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

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.


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