We’re looking at different studios’ contributions to our noble genre. In 1953, as an example, Warner Bros released 28 pictures, six of them Western (seven if you count the South American oilfield drama Blowing Wild), so about 21%. Several were in the then-fashionable 3D. The best of them by a long way was Hondo, with John Wayne, from a Louis L’Amour story, while the biggest commercial hit was Calamity Jane with Doris Day (if you call that a Western), but there were also two Randolph Scott pictures, The Man Behind the Gun and Thunder Over the Plains, the Gordon Douglas-directed The Charge at Feather River, and Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck in The Moonlighter.
In 1955, though, there were 22 films, only two of which, less than 10%, were Westerns. Tall Man Riding was another Randolph Scott picture, while Strange Lady in Town featured Greer Garson. They were both watchable but neither was any great blockbuster.
Warners had a rather iffy early decade as far as Westerns went. Many of its Western pictures were pretty clunky. Kirk Douglas’s early forays in the genre were less than stunning, the studio’s adaptation of Ernest Haycox’s fine novel Bugles in the Afternoon in 1952 was most disappointing, the pictures with Gary Cooper, Dallas and Distant Drums, 1950 and 1951, were among Coop’s worst, and Only the Valiant, also in 1951, was Gregory Peck’s least favorite film ever. The Gordon Douglas-directed Jim Bowie biopic The Iron Mistress with Alan Ladd as Bowie in ’52 was distinctly clunky. Thank goodness for Randolph Scott!
The Warner brothers did have a history with the Western genre. They had started as theater owners in 1903 and by the time of World War I were making films. The company is just now celebrating its hundredth anniversary.
The brothers’ first Western star was Rin Tin Tin (Jack Warner nicknamed him the Mortgage Lifter) and the canine hero appeared all through the 1920s.
There was an occasional non-canine Western too. Kenneth Harlan was quite popular (he was an early Virginian) and he starred in an anti-rustler yarn of 1926, The Fighting Edge.
Between 1928 and 1933 Darryl Zanuck served as Jack’s right-hand man and executive producer, with responsibilities including day-to-day film production. The studio moved steadily upmarket. In 1928 the brothers acquired First National – and Doug Fairbanks with it. Westerns weren’t a priority, though, apart from Rin Tin Tin.
The Warners became a pioneer of talking pictures. Charles Bickford was in a Canadian ‘Western’, River’s End in 1930, directed by Michael Curtiz. This would be remade by Ray Enright in 1940 with Dennis Morgan. Curtiz also helmed Under a Texas Moon. The studio started making talkie programmer Westerns especially with Dick Foran. And they hired young John Wayne to do a few when he got sick of Columbia. They weren’t bad, actually.
In 1939 they tried their gangster stars Cagney and Bogart out in the saddle, in The Oklahoma Kid. Jimmy could just about cut it at a push but Bogie was hopeless in the genre (except for Sierra Madre of course). More importantly they got Curtiz to helm the color blockbuster Dodge City with Errol Flynn and Olivia De Havilland. The Warners adult Western had arrived.
Flynn was hesitant about doing Westerns at all until the critical and box-office success of Dodge City. After that, he was ready to do more, and Warners were happy for him to do so, with Curtiz too – though they wouldn’t always allot Dodge City-size budgets to the pictures. One of them was splendid, though, the rollicking Raoul Walsh-directed Custer biopic They Died With Their Boots On.
Dennis Morgan returned in 1941 in a Younger brothers yarn, Bad Men of Missouri, also with Wayne Morris. Bruce Cabot was Hickok in Ray Enright‘s Wild Bill Hickok Rides in 1942.
In the late 40s Randolph Scott did a run of Westerns at Warners, and Raoul Walsh directed some pyscho-Westerns like Pursued and the classic noir Colorado Territory. 1948 was the year of the great The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which Jack Warner thought the best film they’d ever made. I also like Ray Enright’s South of St Louis with Joel McCrea, and the same year (’49) Wayne Morris was promoted to Cole Younger in Edwin L Marin’s The Younger Brothers. The 40s were really the high-point of the Warners Western.
After that uncertain start, the 50s weren’t to be sniffed at either. It was at Warners that John Ford made The Searchers, for example, and the same year George Stevens made Giant there, if you call that a Western. Apart from the 1953 and ’55 pictures we mentioned above, there was also in 1954 Guy Madison in The Command, Delmer Daves directing Ladd in Drum Beat and the splendid Wayne-Fellows production Track of the Cat with Robert Mitchum, directed by William A Wellman. I liked the Gordon Douglas/Clint Walker Western Fort Dobbs in 1958 and the same year the studio had a hit with a method-acting Paul Newman as Billy the Kid in the Left-Handed Gun directed by Arthur Penn. Delmer Daves and Gary Cooper made the fine The Hanging Tree in 1959 and of course Hawks and Wayne made Rio Bravo that year, which was huge fun. You have to hand it to Warners; they sure ended the decade well.
Furthermore, Jack Warner was not keen at all on TV but eventually softened, making shows like Maverick, Bronco and Colt .45.
There would be big-screen Warners Westerns after the glorious 1950s too. In 1960 Ford made Sergeant Rutledge there and in 1964 his last picture, Cheyenne Autumn. Walsh also made his last Western (like Ford’s, rather disappointing, actually) in 1964, A Distant Trumpet. I liked Fonda in A Big Hand for the Little Lady in 1966. And of course at the end of the 60s Sam Peckinpah made The Wild Bunch, one of the truly great Westerns.
There isn’t all that much to be said for the 70s but we did get from Warners The Ballad of Cable Hogue, Chisum and The Cowboys, McCabe & Mrs Miller, Jeremiah Johnson, Blazing Saddles and The Outlaw Josey Wales. That’s a pretty good list. The 80s gave us Tom Horn and Pale Rider. In the 90s there was Eastwood’s masterpiece Unforgiven, the fun Maverick, and Costner as Wyatt Earp. In our own century we got The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.
Yup, Warners did Westerns.
John Ford last picture is Seven Women, Cheyenne Autumn being his last western (that’s probably what you meant). Thank you for this original angle to travel through the westerns again by touring the studios.
Yes, that’s what I meant. Thanks!
Jeff, good write-up on WARNER BROTHERS: THE WESTERNS. That studio released my favorite Western of all time, which is THE SEARCHERS(filmed 1955, released 1956). I think it’s the greatest Western ever made and probably just might be the greatest movie ever made.
Not sure I’d go that far myself but I certainly agree that it’s a damn fine Western!