"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Sunday, November 29, 2015

The TV Western: Part 3/3

This is the last episode of a three-part post on the TV Western. To read part 1, about the early days of TV oaters, click here. The second part, about the heyday of the genre, is here.

The Western rides off into the sunset

The Sixties, we all know, were a difficult time for America. Assassinations, civil rights injustices, racial tension, Vietnam, feminism, they all seemed to many (poor misguided) people to make the Western less relevant. There was also growing pressure on the TV companies from various bluestocking groups such as PTAs, churches, even the US Senate, to tone down the violence which, said a Senate subcommittee, “can and does contribute to the development of attitudes and actions in many young people which pave the way for delinquent behavior”, although no evidence whatever was presented to justify the assertion that youths were watching Gunsmoke and then going out to loot stores. Given the bourgeois morality purveyed by Western shows, if anything they would have had the reverse effect. But of course they had no effect at all. Anyway, it was the juvenile delinquents’ moms and dads who were watching the Westerns.

Then there was the argument, put forward by JFK’s head of the FCC Newton N Minow, “What will the people of other countries think of us [when they see Westerns]?” Well, actually, Mr. Minow, if you want to know, the people of other countries loved Westerns just as much as Americans did.

Westerns clean up their act

At any rate, Westerns began to change. They were cleaned up and viewers saw less shooting or fisticuffs and there were fewer scenes of saloons and their denizens. And they became more ‘domestic’. The shows that did well were family sagas of one kind another, the Cannon family on The High Chaparral, the Cartwrights on the Ponderosa and Victoria Barkley in The Big Valley. If there wasn’t an actual blood family, Westerns adapted so that there was a family unit. Gunsmoke’s Matt, Doc, Kitty, Festus and, latterly, Newly the gunsmith became one happy family, looking out for each other. Series began to emphasize human concern, tolerance and charity. More children and young adults appeared. All this heart-warming domesticity worked, up to a point. Gunsmoke’s ratings had been in slow but inexorable decline all through the 60s. The average audience, 17 million in 1960 – 61, was, by 1966 – 67, down to 10 million and the series was near cancelation. Once the new ‘cleaned up’ family plots kicked in, from the 1967 – 68 season, it went back up to 14 million, and many of these were new and younger viewers.

Fewer series

Significantly, though, more and more series were canceled and new ones were fewer and fewer. The ones that did launch lasted a season or two at most. In the fall of 1969 no new Western series at all was aired. Under the headline ‘TV Westerns Bite the Dust’, an article in a 1969 edition of Variety said:

A little gunplay, a fist in the gut, an occasional trampling in a stampede, a saloon brawl, a ranch on fire … these have been the lifeblood of the classic American morality tale, and now they’re no longer considered civilized.

Of course violence didn’t disappear from TV screens. Far from it. It just migrated to cop shows. In 1984 the National Coalition on TV Violence (hardly, I agree, the most impartial of commentators) estimated that screen violence had risen 75% since 1980. But Westerns got the blame and TV executives were too sensible, or sensitive, or pusillanimous not to react.

It is interesting to note the prevalence of the language and symbolism of the Western in Vietnam. The generation of Americans fighting there had grown up with Westerns, mostly on TV, and it was no accident that leading celluloid cowboy John Wayne was so high profile there. Troops called dangerous areas “Indian country”, they scrawled on their flak jackets THE ONLY GOOD GOOK IS A DEAD ONE and Vietnamese scouts were called Kit Carsons. It wasn’t new. David Shea Teeple in The American Mercury in 1958 wrote, “Would a Wyatt Earp stop at the 38th Parallel, Korea, when the rustlers were escaping with his herd?” Those who saw the Cold War, and its hotter moments, as simply a struggle between good (the Americans, obviously) and evil (the Commies, obviously) had seen Westerns as an illustrative fable. Time magazine in 1959 argued that the Western was “the great American morality play”, in which “good and evil, … Christian and Pagan fight to the finish on the vast stage of the unbroken plain.” The article added, “In its finest expression [the Western] is an allegory of freedom, a memory and a vision of the deepest meaning of America.”

The Western wasn’t their story

But as the 1960s dribbled to a close, people who saw it in those terms were fewer and fewer. A 1967 show like Custer, with its emphasis on military glory, was hardly in tune with the feeling of the day. Increasingly voices were raised to say that huge numbers of people actually lost their freedom as the West was ‘won’. ‘Manifest Destiny’ entailed the conquest and subjugation of those who had lived for centuries in the ‘empty wilderness’. Native Americans, racial and religious minorities, industrial laborers and women didn’t see the Western as ‘their’ story any more. Westerns, in which the protagonists were overwhelmingly male, white and Protestant, were increasingly seen as anachronisms. Interest waned. And once ratings fall off, TV execs – and their sponsors - are pretty damn quick to axe a show.
Westerns were launched in the 1970s and a few became reasonably popular. Kung Fu was ranked 82 and Alias Smith & Jones got up to 55 but these figures were a far cry from the huge number of viewers for Westerns in the 50s and early 60s. You’d think the Reagan era would be good for Westerns, but no. By the time we got to the 1980s the genre had all but disappeared, and the few shows that were launched (Bret Maverick, Gun Shy, The Yellow Rose and the like) had very low ratings and didn’t last. It was all over.

