Universal was another outfit that favored the Western – and had done from the start.
1953, a wonderful year for the Western movie, was especially impressive at Universal. There were 14 oaters released. Out of a total of 42 films, Westerns therefore represented 33%.
Three of the Westerns, Gunsmoke, Column South and Tumbleweed, were led by the studio’s popular Western star Audie Murphy. Rock Hudson did Seminole with Budd Boetticher, Boetticher directed Glenn Ford who was The Man from the Alamo, and also Van Heflin in the Mexican Western Wings of the Hawk, so it was a mega year for Budd at Universal. Rudolf Maté directed Tyrone Power as The Mississsippi Gambler. Then Joel McCrea was The Lone Hand in the George Sherman-helmed picture, Ronald Reagan did a remake of Law and Order, directed by Nathan Juran, Douglas Sirk directed Sterling Hayden in Take Me to Town, and Lloyd Bacon directed Jeff Chandler, another Universal regular, in The Great Sioux Uprising. Lee ‘Roll ‘em’ Sholem helmed The Stand at Apache River with Stephen McNally as well as The Redhead from Wyoming, with Maureen O’Hara as said redhead, and O’Hara also did War Arrow, with Chandller again, helmed once more by Sherman.
OK, not all these Westerns were superb but some were darn good and you have to hand it to Universal for quantity, if nothing else.
In 1955, the other year we have chosen as an example, Universal only made half that number of Westerns, seven, out of a total of 35 films, still at 20% a hefty proportion. Leaving aside Anthony Mann’s The Far Country with James Stewart, which was released in early ’55 in the US but was really a 1954 picture, having come out earlier in other markets, the biggest was probably the King Vidor-directed Man Without a Star with Kirk Douglas. Then we got Dana Andrews in Smoke Signal (Jerry Hopper), Lex Barker as The Man from Bitter Ridge (Jack Arnold), Victor Mature as an unlikely Chief Crazy Horse (George Sherman), Jeff Chandler in yet another remake of The Spoilers (Jesse Hibbs), Jeanne Crain in the barely-Western comedy musical The Second Greatest Sex (George Marshall) and finally the interesting The Naked Dawn, directed by Edgar G Ulmer and brilliantly acted by Arthur Kennedy.
Western lovers had a whale of a time in 1955.
The early days
Universal had a great track (or trail) record with the Western and went right back to the early days in the genre. We’ve already looked at the career of studio pioneer and father-figure Carl Laemmle (click the link for that) and I won’t go over all that again in detail now. Just to say here that Laemmle founded a film production company way back in 1909 and it became the Universal Film Manufacturing Company in 1912, in California. In 1915 Laemmle opened the world’s largest motion picture production facility, Universal City Studios, on a converted farm just over the Cahuenga Pass from Hollywood. Much of Universal’s early film output was destroyed in subsequent fires and by nitrate degradation but we know a lot from its publications for exhibitors Universal Weekly and Moving Picture Weekly.
In 1919 Laemmle promoted his secretary Irving Thalberg as head of production and the talented Thalberg moved Universal distinctly upmarket, until he was lured away in 1922 by Louis B Mayer.
Westerns were a key element of Universal’s production in these silent days. Hoot Gibson, Art Accord and Jack Hoxie were early screen cowboys and the young George Marshall was one of the directors. So was RN Bradbury (Bob Steele’s dad). Ernst and Edward Laemmle also helmed pictures (Uncle Carl was renowned for hiring relatives). Fighting with Buffalo Bill (now lost) was a hugely popular serial in the mid-1920s, directed by Ray Taylor, with Edmund Cobb as Cody. There was also the first film version of a Whispering Smith yarn.
Frank and Jack Ford
Early on Laemmle Sr had used the popular actor Francis Ford, first as star, then to direct and produce. When Frank Ford’s younger brother Jack arrived in California, Laemmle realized the potential of the young John Ford (as he would become). Links take you to our articles on the Fords. Laemmle is supposed to have said, “Give Jack Ford the job—he yells good”. Jack began on Westerns for Laemmle, many starring Harry Carey, who was sixteen years his senior, well known as a film actor, and the nearest Universal came to a big star at the time. Most of these one- and two-reel pictures no longer exist, sadly, but we have a good idea of their quality from Jack Ford’s first feature (most of the pictures he churned out were shorts) and earliest surviving complete film, Straight Shooting (1917). “They weren’t shoot-em-ups,” said Jack Ford of his early pictures. “They were character stories.” Carey usually played a shambling, modest saddle-tramp rather than a flashy gunfighter. There was some kind of bust-up, however, between Carey and Jack Ford and in 1920 Ford moved to Fox.
