“I’m plumb sick of childish westerns!”: Hollywood Takes Aim at the Western-on-Television

ESSAY by Matt Hauske

This paper traces some cinematic responses to what I’m calling the western-on-television during the 1950s, responses that emphasize and criticize the western’s perceived ubiquity and appeal to a specific group of viewers, namely children. While audiences and critics responded in varying ways to television as a medium, ranging from near-utopian endorsement to paranoid denunciation, the televised western was a persistent source of anxiety, if not downright disdain. The western-on-television constituted something of a double-whammy when it came to the ways critics and commentators thought the new medium was tolling the death knell for Western civilization. Not only would the medium of television distract kids from reading and outdoor exercise, but the mindless, repetitive content of the western-on-television would rot their brains and leave them ill-prepared for the intellectual demands of wholesome middle-class employment and American citizenship.

By 1962, for instance, John Evans, writing in Television Quarterly, noted that the “enduring popularity” of television westerns among the viewing public “contrast[ed] sharply” with the consensus of critics: “From their comments, you can only conclude that nobody in his right mind would ever watch a Western. It is the Western, more often than even the soap serial or quiz show, that is held up as the symbol of television’s cultural bankruptcy.”[1]  One researcher studying television’s effects noted in 1959, “I have been in homes in San Francisco … in which the baby’s crib was pushed up in front of the television set, and the young fellow was turning his head, wide-eyed, from side to side to follow the horses dashing across the screen.”[2]  Clearly, the “horses dashing across the screen” were in a western, and, as we shall see, this common generic trope frequently signified what was perceived as the western’s unsophisticated childishness.

The western served as disputed territory in the rivalry between the cinema and television throughout the 1950s.  Despite moral pronouncements and hand wringing, the genre’s success on television, both in terms of re-run B-movies and original programming, significantly impacted the production and reception of theatrical movies.  Massive hits like Davy Crockett, which initially aired on television in the winter of 1954-1955 and was adapted for the big screen in May 1955, sparked merchandising fads that generated revenues exceeding those of the original broadcast or theatrical release.  Hollywood was thus faced with a problem.  The western seemed like rich material with which to criticize television, but it was also one of the movie industry’s most profitable and popular genres.  The movies had to reconcile their use of westerns in their attacks on television with their own financial dependence on the genre.  They did this in two ways: (1) by mocking westerns-on-television as childish, and (2) by fighting quantity with quality, producing bigger-budget “prestige” westerns (what Andre Bazin called “superwesterns”) that were meant to appeal to adults.  Here, I will focus primarily on the former tactic, showing the range of ways in which the western-on-television was framed and critiqued by specific Hollywood films and animated cartoon shorts.

Home TV audiences in the 1950s were inundated by westerns, often finding it difficult to escape from this escapist genre.  Early television programming consisted largely of low budget western feature films from the 1930s and 1940s featuring the likes of Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, and others.[3]  Television stations had purchased the rights to broadcast their old catalogs in order to fill airtime at a moment when original, made-for-TV productions were scarce.  Debuting in 1947, the cowboy puppet Howdy Doody and his human friend Buffalo Bob utilized western iconography to appeal to children.  In 1948, Hopalong Cassidy became the first of the B-movie cowboys to move to television.  In 1949, The Lone Ranger made the transition from radio directly to television, bypassing the cinema almost altogether.  (A Lone Ranger 15-part serial had been made in 1938.)[4]  Autry started producing original shows for television in the early 1950s with the rest of the serial cowboys following suit, and other western movies, including former A-quality features, were also commonly shown on television.

The western-on-television became increasingly inescapable throughout the 1950s. After the FCC’s licensing freeze ended in 1954, television technology finally made it to mid-America in significant numbers, no longer confined to the major coastal cities.[5]  Television’s expansion into the Midwest coincided with, if not sparked, the rise of the “adult” western-on-television and increased the genre’s dominance of the airwaves.  According to William Boddy, “After the introduction of the first three so-called ‘adult’ television Westerns in 1955 [Gunsmoke, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, and Cheyenne], the number of TV Westerns in network prime time grew to seven the following season, seventeen in the 1957-8 season and twenty-eight in the 1958-9 season, when they represented 26 per cent of total network prime time… [T]he 570 hours of TV Westerns in the 1958-9 season were estimated to be the equivalent of 400 Hollywood features a year.”[6]  In this light, ubiquity becomes an important characteristic of the reconfiguration of the moving image in the postwar era, and the western becomes a primary mode of this ubiquity.