Or so we thought.

Death of the cowboy

The 1980s were also the time when big-screen Westerns were pronounced dead. Michael Cimino had almost sunk the genre single-handed with his Titanic-like Heaven’s Gate and studios shyed like unbroken broncs at the idea of splashing out budget on oaters. It wasn’t until mid-decade, 1985, that two film-makers, praise be to them, managed to bring out good and big A-Westerns, Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider and Lawrence Kasdan’s Silverado, and people began to think there might be a future for the genre after all. And where Hollywood leads, TV will often follow…
In May 1979 NBC had aired The Sacketts, a two-part adaptation of a series of Louis L’Amour novels, and the Western mini-series was born. The made-for-TV Western movie had already begun to see the light of day. In 1980 CBS’s series The Gambler, with Kenny Rogers, began. And of course at the end of the 80s the perfectly splendid Lonesome Dove showed the way. Suddenly it was TV that had the budget and the time to show adaptations of long novels. Lonesome Dove was followed by several prequels and sequels and they were watched by millions, again.
Hallmark and other channels produced made-for-TV Western movies, and still are doing so. These films can tend towards the bland and they aren't always very good. They are, I suppose, the 21st century's B-movies. But Westerns are being made, and, presumably, watched (sponsors wouldn't tolerate them otherwise).

In the 1990s big-screen Westerns like Open Range (in some ways the centenary Western), Tombstone, Wyatt Earp, Unforgiven and Dances with Wolves drew big crowds and some even won Oscars, and the TV execs began to think there was life in the old dog yet. The new Westerns began to show Indians, women, African-Americans, Chinese in a more positive light. And that trend has continued into our own century. Westerns do not come out every week but they don’t do badly. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, the remake of 3:10 to Yuma, Appaloosa, and so on, are all very good films. Blockbuster Westerns have started to appear, like Cowboys & Aliens and The Lone Ranger. Even Quentin Tarantino is making Westerns (Django Unchained, The Hateful Eight). A Magnificent Seven is coming next year.

And new outlets for TV programs, the likes of HBO and Netflix, are producing movies and series. Deadwood was the most shining example, a stunningly good Western in every way.

We watch TV Westerns now as downloads, on demand, on the new big screens many of us have or even on the iPad. The Western has always adapted, from the dime novel, to the Wild West show, to the early flickers, to the serials, to TV. And I see no reason why it should not continue to do so. We all want fantasies, about the past, the future. It isn’t called escapism for nothing. To argue, as J Fred MacDonald does, that the Western has become incompatible with modern, urban, technological society is to miss the point. The lives we lead today are precisely why we like stories of simpler, more rural, wilder times.

Assuredly, the ‘inevitable’ death of the Western has been yet again postponed.


Saturday, November 28, 2015

The TV Western: Part 2/3

Yesterday, in The TV Western: Part 1,we looked at the birth of the TV Western. Today we’re going to ponder the glory days, as gunsmoke drifted across the screens of millions in their homes.


The second generation

Some of the first generation of TV Westerns ran and ran. The Lone Ranger went from 1949 to 1957 and scored consistently high ratings. There were 156 episodes of The Cisco Kid and 113 of The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok. They were mainstays of our TV viewing and the 1950s wouldn’t have been the 1950s without them.
But from mid-decade on new shows began to appear. Ratings and advertising revenues could now justify higher production values and the big studios began to get in on the act – though tentatively. Columbia, through its TV subsidiary Screen Gems, made The Adventures of Rin-Tin-Tin (avidly followed by young Jeff) and Disney came out with Zorro. Shows like Brave Eagle and Sergeant Preston of the Yukon had more complex plots and, mirabile dictu, even tried some character development. And Brave Eagle gave us an Indian we could view positively and admire, a nice change, even if the Cherokee was played, naturally, by a white man (Keith Larsen). Much of Sergeant Preston was shot outdoors (Colorado standing in for Canada) and Robert Preston (with his canine sidekick Yukon King) could be seen riding in forests or sledding across snowy wastes.

Frontier Doctor, Judge Roy Bean, 26 Men (shot on location in Tucson) and Tales of the Texas Rangers were still pretty juvenile and their heroes were still ultra-goodies (even the scoundrel Bean) but they were classier shows with bigger budgets.

