Part One: A Genre is Born

by Bill Monson


For 90 years – from 1903 to 1993 – the western movie was a staple of American popular culture. It was where a frontier people fashioned their myths about themselves.

Borrowing from Tennyson and Scott, from Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show and Ned Buntline's dime pulp novels, western movies created a West that was more dream than reality but which captured the consciousness of a country.

The first smash success in U.S. movie houses was a silent western – The Great Train Robbery – loosely based on a 1901 holdup in Montana by a gang called The Wild Bunch. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, who led the gang, allegedly saw the film later and were pleased by this salute to their efforts. (The robbery with its famous express car dynamiting and the pair later viewing the movie of it were re-created in 1969's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.) Butch and Sundance may have been the first to see themselves literally onscreen; but generations of American boys saw themselves figuratively in western adventures – growing up with the myths they worshipped faithfully in Saturday matinees.

Edwin Porter, who made The Great Train Robbery for the Edison Company, was an early director of silent films who tired of the 40- or 50-foot novelties or episodes in favor at the time. He vowed to create an 800-foot film (2 reels or about 20 minutes) with a story. Shot on the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad outside Dover, New Jersey in September 1903, the film was built around the holdup with no obvious hero. The studio interiors are crude, the acting melodramatic, but the drive of the narrative is irresistible, the editing slick, the direction dynamic – and there are no subtitles to read.

Porter even introduced parallel action, cutting away to a second story as the posse forms to start its pursuit. The chase is poor and the final shootout almost laughable – but when George Barnes as one of the desperadoes appears onscreen in closeup and fires his revolver repeatedly into the camera, a box office smash was born. So was the American Nickelodeon, which used the movie repeatedly among its one- and two- reel offerings. (Edison sold prints of the 740- foot movie outright – for $11.)

Also impressed by the film and its success was one of its actors – Gilbert M. Anderson. A former traveling salesman reduced to fashion modeling, Anderson was really Max Aronson from Little Rock, Arkansas. Porter paid him fifty cents an hour to play several bit roles (such as the passenger shot down trying to escape and the robber who falls wounded off his horse.) Anderson decided to make a career of movies, learning on the job until he could make his own.

Eventually, he moved to Chicago to form a new company with George K. Spoor called Essanay. Anderson bought the screen rights to a character featured in a Saturday Evening Post story called Broncho Billy and headed for California to film it. He tried Los Angeles, then Niles – east of San Francisco – where he finally decided to play the lead himself. Starting with one-reelers, Anderson soon grew into two-reelers; and his Broncho Billy westerns were to be the main profit product of Essanay.

The first American movie hero was a "good bad man," and the simple plots often dealt with his redemption and success. In some, he settled down. Others, he rode away. In some, he even died. But the character continued in new adventures week after week until a falling- out between Spoor and Anderson in 1915 led to the end of the series and the fading of both the character and Anderson's career after 375 silent short films.

Westerns, however, were now firmly established; and new actors and creators would enter the genre and take it to new heights.