The ubiquitous and (basically) free access to westerns-on-television concerned the popular commercial cinema, but also served as a source of ridicule.  The movies used the western’s ubiquity to frame and fuel its attacks against the medium.[7]  The remainder of this paper will sketch a rough evolution in the tenor of the cinema’s depiction of television, suggesting four major tones: 1) familial hopefulness, 2) parodic mocking, 3) parental paranoia, and 4) cynical frustration.

Early in the decade, the activity of watching westerns could be framed as an example of the kind of family “togetherness” (a fifties buzzword) and household happiness that those optimistic about television hoped the medium would facilitate.  In 1952, director Nicholas Ray depicted westerns-on-television in a comparatively blissful domestic sphere in On Dangerous Ground.  Starring Robert Ryan as a violent city cop driven to the edge by his lonely bachelorhood, the film’s opening shows three different models of male domestic life, as each of a trio of detectives is picked up to begin their night of law enforcement.  First, newlywed Pete Santos (Anthony Ross) has to drag himself away from his bride, who sweetly complains about being left alone.  Despite her impending abandonment (temporary yet risk-filled), she stands behind him helping him on with his holster, wrapping her arms around him and squeezing him tight, using the simple act of preparation to perform one last gesture of affection before his job takes him away for the night.

Next, Santos honks his car horn in front of the apartment building of the aptly named Pop Daly (Charles Kemper), an overweight and middle-aged police veteran, married with children.  Our first image of Pop’s home is a close-up of the family television set, which is tuned to a western during a chase scene.  The film then cuts to a long shot of the living room, where the entire family—Pop and his four children—all dressed in robes and pajamas, smiles and sits calmly watching the set, a perfect picture of the family togetherness boosters of television claimed the new medium could provide (Figure 1).[8]  Pop is even smoking a pipe, completing the idyllic tableau.  When they hear Pete’s car horn, Mrs. Daly, standing behind the family, routinely retrieves Pop’s gun and holster from the dresser drawer and helps him with his coat.  The television here signifies both domestic routine and familial tranquility, a moment of calm normalcy that precedes the affable patriarch’s nocturnal excursions.

Figure 1

Figure 1

Finally, we see the apartment of Jim Wilson (Ryan), a spare, single room with a sink, a hotplate, and the most basic furniture.  Jim sits alone studying mugshots, flipping through them with the same fork he uses to wolf down his food.  His work consumes him, unhealthily.  Where Pete and Pop have sex and television to help relax from the pressures of police work, Jim’s eschewal of these extracurriculars exacerbates his emotional problems, leading to mental breakdown, professional demotion, and, eventually, personal redemption (through love, not television).

The electronic bloom did not take long to wear off the televisual rose. As early as 1953, theatrically released animated shorts used the oversaturation of television with westerns as a source of parody.  Tex Avery’s T.V. of Tomorrow and The Three Little Pups use the same stock footage of a western chase on horseback to mock the medium’s claims of bringing a smorgasbord of entertainment into the home.  In T.V. of Tomorrow, the friendly, deep-voiced narrator walks the viewer through several supposedly imminent developments in the medium’s technology, including alterations in the shape of the screen and enhanced interactivity with the broadcast.  At one point he proclaims, “The most outstanding feature about television is the tremendous variety of programs available on the various channels.”  A man in front of his set changes the channel five times and finds six channels of the same western, with the same thrilling music (the William Tell Overture, famously used as the Lone Ranger’s theme song), whose tempo increases with each channel change.  He gets so frustrated that he puts his fist through the screen, jams his hat on his head, and stomps out of the house.  Marching into a movie theater advertising a “1st run feature,” he is momentarily delighted by the film’s title card, “Sweet Heart Productions Present ‘My Beloved’,” only to be comically disappointed by the same rote chases he saw on TV, ironically implicating the cinema itself in the critique of western ubiquity and homogeneity.  The short culminates in a groundbreaking broadcast from the planet Mars, which the authoritative narrator announces will give us insight into “what strange form of life exists on the mysterious Red Planet.”  Of course, it is the same western chase footage accompanied by the William Tell Overture we saw in the previous segment.

