began when one of his stories was filmed. He decided to write poetry under his own name and use pseudonyms for everything else. A western story he wrote as Max Brand was well received and he soon found himself specializing in that genre. He was very well paid, and he was able to marry his Berkeley sweetheart.  

During his career he published three volumes of poetry—The Village Street, Dionysius in Hades, and The Thunderer. These had mixed reviews and small sales. His real success was in the field of commercial fiction, where he produced 125 novels—most of them westerns—and hundreds of short stories. At least 60 movies were based on his work. He is said to have published between 25 and 30 million words. This amazing productivity made him a wealthy man.  


Destry Rides Again  

Faust wrote Destry Rides Again in 1930 at his villa in Italy—a long way from Modesto. Leonard Bacon and Aldous Huxley and their families lived nearby. Bacon’s daughter Martha wrote an affectionate description of Faust in those days:  

“He is a huge man, over six foot three; he is in his late thirties and the look of his youth has left him, the hair is thinning on his massive head. His cold blue eyes are at war with the heated modeling of the jaw and lips. He is Michelangelo’s man, the shoulders big, the limbs well cut, the hands heavy with stub fingers ... He lives like a medieval prince in his Florentine villa.”  

But, she added, he keeps a killing schedule, writing poetry in the mornings and popular fiction in the afternoons, “in clean serviceable prose that whips a story from the gate to the finish line without a pause and that adds up to a count of twelve novels a year.”  

Destry Rides Again is a pulp western, a genre that relied on melodramatic plots set against a western background. Realistic local color made these stories distinctively regional, and gave them a certain authenticity. Its characters spoke in the dialects of the Southwest. They were often stereotypes, reflecting the attitudes and beliefs of the region, including the casual racial prejudices of the time.  

Faust wrote fiction, including Destry, in a trance-like state of reverie. This technique allowed him to draw on his experience and his emotions over and over again, without using them up; it was not a technique for healing self-analysis or therapy. As Grace Flandrau put it, fiction poured out of him “like automatic writing, the material of a dream.” She speculated that it drew on “some disassociated fragment of youthful personality.”  

We are introduced to Harrison Destry as a man who takes pride in being the chief brawler of the dusty little town of Wham:  


...he had fought in the vacant lots; and many a house and store was built over some scenes of his grandeur. For the one star in the crown of Harry Destry, the one jewel in his purse, the one song in his story, was that he fought; and when he battled, he was never conquered.  


We soon see that author and character both feel like outsiders. The story unfolds like a daydream in which details shift and change unpredictably at the dreamer’s will. Some changes are simple rearrangements that keep the hero’s actions legal. Others are due to carelessness; as when “The Last Chance Saloon” becomes “Donovan’s saloon” a few pages after it is first mentioned. Expertise is acquired without effort; we are told Destry eschews pistols, only to learn that he’s a dead shot. Major dramatic events erupt without warning.  

But Destry is not simply an autobiographical fragment. He is also Edmond Dantes, the protagonist of Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. Like Dumas’ novel, Destry Rides Again is a story of revenge. Dantes and Destry are innocent men who punish those who wronged them.  

Destry and Chester Bent are rivals for the hand of Charlotte Dangerfield, the daughter of the richest man in Wham. But Bent frames Destry for robbery. Not knowing this, Destry vows to avenge himself on the jury.  

After his release from prison, Destry rides back to Wham and methodically disposes of two members of the jury in a gunfight at the Last Chance Saloon, killing one and maiming the other. He chases another out of town and ruins one more by stealing a compromising letter and giving it to a newspaper. Others are done in just as quickly.  

But halfway through the story, Faust tired of retelling The Count of Monte Cristo. The daydream floats off in another direction, and the surviving jurors are never mentioned again. Now he begins to tell of Destry’s moral rejuvenation, setting the stage for the climax in which Bent almost kills Destry. As Destry tells Charlotte afterward, he’s going to swear off violence for the rest of his life:  


“I’ve met my master,” said he. “I’ve met my peer. He beat me to the draw; he beat me with guns and he beat me hand to hand. I killed him with luck and not with skill. I’ve throwed the gun away, Charlie. I’m an old man, and finished and done for. A Chinaman could laugh in my face, now, and I’d take it!”  


In the happy ending that completes the story, Destry marries Charlotte. Destry and Faust have triumphed over the wrongs they suffered.  


Destry as a Film  

Faust sold Destry to Universal Studios in 1932, where it was adapted as a B-western for Tom Mix. In 1939 it was filmed again, becoming a wonderful film classic starring Marlene Deitrich and Jimmy Stewart.  

In this second version, the screenwriters—Gertrude Purcell, Felix Jackson and Henry Meyers—dumped almost everything in the novel except the title, the hero’s unarmed arrival in Wham, and his rejection of violence. Melodrama gave way to vibrant comedy with a distinctly New Deal atmosphere, a story of civic responsibility and renewal. Wham became Bottleneck, an obstacle to progress: a town where a splendidly crooked mayor governed from a table in the saloon. Stewart played Thomas Jefferson Destry, and Deitrich played Frenchy—a sexy “saloon girl of the old west” with a robust sense of humor. She sang “See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have,” and Stewart gave a startling preview of his performance as Elwood P. Dowd in Harvey.  

A decade after writing Destry Faust described his fiction as “an escape from reality. There was perhaps too much reading and too much actual pain in my childhood. It made me build daydreams, bubbles into which I could escape and find a bright and blue and golden world all for me. I denied pain. So in my stories men may start bad but they must wind up good. Woman are angels and men are heroes.”  

With the approach of World War II he felt a need to write fiction as honestly as he had written poetry. He began a serious novel but set it aside to work as a war correspondent. Accompanying troops into battle near Santa Maria Infante in his beloved Italy, he was killed in action.