Made-For-TV Westerns:
The First Generation

The popularity of Hopalong Cassidy films illustrated early that Americans were attracted to programming that spotlighted a single, recurring and glamorous personality. Rather than purchase legal rights to their old movies and package them for TV, several stars of vintage Westerns began producing original series expressly for television. Beginning in 1949 viewers encountered an array of these new programs that, however, borrowed much of their quality and spirit from B Westerns. In many instances, moreover, the new shows also borrowed characters, actors, and production units from those older feature films.

The ethos of matinee idols like Buck Jones, Sunset Carson, Whip Wilson, George Houston, and Johnny Mack Brown was found in made-for-TV series such as The Cisco Kid, The Gene Autry Show, The Lone Ranger, The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok, and The Roy Rogers Show. Many leading men in these series were already familiar to movie-going youngsters. For more than a decade Gene Autry and Roy Rogers were respected stars of Westerns made at Republic Pictures and in Autry’s case, Columbia Pictures as well. They were also popular recording artists, and their radio programs had been network features throughout the 1940s.

While the Cisco Kid and the Lone Ranger had appeared in feature films and serials, they were most familiar as heroes of radio series. In particular, the Lone Ranger had a rich broadcasting career, appearing since 1933 in complete half-hour dramas three times each week.

To write, direct, and photograph the new TV programs, producers were heavily reliant upon personnel with experience in making B Westerns. According to the principal historian of the B Western film, Don Miller, "instead of inventing new techniques of its own, [television] was content to borrow from the established, conventional motion pictures methods.

The Cisco Kid was often directed by Lambert Hillyer, a director of Westerns since the 1920s whose theatrical films featured the likes of William S. Hart, Tim McCoy, Charles Starrett, Wild Bill Elliott, Duncan Renaldo, Johnny Mack Brown, Whip Wilson, Jimmy Wakely, and Buck Jones. Gene Autry formed Flying "A" Productions to create his own program as well as Annie Oakley, The Range Rider, Buffalo Bill, Jr., and a series featuring his celebrated horse, The Adventures of Champion. To direct episodes in these series, Autry frequently employed George Archainbaud, a man who at United Artists had directed B Westerns starring William Boyd and Johnny Mack Brown. As Autry explained in an interview in the mid-1970s, the Flying “A” team of actors, directors, and even members of the camera crew, was comprised of men and women who worked with him in theatrical features and in his various television projects. Essentially, as he explained it, this group constituted a theatrical stock company.

The qualities of the B Western permeated The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok. The series was filmed by units experienced in making inexpensive cowboy dramas for Monogram Pictures. True to the tradition of budget features, Wild Bill Hickok episodes were produced at a cost of $12,000 each. According to Guy Madison, who portrayed Hickok, "we couldn't waste any time in 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.

B Western stars appeared in early cowboy TV programs. Russell Hayden, who until 1941 played Hopalong Cassidy's handsome sidekick, Lucky Jenkins, developed and starred in several such series. As early as March 1950 he was featured on ABC in The Marshal of Gunsight Pass. Hayden was more successful in Cowboy G-Men as well as Judge Roy Bean, where he was producer and a star. He later produced 26 Men—a series depicting the Arizona Rangers at the turn of the century—in which the leading role was played by Tris Coffin, a frequent villain in B features and serials in the 1940s.

Rex Allen, a “singing cowboy” star of B Westerns in the early 1950s, appeared in 1958 as a physician to the pioneers in Frontier Doctor. Even William Boyd responded to the call for TV films. He returned to the saddle to make 52 new Hoppy half-hour programs in 1951-52.

Made-for-TV Westerns were crafted specifically with children in mind. Gene Autry, for example, explained his decision to enter the new medium as an attempt to reach youngsters. "Television had begun to seduce the whole country, and some of us saw it coming earlier than others," wrote Autry in his autobiography. "Around 1950, my company, Flying 'A' Productions, began developing ideas aimed at the kids' market.

George W. Trendle, producer of the radio and video versions of The Lone Ranger, explained in 1950 how his series sought to gratify "the hunger for adventure" in children by providing "wholesome devices instead of violence and nightmare-inducing episodes." In summarizing the standards he demanded in the program, Trendle in essence delineated all youth-oriented Westerns popular in early TV. According to him, proper guidelines called for making the hero the embodiment of all that is morally desirable; providing the script with the absolute minimum of violence; completing each episode in a single broadcast; basing the plots on events that are not immediately referable to the child's framework of experience; avoiding "false cliff-hanger" suspense points contrived to appear before the middle commercial to sustain a child's continuing interest; interspersing educational data with adventure.