In 1926 Uncle Carl’s young cousin William Wyler (click for our essay on him) started directing two-reel Westerns, learning the craft, and in 1929 Wyler made the superb Hell’s Heroes, a version of the well-known story Three Godfathers (links will take you to our reviews). Wyler didn’t get on famously with Carl’s son Junior, who was promoted to head of production as a 21st birthday present, but Junior did move Universal on into the sound era.
In 1930 MGM and Fox had sustained severe loses by launching mega-budget Westerns just as the Great Depression hit and for most of the decade the majors avoided oaters and the genre was consigned to programmer status, often for the youth market. Universal was more than happy to provide for those audiences.
In the early 1930s Ken Maynard led in a series of talkie Westerns, some directed by later producer Harry Joe Brown (link to our look at Harry). Ray Taylor remade his Buffalo Bill serial in 1931, this time with sound and Tom Tyler as Bill.
In 1932 there was an important Western, Law and Order, directed by Edward Cahn (by far his best ever film) and starring Walter Huston and Harry Carey as Wyatt Earp/Doc Holliday figures (though not named as such).
Also that year, Tom Mix came to Universal, to make a series of talkie oaters, most notably the wonderful My Pal, the King. In 1933 Buck Jones began a series of oaters which became extremely popular. Towards the end of the decade Bob Baker and Johnny Mack Brown became the star cowboys.
In 1939 Universal was sufficiently ‘grand’ to join the club of studios that re-launched the adult Western (though unlike Fox or Warners, they wouldn’t go as far as color) and it put Marlene Dietrich and James Stewart in its (for Universal) big-budget comedy Destry Rides Again, which became a big hit.
My Little Chickadee the following year was less of a success (the stars WC Fields and Mae West didn’t get on at all and there was no electricity) but that year Randolph Scott started making oaters at Universal, with the George Marshall-directed When the Daltons Rode, with Brian Donlevy (a Universal regular) and Broderick Crawford as Dalton brothers, and that picture did well. In 1942 Dietrich was back, with Randy and John Wayne too, in the latest (and best) version of The Spoilers. Mack Brown, sidekicked by Fuzzy Knight, continued on the merry B-Western way, though.
In 1943 Tex Ritter did three Westerns at the studio and soon after Rod Cameron became a regular, joined several times by fellow-Canadian Yvonne De Carlo.
After the war, the series Westerns continued (Kirby Grant was a favorite) but now and then there was a classy picture, such as the excellent Canyon Passage, made from an Ernest Haycox story, starring Dana Andrews and directed by the talented Jacques Tourneur. In 1948 Norman Z McLeod directed the Bob Hope laugh-a-minute The Paleface.
In 1950, with the Billy the Kid tale The Kid from Texas, Universal began the long series of Westerns featuring returned war hero Audie Murphy. It would be followed by Sierra and Kansas Raiders the same year, the latter a young Jesse James yarn. Murphy oaters became a regular fixture. They weren’t all splendid, and indeed Murphy himself complained that all they ever changed was the color of his horse, but that wasn’t really fair. Many of them were pretty good, and they had high production values and were often shot in attractive Western locations in bright color. They included George Marshall’s own remake of Destry.
Joel McCrea also did a Destry remake, Frenchie, with Shelley Winters, and McCrea would do several Universal oaters in the decade, Cattle Drive, The Lone Hand, Border River and Black Horse Canyon.
More importantly, though, 1950 was the year Universal started those tough Anthony Mann/James Stewart Westerns with the brilliant Winchester ’73. It would be followed by Bend of the River and The Far Country.
Really, the 1950s were a great time for the Universal Western, with pictures starring the likes of Robert Ryan, Alan Ladd, John Payne, Rory Calhoun, Richard Widmark, Fred MacMurray and more.
The 60s saw Rock Hudson and Kirk Douglas in Robert Aldrich’s The Last Sunset, Douglas’s marvelous Lonely Are the Brave, more (though worse) James Stewart Westerns, Marlon Brando in The Appaloosa, Douglas again, with Duke this time, in The War Wagon, and many more. All the while, Audie rode on.
The 70s were less glorious but then they were for the genre as a whole. There were high spots, such as Aldrich again with Ulzana’s Raid starring Burt Lancaster.
So all in all we should give a warm round of applause to Universal. Why they had to rename themselves so bathetically Universal-International – you’d think that something universal was already international enough – I don’t know but I forgive them that. I have enjoyed too many Universal Westerns from so many decades to hold that against them.