THE AMERICAN WESTERN MOVIE
Part Five: "The Singing Cowboys"
by Bill Monson
In the beginning, nearly all western movies were cheap and quickly made--usually no longer than 20 minutes. By the late Teens,
however, some companies began to make
features of an hour's length or more. By the Twenties, silent westerns had divided into A's and B's. The A's were feature-length, made by larger studios, and usually had a big star such as Gary Cooper with a budget to match. B's encompassed everything else.
When sound arrived, all westerns nearly
died. The early, primitive microphones did not do well outdoors--and many of the silent action heroes did not fare well with dialogue. Giants like Tom Mix continued their popularity by "streamlining" the stories so that little dialogue was necessary; and lesser stars followed his formula. Still, as microphones improved and westerns revived, there was a constant turnover as studios and independent companies sought rugged types who could handle both a horse and a speech.
Leaders among the new types were Buck
Jones and Ken Maynard. Both were Wild West Show and circus veterans who had started in silents. Jones became Mix's heir at Fox Studios while Maynard worked for many companies. Both proved capable of dialogue but preferred "streamlined westerns" with the accent on action.
Maynard was constantly seeking an edge
on other western stars. He specialized in the "running insert"--a hell-for-leather ride which was filmed from a camera car to highlight the hero. He also did incredible stunts in closeup to prove he needed no double for his action work. When better mikes arrived, he decided to do musical numbers. Maynard thus became the first "singing cowboy." His producer at Mascot Pictures, Nat Levine, thought it would be better to hire professional singers as supporting players to provide the singing. The
first one he chose was a former telegrapher from Oklahoma who had climbed to minor fame on "The WLS National Barn Dance" and through records. The young man's name was Gene Autry.
Ken Maynard had a drinking problem which made him increasingly temperamental; after one feature with Autry, he walked out on Nat Levine and Mascot Pictures. Levine decided to replace him with Autry. Gene was groomed in a serial which combined western, science- fiction and modern radio show business. Incredibly, "The Phantom Empire" became a success. When Mascot Pictures joined with Monogram and other smaller outfits to form Republic Pictures, Autry became an important part of the merger. He made 58 features for the studio and became its major star. His films were streamlined B-westerns, often set in modern times, where Gene simply played himself. They included as much music as action. However, Autry soon was the number one-rated western star. He also had his own CBS radio show "Melody Ranch" as well as several best-selling records.
But in 1942, Autry left his lucrative career to enlist in the U.S. Air Transport Command. When he returned to Republic in 1945, he was second to Roy Rogers as "king of the Cowboys." After six more Republic features,
Autry formed Flying A Productions and released his remaining pictures through Columbia Studios. He also returned to radio but left it in 1950 for the new field of television. He made 91 half-hour episodes of "The Gene Autry Show" for CBS-TV; and his production company also turned out other TV series like "Annie Oakley," "The Range Rider," and
"Buffalo Bill, Jr." He continued to make records (like "Rudolph the Red-Nosd Reindeer) and run his World Championship Rodeo until 1960, when he retired from performing. He kept active in show biz, however. He bought an LA radio station, the California Angels baseball team, an interest in the LA Rams football team, and some music publishing firms.
His acting may have been derided, his
singing westerns excoriated for distorting the image of the West, but his business acumen was never in doubt. Gene Autry died the
richest of all the western movie stars.