The central characters in these series were flawless types who blended strength and savvy to overcome injustice. They exhibited no personal vices; they were always gallant around women; and they were never tempted by money to stray from their sanctimonious paths. Many were handsome heroes like Guy Madison in The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok, Bill Williams in The Adventures of Kit Carson, and Duncan Renaldo in The Cisco Kid. Others emphasized special talents. Gene Autry could sing as well as shoot and ride; Jock Mahoney demonstrated his athletic prowess in The Range Rider and later, Yancy Derringer; and in Annie Oakley Gail Davis evidenced pioneering courage as being the first and only woman star of her own TV Western.

The heroes and heroine of the genre were laudable stereotypes for American children. They were idealized parents, the perfect big brother or sister, personalities after whom to shape one's emerging adulthood. Here were self-confidence and moderation in adult action. Here, too, were paradigms of dedication to purpose, responsibility to civilized standards, and concern for one's fellow man.

Cognizant of their influence on juvenile viewers, these video characters offered moral guidelines—but not always in the same style. George W. Trendle made his hero thoroughly good, as he instructed his writers to portray the Lone Ranger as a patriotic, God-fearing, tolerant, habitless character who always used good grammar, never shot to kill, and who could "fight great odds, yet take time to treat a bird with a broken wing.

Roy Rogers allowed for more violence in his Western morality plays, justifying such mayhem with reference to history. He once explained that "the Westerns I make come right out of the history books. In those old days, pioneers packed a six-shooter whether they were plowing or riding herd." In his view of the Old West, the frontiersmen "were blazing new trails, pioneering in new territory, and [they] didn't let any gang of outlaws or ambushing Indians get the drop on them." Within this historical framework Rogers felt violence to be a function of accuracy. "We only fire our guns when necessary. But," he continued, "there's an evil force that always is challenging. And when that challenge comes you have to meet it with spirit and fire." As Rogers explained in an interview in the mid-1970s, his Western productions were based on historical authenticity.

That Roy Rogers translated this understanding of violence into his TV Westerns was evident to newspaper critic Jack Mabley. Writing in the Chicago Daily News after viewing an episode of The Roy Rogers Show, he maintained that "it's frightening to see five- and six-year old tots sitting spellbound before TV sets soaking up this sadism." Mabley complained that in the episode he saw,

two men beat an old man.... the old man is permanently blinded by the attack. Two men beat a dog [Roy’s German shepherd, Bullet] about the head with a pistol. ... The men again attack the dog as he is leading the old man on a mountain trail. The old man cries for help, plunges over a cliff to his death. A veterinarian who is a thief kills an injured companion with an injection of poison. . . . The dog is doped but attacks a man. Two men kidnap a girl, then beat her.

Regardless of the level of violence in Roy Rogers cowboy films, Rogers promoted a strong moral message through his Western dramas whether on radio, in theatrical films, or in his TV series. In fact Rogers, who was personally a very religious man, actually brought a Christian theme to much of his persona. The development of the Roy Rogers Riders Club in 1952 was a promotional venture to build viewer loyalty, but it also contained pronounced spiritual dimension. In joining the club youngsters were expected to uphold the creed of the Club which included a secular Ten Commandments. Printed on every membership card were the Roy Rogers Rider’s Club Rules:

1. Be neat and clean.
2. Be courteous and polite.
3. Always obey your parents.
4. Protect the weak and help them.
5. Be brave but never take chances.
6. Study hard and learn all you can.
7. Be kind to animals and take care of them.
8. Eat all your food and never waste.
9. Love God and go to Sunday School regularly.
10. Always respect our flag and our country.

To augment the religious underpinnings of this creed, Rogers composed a Cowboy’s Prayer which was part of the membership liturgy. In fact, he produced a short film in which he prayed with his Riders Club member. It was distributed to movie theaters showing his motion pictures.

Also specific in his moral prescription for the B Western was Gene Autry. In the Cowboy Code he promulgated in the early 1950s, Autry defined ethical, social, and political qualities with which he urged the movie industry to imbue all B Western characterizations. However, Autry intended his guidelines not only for celluloid cowboy heroes, but also for the young fans of the Western. The Code was essentially a secular Ten Commandments with direct application to children in the TV audience.

