Ride ‘em, cowboy!
There’s a big sub-genre of rodeo Westerns. From The Pendleton, Oregon Round-Up (1913) to Rodeo and Juliet (2015), from The Money Corral (1919) to Walk. Ride. Rodeo. (2017), Hollywood has always been keen on rodeo, especially the bucking bronc side of it.
It’s understandable. Rodeo has always been an intrinsically ‘Western’ sport. It started back in the 1820s and 1830s in northern Mexico and the western United States and territories, when informal events were organized for cowboys and vaqueros to test their work skills competitively. Rather like the rendez-vous of the mountain men, cowboys gathering annually to celebrate and show off, perhaps after the round up, was a natural thing. The word rodeo comes from the Spanish for round up.
After the Civil War more formal rodeos were set up, notably in Cheyenne, Wyoming in 1872. Prescott, Arizona claims the distinction of holding the first ‘professional’ rodeo, charging admission and awarding trophies, in 1888. So rodeo was going strong while the West was still ‘wild’. It’s no accident that many of the early silent Westerns were filmed around Prescott. There could be found real cowboys as extras and stuntmen, and a tradition of talents suitable for the action movies of the day. By 1910, several major rodeos were established in western North America, including the Calgary Stampede, the Pendleton Round-Up, and the Cheyenne Frontier Days.
In the last part of the nineteenth century rodeo tended to merge with Wild West shows, or the skills exhibited overlapped. In 1883, near his home in North Platte, Nebraska, Buffalo Bill Cody founded Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, a circus-like attraction which was based on roping, riding and shooting. It soon grew into the hugely famous traveling show which included every kind of spectacle but always retained the ‘cowboy’ elements.
Other Wild West shows followed his example. Will Rogers began his show business career as a trick roper in Texas Jack’s Wild West Circus in South Africa, before appearing in The Ropin’ Fool (1921) and other pictures in which he could showcase his roping and riding talents.
Rodeo grew throughout the twentieth century, all over North America and indeed in other countries, becoming a major attraction. It was taken East when in 1916 the New York Stampede was held in Brooklyn. Bulldogging was pioneered by the Millers’ 101 Ranch in Oklahoma, featuring especially African-American star Bill Pickett – who made a Western, The Bull-Dogger, in 1921. The 101 also boasted as honors graduates Tom Mix, Hoot Gibson and Buck Jones. In the 1920s rodeo was codified, with regulatory bodies being set up, and in the 1930s competitors organized themselves into an association.
For Hoot Gibson, movies were at first just a sideline, and rodeo his main focus. In 1912 he won the all-around championship at the famous Pendleton Round-Up and the steer roping world championship at the Calgary Stampede. He and his pal Art Acord used to go to Hollywood to do stunt work in the rodeo off-season. Gradually the movies took over, in Hoot’s case encouraged by up-and-coming director John Ford. In 1913 Hoot married rodeo performer Rose Wenger, and in fact there was quite a tradition of ‘lady’ rodeo stars. Under the name Helen Gibson, Rose became a major film star in her own right.
A good many silent Westerns featured the rodeo but more as a context for the usual skullduggery, bad guys and gunplay that audiences were used to. For example in The Calgary Stampede (1925) Champion Roman racer Hoot falls in love with a French-Canadian gal but is accused of killing her father. He evades the law until he wins the Calgary Stampede, being freed when the real killer is identified. Hoot did quite a few rodeo Westerns, using his champion skills, such as King of the Rodeo in 1929, and in other Westerns his character’s name was sometimes Rodeo Bill or Rodeo Randall.
This carried on into the talkie era. In The Man from Utah (1934) John Wayne is a rodeo star (they used footage from Calgary to give verisimilitude) who has to deal with shenanigans by the bad guys (led by Yak Canutt).
That great stuntman, also sometime actor and director, Yakima Canutt was an especially noteworthy graduate from the rodeo circuit to Hollywood. Born 1895, he broke a wild bronco when he was eleven and started bronc riding competitively at the Whitman County Fair in Colfax in 1912. At the age of 17 he won the title of World’s Best Bronco Buster. In 1917 he married Kitty Wilks, twice Ladies Bronc-Riding Champion. While in the US Navy during World War I he was given leave to defend his rodeo title. After the war Tom Mix invited him to be in two of his pictures, and it is said that Tom began his flashy wardrobe by borrowing two of Canutt’s two-tone rodeo shirts and having his tailor make 40 copies. Yak also befriended Douglas Fairbanks and became well known in Hollywood, acting and stunting, but alternated that with rodeo. He might have been a big cowboy star but never really had the voice for talkies, and concentrated on stunts and stunt direction, with the occasional minor role as actor (usually heavy), becoming perhaps the most famous stuntman in the business. He died in 1986 of cardiac arrest at the age of 90.