Davy Crockett

Disney mastered the juvenile Western. Over the holiday season 1954/55 Davy Crockett premièred in three hour-long parts: Davy Crockett, Indian Fighter, then Davy Crockett Goes to Congress and Davy Crockett at the Alamo. It was a smash hit. Nielsen estimated that the second show was seen by more than half of all people watching TV. Americans spent more than $100m on Crockettry; 14 million Davy Crockett books were bought and 4 million copies of the record The Ballad of Davy Crockett. Fess Parker was a megastar.  The fad didn’t last and later Disney Crockett films received much less interest but at Christmastime 1954 it was quite extraordinary. Disney and ABC liked the interest (and the $$$) and went on to produce films about Daniel Boone, Andy Burnett, Texas John Slaughter and Elfego Baca.
Davy Crockett was interesting also because it was a transitional Western. Although certainly aimed at children, the shows were also quite mature in some ways. Davy was pretty saintly but he had adult qualities too: the death of his wife made him show characterful vulnerability and grit. And he was a patriot in quite an adult way: he was shown as an unreconstructed and outspoken Democrat in Congress. He told fellow Tennessean President Andrew Jackson that he “wouldn’t be takin’ orders from you, General”. He said he would be “takin’ ‘em from them that elected me.” The show was also more violent than kiddy Westerns were usually. So well before the so-called adult Western appeared in the late 50s, Disney was pioneering the trail.

The TV Western grows up

TV companies knew that adults watched much of their kiddy-destined programming. There seemed a growing market for Westerns more expressly aimed at grown-ups. It was immediately clear from the sponsors: where Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok plugged Sugar Pops and The Lone Ranger Cheerios, Greyhound Buslines sponsored Cimarron City. Proctor & Gamble advertised on fifteen different adult Westerns. Automobiles were especially popular: Willys Jeep advertised on Maverick, Buicks were sold on Tales of Wells Fargo, Fords on Zane Grey Theatre, Edsels on Wagon Train and Gulf gasoline on The Californians. And of course cigarettes were, er, puffed on Laramie, Black Saddle, Bonanza, Gunsmoke, Rawhide and others. The Marlboro Man rode the range; he had been a sea captain but in the new climate he could be nothing but a rugged cowboy.
Suddenly Western heroes were seen drinking whiskey in saloons, smoking, playing poker and, shock-horror, talking to bargirls. Some even had affairs. They sweated and swore – within strict  limits, of course. New stars became celebrities – James Garner, James Arness, Hugh O’Brian, Steve McQueen and Clint Walker, to name but a few. Character actors or B-Western stars from the movies were resurrected and starred in the new shows – Rory Calhoun, John Payne, Dick Powell, Ward Bond.

More interestingly, real talent was attracted to the genre. Seasoned directors such as RG Springsteen, Charles Marquis Warren, Samuel Fuller (cheap black & white TV shows suited his trashy style), and Budd Boetticher were hired to do episodes of a whole variety of Western shows. And new young talent got its start on TV: Robert Altman, Andrew McLaglen and of course Sam Peckinpah. Peckinpah wrote Westerns too, and many other talented writers were used. Some of the shows they produced were little gems, intelligent, crafted and thought-provoking, The Westerner, for example. Yes, many others were formulaic and pretty dire, but still.

The big studios followed Columbia’s lead and plunged in, often as TV spin-offs of their successful movies. Warner Brothers produced Colt .45, Maverick, Bronco, Cheyenne and Sugarfoot; Fox did Broken Arrow, The Legend of Jesse James, Lancer and Custer; MGM Hondo, How the West Was Won, A Man Called Shenandoah; Paramount gave us Bonanza and Universal The Virginian, Tales of Wells Fargo, Wagon Train and Laramie. And the studios produced other shows too.

Dramatic conflict, human insight, outdoor beauty and, of course, action. It was a heady mix. The moralizing remained but was subtler. Still, though, these shows projected a mythic West, a West that never was. They have been criticized for that ‘failing’ but you know, we the viewers are not quite so dumb. We can actually distinguish between myth and reality. You don’t knock children’s authors for writing about witches, ghosts or monsters. Children are more than capable of putting the stories in context and we are too. I am a historian by training. It doesn’t stop me enjoying Westerns.

Heroes live

This ‘adultism’ doesn’t mean that Westerns became less heroic, in content or style. In fact according to Clint Walker, star of Cheyenne, heroism was the main point of these shows:

We are a nation of hero-worshippers and the cowboy can be anybody’s hero. Now being a nation of hero-worshippers isn’t bad, it’s good … From the time we Americans were little shavers sitting on grandfather’s knee until the time when we’re grandfathers ourselves, there’s always the special need to have somebody kind of important to look up to.