1. A cowboy never takes unfair advantage, even of an enemy.
2. A cowboy never betrays a trust.
3. A cowboy always tells the truth.
4. A cowboy is kind to small children, to old folks, and to animals.
5. A cowboy is free from racial and religious prejudice.
6. A cowboy is always helpful, and when anyone’s in trouble, he lends a hand.
7. A cowboy is a good worker.
8. A cowboy is clean about his person, and in thought, word, and deed.
9. A cowboy respects womanhood, his parents, and the laws of his country.
10. A cowboy is a patriot
.

Gene Autry had critics, but to those "sophisticated people" who felt that with his commandments "the cowboy became a sort of adult boy scout," Autry was unbending. He wrote in his autobiography in 1978: "I didn't exactly move in sophisticated circles. I never felt there was anything wrong with striving to be better than you are."

Importantly, Rogers’ Riders Club Rules and Autry’s Cowboy Code were relevant not only to Westerns aimed at children. While theatrical realization may have been predictably unsophisticated in the juvenile Western, and relatively complex in the adult variety that soon prevailed on TV, both formats—indeed all Western dramas in all media—ultimately spoke to the values enunciated in both sets of commandments. This was well understood by the British scholar, Jenni Calder, when she wrote:

The strength of the Western is that traditionally it has been able to combine the essence of Gene Autry's code with the excitement of human brutality. This is not something new. Legend from time immemorial has been based on just such a fusion. If the Greek heroes are not much concerned with being polite to each other they are always testing themselves against a demanding and ennobling code. The roundtable knights also, and here courtesy and honour are of intrinsic value. Robin Hood and the great legendary bandits have obviously found their way into the Western, and in their case the fundamental decency, the protection of women and the poor, is central. The Western hero belongs solidly with all of these and in spite of changes he will continue to do so.

The stalwarts of juvenile Westerns were dedicated upholders of law and order, defenders of that civility nurtured on the historic American frontier. They were individuals willing to risk everything to guarantee the well-being of average folks. Sometimes they were government agents such as U.S. Army scout Kit Carson or U.S. Marshal Wild Bill Hickok. More often, they were from the common cloth of society, citizen do-gooders like the wandering Lone Ranger and Tonto, or ranchers Sky King, Roy Rogers, and Annie Oakley. Whatever their occupations, theirs were tales of the selfless enforcement of fair laws for fair people.

That laws were crucial for the survival of their frontier civilizations was well understood by the altruistic heroes of television Westerns. In "The Kid from Red Butte," an episode of The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok, Jingles and Wild Bill lectured the misguided son of an outlaw on the meaning of obedience to the law. To the boy's smug remark, "Too bad you're lawmen," Jingles replied ungrammatically, "Well, if there wasn't lawmen the whole West would be completely wild." And Hickok added, "There'd be no decent towns, no churches, no schools."

Focusing more specifically on the personal sacrifices made by Western lawmen, the avuncular Judge Ben Wiley rebuked a skeptic in "The Assassins," an episode in 1956 of Buffalo Bill, Jr.

You listen to me, mister. I've got something to say to you, and you listen. Talkin's easy, but it don't get a lawman very far. He knows a time and a place'll come when he'll have to face guns and fight back. He knows that when he pins on his badge. And you know who he's doin' it for? For you, mister, and me and any other citizen. The pay's no good. The hours are long. But it's his job, and he does it the best he knows how.

Lest these champions appear too invulnerable, most were accompanied around the Wild West by a partner who added human frailty to the show. Opposite the lithe physique of Guy Madison, for example, Andy Devine as Jingles P. Jones was a grossly overweight caricature of the cowboy hero. Jingles was a buckskin buffoon weighing more than 300 pounds whose antics brought more laughs than justice to the wilderness. Jingles once pulled a rabbit out of the back of his buckskin jacket. He ran from homely women who sought him as a possible husband. In fistfights he usually won by bumping opponents with his prodigious belly. Humor emanated particularly from his high-pitched, breaking voice as he interjected such expletives as "great jumpin' horned toads," or when he explained a last-second escape from death: "We were so close to the Pearly Gates we could hear old Gabriel tuning up."