Many people regard The Great Train Robbery of 1903 as the first Western movie, but it wasn’t. Others preceded it, by several years, and one such was Edison’s 50-foot short Bucking Broncho, of 1894, a fine exhibition of horsemanship by Lee Martin, a genuine cowboy, riding a feisty bronco. A man standing above shoots a six-shooter to scare the poor horse up. Derby-hatted men watch and seem to applaud. You can find it on YouTube.
In 1919 the great William S Hart starred in a rodeo picture, The Money Corral, though he wins a shooting contest there rather than busting broncs. Throughout the 20s a good number of silent Westerns featured the rodeo, either as semi-documentaries or as the setting for more traditional oaters. Buddy Roosevelt starred in Ride ‘em High in 1927, and that year too Walt Disney got into the act with Alice at the Rodeo, for which the IMDb synopsis says “Julius wins a bronc-riding contest at the rodeo. However, Pete steals his prize money, so Julius must go after him to get it back.”
Ken Maynard’s last silent Western was Cheyenne, in which “A champion rodeo rider enters a series of rodeo competitions, and is winning every one so far. However, his enemies are plotting to stop him from taking part in the contests by any means necessary.”
Ken made the transition to talkies successfully and starred in King of the Arena in 1933. That year too, in the epic I Eats My Spinach, Popeye and Olive Oyl went to the rodeo where Bluto was performing, impressing Olive. Popeye outdoes Bluto with some fancy riding and steer wrestling but Bluto makes off with Olive, so Popeye squeezes open that spinach can and saves her.
Many talking picture rodeo films appeared in the 1930s. Buck Jones was The Red Rider in 1934, and Tim McCoy The Westerner. In Trouble in Texas (1937) rodeo stars are being killed with poisoned needles, and Tex Ritter is next on the list. At rodeos in Gene Autry sang and jumped Champion through a flaming hoop, and led in Westerns from 1935 on, including rodeo pictures like Melody Trail (1935) and Rhythm of the Saddle (1938).
In Ride ‘em Cowboy (1942) two peanut vendors at a rodeo show (Abbot and Costello) get in trouble with their boss and hide out on a railroad train heading west. They get jobs as cowboys on a dude ranch, despite the fact that neither of them knows anything about cowboys, horses, or anything else.
Roy Rogers couldn’t miss out. In Under Nevada Skies (1946) he is rodeo star Roy Rogers who helps out Sheriff Gabby Hayes. Classic stuff.
Rodeo clowns were a common feature, both to entertain the crowds between events and to distract potentially lethal bulls or broncs from trampling fallen riders. It’s a dangerous occupation, requiring courage and skill. Rodeo clowns figured in Western movies back in the 1930s (Autry’s Melody Trail is an example). Perhaps the most famous rodeo clown who made the transition to Western movies was Slim Pickens, and he often displayed remarkable abilities honed at the rodeo in scenes in Westerns he appeared in.
Roman riding was a feature of rodeos too, and Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr brilliantly demonstrated that in John Ford’s Rio Grande (1950).
Johnson, one of the greatest of all Western actors, always loved rodeo. His dad had been a rodeo champion and Ben himself took a break from his successful film work in 1953 to compete in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, becoming Team Roping World Champion. He was inducted into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame in 1973 and said, “I’ve won a rodeo world championship, and I’m prouder of that than anything else I’ve ever done.”
In 1960s rodeo arenas, Lorne Greene and Dan Blocker acted out a skit from Bonanza. Rodeo and feature or TV Westerns went hand-in-glove.
There was a big boom in the 1970s, and a consequent increase in the number of rodeo ‘Westerns’, such as Cliff Robertson’s JW Coop in 1971, When Legends Die with Frederic Forrest and Richard Widmark the same year, and Sam Peckinpah’s picture Junior Bonner (1972) with Steve McQueen. Nowadays rodeos are big business, major professional and commercial contests held in climate-controlled stadiums, broadcast by The Cowboy Channel and other TV networks. The National Finals Rodeo has moved from ‘Western’ Oklahoma to the glitzy venue of Las Vegas. Both rodeo and Western movies have in common the goal of making entertainment and money out of the cowboy.
