The oater wasn’t always paramount
Continuing our look at the different studios’ Westerns, concentrating on the early 1950s, Paramount put out 25 pictures in different genres in ‘53, five of them Westerns, i.e. 20%. So that was quite a lot more than MGM. The first was one of the most famous Westerns ever, and a huge hit, Shane; two featured the studio’s star Charlton Heston, but were pretty bad, Pony Express and Arrowhead; one was a mid-budget (though color) picture with John Payne, The Vanquished; while the last was a musical comedy, only barely a Western, Those Redheads from Seattle.
In 1955 there were 19 Paramount films, only two of which were Westerns, so 10%-ish. They were the color VistaVision picture Run for Cover, starring James Cagney and directed by Nicholas Ray, so it should have been good but was really vin ordinaire, while The Far Horizons, with Fred MacMurray and Charlton Heston, was a stodgy Lewis and Clark farrago stodgily directed by Rudolf Maté. ’55 was a very undistinguished year for the genre at Paramount.
So that’s not a great record.
Growing out of Famous Players, founded in 1912, Paramount went right back to the early days of cinema, when Westerns were a staple (fully a third of all silent pictures produced were in the genre at one time). Leading lights like Adolph Zukor, Jesse Lasky and Cecil B DeMille made some of the biggest early Westerns – in fact their first feature was DeMille’s The Squaw Man in 1914. Paramount was also the first successful nationwide distributor, so had a foot in both camps, motion picture producers and exhibitors.
In 1917 the leading Western actor of the time, William S Hart, signed with Lasky and made a number of commercially and critically successful features. Hart had admired DW Griffith’s Birth of a Nation and was determined to bring similar scope to the Western. Pictures like Hell’s Hinges (1916) were the result.
In the early 1920s the company hired BP Schulberg to run its West Coast operations and he went in for Westerns, such as the 1923 and 1929 versions of The Virginian (DeMille had made the first one, in 1914), also Nevada, Wolf Song and The Texan with Gary Cooper, as well as the revolutionary Redskin, in color, with Richard Dix, in 1929.
Lasky produced the epic The Covered Wagon in 1923, directed by James Cruze. Lasky also bought the rights to Zane Grey’s tales and made many silent pictures of them, often with Jack Holt, remaking them with Randolph Scott when sound came in.
Unlike the other majors, Paramount did go in for the occasional big-budget A-picture Western in the 30s, notably DeMille’s The Plainsman in 1936 with Gary Cooper as Wild Bill Hickok and Frank Lloyd’s Wells Fargo in ’37 with Joel McCrea.
But the studio mostly went for quantity, churning out Western programmers such as Hopalong Cassidy pictures, and it was soon an early backer of television.
In the 1940s there were Westerns such as The Light of Western Stars, North West Mounted Police, The Shepherd of the Hills, The Paleface, Tombstone the Town Too Tough to Die, Unconquered, Whispering Smith and yet another remake of The Virginian.
In the 50s the studio relied quite a lot on Heston, MacMurray and Alan Ladd to lead their oaters, though the first and last made some very indifferent pictures and MacMurray disliked the genre. Nevertheless, they all did have some box-office success. There was certainly budget available for the genre.
So all in all, Paramount Pictures have a strong record in the Western genre, even if there were moments when you wouldn’t think it.
Next, it’ll be over to Warners.