Still, heroes or not, there were now social, psychological and moral complexities to be faced. As critic Cleveland Amory phrased it, “Nowadays on TV Westerns there are not only good guys and bad guys, but also in-between guys.”

Gunsmoke & Co

The (slightly more) adult Western really began with four series launched in the fall of 1955: Gunsmoke on CBS, Frontier on NBC, and Cheyenne and The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp on ABC.

Of these, only Frontier failed to last, which was a pity because it some ways it was the best. For one thing it played down gunslinging and concentrated more on the dangers and hardships of settling the West. Of course the opening remark, "This is the way it happened ... movin' west", was balderdash but few adults expected real history from a Western TV show. It had some excellent guest stars, though, and it was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award.
Cheyenne was great (I thought, in my tender years – for let us not forget that just as juvenile Westerns had also been watched by adults, so ‘adult’ Westerns were eagerly consumed by juniors too). Produced by the great William T Orr, it was unusual as an hour-long Western of quality, by a big studio (Warners). It ran until 1963 (with a brief hiatus when the star went on strike), for a total of 108 episodes. It starred Clint Walker as the gentle giant Cheyenne Bodie who, as tradition dictated, wandered the West as a good Samaritan with a Colt (and big fists). James Garner had been considered for the role but as a consolation prize he got to guest star in Episode 1. Cheyenne alternated with Bronco, starring Ty Hardin (introduced during Walker’s suspension of activity) and Sugarfoot, with Will Hutchins. I quite liked Bronco but didn’t cotton much to Sugarfoot. Anyway, Cheyenne knocked spots off both of them.
As for The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, the half-hour black-and-white show, produced by Desilu, showed amazing stamina: it aired for 229 episodes from 1955 to 1961. Hugh O'Brian was chosen as Wyatt because of his supposed similarity to the lawman in old photographs, and the idea was at first (it didn't last) to give a factual and historical Earp.

The first season showed Wyatt as lawman in Ellsworth and Wichita (historical hooey, mostly), and in the second he went to Dodge, where he stayed for three years (the real Earp was there only a year and was only ever assistant or deputy marshal, but never mind). The last two seasons dealt with Tombstone (mostly with Douglas Fowley as Doc Holliday). The show reached #6 in the Nielsen ratings in 1957-58, its high point, but was consistently popular throughout its life. The great and good of Western actors appeared on it and almost every episode seemed to have a famous star of the (Western) silver screen, or the small one anyway. I enjoyed it hugely, I remember, and swallowed whole all the historical distortions and exaggerations. I especially liked Wyatt’s (probably fictional) Colt Buntline.
But of course the big daddy of them all was Gunsmoke. It became part of American culture. Los Angeles Times columnist Cecil Smith wrote, "Gunsmoke was the dramatization of the American epic legend of the west. Our own Iliad and Odyssey, created from standard elements of the dime novel and the pulp western.” By setting the stories in the Dodge of the wild days and having as (fictional) hero noble Marshal Matt Dillon (William Conrad on the radio, James Arness on TV – though John Wayne toyed with taking the part) it was really the quintessential Western myth. Literally millions of people watched it, far more than ever went to see Westerns at the movies, and it cemented and solidified the legend of the American West in American minds. It ran for twenty seasons, (only The Simpsons has gone longer). 635 episodes! I thrilled to it as a boy. Sometimes I had to force my family watch it (for like most people then we only had one TV). To me it was the Western on TV. Nothing else has ever come close.


The four adult Westerns in 1955 quickly spawned a Western boom. By the fall of 1959 there were 28 series running and Westerns were the most popular category of program watched. Networks ran an average of 17.5 hours of Westerns a week. During their first decade more than 60 million people nightly watched adult Western stories, and that was just in the US and just the networks. In terms of film footage, by 1959 TV Westerns represented the equivalent of 400 feature films a year. It really was an astonishing phenomenon. And I had the huge good fortune to be an impressionable youth just at that time. Maybe you did too?

With such an overwhelming quantity of Westerns, writers were hard put to come up with original storylines or anything which marked their series out as innovative or unusual. There were endless shows about lawmen – marshals as in Cimarron Strip, sheriffs like The Tall Man and deputies like The Deputy - but also Texas Rangers, railroad cops, hotel detectives, anyone who might track down bad guys in the West. And of course there were private freelancers like Josh Randall in Wanted: Dead or Alive or Paladin in Have Gun – Will Travel or Shane in Shane. There were railroad men in Union Pacific and The Iron Horse. There were officials – judge (Judge Roy Bean), mayor (Cimarron City), lawyer (Temple Houston). There was even a series about a circus owner (Frontier Circus).

Character dramas

Most series were set in towns, and of course it wasn’t easy to show the great Western outdoors on TV screens, even if the screens did gradually get bigger, and show color. This led to a talkiness, which is sometimes death to the Western, but it forced producers to come up with psychological plots or emotional conflict or interesting interaction and dilemmas for the characters to face. Adult TV Westerns were character dramas.

