B Westerns and Early TV
The original cowboy heroes of TV galloped out of the popular cultural past. They were the sagebrush champions of vintage B Western feature films. This was an improbable development since the bulk of these low-budget movies had been made for theatrical distribution in the 1930s. By the time they came to video in the late 1940s and early 1950s, many of their cowboy stars were middle-aged, retired, or deceased.
The B Western—sometimes called budget Western, or in the words of film historians George N. Fenin and William K. Everson, the "small-scale horse opera"—emerged and flourished during the Depression. Such films were inexpensive to produce and needed only a small box-office draw to be profitable. Furthermore, they had a loyal movie-going constituency, as they were especially popular with youngsters, rural audiences, and blacks. Rex Allen, the star of many B Westerns, explained the structure and allure of the genre in an interview in the mid-1970s.
The films had simple, formulaic plots; but they were enjoyable for their emphasis on action and their moralistic reiteration of Good victorious over Evil. Although several movie studies continued to make B Westerns until the mid-1950s, the Golden Age for this film style ended during World War II when production costs rose, a new sense of critical realism entered the American cinema, and TV emerged as a competitor.
Nonetheless, the new television industry that emerged in the late 1940s revived many B Western heroes. Names like Tim McCoy, Ken and Kermit Maynard, Wild Bill Elliott, Hoot Gibson, Charles Starrett as the Durango Kid, Tom Mix, and Bob Steele—well respected by children growing up a generation earlier—became household terms again. In fact, the exploits of these sagebrush stars were among the most popular offerings of early TV. By airing their old films, television gave a new set of youngsters those action-filled stories of bold, if somewhat one-dimensional, champions who upheld law and order against an army of assorted outlaws.
The many fistfights, shoot-outs, and chases across the desert underscored the prowess of these revitalized heroes. The various guises in which they encountered evil—cattle rustling, bank robbing, claim jumping, the burning of farms, cold-blooded murder, and the like—only demonstrated their crime-busting versatility. The requisite happy ending that followed their victories stressed the satisfaction inherent in the defeat of immorality by morality.
In those first years of commercial television, Westerns played a key role in generating mass enthusiasm for the medium, especially among children. This was noticeable in the hours when such programs were scheduled. Weekends in the morning and afternoon and weekdays in the late afternoon were filled with cowboy dramatics. Sponsored by bread companies, breakfast cereal manufacturers, bubble gum makers, and similar youth accounts, two-fisted cowboy dramatics permeated juvenile viewing hours.
The verve with which such video approached young people was epitomized in promotional advertisements of the time. One Chicago TV log publicized a program in 1948 by proclaiming, "Cowboys and Indians go rootin' tootin' over the plains, and Tom Mix arrives on Tony in the nick of time to keep a new generation of youngsters from falling off the edge of their seats." A year later the arrival of The Lone Ranger on television was heralded: "Yes, now you can SEE the Lone Ranger and his great horse Silver as he fights for justice and fair play in the sagebrush country." Hopalong Cassidy in late 1949 was promoted as
Thrills ... Excitement ... Suspense
Spine-tingling episodes never shown before on TV
Hard shootin' . . . hard ridin' sagas of the Old West.'
For their part, children in these vintage years of TV strongly supported Western programming. A survey of youngsters in metropolitan New York City in April 1949 determined that cowboy dramas were the favorite entertainment of juvenile viewers. Asked to choose three programs or types of entertainment they most preferred, their tastes emerged as shown in Table 2.
|Table 2: Children’s TV Programs, April 1949|
|First Preference by Program/Type (in percentages)|
|2. HOWDY DOODY||51.1|
|3. MILTON BERLE||43.8|
|4. LUCKY PUP||31.4|
|5. SMALL FRY CLUB||30.7|
|6. KUKLA, FRAN AND OLLIE||27.00|
“Study of Children’s Programs,” The Television Audience of Today
|Vol. 1, No. 2 (April 1949) NBC Records.|
Respondents were asked for first three selection
Importantly, too, the popularity of Westerns was high in all age categories as the genre ranked first with children 9 to 10, and second with those 5 to 8 and 11 to 14. Even mothers and fathers seemed to approve, for Westerns ranked second only to Milton Berle's Texaco Star Theater as TV fare viewed together by parents and children.
Surveys throughout the early 1950s reaffirmed the popularity of television Westerns. Where adults in early 1950 rated Western features as their eighth-favored type of programming, youngsters made such offerings their first choice by a wide margin over animated cartoons, comedy shorts, and sports. By April 1951 Westerns were viewed at least once each week by 66.3 percent of homes with children, and by 39.2 percent of those without children. As late as December 1955 such popularity continued as 58.3 percent of those responding admitted watching cowboy feature films on TV—and 60.5 percent of these viewers considered such motion pictures to be "as good as, or better than other types of TV movies."'
