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They Went West

Back in the saddle with a faded genre's favorite stars

By Louis Black, May 28, 2010, Screens

In April, Western film stars William S. Hart, Tom Mix, Gene Autry, and Roy Rogers were officially immortalized with the issuance of 44-cent first-class stamps and 28-cent stamped postal cards. Obviously, these stamps are not really of much interest but rather just an easy excuse for this piece. The story of these four stars' lives and careers illustrates the evolution of Western genre films over more than four decades (from the early teens until the late Fifties), covering the transition from silent film to sound, from B-movies and serials to event films and series TV.

This is barely an introduction to these stars, with each deserving far more attention. Outside of Hart's Hell's Hinges (1916) and Tumbleweeds (1925), acknowledged film classics, these actors are much better known for their careers than for individual films. All of them were in many excellent Westerns, as well as many that weren't. It would be more than a stretch, however, to call any of them classic; the only one likely to ever be so cited is Raoul Walsh's Dark Command about Quantrill's Raiders, in which Rogers has a completely atypical dramatic role.

This is not to rant and rave against the critical establishment. Rather, given the status of these actors, their lack of classics shows the dominating importance of the star in Hollywood Westerns.

Silent films from almost the beginning were far more sophisticated and aesthetically ambitious than is generally known. The quality and brilliance of so many of these films have largely been lost to any audience outside of the most dedicated aficionados. Mostly, this is because a truly shocking 80-95% of all silent films are considered lost with no prints known to exist. Even those that do exist are almost never shown anywhere near the correct way. Although it may seem a minor point, one of the most significant problems with contemporary viewing of silent films is the speed at which projectors are set. The earliest film cameras and projectors were hand-cranked, so there is no automatic way to match that speed. Thus it is almost impossible to see a silent film without it appearing jerky or flickering. Finally, silent movies were never shown silently. Big city theaters would feature an orchestra and even sound effects, and even the most rural theaters would at least have a piano player.

The first Western star was "Broncho Billy" Anderson, who began appearing in one- and two-reel films starting in the early 1900s. The next Western star was William S. Hart, whose films – featuring complex characters and relatively sophisticated stories – were always set in a realistic West that was more authentic than homogenized.

Born in 1864, Hart had been a successful stage actor for decades before deciding that his future lay in Western films. After heading to Hollywood, he began in 1914 to act in both two-reel and feature-length Westerns, with the former serving him as a classroom for learning how to direct. By the time the first full-length feature he directed, The Darkening Trail, was released in 1915, he had become a major film star, cast most often in the role of the Good Bad Man – an outlaw whose life is redeemed by the love of a good woman. Released only one year later was Hart's masterpiece, Hell's Hinges, an acknowledged Western classic.

Although not as traditionally good-looking as some stars, Hart's striking appearance suited his films. Always moral tales deeply rooted in the importance of personal codes of honor, at their best his films transcended their overly sentimental bearings by the power of his performances and the realism of their settings. Towns were portrayed as dirty, gritty, and sparse while Hart's traditional costume was lived-in and trail-worn, unlike those of other Western stars who wore flashy getups more Nudie's Rodeo Tailors of Hollywood than authentic cowboy.

Hart's popularity was already fading by 1920 as his films, overwhelmed by sentimentality, slipped more and more into clichés that his weakened performances could not redeem. Hart, already 50 when he began to work in films, was helplessly slowing down. Still, his last film, Tumbleweeds, about the Cherokee Strip land rush, is not just one of his best but a truly great Western. Re-released in 1939 with a musical score and sound effects, Tumbleweeds opened with a beautifully elegiac eight-minute spoken prologue by Hart.

Tom Mix's star power had already eclipsed Hart's by the beginning of 1920. He remained film's preeminent Western star well into the 1930s. Mix's characters were always well-turned-out, looking more like Buffalo Bill Western traveling show stars than real, hard-working cowboys. Ironically, though Mix was born in Pennsylvania, he was one of the few Western stars to have actually been a cowboy, having ridden the range in Oklahoma for years. A skilled horseman and an expert shot, Mix won the 1909 national Riding and Rodeo Championship.