 

T.V. of Tomorrow

 

In The Three Little Pups, the fable of the three little pigs is restaged with Droopy Dog and his brothers, Snoopy and Loopy, eluding a hillbilly-voiced dogcatcher (who is himself a dog).  Safe in their brick house, they blithely watch a low budget western, the same one featured in T.V. of Tomorrow, while the dogcatcher tries vainly to get inside.  Using an oversized drinking straw, the dogcatcher tries to suck the pups out through the window.  Droopy drags his brothers out of the way and the dogcatcher vacuums the television set through the straw and into his stomach.  Peering down at the image of the galloping rider, visible through his skin (and fur), he complains, “I seen that one last night,” and switches off the set by twisting the button on his pants (Figure 2).

Figure 2

Figure 2

Later he encircles the house with bombs and explosives, declaring, “If this doesn’t work, I’ll go into television!”  Of course, the massive explosion destroys all the land around the house, leaving a crater with an improbable pillar of earth in the center, on which the house precariously perches.  The final scene has the pups again in front of the television set, where the dogcatcher has replaced the live-action cowboy in the same program, on the same horse, performing the same actions we saw previously (Figure 3).

Figure 3

Figure 3

Three Little Pups frames television as both eminently consumable (the dogcatcher ingests it) and all-consuming (it “eats” the dogcatcher).  It is both protective, defending Droopy and his brothers against the dogcatcher, and destructive, leading to the dogcatcher’s demise/ absorption.  But through all this, the western is the only program that appears on the screen, persistently signifying and satirizing the act of watching television.[9]

 

The Three Little Pups

 

By the mid-1950s, the anxieties surrounding television’s effects on the young had clearly outweighed both the hopes for its utopian potentialities we see in On Dangerous Ground and the good-natured parody we see in the Avery cartoons.  Four years after On Dangerous Ground, Ray directed Bigger Than Life (1956), a masterful depiction of frustrated middle-class masculinity and suburban familial tension that implicates television in a more pointed satirical critique.  Early in the film, domineering, pretentious, and frustrated Ed Avery (played by James Mason) returns to his suburban home after work to find his son, Richie, thoroughly engrossed in a western on television, almost in an attitude of prayer (Figure 4-5).

Figure 4

Figure 4

Figure 5

Figure 5

Ed sits down next to Richie and wonders at the child’s inexhaustible ability to watch westerns without getting bored, even though “it’s always the same story.”[10]  Later, on Ed’s first night back from a stay at the hospital and under the influence of the new miracle drug cortisone, which eventually drives him to psychosis and delusions of grandeur, he engages Richie in a vigorous game of football inside the house, throwing the ball over the dining room table and leaping over furniture.  The game is interrupted by a phone call, and Richie, worn out, takes the opportunity of the moment’s respite to switch on a western.  Hearing the televised gunshots and war-whoops from the hallway, Ed rages about the volume and turns off the set, angrily forbidding Richie from watching westerns.  In the context of the film, Ed Avery’s psychosis frames his concerns as overblown, especially in light of the way he tortures his son with endless football and algebra drills.  Nevertheless, in Bigger Than Life, westerns-on-television reflect and register not merely the stereotypical obsession of suburban children, nor the tragicomic sameness of the modern entertainment landscape, but rather the worst nightmares of overbearing parents nervous about the scholastic achievement and physical development of their children, pervasive anxieties among postwar suburbanites.[11]

A bit later in the decade, everyman Jack Lemmon seems to have been somehow evocative of the nothing-on-television-but-westerns trope.  In 1958, Lemmon starred alongside Glenn Ford in Delmer Daves’ Cowboy.  The television advertisement for the film features a gag that recycles the one from T.V. of Tomorrow:  a suburban man flips through three television channels, only to find exactly the same western at exactly the same moment in the program, yet another chase on horseback through Californian chaparral.  The third iteration of the footage cartoonishly runs backwards, prompting the man to rise in frustration, switch off the set, turn to the camera, and protest to the viewer, “Pardner, I don’t mind sayin’ I’m plumb sick of childish westerns!”  The ad then cuts to Lemmon behind the scenes of a western set declaring, “Me too!”  He then goes on to promote Cowboy, a western that’s “adult in every sense of the word.”  Cowboy, according to Lemmon, will be seen “on a giant theater screen,” in Technicolor.  It has gunfights and romance, and “The issues are real, [and] so are the people.”  Childishness here is associated with repetition and simplicity, a lack of romance, sexuality, and realism, and the small, domestic television screen.[12]  Paradoxically, Lemmon’s placement behind the scenes of a movie set, combined with his earnest, straightforward appeal directly to the viewer, frames the cinema as somehow less artificial than television, more realistic in its willingness to reveal its seams, contrasting starkly with the TV’s mysterious and frustrating workings (why, for instance, does the program move in reverse?) and its canned, clichéd, and unreal content.