The early match between B Western films and television was a marriage of convenience. With a lack of packaged productions, and the reluctance of the major studios to release their movies for telecasting, the availability of old cowboy features and serials was welcomed by TV. For the companies that produced these films—Mascot, Monogram, PRC, Lone Star, Republic, Columbia, and others—it was also a profitable development. By leasing their old productions to TV they gained unexpected revenue from motion pictures that were anachronisms in most postwar theaters.
In the long run, however, video profited more from the B Westerns. With these movies TV stations were able to expand their hours on the air and, subsequently, sell more time to sponsors. Further, the popularity of the genre enticed hesitant consumers still not persuaded that TV programming was worth the price of a television set.
Countless formulaic features and serials were aired in those premier years of popular TV. A viewer might encounter such stars and titles as Ken Maynard in Tombstone Canyon (1932), Smoking Guns (1934), Six Shootin' Sheriff (1938), or Western Courage (1935). Bob Steele could be seen as a scrappy battler for justice in films such as The Land of Missing Men (1930), Law of the West (1932), and The Colorado Kid (1937). Others likely to be viewed included Hoot Gibson in The Gay Buckaroo (1932) and The Riding Avenger (1936), John Wayne in Randy Rides Alone (1934), Tex Ritter in Hittin' the Trail (1937), and Larry "Buster" Crabbe in Billy the Kid in Texas (1940).
In the heyday of the theatrical B Westerns, the studios churning out this type of entertainment frequently teamed their leading men in series of cowboy movies. Now in early television these ensembles of frontier champions—with names like the Range Busters, Range Riders, Texas Rangers, Rough Riders, Three Mesquiteers, and Trailblazers—were part of the renaissance. Since such filmic teams often included prominent box-office stars—John Wayne and Duncan Renaldo appeared as members of the Three Mesquiteers, Ray "Crash" Corrigan was one of the Range Busters, and Tex Ritter starred in the Texas Ranger series—their corporate pacification of the West complemented their single-handed exploits in other films.
B Westerns were usually telecast locally where they were adapted to non-network demands for time and advertising. They were aired within a showcase called something such as Six-Gun Playhouse, Sagebrush Theater, Trail Blazers' Theater, or Saddle and Sage Theater. With less imagination, it might be labeled simply Western Theater or Cowboy Playhouse.
Here, the presentation was usually hosted by local personalities dressed in cowboy clothing and named Foreman Tom, Wrangler Bruce, Cactus Jim, Ranger Joe, the Masked Rider, or the like. In several instances, however, celebrities such as cowboy actors Tim McCoy and Iron Eyes Cody in Los Angeles, Buster Crabbe in New York City, and country-western singers Bob Atcher in Chicago and Doye O'Dell in Los Angeles hosted local B Western showcases. Moreover, several such programs even became national offerings: The Ghost Rider originated from Philadelphia in 1951-52, but was seen nationally on CBS stations; and in the fall of 1950 Western star Rex Bell hosted Cowboys 'n' lnjuns in Los Angeles for ABC.
Network interest in the juvenile Western even led to attempts at cowboy series telecast live from TV studios and film lots. The Marshal of Gunsight Pass in 1950 starred Russell Hayden and later Eddie Dean in a weekly struggle against desperadoes. It originated from a sound stage of the Vitagraph Studios that ABC had remodeled as its Los Angeles video facility.
More ambitious was Action in the Afternoon, a serialized mid-afternoon drama seen weekdays on CBS between February 1953 and January 1954. Set in a Montana town in the 1890s, it originated from suburban Philadelphia and exploited a back lot Western town as well as an indoor studio to relate its tales of the Old West.
As for Western movies, they could be shown in their entirety, edited for commercials and dropped into specified time slots, or segmented and continued over two or more days. Early in the history of TV, local programmers were learning the adaptability of motion pictures to the needs of advertisers.
While feature films required editing to be used as segmented programming, vintage Western serials were tailor-made for this purpose. To tell its entire story each serial usually lasted 12 to 15 separate installments. Since each chapter ran about 12 minutes, serials fit comfortably into quarter-hour or half-hour time periods, still allowing ample time for commercials.
On television, moreover, the cliff-hanger endings, which brought patrons back to movie theaters for each new chapter, now proved equally alluring for TV viewers seeking to know if the hero survived apparent death. Among the more popular Western serials to air in early video was Custer's Last Stand, a production from 1936 that offered Rex Lease in a 15-chapter trek toward the Little Big Horn. Also telecast many times locally were Harry Carey in The Last of the Mohicans (1932), Tom Mix in The Miracle Rider (1935), and the team of Rin-Tin-Tin, Jr. and Rex, "King of the Wild Horses," in The Law of the Wild (1934).