Made-For-TV Westerns:
The Second Generation

In the middle of the decade juvenile Westerns gave evidence of new creative energy. At the moment when the earlier series were reaching the end of their original runs, a new generation of children's Westerns entered American video. As Table 3 illustrates, several juvenile Westerns enjoyed lengthy acceptance by viewers.

­ ­ ­ ­ ­ ­
Table 3: Juvenile Western Television Series
Name of ProgramFirst-Run YearsNumber of Episodes
First Generation, 1948-1954
Hopalong Cassidy1948-195266 features/52 TV films
The Lone Ranger1949-1957221
The Marshal of Gunsight Pass1950*
Cowboys ‘n’ Injuns1950-1951*
The Cisco Kid1950-1956156
The Gene Autry Show1950-195686
The Gabby Hayes Show1950-1954 *
Saturday Roundup195112
The Range Rider 1951-195278
The Ghost Rider1951-1952 *
Sky King1951-1954130
The Adventure of Kit Carson1951-1955104
The Roy Rogers Show1951-1957104
The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok1951-1958113
Cowboy G-Men195239
Lash of the West195239
Renfrew of the Mounted195313
Action in the Afternoon1953-1954 *
Annie Oakley1954-1955113
The Tim McCoy Show 1951-195839
Steve Donovan, Western Marshal195539
The Adventures of Champion1955-195626
Buffalo Bill, Jr.1955-195640
Cowboy Theater1955-195639
Second Generation, 1954-1961
Davy Crockett1954-19555
The Adventures of Rin-Tin-Tin1954-1958164
Brave Eagle1955-1956 26
Sergeant Preston of the Yukon1955-195878
Tales of the Texas Rangers1955-195852
Judge Roy Bean195639
Hawkeye and the Last of the Mohicans195739
The Saga of Andy Burnett1957-19586
26 Men1957-1959113
Frontier Doctor 1958 39
The Nine Lives of Elfego Baca1958-196010
Tales of Texas John Slaughter1958-196117
Zorro 1960-1961 4
Daniel Boone 1960-19614

In production values and story content the second generation of juvenile Westerns was generally more intricate than the earlier series. Several were from major motion picture studios. Columbia Pictures, through its TV subsidiary Screen Gems, produced The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin; and Walt Disney Productions filmed Zorro and several serialized hour-long films that appeared on the Disneyland program.

In Brave Eagle and Sergeant Preston of the Yukon, the youth-oriented Western demonstrated a high level of complexity. Brave Eagle focused on a young Cherokee chief trying to keep a peaceful balance between evil white men and Indians anxious to answer the white man's bigotry with their tomahawks. The series projected an image of the American Indian as respectable, a figure whose basic instincts were the protection of home and family and for peace with the white man. Although the star of Brave Eagle was not a Native American, the program gained credibility because several of its supporting characters were portrayed by authentic American Indians.

Sergeant Preston of the Yukon concerned a member of the Canadian North-West Mounted Police. Based on a popular radio series, this pro­gram offered a Mountie with his husky dog—Yukon King, "the swiftest and strongest lead dog" in the Yukon and Northwest territories—fight­ing on snowshoes as easily as on horseback to bring social stability to the Canadian frontier. Sergeant Preston emerged from a radio series produced by the same company responsible for The Lone Ranger. When translated to television, however, Sergeant Preston represented a noticeable maturation in production standards com­pared to its more famous relative.

The Lone Ranger continually exploited the same sand and boul­ders of Southern California. Especially after its first season when most of its action was filmed at outdoor locations, the series relied heavily upon less expensive indoor sets and painted backdrops to depict the beauty of the Old West. Such cost-cutting prompted Don Miller to conclude about The Lone Ranger: "Except for the two leads, everything about the series smacked of the second rate. Many entire plots were filmed within the confines of a cramped studio set, with outdoor locales ineptly imitated."

In Sergeant Preston of the Yukon, however, there was uniqueness. Although its plots perpetuated the simple good-versus-bad predict­ability of the juvenile TV Western, the series was exceptional in terms of its graphic imagery. Much of its dialogue was shot outdoors. Set as it was in and near the Canadian Arctic, this meant photography un­common for the genre. Filmed in the mountains of Colorado and California, here were authentic forests, hills, rivers, and snowscapes. Preston's adventures ranged from grasslands and wooded areas where he operated on his horse, to the frozen wilderness where he maneuvered his dogs and sled. In an episode from 1956 entitled "Dog Race," for example, Preston became involved in a competitive race across deep snows. The pro­gram offered scenes of fast-moving sleds and snow storms: here were survival and triumph in the icy primeval. Another episode, "Trouble at Hogback," aired October 13, 1955, placed Sgt. Preston on horse­back rising among forests and lakes, while dealing effectively with local Indian and white residents.