Most of these sidekicks were comics. Pat Brady in The Roy Rogers Show was a frenetic type whose confused escapades in a Jeep named Nellybelle added light relief to somber Rogers and serious Dale Evans on horseback. On the syndicated series, Steve Donovan, Western Marshal, Rusty Lee was a bewhiskered and amusingly loquacious deputy to the forthright Donovan. On The Gene Autry Show, Pat Buttram operated as a bumpkin comedian whose exclamations and puns frequently lacked imagination. He could mumble something as silly as "I'll be diddly dad-burned"; or while conducting business in a bank, he could joke that bank tellers "are nice people because they will tell you anything you want to hear."

In Pancho, the friend of the Cisco Kid, actor Leo Carrillo added minstrel-show ethnic stereotyping to the comedic Western partnership. Pancho spoke with an exaggerated Mexican accent peppered liberally with malapropos. He loved to eat and was, understandably, a paunchy comrade of the agile Cisco.

Nevertheless, Pancho possessed the human frailty and emotionality absent in his one-dimensional partner. Pancho could express confusion, as when approached by men with drawn pistols he once remarked, "What is this, Cisco—good men who think we are bad, or bad men who think we are good?" More simply, he could moan, "I get all mixed up in my brains." Pancho could be rascalish and misinform a spinster with designs on Cisco that his partner was actually married and the father of seven children. As never evidenced in a hero, Pancho could also show fear and cowardice, as in the following exchange from "Romany Caravan," an episode from January 1951.

Cisco: I'm ashamed of you, Pancho, running away from a bear.
Pancho: Yeah, but Cisco, I, eh, eh
Cisco: Come on, we're going right back.
Pancho: But, Cisco, that bear, h-h-h-he's got a hungry look in his eyes.
Cisco: Say, what are you, a man or a mouse?
Pancho: Right now, I'm a little mousie.
Cisco: If that's the way you feel about it, here's where we part company.
Pancho: Oh, Cisco, don't leave me, don't leave me alone here with a, Cisco, don't leave me alone here with a…

Of course, the function of a sidekick was not always linked to comic relief. Even Pancho and Jingles could use guns and fists in assisting their brave pals. In several series, moreover, the partner was clearly not a comedian. Dick West was a romantic, even "all-American boy" type when he traveled with the Range Rider. Annie Oakley was assisted on occasion by her kid brother, Tagg, as well as by Lofty Craig, the handsome town sheriff. The Adventures of Kit Carson featured El Toro, an accented Mexican partner whose humorous side was usually subordinated to amorous flirtations and the physical demands of bringing social stability to frontier California.

In Tonto, the Indian assistant of the Lone Ranger, the relationship between juvenile hero and sidekick was its most sophisticated. Tonto was never clownish, nor was he less courageous than his "kemo sabe." The only impediments to his full equality with the Ranger were his constant use of pidgin English and the fact that he encountered racial prejudice in white society. Yet Tonto possessed physical strength, intellectual ability, and moral integrity. He never failed to merit the trust placed in him by the Lone Ranger and by viewers. On many occasions, too, Tonto's actions saved the life of his partner. More than a friendship, the bond between Tonto and the Ranger was an alliance between mature men who recognized their interdependency and innate equality.

Importantly, too, Tonto was an assimilated Indian, a partner who embraced the white man's dominion and now rode to enforce its laws. As historian Ralph Brauer has pointed out, in programs dealing with Indian unrest The Lone Ranger stressed that there were good Indians such as Tonto and bad Indians like those unwilling to accept and adapt to the Westward movement of the settlers from the East. Tellingly, the episode entitled "The Courage of Tonto," aired January 17, 1957, began with an announcer proclaiming: "The Apaches fought long and hard to stem the tide of civilization."' Indeed, in Tonto—the generic Indian whose tribal affiliation was unstated and unimportant—there was none of this Apache-like "uncivilized" intransigence. Tonto was the "new Indian." a representation of political, cultural, and intellectual acceptance of white civilization by the aboriginal population.

Whatever the role, gallant hero or comedic subaltern, characterization in these early Westerns was fundamentally unbelievable. From Gene Autry's singing, to Jingles P. Jones obesity, to Sky King's Cessna P-50 and later P-130 airplanes, these were not the guises of the actual men and women who settled and maintained the West.