 

Cowboy trailer

 

Again in 1960, in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, masculine frustration in the domestic realm is enacted in the scenario of an everyman (this time portrayed by Lemmon himself) finding nothing on television but westerns.[13]  After coming home to his apartment, which executives in his company use for their afternoon trysts, Lemmon’s character C.C. Baxter prepares a TV dinner and arranges himself on the sofa in front of the TV.  (Unlike Robert Ryan’s Jim Wilson, this bachelor has a TV.)  Switching it on, he’s delighted to discover that the classic Grand Hotel (Edmund Goulding, 1932) is just about to start, with its all-star cast touted by the television announcer: “From the world’s greatest library of film classics, we proudly present Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery, and Lionel Barrymore, in Grand Hotel!”  Baxter’s hopes are dashed by the announcer’s next line:  “But first, a word from our sponsor,” a cigarette company.  He changes the channel three times, encountering three different westerns featuring iconic western action scenes: an Indian attack, a saloon brawl, and a cavalry charge.[14]  Switching back to the original channel, the announcer again runs through the title and credits, only to pull the rug out from under Baxter again: “But first, a word from our alternate sponsor,” a product that promises to fix “wobbly dentures.”  Disgusted, Baxter turns off the set.  This case looks forward to FCC chairman Newton Minnow’s infamous “vast wasteland” speech of 1961, his condemnation of the medium in which westerns figured prominently.[15]  In The Apartment, westerns are part of the general noise and vapidity that critics saw as the reality of television, in stark contrast to the sophisticated entertainment the medium promised but rarely, if ever, fulfilled.  Rather than delivering viewers from the increasingly canned and homogeneous experience of everyday life, the movies argued that television brought more of the same directly into their living rooms.

 

While by no means comprehensive, this rough sketch of the history of the cinema’s use of the western to depict, criticize, and attack television in the long 1950s provides an important early example for the way a single genre can stand in synecdochically for a whole medium. Ready parallels can be found in the current cultural moment, perhaps none more apt than the case of the first-person shooter as a stand-in for the medium of videogames. While the ratio of first-person shooters to total games probably does not come near that of westerns to total films in the genre’s heyday,[16] a case could be made that the FPS certainly dominates the imagined field of games to an extent that cannot be claimed by any other genre. In a very real way, we might consider the FPS, like Bazin did the western, the videogame par excellence. Like westerns, FPSs come in a variety of types and subgenres, with a wide range of actions available to the player, not all of which involve the constant violence and gunfire that the genre’s name implies. And yet, the vast majority of the hysteria directed at videogames seems to land squarely on the first-person shooter, and, again like the western, it is focused through the minds and bodies of children. If the history of the cinema’s depiction of the western-on-television can be taken as indicative of the process whereby a new medium is gradually assimilated into everyday life, passing through (uneven) phases of hope, mockery, and paranoia on the way to frustrated acceptance, it would appear that videogames, filtered through the child playing an FPS, may one day be just another part of the furniture. Indeed, this is likely already the case (Figure 6).

Figure 6

Figure 6

 

Matt Hauske is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Chicago and a MAPH Preceptor.  He will defend his dissertation, Out of the Western: Contexts of the Postwar Hollywood Western, 1946-1963, in Spring 2014. This article is part of a larger chapter of the dissertation called “Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch House: Toys, Play, and the Western on Television.”


[1] John Evans, “Modern Man and the Cowboy,” Television Quarterly vol. 1 no. 2, 1962, p. 31.

[2] Wilbur Schramm, 1959, quoted in Nicholas Sammond, Babes in Tomorrowland: Walt Disney and the Making of the American Child, 1930-1960 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005), 340.  Incidentally, the “side to side” motion of the baby’s head as he follows horses going “across” the screen conforms to changes in the way westerns had to be shot for early television, emphasizing lateral movement rather than movement in depth.  These aesthetic adjustments are noted in Don Cusic, Gene Autry: His Life and Career (London: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2007),133.