Speaking of his role in bringing Gunsmoke from radio to TV, CBS vice-president Hubbell Robinson said:

We worked on the character of Matt Dillon. We made him a man with doubts, confused about the job he had to do. He wondered whether he really had to do that job. We did the same for Chester and Doc. They’re not just stooges for Matt.

And producer-director Norman Macdonnell said that whenever Dillon started to look invincible it was time to ‘fix’ him, to write a script in which “poor old Matt gets outdrawn and outgunned and pulls every dumb trick in the book. It makes him, and us, human.”

It wasn’t only Dillon. Paladin in Have Gun – Will Travel was quite a complex character. He was a man ready to shoot, even kill, yet he was a cultured and refined man, and he sometimes questioned himself. Maverick in particular had a subtle take on the Western hero. Were the brothers cowards? They endured insults from bullies and seemed to worry less about male pride and more about the possibility of pain. And they followed their pappy’s advice that “work is alright for killin’ time but it’s a shaky way to make a livin’.” These were not the usual virtues of the Western hero.
Sometimes it didn’t work. Don Siegel was closely involved with bringing The Legend of Jesse James to the small screen. Yet despite the many previous cinematic Jesses who were noble Robin Hoods and spotless in character, TV audiences just couldn’t swallow the notorious sociopath and murderer as a believably sensitive character who was thoughtful about what he was doing. Christopher Jones couldn’t manage it, and the show lasted only one season.

The Tall Man had better luck (2 seasons) but there the hero was the lawman Pat Garrett (Barry Sullivan) rather than the outlaw Billy the Kid (Clu Galager), though even there they tried for a sympathetic Kid. Galager said, “We’re not whitewashing Billy. But at the same time, we are not showing him as nothing but a vicious killer. He had a gentle side.” Actually, though, they were whitewashing him.

And talking of whitewashing, even Johnny Ringo became a lawman. Sad indeed…

In fact, there was a feud between Johnny Ringo and The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp. Wyatt Earp aired an episode showing Ringo as a coward who refused to stand up to Marshal Earp. So the producers of Johnny Ringo wrote an episode in which Earp and Doc Holliday backed down in a disagreement with Ringo…

Not too adult

Of course the label adult did not imply what it does, increasingly, today. These shows remained firmly within the constraints of 1950s propriety. Sex, language and violence were tame by today’s standards. We’re not talking Deadwood here.

In fact there was a strong impetus to tone the 50s and 60s Westerns down and various rather puritan critics lambasted them. NBC’s The Californians at its outset was quite a daring and interesting show. It attempted to depict starkly life on the Barbary Coast and featured racial tension, brutality and lawlessness. The band of vigilantes the hero joined was also of very dubious morality. The sponsors were dissatisfied with such reality and wanted a sanitized Wild West and by season 2 (of 2) the whole thing had been toned down to the extent that it was indistinguishable from any other show.

History? Forget it.

As with certain movies, TV Westerns sometimes claimed historical accuracy. It was complete nonsense, of course. Some audiences might have liked to think what they were seeing was at least half true but most took the shows for what they were. As I have often said in this blog, I don’t care if Westerns are historically inaccurate. That’s not what they are for. You want history? Read a history book, or watch a documentary. But where I do take umbrage is when the movies and TV shows claim to be historically accurate. “This is the way it really happened”, that kind of thing. That steps over the line into what is known to most of us as, er, lying.

Stories of the Century (2 seasons, 65 episodes, 1954 – 55) was a bit like that. It had a superficial ‘documentary’ gloss and it pretended authenticity. It claimed to be based on “official newspaper files”, whatever they might be. It was complete bunkum. Railroad detective Matt Clark (Jim Davis) captured every known outlaw of the West, from before the Civil War until the twentieth century (all the while remaining in his mid-40s, a neat trick) in a series of shows that brutally distorted history until it was completely unrecognizable.
A young Clint Eastwood, then Rowdy Yates, explained, “I like to think that Rawhide is honest. We’re doing stories as they happened. Generally speaking, we’re doing the kind of things that guys really did on the cattle drive.” I don’t think Mr. Eastwood would be quite so naïve now.

Audiences didn’t want fact anyway. They wanted myth. And they got it.

To read about the decline (but not fall) of the TV Western, part 3 is here.


Friday, November 27, 2015

The TV Western: Part 1/3

The visit to the theater is replaced by the small screen

In most ways big-screen Hollywood movies are the best Westerns. Certainly they – and novels - are the forms of the genre that have had the longest history. And true Westernistas (like us) still love them and watch them.