He started out in films that same year, but it would take him a while to gain traction. When he finally did, he hit liftoff nearly immediately. Watching a good print of one of Mix's Westerns, especially if shown at the correct speed with musical accompaniment, is a wonderful experience. Unfortunately, the majority of Mix's best films are considered lost.

In many ways, Mix set the tone for the Western film action stars that followed. His films were never as determinedly realistic as Hart's, but they were also neither as moralistic nor sentimental, instead offering up thrilling nonstop action. Not only was Mix an expert at riding and roping, but he also loved to perform elaborate and daring stunts. Having much the same athleticism and charisma that Douglas Fairbanks Sr. displayed in his action films, Mix evidences an equally terrific sense of fun. Mix's 1935 serial The Miracle Rider is generally available, but for the Mix novice it would be beyond disappointing. Instead, try to see Sky High from 1922 or 1926's No Man's Gold.

There is a delusional memory that I've had for decades of a specific Gene Autry B-Western that includes Civil War scenes, Indian attacks, and a run-in with Mexican bandits. Over the years I've tried to find this film but have never come close. I got into a discussion about cowboy film stars with Quentin Tarantino where I championed Autry against his favorite, Roy Rogers, which re-excited my interest in B-Westerns – the only unfortunate consequence being that almost immediately I realized Tarantino was right.

Tarantino is a fan of Rogers as an actor, screen presence, and Western icon, but he may be even more excited by the work of William Witney, one of Rogers' main directors. His greatest affection, however, has always been for Trigger, Rogers' horse.

Whereas romance in most Westerns was more smoke than meaning, cowboy stars have always had serious relationships with their horses. Hart's horse was Fritz; Mix rode Tony; Champion was Autry's mount. The horses, as well-known as their riders, often shared equal billing. Still, Trigger was the standout horse star: Director Witney wrote a book about him, Rogers had him stuffed after the horse died, and on more than one occasion Tarantino has favorably compared Trigger's profile to Uma Thurman, with the compliment going to the latter.

The term "B-movie" has over time evolved to become a qualitative put-down, but it began as strictly an industry term. When the Depression hit the country, movies suffered shrinking attendance and declining revenues. Figuring that if moviegoers got more value for the cost of admission it would improve business, the studios came up with the idea of double bills. Usually this meant an "A" and a "B" feature on the same bill, as well as cartoons, newsreels, and short films. The "B" movie was thus an industry description for a quickly shot, low-budget film about an hour long and designed to share a bill with a more polished Hollywood production. B's were often genre films, with Westerns dominating. Still, by the early Thirties the popularity of Westerns was beginning to wane – something that would change with the emergence of singing cowboys.

Western star Ken Maynard, film's first singing cowboy hero, was quickly followed by others. These included John Wayne, who starred in a series of Westerns as Singin' Sandy Saunders; he would sing songs with lines like "you'll be drinking your drinks with the dead" and "streets running with blood" as he prepared for gunfights.

When a number of small poverty-row studios folded, their assets were combined to create Republic Pictures, the most important of the industry's smaller studios. Searching for a singing cowboy hero, Republic recruited Autry, who already was a singing star on radio. Unfortunately, Autry – always a relatively flat performer – never really came alive on screen. Consequently, though most of Autry's films are entertaining, there are few that stand out.

As with many B-Westerns, they seemed to be set in an alternative universe, where automobiles and trucks coexisted with buckboards and stagecoaches, airplanes and radio with traveling medicine shows and mounted bandit gangs. Easily the Autry film most worth viewing is The Phantom Empire, a 12-chapter 1935 serial. It adds an underground kingdom, a crazed queen, her masked cavalry of thunder riders that travel to the surface to execute her bidding (looking as though they are uniformed in tinfoil), robots, and ray guns to the regular anachronistic melting-pot veneer of his features.