[3] For the history of the western on television see especially J. Fred MacDonald, Who Shot the Sheriff? The Rise and Fall of the Television Western (New York: Praeger, 1987).

[4] For the history of the Lone Ranger on radio and television and in merchandise, see David Rothel, Who Was That Masked Man?: The Story of the Lone Ranger (South Brunswick, NJ: A.S. Barnes, 1976).

[5] Douglas Gomery, “The Coming of Television and the ‘Lost’ Motion Picture Audience,” Journal of Film and Video, vol. 37, no. 3 (Summer 1985), p. 7.  In this article, Gomery also argues that cinema’s lost revenues in the late 1940s and through the 1950s were not due to television.  Instead, moviegoers increased spending on other consumer durables: their homes and their children.  Nevertheless, from the perspective of Hollywood producers at the time, television was seen as the main threat.

[6] William Boddy, “’Sixty Million Viewers Can’t Be Wrong’: The Rise and Fall of the Television Western,” in Back in the Saddle Again: New Essays on the Western, ed. Edward Buscombe and Roberta Pearson (London: BFI Publishing, 1998), p. 119.

[7] For an illuminating and provocative history and analysis of the representation of television in the cinema, see Jon Nelson Wagner & Tracy Biga MacLean, Television at the Movies: Cinematic and Critical Responses to American Broadcasting (New York: Continuum, 2008).

[8] See Lynn Spigel Welcome to the Dreamhouse: Popular Media and Postwar Suburbs (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001), pp. 192-193, for instance.

[9] This image of the act of watching television at home while the world outside literally explodes seems particularly rich in light of very real and growing contemporary anxieties about potential nuclear conflict in the early years of the Cold War.

[10] Richie absent-mindedly acknowledges this fact with a mumbled and disinterested “I know.”  Clearly, his father does not understand the cinema as “a medium of repetition,” a formulation Miriam Hansen, “Room-for-Play: Benjamin’s Gamble with Cinema,” October 109, Summer 2004, pp. 28-29, draws out of Walter Benjamin: “In a quite basic sense, Benjamin regarded film as the medium of repetition par excellence on account of its technical structure: mechanical reproduction as replication that lacks an original; infinite reiterability and improvability at the level of production (numerous takes) as well as that of reception, that is, the seemingly unlimited distribution and exhibition of prints of the same film (an argument that, we would argue today, ignores the variability of both exhibition practices and demographically diverse, public events of reception).”  Here I suggest (though I lack the space to argue) that the repetition inherent in genre (which we can call generic repetition) should be discussed alongside the repetition built into cinema’s “technical structure”—and, indeed, that the repetition in genre should be considered part of this technical structure.

[11] See MacDonald (1987) and Sammond (2005), especially pp. 247-299.

[12] Lynn Spigel, Make Room For TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 63: “the act of viewing television is itself shown to be unmanly.”  Spigel analyzes an episode of Fireside Theatre, in which a television is bought against the father’s wishes and immediately displaces him as the center of attention.  He finally succumbs to the appeals of the device himself.  In both instances the program on TV is a western.

[13] My thanks to both Oliver Gaycken and Nathan Holmes for drawing my attention to this scene.

[14] The Indian attack and cavalry charge are modified sequences from the climactic Apache attack in Stagecoach (John Ford, 1939).  I have not been able to determine the source of the second clip.  Still, not exactly poor options!  This also means that Stagecoach was on two separate channels at the same time, another iteration of the popular gag.  The inclusion of Stagecoach, itself an Oscar-winner and no less a classic than Grand Hotel, could be a comment by Wilder that the western was so plentiful on television that even discerning viewers could not see the trees for the forest.  Of course, this would also depend on how Stagecoach was regarded in 1960, and by Wilder in particular.

[15] It strikes me that the perception of television as a “vast wasteland” could be compared to the American East’s view of the West as “empty,” and thus ripe for the colonization and exploitation that would fulfill America’s “Manifest Destiny.”  In the case of television, the emptiness should have been filled with wholesome, educational, morally uplifting content, rather than the “procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons” that Minnow railed against.

[16] Estimates vary, but anywhere from 25% to 50% of all commercial films made in America from the 1920s through the 1950s were westerns.