Several series also contributed to the maturation of the TV Western. Ironically, most of these programs—Frontier Doctor, Hawkeye and the Last of the Mohicans, Judge Roy Bean, 26 Men, and Tales of the Texas Rangers—starred men whose careers were fashioned years earlier in theatrical B Western films. For the most part these shows were syndicated directly to local stations. Only Tales of the Texas Ranger had a network history as it appeared for three years on CBS in the late afternoons, and in the early evening on ABC in 1958-59.

Still, with their emphasis upon characterization and on-location photography, these programs helped to attract adults to the audience for TV Westerns. With Frontier Doctor Rex Allen portrayed a physi­cian administering to settlers in the Old West. Hawkeye and the Last of the Mohicans featured John Hart—who had starred as the Lone Ranger for two TV seasons—and Lon Chaney, Jr. as James Fenimore Cooper's celebrated characters, the eighteenth century backwoods­man, Nat "Hawkeye" Cutler, and his Indian blood brother, Chingach­gook. In Judge Roy Bean character actor Edgar Buchanan—Hopalong Cassidy's sidekick in the 52 made-for-TV films produced by William Boyd—turned the historically autocratic Judge Roy Bean into "one man, a storekeeper who was sick of the lawlessness," the hero who brought "civilization and law" west of the Pecos river.

The Arizona Rangers of the early twentieth century were glori­fied in 26 Men, a series filmed on location in Tuscon. The stories on Tales of the Texas Rangers covered a wide chronological gap, jumping as they did between 1830 and 1950.

The most successful series in this second generation of children's Westerns was more conventional in its setting.The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin was an action-filled program spotlighting the alluring com­bination of a likable boy and his talented German shepherd dog. Set on a U.S. Cavalry post in the 1880s, Rin Tin Tin gave viewers Wild West adventure, avuncular supporting characters—specifically, a handsome lieutenant and a garrulous sergeant—as well as Rusty and "Rinny." It was a popular combination of characters and Western mystique. Even after completing its original production of 164 epi­sodes by 1958, the series was rerun on network TV until the fall of 1964 when it was released to general syndication.

If the juvenile Western enjoyed a new burst of creativity and popularity in the mid-1950s, no one contributed more to this renaissance than Walt Disney. When his motion picture company—long famous for its cartoon shorts, animated feature films, and wildlife documen­taries—began producing Westerns for television, the result had an over­whelming impact on the medium and the nation.

For two years Zorro was an exciting prime-time series. It related romanticized stories of a Mexican nobleman, Don Diego de la Vega, the prissy son of a wealthy rancher in Spanish California in the 1820s. Secretly, however, Don Diego was the legendary Zorro, the masked avenger and champion of the downtrodden who consistently out­foxed the tyrannical military authorities. With his black cape flowing, his sword in hand, and atop a surging black stallion, the intrepid Zorro rescued senoritas, defended the abused, and thwarted the designs of villainous men. Adding delicious insult to the injury he inflicted upon the perpetrators of evil, Zorro left his monogram at the scene of all victories, the letter "Z" sliced ever so elegantly with the tip of his rapier. Through 78 half-hour episodes and four hour-long TV movies, this bold renegade brought justice to old California and favorable attention to the Disney studio.

The spirit and execution in Zorro, however, still reflected the heritage of B Westerns and the cowboy series of early TV. First, the stories were serialized, telling a complete story in about a dozen epi­sodes, only to segue into another multipart dramatic adventure. Fur­ther, the notion of a dual identity and the image of a wealthy but self-sacrificing Robin Hood were not uncommon in Western movies and serials in the 1930s and 1940s.

For efficiency, Don Diego/Zorro had a mute assistant; for laughs he had an imposing comedic foil in the rotund, blundering, and benign Sergeant Garcia; and for dramatic tension, Zorro had rivals such as the despotic Magistrate Galindo, whose brutal rule weighed heavily upon the common people, and The Eagle, a would-be dictator with designs upon Spanish California.

He was the literary invention of writer Johnston McCulley who introduced him in a short story, "The Curse of Capistrano," published in 1919 in the pulp maga­zine All-Story. In The Mark of Zorro in 1920 and Don Q, Son of Zorro in 1925, Douglas Fairbanks portrayed the caped avenger in two swashbuckling silent films. Zorro first appeared in talking movies in The Bold Caballero, a Republic color feature released in 1937.

There were several other Zorro feature films before Disney brought the character to TV. Perhaps the most celebrated cinematic treatment occurred in 1940 when Tyrone Power appeared in a remake of The Mark of Zorro. The romantic Zorro was also the focus of several movie serials from Republic Pictures. These included Zorro Rides Again (1937), Zorro's Fighting Legion (1939), Son of Zorro (1947), and Ghost of Zorro (1949). This last serial starred Clayton Moore at the time he was beginning his television portrayal of the Lone Ranger.

Continue Reading        Previous