But to a whole generation now aging, let’s say people born in the decade after World War II, the TV was the principal source of our Western input. By the time we were 10 or 12 years old the glory days of the cinematic Western 1950s were over. Theaters showed far fewer Western movies, and matinées of juvenile programmers and serials had all but disappeared by 1960. For us, the baby-boomers now collecting our pensions or about to, a visit to a movie theater to see a Western is, frankly, a rare experience. We watch old movies on sad channels and on DVD but we fall back very often on memories of small-screen cowboys and (more rarely) Indians.

Our favorite TV Western shows

We all had our favorites. Maybe you liked early juvenile black & white series like The Lone Ranger, The Adventures of Kit Carson or The Range Rider. Slightly later you probably watched Davy Crockett, The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin or Hawkeye and the Last of the Mohicans (a particular favorite of mine). And then, as we grew, we got into (relatively) more adult fare such as Gunsmoke (obviously), Have Gun – Will Travel or The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp. Or maybe you came later to the TV Western and avidly followed 1970s series like Alias Smith and Jones or Kung Fu.

Whatever your preferred viewing, chances are that even if you weren’t a dyed-in-the-wool Western fan (you poor soul) you watched some of them. Literally millions did.

Reports of the death of the Western are exaggerated

And even in recent times ‘mini-series’ and HBO have brought us new interpretations of the genre, from Lonesome Dove to Deadwood, and TV is still feeding us our dose of frontier myth. Many have pronounced the Western dead, and many others have announced that its decline is terminal but it never seems actually to expire. I am relieved to say.
A personal reminiscence

I myself first came to the Western through TV. It was The Lone Ranger. I was five. We did not have a ‘television set’ (as it was called then) but a neighbor did and he kindly invited us in (we were six kids) to watch it. I was instantly entranced. It was utterly gripping. The Lone Ranger and Tonto were surrounded in some rocks with badmen shooting at them. Ammunition ran low until the Ranger had only one silver bullet left… The suspense was palpable. Just then my bossy sister, 10, picked me up bodily, announced that the show as “too exciting” for a boy of my age and plonked me outside the door. And I never did get to find out how the heroes escaped (for they did; they were on again the next week). I think it was this trauma that has driven me on in a lifelong need to see every Western, to find out just what did happen, the how and why of everything. I must remember to ask Dr. Nussbaum about it.
Anyway, I graduated to Hawkeye, as I said, and as a teenager became an assiduous follower of Gunsmoke and Have Gun – Will Travel. Even then I tended to warm more to the bad guys and Have Gun had the added attraction that the hero himself was semi-bad. He was a gun for hire after all, and wore black, even though he was usually depressingly good, helping people out and all. The same with Josh Randall: I mean bounty hunters are bad, right? Roaming the West bringing in outlaws dead or alive, that wasn’t a very respectable profession. He was my kinda hero. Plus, he had a really cool gun. But I don’t know how he made a living; he was always donating his bounty to some worthy widow or famished farmer. Sigh.

Who Shot the Sheriff?

An enjoyable book on the TV Western is Who Shot the Sheriff? The Rise and Fall of the Television Western by J Fred MacDonald (Praeger, New York, 1987). The book has its faults, containing errors (Mr. MacDonald seems to think that John Ford directed Red River, for example) and many typos and misspellings. It occasionally also strays into rather pretentious language, a common fault with writers on movie and TV shows – we are only talking Westerns here, and it’s hardly high philosophy. But overall the book is an entertaining survey of the genre from the early juvenile black & white TV oaters to the present (1987) day.
After some high-falutin' introductory remarks on the spirit of the Western and “the Western and American civilization” the author charts the history of the Western on TV from its first effective days in the late 1940s. By 1960, he says, 89.4 per cent of households had a TV and 6 million sets were being produced annually. The average household watched 5 hours and 22 minutes of TV per day. And Westerns were huge. Already by 1951 Westerns were viewed at least once a week in 66.3% of homes with children (the first TV Westerns were aimed at a juvenile market) and even in 39.2% of homes without children. By mid-decade the Western had almost taken over: in 1955 Westerns came fifth in the ratings of prime time popularity, behind variety, situation comedy music and “adventure” but ahead of quizzes and drama, but by 1956 Westerns were top, with an astonishing share of 41.


The first TV Westerns were modeled on and overlapped with the B-movies so popular with juvenile audiences in the 1930s and 40s. An early and far-sighted pioneer was William Boyd, who had by 1948 shrewdly bought up the TV rights to his Hopalong Cassidy movies and also won the right to make new Hoppy films expressly for TV. Boyd had successfully made the transition from a romantic leading man in silent movies (who couldn’t even ride a horse) to immensely popular Western hero. He made 66 movies and became the most admired cowboy star of his generation.
The first shows were cut-down Hoppy movies, tailored to fit into an hour slot with commercials. Beginning locally in New York City and LA, his shows spread rapidly to NBC and nationwide exposure. For a sixteen-month period the series averaged a rating of 32.6 and reached over 4 million homes weekly, and according to the Nielsen ratings was the seventh most popular show on TV.

