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The Western: An Overview

Page 1Page 2Page 3Page 4Page 5Page 6Page 7    by Gary Johnson -- page 3 of 7

The King of the Cowboys, Roy Rogers,
and his horse Trigger.

The B Western

As the major studios turned to producing double bills in the '30s, a need developed for producing inexpensive co-features. Hollywood created the series Western to fill this need. As a result, most studios signed one or more cowboy stars to provide up to eight Westerns per year. By 1932 most big silent Western stars were reestablished in series of their own. In addition, new stars such as John Wayne and Randolph Scott emerged.

The series Western was a brazenly formulaic production, with plots motivated by straightforward villainy. Fist fights, chases, and shoot outs flourished. Stories usually revolved around the ranch, where range wars and greedy land grabbers lurked. Dialogue was quick and to the point. Type casting abounded so that audiences knew immediately who was good and who was evil. A man's best friend was often his horse. Occasionally a hero might have a romantic interest, but the love would be completely chaste. In fact the hero would never straight out declare his love or intentions, but only through oblique references might he suggest he'd be coming around courtin'.

Stuntman Yakima Canutt makes the transfer from horse to stagecoach in a Republic B Western.
[click photo for larger version]

This period marked the beginning of the B Western's reign, a period that was "a paradise for those who cared little for the poetry of Ford or the dedicated realism of Hart. . . . It was a great time for those people who couldn't get enough of nonstop galloping horses, crackling six-guns, and the unique sound of the impact of fist on chin" (Everson, pg. 143). Matinee performances played to theaters packed with children who urged on the heroes by screaming and throwing popcorn. Evening performances were no less hectic, as wise-cracking adults delighted in mocking the heroes and their endeavors.

Hollywood studios perfected the assembly line process and cranked out B Westerns in astonishing numbers. (B Westerns were shot quickly, often in 5 days or less for as little as $10,000.) Republic Studios, founded by Herbert J. Yates in 1935 from a group of studios teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, produced more B Westerns than any other studio. Compared to their competitors, Republic's production values were high, featuring razor-sharp cinematography, thrilling stunt work by the legendary Yakima Canutt, and stirring musical scores.

Gene Autry serenades Jean Heather in The Last Round-Up (1947).
[click photo for larger version]

Gene Autry and Roy Rogers were the major Western stars during Republic's reign. Autry, a veteran country-and-western singer, had already starred in Mascot's bizarre Western/science fiction serial, The Phantom Empire. In 1935 Republic gave him a series of his own. His first Western, Tumbling Tumbleweeds, established the model for future singing cowboy Westerns, featuring no less than six songs. Autry, however, still needed some seasoning, especially his acting and horse riding abilities. But soon enough, an agreeable formula developed with Autry as the warm and friendly hero of the cowboys. His personality never acquired much color (some people say he was bland), but he exuded a knightly demeanor that Western fans loved. When trouble came to the range, he urged everyone to stick together no matter what the bank or the landowners threatened. His films took place in a world precariously balanced between the old West and the modern world, featuring (often in the same movie) runaway stagecoaches, barroom brawls, high powered cars, army tanks, and airplanes. Autry became not only the biggest moneymaking Western hero but one of the top ranking Hollywood stars overall.

The success of Autry produced many singing imitators, including Tex Ritter, Bob Baker, and Dick Foran. But the only one to match, or even come close to Autry was his stablemate at Republic, Roy Rogers. Whereas Autry was likeable but colorless, Rogers was loaded with charisma. After Gene Autry joined the Armed Forces during WWII, Republic pushed Rogers as "King of the Cowboys." For twelve consecutive years he became the number one box-office Western star. The early Rogers Westerns, which first appeared in 1938, had flair and style and benefitted from the comedy relief of George "Gabby" Hayes. They usually took place in the Old West, co-starred his horse Trigger, and featured plenty of action. By the early '40s his films had become structured around musical routines, and the settings had become modern. The songs became mildly spectacular production numbers with Rogers and heroine Dale Evans garishly outfitted and the Sons of Pioneers dressed like a Broadway chorus line. Westerns such as Idaho and The Cowboy and the Senorita could be more honestly labeled musicals. When Willim Witney became Rogers' regular director in 1946, action was again stressed at the expense of music, and Rogers, now more simply attired, was often featured in surprisingly blunt fistfights.

William Boyd played Hopalong Cassidy in a long-running series of B Westerns..
[click photo for larger version]

William Boyd as Hopalong Cassidy offered Autry and Rogers their biggest competition. A former DeMille leading man from the silent period, Boyd carried the refined elegant air of the gentleman, a far cry from the salty old-timer in Clarence E. Mulford's books, upon which the movies were based. Boyd cleaned up the Hopalong character and eliminated the limp (after the first movie). The series established a formula where the pacing began deliberately and then gradually increased until it was time for a huge shootout, often involving several posses that join together and ride to the rescue.

Other important B Western stars of the '30s and '40s included George O'Brien, Bill Elliott, Tex Ritter, Charles Starrett, Tim Holt, and Johnny Mack Brown. O'Brien (who starred in Ford's The Iron Horse) was a rugged and muscular actor with superior acting skills. Elliott played a modestly attired hero who wore his guns with handles forward in their holsters. Ritter played a singing cowboy in the Gene Autry mold. Starrett played the Zorro-like Durango Kid. Tim Holt played a boyish hero for RKO. He also provided excellent supporting performances in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and My Darling Clementine. Brown played Nevada John McKenzie in a long series of Westerns at Monogram.

Tex Ritter and Kenne Duncan in Roll, Wagons, Roll (1939).
[click photo for larger version]

Receiving much less attention but playing an equally important role were directors such as William Witney and Joseph H. Lewis. Witney saw ways to improve action scenes by fragmenting the action into short individual shots, instead of long single takes as was typical in most B Western fight scenes. As a result, the action scenes in his films frequently pack a strong punch. Joseph H. Lewis (who achieved cult status with his film noir classic Gun Crazy) broke up the frame by shooting through wagon wheels and dropping the camera to knee level. His inventive uses of cinematography made his Westerns seem fresh and exciting even when the stories and characters were unexceptional.

The Golden Age of the B Western lasted until the late '40s, when budget constraints started to affect the product. Even the slick Republic B Westerns looked drab. Part of the problem was the studios had been forced to divest themselves of their theaters. Without an instant market for their product, the B Westerns would have to be sold on their own merits. (As a result, production budgets were slashed.) Another part of the problem, however, was the studios saw the B Westerns as simply a product for a relatively unsophisticated audience and then merely recycled the same stale old plots and action scenes in movie after movie. As the '50s approached, rarely did imagination make any imprint in the B Westerns. The typical story featured a fistfight, a chase, and a shootout, and the formula rarely varied.

Meanwhile, television was beginning to have an effect on the theaters. By the early '50s, Boyd, Autry, and Rogers had all moved their operations to television, although Autry and Rogers still made occasional features. With a growing number of television Westerns--including Cisco Kid, The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok, The Lone Ranger, and Death Valley Days--many moviegoers chose to stay at home. Gradually the theaters stopped booking B Westerns. By 1954 the series Western--like the stagecoach and the covered wagon--was a relic of the past.

page 3 of 7


Page 1 Introduction

Page 2 Beginnings

Page 3 The B Western

Page 4 The Rise of the Feature Western

Page 5 The Western Matures

Page 6 The Western Loses Its Way

Page 7 The Western Survives

[Works Cited]



Other Western articles in this issue:

The Western Menu Page

The Western: An Overview

The Silent Western as Mythmaker

Spaghetti Westerns

Western Web Links


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