A Hollywood ‘bite’ on the bullets of myth and legend.

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The American Museum in Bath. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Real life and Hollywood legend get mixed together  in a major new exhibition coming to Bath’s American Museum in March! Taking centre stage will be the  two mythic moments in the history of the United States that shaped America’s national identity: the Wild West of the 1860’s to the late 1880’s and the wild years of Prohibition & Depression in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s.

Gangsters and Gunslingers: The Good, the Bad and the Memorabilia will feature items relating to America’s Outlaw Heroes from the David Gainsborough Roberts Collection. It’s going to be an exciting ‘ride’ taking people from Custer’s Last Stand and the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral to the grisly end that met bank robbers Bonnie and Clyde and Depression-era outlaw John Dillinger AND there will be plenty to illustrate how Hollywood both commemorated and glamorised grim and violent realities transformed into myth and legend.

Chief Gall - one of the commanders at the Battle of Little Big Horn.
Chief Gall – one of the commanders at the Battle of Little Big Horn.

Historical artefacts and memorabilia to be displayed include Native American weapons confiscated in reprisal for the Battle of Little Big Horn – better known as Custer’s Last Stand. They include a war club belonging to Chief Gall – one of the tribal commanders whose wives and children had earlier been massacred by the U.S. Cavalry.

There’s the medical bag owned by Doc Holliday- a survivor of the Gunfight at the O.K.Corral in Arizona back in 1881. It contains the tools of his dental trade and a photograph of his uncle.

Doc Holliday.
Doc Holliday.

Moving on into the 1920’s/30’s there’s the watch worn by Clyde Barrow when he was gunned down with Bonnie Parker in 1934. Bank robbers and police killers – the pair became celebrity criminals and, of course, Hollywood material.

Bonnie and Clyde
Bonnie and Clyde

You will be able to see one of the three death masks of John Dillinger with the exit wound of the bullet that killed him in a F.B.I. ambush clearly visible.

Other exhibits will include silver cigarette cases presented by Frank ‘The Enforcer’ Nitti to his Chicago mobster boss, Al Capone, and by Bosie Douglas to his disgraced lover, Oscar Wilde.

Wyatt Earp
Wyatt Earp

There will be guns worn by Wyatt Earp, Frank James and John Dillinger – whose stories were all given the Hollywood treatment. According to the American Museum, ‘Hollywood never let the facts get in the way of a good story. The silent film era rediscovered and refashioned the West in a potent new visual language. Many former cowboys became movie extras; other westerners drifted to Hollywood to become film consultants. One of these largely forgotten men was Wyatt Earp from the Gunfight at the O.K.Corral.’

Seems Earp would befriend the people who would later make him and his earlier brothers in arms immortal. The film makers who brought Earp cups of coffee on set so they could listen to the old man’s recollections of times past. ‘Together, these young men would go on to create some of the greatest visions of the West ever committed to film: the director John Ford and the actor John Wayne.

Hollywood's cowboy hero - John Wayne.
Hollywood’s cowboy hero – John Wayne.

In one of Wayne’s most memorable collaborations with John Ford, the 1962 movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a character observes: ‘When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.’ There has never been a better precis summing up how the history of the Wild West and the wild years of the Prohibition/Depression era has been represented and misrepresented in print and on film. Gangsters and Gunslingers – The Good, the Bad, and the Memorabilia, will be on view at the American Museum in Bath from March 23rd until November 3rd.

It will be the second time the Museum will be able to showcase treasures from the comprehensive Americana collection and Hollywood archive of David Gainsborough Roberts. Based in Jersey, he partnered the Claverton Down sited Museum for its popular 2011 exhibition ‘Marilyn Hollywood Icon.’ ‘I am delighted, ‘ Gainsborough Roberts comments, ‘ that so wide a range of items in my collection can be placed on view in such a magnificent – and appropriate – setting as the American Museum. The Marilyn show was spectacular fun. I have never seen my collection better displayed. I have no doubt that Gangsters and Gunslingers will be as moving and memorable – especially for anyone, who like me, wanted to grow up to be a cowboy!’

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