Hopalong Cassidy was black & white in more ways than one. It operated in a binary moral world where children were encouraged to see only good and evil. Hoppy was a sarsaparilla-drinking patriot, a benign father figure who risked his own life (though not really as he was invincible) fighting for the rights of the good but weak and downtrodden. Of course he never dallied with girls. In fact in all his movies Hoppy only ever kissed someone once, and she was on her deathbed. It was an innocent world, encapsulated by the poem on the inner sleeve of a later Don McLean LP in which he said that

No matter how scary life got I could depend on you

and added

I believed in you so much that I’d take my Stetson
Off and put it over my heart whenever anybody died

Hoppy set the tone. All early Western TV heroes were patriotic, puritan do-gooders and their shows were didactic and very bourgeois. But that suited the audience of the time and Westerns have always reflected the mores of the generation they are made for. The stars’ codes and creeds were much approved of by the viewers’ parents (who often watched with their bairns). Members of Hoppy’s Troopers Club, for example, had to swear

To be kind to birds and animals
To always be truthful and fair
To never split infinitives [No, I made that one up]
To keep yourself neat and clean
To always be courteous
To be careful when crossing streets
To avoid bad habits [these were tactfully not specified]
To study and learn your lessons
To obey your parents.

Well, there are worse codes to live by, I suppose. Funny that there are only eight commandments. Maybe Hoppy wanted to avoid comparisons.

Made-for-TV Westerns

The ratings success of reworked Western B-movies made TV companies reflect that rather than purchase rights to old studio movies it would be more profitable to make their own. Such shows could also fit schedules more easily and be the length desired. Heroes of theater serials and radio were sought out to star in their own shows, and Republic/radio stars Roy Rogers and Gene Autry were early contenders.

The Cisco Kid, The Lone Ranger and Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok were also early hits. Autry was another shrewd operator: he formed Flying A Productions to produce his own show as well as The Range Rider, Annie Oakley, Buffalo Bill Jr., and even his horse got his own show, The Adventures of Champion.
Even though they were making their own shows, TV companies were still dependent on B-movie expertise, and drafted in directors, ators, writers and crew from the old serials and programmers. Don Miller, historian of the B-Western, wrote, “Instead of inventing new techniques of its own, [TV] was content to borrow from the established, conventional motion pictures methods.”

Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok was a good example. It was made by experienced ex-Monogram crew and was done for $12,000 an episode. According to Guy Madison (who was Wild Bill), “We couldn’t waste any time on TV. We made a half-hour show in two and a half days. That included dialogue, action and everything. At one point we knocked off seven films in seventeen days.”
Madison, Bill Williams in The Adventures of Kit Carson, Duncan Renaldo in The Cisco Kid, Jock Mahoney in The Range Rider (another favorite of mine) and, encouragingly, a woman, Gail Davis in Annie Oakley, were all good-looking heroes who had no personal vices, were clearly (if sometimes sanctimoniously) on the side of right and always had the Western savvy and courage to defeat the bad guys. They never actually killed them, of course, preferring to shoot pistols out of their hands or biff them about a bit and hand them over to the local sheriff. For the kids, these heroes were imaginary elder brothers (or sister) to admire and to emulate. The stars’ sidekicks (for they nearly all had them) were less handsome but unquestioningly loyal with almost (but not quite) as much initiative.

Part 2 of this post looks at the heyday of the TV Western and you can read it by clicking here. Part 3, about the decline (but not fall) of the small-screen oater, is here.


Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Trail Street (RKO, 1947)

