The studios and the Western
We’ve looked, in our The Westerns of… series, at the series of oaters made by many directors, producers, cinematographers and of course actors. You’ll find all these in the index.
But what about studios?
You may feel that certain Hollywood studios made a particular type of Western. A lot of it was down to what kind of budget they were prepared to allot to these pictures, the resultant production values, and of course the caliber of the casts and crews they hired, especially in the latter case the directors and writers. There was also sometimes a ‘house style’ of film. Some studio execs seemed less keen on making Westerns at all, while others almost specialized in them.
Let’s look at some of these studio Westerns.
We have to narrow such a vast subject down, so we’ll say a few general words but let’s concentrate on the 1950s, generally regarded as the high-water-mark of the big-screen Western, a time, at least the early 50s, when TV had yet to make such dramatic inroads into theater audiences, and when the ‘straight’ (i.e. non-revisionist) Western was immensely popular.
I’m going to take two years as examples, 1953, because it was a stellar year for the genre with some of the most famous Westerns ever coming out from the majors, as well as dozens and dozens of humbler oaters (second-features were still common), and 1955, as the mid-point of the decade and a moment when early signs of future decline were (perhaps with hindsight) noticeable.
In 1953, there were 87 American Westerns released (depending on your definition of Western, of course, but in my estimation anyway) between January 1 and December 31.
In 1955, the best estimate is that there were 59 American Westerns released between January 1 and December 31, so about two-thirds of the 1953 number, quite a decline.
The vast majority of these were from MGM, Paramount, Fox, Warner Brothers, Columbia, Universal, United Artists, Allied Artists, Republic and RKO, in other words what we might call the majors and semi-majors, while a handful were from smaller outfits such as Lippert, AIP, etc.
We’ll start today with MGM.
In 1953, MGM released 44 films, only three of which, 7% of the output, were Westerns, The Naked Spur, Ride, Vaquero! and Escape from Fort Bravo. The first was superb, the Anthony Mann/James Stewart partnership at its best with a magnificent Robert Ryan as bad guy. The second was a torrid romance with Robert Taylor and Ava Gardner. And the third was another fine Western, directed by John Sturges and starring an excellent William Holden. You’d have to say there was quality from MGM that year rather than quantity.
In 1955 Metro released 24 films, again only three of which were Westerns or semi-Westerns, 12.5% this time because there were fewer movies in total, though you could argue that in fact there was only one true Western. The pictures were Bad Day at Black Rock, Many Rivers to Cross and The Marauders.
The first was a fine film, certainly, directed by John Sturges and with a cast headed by Spencer Tracy, a contemporary picture (set after World War II), though perhaps more of an intense crime drama than true Western. The second, directed by Roy Rowland and starring Robert Taylor and Eleanor Parker, was a rather lumbering comedy, really more of a trite romance than a proper Western. Really, only the last was a Western in the true sense, but it was a low-budget affair with an unstellar cast backing up Dan Duryea and a director, Gerald Mayer, more known for TV work. It did little at the box-office. So MGM did not cover itself in Western glory in 1955.
Dore Schary had taken over from Louis B Mayer as head of production in 1951, with a cost-cutting agenda, and though he greenlit some commercially successful pictures, he didn’t really care for Westerns. The studio’s biggest male stars didn’t much like them either. Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable, for example, made relatively few (for the period) and didn’t always convince in the ones they did – though Robert Taylor liked the genre.
Corporate memories are sometimes long and Metro burned its fingers badly by releasing the expensively-made Billy the Kid in 1930 just as the Great Depression hit, so for most of the following decade they avoided the genre like the plague. And when the adult A-picture Western made a comeback in 1939, with the likes of Fox and Warners making big, color oaters with their top stars, Metro missed the boat (or stagecoach) with its 18th-century drama Northwest Passage, which, when it was released a year later after considerable delays, turned out to be a clunky plodder. The Billy the Kid remake with Taylor, filmed in 1940 and released in 1941, was not received well by the critics and only just broke even. The studio felt it was happier with musicals.
Many MGM pictures also managed the trick of being expensive to make yet look cheap. The Metro powers-that-be were especially fond of in-studio shots with (now) very obvious back-projection of locations. Westerns, which often rely so much on the natural settings, suffered from this approach. Across the Wide Studio Soundstage didn’t have quite the appeal.
There were some alright MGM Westerns in different periods but you could actually count on the fingers of one hand the really superb ones that came out of Metro in the 1950s. Devil’s Doorway, Westward the Women, Escape from Fort Bravo, The Naked Spur. You probably wouldn’t even need your thumb. Maybe The Sheepman later in the decade, or The Law and Jake Wade possibly, though these were probably very good rather than great.
The studio seemed to have decided that Westerns weren’t really its thing.
Next time, it’s over to Paramount.