- (1907–1998)Gene Autry was a well-established entertainer before coming to Hollywood, a star on the nationally popular radio program National Barn Dance on WLS radio station in Chicago. He was born a cowboy on a Texas ranch and was working as a railroad telegraph operator when Will Rogers, the famous Oklahoma comic actor, heard Autry sing during a layover in Oklahoma and encouraged him to enter show business. Autry began entertaining as a blackface minstrel in itinerant medicine shows. He acknowledged a significant influence from early country-folk singer Jimmie Rodgers; few of his pre-Hollywood songs had anything to do with Western themes. Early in his film career, Autry was dubbed “the Lavender Cowboy” because he did not fit the usual type of B Western cowboy: He was not tall, big-framed, or obviously rugged. Instead, he was clean, well-groomed, and splendidly outfitted in lavish costumes consisting of a tall white hat and flashy shirts, usually jetblack affairs ornamented with gold braids. His horse, Champion, typically had a role in each film.Autry’s first film was a 13-chapter serial, The Phantom Empire (1935), a very early science-fiction Western. As would become the usual style in his films, Autry played himself as a radio performer who, along with youngsters Frankie Darro and Betsy King Ross, stumbles into a plot involving, first, evil professors trying to steal the ranch to mine radium and, second, the underground lost kingdom of Murania, ruled by Queen Tika. The film displays great stunt riding by Betsy, a nationally renowned horse champion; robots; ray guns; and cliff-hanger escapes. Through it all, Gene and sidekick Smiley Burnette find ingenious ways to get to a microphone and perform songs on their national radio show. The film has become a cult favorite because in many ways it is preposterous to the point of being camp; for example, the robots are clearly actors dressed in aluminum foil–like costumes. At the same time, the film typifies an element of B Westerns that rejects the classic Westernmyths and seeks, in an almost postmodern manner, to question norms of reality. Autry went on to make numerous streamlined musical Westerns for Republic. Burnette, as Frog, sidekicked and sang duets through most of the films. During World War II, the popular singer left films for service in the Air Transport Command. While Autry was gone, Republic signed Roy Rogersto be its lead singing cowboy, so Autry signed with Columbia for the rest of his film career. Gene Autry epitomized the singing cowboy; his films revolved around music. In The Old Corral (1936), a film in which Rogers played a bit part as one of the Sons of the Pioneers, the group robs a bus simply to attract attention so they can get a radio contract. At one point Sheriff Autry arrests Rogers and forces him to sing with the group as his punishment. As in nearly all Autry films, the setting of The Old Corral is contemporary. Champion is given feature billing as well.Autry’s films also illustrate the difficulty of classifying Westerns as AWesterns or B Westerns. Stars such as Gene Autry were as big at the box office as most A-list stars, and Autry’s films, though distributed as B Westerns, were often budgeted similar to A Westerns. His movies uniformly departed from the classic tradition of cinema Westerns, but so did many A Westerns. The only reason to classify Autry’s pictures as B Westerns is because of how studios produced and distributed them.One specific way that Autry’s films departed from the classic tradition was in their treatment of women. According to Philip Loy, Autry’s female characters were “far more independent and aggressive than were most Western heroines of the 1930s” (2001, 242). In fact, Autry said in his autobiography that his heroines were 1930s women waiting for the advent of Gloria Steinem. Especially after 1939, “Autry’s role was not to romance his leading ladies, but to educate them in the ways of the West and to prepare them for responsibility, not to remove them from it. In that sense, Autry’s Westerns are a transition into the changed image of women which permeated Westerns during World War II” (Loy 2001, 246). Rarely after 1939 was there much romance in his films. Instead, Autry’s male character served as a father figure to the female lead, often teaching a prideful young thing a bit of humility.Just as William Boyd and Roy Rogers had their lists of rules for clean living for boys and girls, so Autry had his “Cowboy Code”: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, old folks, and animals.5. A cowboy is free from racial and religious prejudices.6. A cowboy is helpful, and when anyone is in trouble he lends a hand.7. A cowboy is a good worker.8. A cowboy is clean about his person and in his thought, word, and deed.9. A cowboy respects womanhood, his parents, and the laws of his country.10. A cowboy is a patriot.After the days of B Westerns ended, Autry moved his operation to television Westerns and prospered throughout the 1950s and 1960s. In 1961 he became the first owner of the California Angels baseball team.
Historical Dictionary of Westerns in Cinema. Paul Varner. 2012.
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