Randy is Bat

By 1949 Randolph Scott was not only starring in Westerns; he was also producing them. He produced two in that year, The Walking Hills and Trail Street, for the second of which he was associate producer with Nat Holt, the Tales of Wells Fargo guy. Scott did a trio of RKO Westerns with Holt at this time (Badman’s Territory in 1946, Trail Street in ’47 and Return of the Badmen in ‘48) and while none was what you might call a classic or great example of the genre, they were all solid, enjoyable oaters with real quality.
It's a B-Western with oomph
Trail Street is a Bat Masterson tale. Bat was of course a great favorite of Hollywood (Randy’s was in fact only the third screen Bat but there would be many more, on the big screen and small) and he was usually portrayed, as here, as a steely lawman with a slightly laid-back approach, and a bit of a dandy. It wasn’t that far from the truth. However, Randy as Bat doesn’t appear till a good quarter of an hour into the movie and you do get the feeling that Trail Street was something of a trail for RKO’s young star Robert Ryan, much as Columbia’s The Desperadoes (in which Scott also theoretically topped the bill) was for Glenn Ford. Randy was a modest and generous man, though, who was perfectly willing to stand back a little and give a good dose of the limelight to other actors.
The real Bat
In my belief Robert Ryan was one of the greatest Western actors of all time, especially as the bad guy, though this was an early Western effort of his (he had had small parts in two oaters in 1940 but this was his first big role) and he doesn’t really shine all that much. He plays a good guy (he was also in another Scott/Holt movie when he was splendidly bad as the Sundance Kid in Return of the Badmen). But in Trail Street he is Allen Harper, capitalist with a heart of gold who is generously aiding Kansas farmers - for yes, this is a classic ‘honest homesteaders vs. greedy big ranchers’ plot.
Ryan dallies with both gals
Quite a lot is made of Bat's journalistic ambitions. Masterson did of course eventually become a journalist in New York (and died at his desk there in 1921) but there is no evidence that journalism was his lifelong ambition. Still, Hollywood liked the idea – Keith Larsen was a boy reporter in Wichita when Joel McCrea’s Wyatt Earp was marshal there, a preposterous notion - and in Trail Street Bat often mentions that he wants to start scribbling, and at the end of the movie he goes off to New York to do exactly that.

The one who writes to Dodge City to invite Bat in to clean up the town of Liberal, though, is not Ryan but Gabby Hayes, as Billy Burns, who did the required amusing-old-timer sidekick role in all three of the Scott/Holt pictures. Gabby was always enjoyable, if perhaps a tad typecast, though he was near the end of the career and in fact is said to have suffered a heart attack on the set of Trail Street. It can’t have been too bad because he finished it OK and he did five more Westerns, three of them with Randy, and The Gabby Hayes Show on TV before he expired (of another heart attack) in 1969. Gabby’s nephew said, “Randolph Scott was really one of the finest gentlemen he [Gabby] ever had any dealings with. They not only worked together on screen, but they were close friends off screen.”
Gabby tells another tall tale
The story is based on the novel Golden Horizon by William Corcoran, worked up into a screenplay by the very experienced Norman Houston (50 B-Westerns) and the less hardened but more-than-competent Gene Lewis. It’s directed by reliable Ray Enright, who did 17 Westerns, from a 1927 Rin Tin Tin picture to a Sterling Hayden B-Western of 1952 but his best work was certainly with Randolph Scott: The Spoilers in 1942 and, in particular, the gripping Coroner Creek in 1948.

There are the obligatory two dames, a prim and proper rather glamorous one, for whom the hero (Ryan, though, not Randy) will probably fall, and the racier saloon gal with whom Ryan may dally but who will not win his heart (or engagement ring). The good girl, Susan, is Madge Meredith, famous for being sentenced, later that year, to five years for complicity in an assault on her manager. It was later proved that she had been framed and she was released. This was the first of her three Western movies, though she also did quite a few Western TV shows. The saloon singer was Anne Jeffreys (also in Return of the Badmen) who is quite good with her 1940s-ish songs (I thought You’re Not the Only Pebble on the Beach was especially groovy) and she prances about the saloon in one of those silly 1940s frilly dresses that look more like Victorian underwear (I’m sure no one ever actually wore those things). She gets a bullet in the back from the baddy in the last reel, which seems a bit harsh, but 40s Hollywood morals couldn’t allow a common saloon girl to win the hero’s hand. La Jeffreys also said nice things about Randy: “He was a thorough gentleman, pleasant and easy to work with.”
They've all got guns
Frequently-seen but bland-ish B-Western heavy Steve Brodie (The Far Country and pretty well every Western TV show you care to name) is the bad guy Maury, who eventually gets his just desserts, natch, though not actually at the wrong end of Bat’s gun. The, er, imposing Billy House is the slimy saloon owner Carmody in a fancy vest. Among the lesser parts are Harry Harvey as the mayor and Jason Robards Sr. as, well, Jason. And Ken Maynard’s younger brother Kermit is a gunman.
Fat saloon owner
The music is by Paul Sawtell, always good, and J Roy Hunt (who worked on the 1929 The Virginian and on Annie Oakley in 1935) was behind the camera, though most was done ‘in town’ (i.e. on a sound stage) and there’s nothing remarkable or especially noteworthy about the black & white photography except one rather good shot of Ryan at a window overlooking wheatfields.

There’s the tried-and-tested scenario of the bad guys coming to bust one of their number out of jail and the good guys, the marshal aided by co-stars, determined to prevent that happening. You might call it the Rio Bravo plot. It all leads to quite a good night-time shoot-out in the street. Gabby also plays his own cousin Brandyhead Jones, the object of all Gabby’s tall tales, who arrives on the stage in the last reel.

Undemanding (The New York Times said it was “just another pistol drama”) but all in all a very satisfactory B-Western with considerable oomph.

Gabby Hayes as Bat Masterson's deputy