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Westerns

There was a time when a dusty Main Street shoot-out or a barroom brawl was all the action a movie needed. Movie-going audiences in the 1920’s through the 1950’s loved the thrills and suspense of the western film and Columbia Pictures was at the top of its game with this genre. So much so that the mystique of the studio’s old-fashioned “oater” still remains a draw today.

Early westerns were usually one-hour “B movie” serials, half of a double bill, in which cowboy heroes would return to the screen week after week to play out the previous week’s cliffhanger. Columbia produced more than 300 of these westerns from 1930 through 1958 and attracted many of the era’s best known cowboy stars: Buck Jones, “Wild Bill” Elliott, Tex Ritter, Tim McCoy, Gene Autry and Charles Starrett, most widely known as “the Durango Kid.” While the western serial’s “B” status was derived from their low budgets and production values (more costly sequences like horse stampedes or Indian attacks would be reused in multiple films), the westerns packed plenty of gun-slinging, villainy and cowboy heroism to lure post Depression-era audiences to the movies, making them a popular and successful genre for Columbia for decades.

“Columbia produced more than 300 of these westerns from 1930 through 1958.”

Buck Jones, a well-liked cowboy star from the dozens of silent westerns he made at Fox, made his first sound film for Columbia and went on to make nineteen more films for the studio between 1930 and 1934, including THE TEXAS RANGER, MEN WITHOUT LAW, and RANGE FEUD, featuring a young John Wayne. Fellow Columbia box-office star Tim McCoy rose to fame at the studio in the 1930’s with movies like TWO-FISTED LAW and CORNERED. Gordon “Wild Bill” Elliott starred in the serial THE GREAT ADVENTURES OF WILD BILL HICKOK which ran for fifteen episodes and provided him with the famous nickname that would stay with him throughout his career. Elliott went on to star in a number of other Columbia serials, reprised his role as Wild Bill Hickok and later, in the early 1940’s, paired up with singing cowboy Tex Ritter on eight successful films including THE DEVIL’S TRAIL.

As one of the most famous western entertainers of all time, singing cowboy Gene Autry was a major star with a string of hits under his belt when he decided to form his own production company and make his own film to regain box office clout after serving in World War II. Autry struck a deal with Columbia to release his films, thirty-one in all, and found success again with favorites such as RIDERS IN THE SKY, THE BIG SOMBRERO, and THE STRAWBERRY ROAN, his first color film featuring his loyal steed, Champion. In his film for Columbia, Autry made sure to maintain the audience appeal with plenty of singing and appearances by his musical group The Cass County Boys and his trusty sidekick Smiley Burnette.

Smiley Burnette, a popular supporting western player in his own right, was also well-known as the comedic foil to Columbia’s most enduring cowboy star, Charles Starrett. Best known for his role as “the Durango Kid,” the black-masked crusader, Starrett had the most prolific, longest-running and lucrative career of any western star at a single studio. Starrett starred in more than 130 cowboy serials for Columbia between 1935 and 1952, sixty-four of these featuring him as “the Durango Kid.” His early serials were an instant success and often featured singing partners, like the Sons of the Pioneers, in an effort to draw on the popularity of that style of western. But the heart-stopping action and fearsome thrills that the Durango Kid provided brought audiences back to the movie theaters over and over again.

As the audience’s enthusiasm for the genre grew, and with it Columbia’s box office take, the studio started producing feature-length westerns with more complex stories, high-profile movie stars and elaborate productions that could showcase raging fires, cattle drives or horse stampedes. Indeed, Columbia so embraced the success of this genre that its first film made in the Technicolor process was THE DESPERADOES in 1943, directed by Charles Vidor and starring Randolph Scott and Glenn Ford, both of whom would go on to become two of the studio’s biggest stars.

Glenn Ford, one of the few actors Harry Cohn put under contract at Columbia, displayed his wide range of talent in film noir classics such as THE BIG HEAT and opposite red-headed beauty Rita Hayworth in GILDA and others, but he is perhaps best remembered for his roles in some of the studio’s most popular westerns. In TEXAS, a cattle drive across the state is the set piece against which Ford’s good-guy cowboy goes head-to-head with William Holden’s cattle rustler. Ford’s “Dutchman” character pays the price for his greed for a hidden gold mine in LUST FOR GOLD. In 3:10 TO YUMA, a layer of moral and psychological tension infused the film with Ford playing an outlaw who is caught by a reward-seeking rancher played by Van Heflin. Ford starred in other successful westerns like THE VIOLENT MEN, JUBAL and COWBOY with notable co-stars such as Jack Lemmon, Broderick Crawford, Edward G. Robinson and Barbara Stanwyck.

While most of Columbia’s westerns were full of audience-luring action and adventure led by strong, gutsy cowboy heroes, none, perhaps, received more notice for their understated impact than the series of films made by Randolph Scott, his producing partner Harry Joe Brown and director Budd Boetticher. When Scott and Brown started to make moderately-budgeted pictures for Columbia under their Ranown production company banner, Scott was well into a lengthy and successful career. Having played leading men and supporting roles in virtually every genre imaginable and with a wide array of notable stars such as Irene Dunne, Tyrone Power and Shirley Temple to name but a few, Scott ultimately was most widely known for his westerns. It wasn’t until he teamed with Brown and Boetticher in the 1950’s, however, that he achieved the level of stardom still known to his fans today. Boetticher’s stark visual style and compact, intelligent stories combined with Scott’s portrayal of the quintessential strong, stoic and weathered loner, made films like RIDE LONESOME, THE TALL T and COMANCHE STATION wildly successful.

Despite the success of the Randolph Scott pictures and distinctive hits such as THE MAN FROM LARAMIE starring Jimmy Stewart, movie-going audiences in the 1950’s went to the movies less and started staying at home more, drawn by the lure of the small screen. The western found new life in television but the film genre all but disappeared. A new generation of fans, however, have come to understand and embrace the significance of these successful Columbia Pictures films.