In the cases of The Roy Rogers Show and Annie Oakley, moreover, entire series were constructed upon such incredibility. Brave Roy operated in a classic Western locale—Mineral City situated in Paradise Valley—complete with horses, a saloon, and six-guns holstered to the hips of its male citizens. Roy's sidekick, Pat Brady, however, drove a Jeep of post-World War II vintage. Although a gasoline station was never shown, Mineral City did have telephones. Moreover, Dale Evans added to the anomaly. She appeared at times as a waitress in her own Eureka hotel and cafe, as a gun-toting sharpshooter who rode with Roy to capture outlaws, or as a surrogate mother for the orphaned or otherwise abandoned children written into many Roy Rogers episodes. Further, it was well-known that in reality Evans and Rogers were married, but the program never portrayed "the Queen of the West" and "the King of the Cowboys" as anything but mutually supportive friends.

From its action-filled opening credits Annie Oakley projected a heroine unprecedented in the video Western. As portrayed by B Western star Gail Davis, Oakley was shown riding at full gallop; then she jumped from horseback to a fast-moving stagecoach; and finally, as her horse sped past a man holding a playing card, she stood straight up in her stirrups and fired a bullet through the center of the nine of spades. Behind this montage of shooting and action scenes, a male announcer energetically proclaimed: "Bull's eye! Annie Oakley hits the entertainment bull's eye every week with her hard ridin', straight shootin', and suspense."

With her two pigtails and white-fringed leather clothing, Oakley did not appear to be the female equivalent of the masculine stalwarts of cowboy law and order; but she wore a gun on her right hip, shot with uncanny accuracy, and was appreciated as a threat to criminal activities. In an episode from 1956 entitled "Dude's Decision," a stagecoach driver succinctly informed a group of outlaws that they should fear the woman riding to his rescue.

Outlaw #1: Look over there, up on that rise.
Outlaw #2: Ah, we got company.
Outlaw #3: Let's get going.
Outlaw #2: It's only a girl.
Driver: That's not only a girl, that's Annie Oakley.
Outlaw #3: Let's move!

Writing in late 1952, Gene Autry revealed his secret for making successful TV Westerns. "Keep it simple, keep it moving, keep it close and make it fast," was his professional advice." Nowhere did he suggest that producers need be concerned with the believability of the stories they were filming. Turning out children's entertainment products did not demand great attention to whether or not the events depicted did or could actually happen.

Typically, such indifference was demonstrated in "Lost Indian Mine," an episode in January 1952 of The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok. Here Hickok and Jingles spent their energies protecting a young boy and his grandfather who, while prospecting in an ancient Aztec cave, were threatened by greedy men anxious to find buried treasure. At the end of the story—after Wild Bill had rescued the innocents from the outlaws—Jingles clumsily threw a stick of dynamite into a kerosene lamp causing an explosion. As the dust settled, Hickok, Jingles, the boy, and his grandfather found themselves covered with pearl necklaces, gold, and other gems. Jingles had accidently unearthed Aztec treasure missing since the time of Cortez. It was a formulaic happy ending to a typically simple story.

For years in literature and motion pictures the Western had been a mature, inventive art form; but in television into the mid-1950s, the genre was unmistakably for youngsters. Critics assailed these TV Westerns as routine. They attacked their plots as "eternally the same, the characters unchanging, the scenery a belt-line panorama of dusty plain, high boulders and an occasional large tree suitable for hanging." Writers, sponsors, advertising agencies, and network officials, all convinced that the genre was juvenile entertainment, seemed reluctant to consider it anything but an adolescent vehicle, despite the fact that adults also watched these series.

Indicative of this attitude, a report on the TV Western made for NBC in late 1952 drew conclusions relative to the influence of juveniles in the audience:

1. Low income and large family owners are the strongest enthusiasts for such programs;
2. Most of the feeling that Westerns are harmful to children comes from families without children:
• 74 percent of all families with children said Westerns were alright if not presented too often—only 52 percent of childless families drew this conclusion;
• 37 percent of parents believed children actually benefitted by watching Westerns; 30 percent believed children were harmed watching Westerns; while 70 percent did not believe children were harmed by watching Westerns;
• 13 percent of childless families would ban the Western from television; only 5 percent of families with children would agree to such a ban.

Although the video Western continued to be fashioned primarily for youngsters, by the mid-1950s the genre appeared with more sophistication and improved production values. It is possible to distinguish these later programs and limited-run series as a second generation of video cowboy dramas.

Continue Reading        Previous