B WESTERNS

   B Western, a term now losing currency, technically refers to low-budget films shown as the second part of double features, becoming popular in the 1930s and the 1940s. But the term has also been used to refer to any low-budget film, including many silent-era Westerns, as well as serial films that were shown on Saturday mornings to young audiences. Although most movie genres were represented by B movies, science fiction, comedies, and Westerns dominated. Beginning in the 1950s, low-budget Westerns moved from matinee houses to television.
   Most B Westerns in the 1930s had budgets well under $30,000 per picture. However, some stars’ pictures could be budgeted higher. When Buck Jones left Columbia for Universal Pictures in 1934, for instance, not only was his salary increased but Universal also gave him responsibility for producing his own films. Universal underwrote the films with a budget of $65,000 per picture. By the 1930s, Republic Studios was investing even more in Gene Autry films. Paramount even budgeted Hopalong Cassidy movies at over $125,000 per picture. Autry and Cassidy films were, however, unusual. Although there are numerous B films that had budgets and production values nearly that of lower-budget A films and vice versa, production and distribution of the two kinds of films varied greatly. A films, the major top-billed productions of a double feature, depended on a percentage of the box office profits for revenue whereas B films were rented to theaters at a flat rate. There was a tremendous consumer market for B films, which could nearly always make a profit if made cheaply enough. And generally, studios that made A films did not make B films.
   B Westerns, then, were produced by a host of minor studios in Hollywood, collectively known as “poverty row.” Republic and Monogram led the group, but other studios included Producers Releasing Corporation and Mascot. These studios produced numerous films rapidly, often working on multiple projects at a given studio at the same time using the same casts and crews. Most actors worked under standard picture-commitment contracts, which meant they worked every day and were paid the same regardless of how many pictures they made. More fortunate actors worked under term player contracts, which gave them a regular yearly salary. B Westerns basically developed out of a long tradition of lowbudget moviemaking held over from the silent era. Hundreds of silent Westerns were made cheap, in assembly-line fashion, similar to the later Westerns of the 1930s. After the phenomenal success of William S. Hart’s darkly realistic Westerns, numerous imitators began mass-producing Westerns. Since Hart’s austere style was easy and inexpensive to imitate and since an easy profit could be made, large numbers of silents were made quickly in the Hart style. William K. Everson notes that Aywon studios’ Another Man’s Boots (1922) was a virtual copy of Hart’s Square Deal Sanderson (1919).
   For most of the 20th century, B Westerns were dismissed contemptuously by film critics, being compared to AWesterns in much the same way that pulp novels were compared to serious literary novels. B Westerns were often condemned because they were deliberately designed as commercial products valued for their consistency rather than their originality. Certainly, for those working in the B Western studios, there was very little prestige compared to mainstream Hollywood culture. However, as film critics and cultural critics have begun studying Westerns more seriously, they have discovered that the classification of these particular films based on how they were originally distributed and displayed is outdated and not very useful. Literary critics take no notice of a novel’s original publication methods or of bookstore sales. William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! sold less than 1,000 copies when it was produced in 1926 whereas Gone With the Wind, published the same year, sold millions—yet nobody would judge either novel on the basis of its sales. When critics, then, look at the 1930s and 1940s low-budget Westerns based on their own merits, several facts tend to emerge. Many lowbudget Westerns took artistic risks that AWesterns could not afford to take and in some ways, by their nature, were more innovative than their counterparts. Many AWesterns, despite higher budgets, have little artistic integrity. From a postmodern perspective, it might be argued that these B films, because they undercut the classic Western myths, may actually deserve more serious analysis than higherbudget classic Westerns. The trend today is no longer to separate out B Westerns from AWesterns, but to refer to the B films, if one must make a distinction, as low-budget Westerns.
   Since B Westerns were made on the assumption that consumers would buy tickets for even the cheapest product, they often sported cardboard-looking sets, utterly common props, and plenty of stock footage show stunt riding, large crowd scenes, Indian battles, and other features not practical to film on limited budgets. Nevertheless, B Westerns introduced many elements into the Western genre. The cowboy star with a specific persona and a trademark costume became an essential ingredient. Thus, a whole series of cowboy stars spent entire careers in B westerns: Tom Mix, Buck Jones, Johnny Mack Brown, Tim Holt, and many others. But B Westerns also introduced the singing cowboy, led above all by Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. The resultant vision of the old West became a sanitized frontier in which serious violence was rare and cowboy heroes were clean-living models for young boys and girls to emulate. Only in the world of B Westerns could Hopalong Cassidy’s sidekick, Andy Clyde, walk into a saloon and order milk. Cassidy himself spent hours in saloons playing cards, without any evidence of ordering a drink.

Historical Dictionary of Westerns in Cinema. . 2012.

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