One of the greatest of all rodeo movies was RKO’s The Lusty Men, directed by Nicholas Ray and released in 1952. It was written by New York novelist David Dortort and screenwriter Horace McCoy, a rodeo buff. A lot of the script was made up as they went along – three others worked on it, uncredited – and it was mixed in quality. There are moving, lyrical parts but at other times it diverges so far from the Western as to become something of a soap opera. Bizarrely, in the middle of filming, McCoy went off to write part of the other 1952 rodeo picture, Universal’s Bronco Buster (with a similar plot) directed by Budd Boetticher. Then he came back and wrote the authentic-sounding announcements by the rodeo MCs on The Lusty Men. But I love this movie and Robert Mitchum is absolutely superb as a broke-down ex-rodeo champ with nowhere to go. Arthur Hunnicutt also turns in the performance of his life as the beat-up old timer.
The Lusty Men contained various elements that were to become mainstays of rodeo Westerns. For one, it has a contemporary setting. Many 1930s Westerns portrayed a time-warp world in which cowpokes with six-shooters on their hips rode around a West they shared with automobiles and airplanes, a world in which the bad guys and the women wore 1930s clothes but the heroes wore range duds. That applied to several rodeo Westerns of the era too. But 50s rodeo Westerns were unequivocally set in the late 40s or early 50s, and the characters moved from rodeo venue to rodeo venue in pick-up trucks or cars.
This perhaps heightens the contrast between the modern world and the old-time cowboy, who is an anachronism, as The BFI Companion to the Western terms it “a living but fading symbol of the values of the old West.” And time and again the star is a washed-up rodeo rider, at the end of his career and with nowhere to go. There’s a sadness about him; he’s almost a loser. JW Coop and Junior Bonner are the same, almost tragic figures.
Rodeo and horses are often all these men know about and all they are (or were) good at. They are awkward socially, especially with women. The idea is that their itinerant lifestyle and hand-to-mouth existence – they are often in parlous financial situations – isolates them from steady relationships and ‘settling down’.
In The Cowboy and the Lady back in 1938 Gary Cooper was able to win out with his Western values against cynical Eastern modernity but not the characters in The Lusty Men, or the ones in Bronco Buster, in which Scott Brady is a narcissistic and self-absorbed show-off who thinks he is great but is actually on the road to nowhere. He undertakes to teach a neophyte (John Lund) the ropes and ends up being outridden by the youngster. James Coburn in The Honkers (1972) is so self-centered that he ignores his wife, son, and best friend. Richard Widmark in When Legends Die, yet another 1970s rodeo picture, is aging and drunken, also trying to teach a young tyro (Frederic Forrest) how to succeed in the arena. Similarly, in The Misfits (1961) Montgomery Clift is a washed-up rodeo cowboy pitifully living out the fantasy that he will once again be a star. These are all essentially pathetic men with little or no hope.
Another shared feature of these movies is the semi-documentary feel that is given them by intercutting scenes from actual rodeos, in the case of The Lusty Men Livermore, Pendleton, Spokane and Tucson, and for Junior Bonner the 84th Prescott Frontier Days. So the rodeo scenes are real as hell.
Of course there was often a lot of fakery, especially in earlier Westerns, with the stars filmed ‘riding’ mechanical horses and holding their right arms up, and with stunt doubles doing the actual bronc work.
But there’s an affectionate, even nostalgic regard of the rodeo West in these pictures. Yes, it’s an ersatz West that is being celebrated. As Steve McQueen’s brother Joe Don Baker tells him in Junior Bonner, “You’re just some kind of motel cowboy.”
But that’s better than not being a cowboy at all.
Photograph taken at the Hoot Gibson Rodeo Annual Fall Roundup, November 23, 1931. Inscription on back of photo states: “Bucking bronco mounted by noted riders of the films and Western ranches, gave thousands of spectators plenty of thrills at the annual fall roundup on the Hoot Gibson Ranch at Saugus, Calif. Photo shows ‘Skeeter’ Bill Perkins going for a bouncing good ride on What-A-Man.”
Wearing his signature cowboy hat and riding on horse to the left of photo is Hoot Gibson himself.