Soon after Autry began making Westerns for Republic, he had become not just the studio's but the film industry's biggest Western star. Autry topped the list of the most successful Western stars at the box office from 1937 until 1942, when he left to join the Air Force. By then, Autry had starred in more than 60 Westerns featuring something of a stock company with Smiley Burnette, his comic sidekick in almost all of the films, as well as different country singing groups. Among these, the Sons of the Pioneers were featured in a number of his films.

Long before he went off to war, Autry, always a businessman, had been agitating for a better contract, actually walking off the Republic lot for a short time in 1938. Worried about the economic impact of losing Autry, the studio immediately began looking for a new singing cowboy star. Len Slye, a member of the Sons of the Pioneers, had left the group and changed his name in the hopes of becoming an actor. In 1938 Republic began to groom the newly christened Roy Rogers for stardom. The best directors, producers, and writers at Republic who had been working on Autry's films were switched to Rogers', including even comic sidekick Burnette. This attention paid off as Rogers became the No. 3 Western Box Office Star in 1939 behind (No. 1) Autry and (No. 2) William "Hopalong Cassidy" Boyd. After Autry left for the Air Force, Rogers became No. 1, maintaining that position until the list was discontinued in 1954. The year after Autry returned to filmmaking in 1946, he settled in at No. 2. He starred in just five Republic Westerns before leaving the studio to form his own production unit at Columbia Pictures.

Lest this sound like some deep-seated blood feud, it should be noted that both Autry and Rogers were stars and box office favorites. Together they established the clean-living, alcohol-abstaining, noncursing cowboy star template that dominated film and television Westerns for decades. Their films were often the top productions at Republic, though always more B-movies than A productions. Still, a double bill of B-Westerns proved a commercial draw at many theatres. Autry and Rogers' virtuous archetype proved an even more fertile ground for creative work when, beginning in the late Fifties through the next couple of decades, directors like Sam Peckinpah, Budd Boetticher, Robert Altman, Arthur Penn, and others completely gutted and disemboweled that archetype.

At Columbia, Autry would star in almost 30 more Westerns before hanging up his stirrups in 1953. Rogers actually quit features in 1951, but only after a very hot run of quality Westerns from almost the time Autry left Republic. Rogers benefited from a terrific creative team, especially when William Witney became his sole director after 1947.

After leaving film, both Rogers and Autry had relatively long runs on television. The Gene Autry Show ran on CBS from 1950 through 1956. Rogers co-starred with Dale Evans (they had also made about 20 features together) in a show on NBC from the end of 1951 until the summer of 1957. Rogers was the most popular cowboy star on television through the first half of the 1950s, and reruns of the NBC show were shown on Saturday mornings through the first half of the 1960s.

Rogers was never as successful a recording artist as Autry, who not only recorded around 600 songs but had a monster perennial seasonal hit with "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." A brilliant businessman, Autry ended up the multimillionaire owner of the California Angels baseball team.

Without beating the obvious to death, it's easy to point out the importance of the Western genre to American myth and reality. Almost all works of popular culture are loaded with information about the world in which they were created, offering potential meaning about any range of issues within that society from sex roles, family values, and acceptable codes of behavior to the nature of racial, class, and social structure. Arguably, the country's intense moral debate over Vietnam, for example, was worked out as much in Robert Aldrich's Ulzana's Raid, Arthur Penn's Little Big Man, and Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch as in any war movies specifically about that conflict. Certainly, this is not to suggest that all or most or even any of that information is being intentionally conveyed or consciously created. To examine what entertains us is to examine us. Western films are as often set in an imagined world that freely mixes fact and fiction as in a more specific historically based one. Without being accurate, they can convey the textures and bring to life the kinds of people who lived in the real West. They also can distort, offer revisionist theories about, or misplace emphasis on the country's history. Issuing stamps to honor these four stars who played unreal legends out of a created past adds another layer to a dense and complicated tapestry – one that already combines reality and illusion, storytelling and mythmaking, the exaggerated, the real, and the made up to create something that we hope does not abandon emotional accuracy and is much greater than the sum of its parts.

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