Born Leonard Slye in Ohio, Roy Rogers was “the King of the Cowboys” from the 1930s until his death in the 1990s. Together with his wife, Dale Evans Rogers, he became a cultural symbol for a wholesome, Christian-centered old West. After moving to California during the Great Depression, Rogers began singing with what would later become the Sons of the Pioneers. As the singing group grew in popularity and started appearing in low-budget Westerns, Rogers emerged as his own persona. At first he was billed as Dick Weston in Charles Starrett Westerns by Columbia. After appearing in several character roles, including that of a villain (though not a very bad villain) in Gene Autry’s The Old Corral(1936), Rogers received his break starring in Under Western Stars (1938) for Republicin a role intended for Autry. Rogers starred in 83 films for Republic between 1938 and 1951. From 1943 to 1954 Rogers was listed as Motion Picture Herald’s number one moneymaking Western star, the basis for his being billed “the King of the Cowboys.” When Rogers began starring in films on his own, however, Republic had Gene Autry also under contract and naturally promoted the veteran over the new cowboy. Rogers’s Westerns were much more cheaply made than Autry’s.
   Most films in the first phase of Rogers’s career were set in the frontier West and were directed by Joseph Kane. Rogers’s characters were often billed as Roy Rogers, even when he played roles from different historical periods. In two films, Billy the Kid Returns (1938) and Jesse James at Bay (1941), he worked the duel role gimmick, playing the outlaws as well as look alike characters confused with the famous outlaws. The formula of these early films has the unknown Rogers character dealing with an explosive situation while needing to prove himself worthy of trust and respect—always gained by the end of the film. His early films were not characterized by much physical violence. Rogers’s youthful appearance and slender frame made him appear no match for the typical burly villains of lowbudget Westerns. Rogers’s usual sidekick beginning with the early films was Gabby Hayes, consistently named Gabby Whittaker in the films. Hayes’s corny, homespun humor was a perfect foil for Rogers’s smooth sophistication.
   In 1940 Rogers departed from his usual practice and played a secondary role in what would be his finest moment of acting. Dark Command (1940), directed by Raoul Walsh, starred Walter Pidgeon, John Wayne, and Roy Rogers. The plot revolved around the notorious Confederate partisan William Quantrill, although Pidgeon played the role as Cantrell. It was one of Republic’s few AWesterns and one film in which Rogers did not sing a note. Films of Rogers’s middle period, 1941–1943, starting with Red River Valley (1941), take place in contemporary settings and treat themes of the day. By now Rogers was playing himself as an already recognizable celebrity, often in law enforcement roles or in entertainment roles—as a rodeo star, a radio singer, or a recording star. Often these films feature the Sons of the Pioneers. Ridin’ Down the Canyon (1942), Sunset on the Desert (1942), and The Man from Music Mountain (1943) are typical of this period. Beginning in 1943, Rogers’s wonder horse, Trigger, a golden palomino, began receiving nearly equal billing with the cowboy star. Trigger was always billed “the Smartest Horse in the Movies.”
   During World War II, Rogers succeeded Gene Autry as the top singing cowboy, and Republic began starring him in more lavish, higher-budget Westerns with spectacular musical productions, still featuring the Sons of the Pioneers. Man from Oklahoma (1945) and Bells of Rosarita (1945) typify the period. After the war, however, with a group of Westerns directed by William Witney, Rogers’s Westerns began deemphasizing the singing cowboy role and instead began emphasizing more violence, more action, even cruelty to animals—more dirty realism than is usually associated with the earlier slick Rogers musical Westerns. Roy Rogers even shot to kill in these films. Witney Westerns such as Heldorado (1946) and Apache Rose (1947) dealt with issues of immediate importance in the postwar period: organized crime and big oil. Spoilers of the Plains (1951) is one of the early cold war Westerns and one of Rogers’s last Republic Westerns. In these later films, Rogers showed promise moving in the direction of more serious adult Westerns, at about the same time that John Wayne was beginning to move beyond the B Western circuit. Some of the best fistfightsin B Westerns occur in these late Rogers films— hard, blood-splattering fights in mud, in water, under stampeding cattle, in burning barns; fights with clubs, fights with swinging empty rifles. However, contract disputes with Republic ended Rogers’s film career early, and with it, whatever promise there had been of transitioning into more serious cinema roles. But like William Boyd, Rogers simply made a smooth transition to television Westernswith a self-produced series that ran for six years with enormous audience ratings, moving Roy and Dale Rogers’s popularity far beyond what his film career had delivered.
   From the 1950s to the end of their lives, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Rogers maintained active careers in recording, personal appearances, television specials beyond their series, and writing. After his marriage to Evans in 1947, Rogers began openly professing his Christian faith in all phases of his public career. He and Evans, with their large family, began a popular museum at their Double R Bar Ranch in Southern California. In 1975, Rogers, now an American legend, appeared in his last Western,Mackintosh and T.J. (1975), as a wandering cowboy who sets a teenage boy on the right path in a modern-day west Texas setting. While Rogers and Evans remained professionally active until the end of their lives, after the 1960s their legacy became mainly that of nostalgiafor a lost innocence of the days before the Vietnam War divided America. Throughout the turbulent protest era, Rogers remained the steadfast patriot and exemplar of fading American values. He was “a softer John Wayne” (White 1998, 92). Unfortunately, the generation of children who grew up idolizing their hero moved beyond the values of Roy Rogers’s Rider Rules and Roy Rogers’s Prayer. The distance between a Roy Rogers film like My Pal Trigger (1946) and The Wild Bunch (1969) reveals much about changes in American culture in the mid-20th century.
   Roy Rogers’s Rider Rules follow:
   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 care for them.
   8. Eat all your food and never waste any.
   9. Love God and go to Sunday School regularly.
   10. Always respect our flag and our country.
   Roy Rogers’s Prayer was,
   Lord, I reckon I’m not much by myself,
   I fail to do a lot of things I ought to do.
   But, Lord, when trails are steep and passes high,
   Help me ride it straight the whole way through.
   And when, in the falling dusk, I get that final call,
   I do not care how many flowers they send,
   Above all else, the happiest trail would be for You to say to me, “Let’s ride, my friend.” Amen.

Historical Dictionary of Westerns in Cinema. . 2012.

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