Silent Era Westerns
The western was a popular staple of the silent film era. According to Larry Langman's Guide to Silent Westerns, over 5,000 silent westerns graced movie houses from the 1890s through 1930.
Sadly, a great many of those films have been lost to nitrate decomposition, or were simply destroyed by studios when silents were deemed to have no further commercial value (this was obviously long before the concept of mass reproduction for home viewing).
The silent era westerns that still exist are fascinating to watch in no small part due to their proximity to the historical time period they portray. Film was becoming a popular new medium at the turn of the 20th century, only a few decades after the heyday of what we now call the "Wild West."
Early westerns played a major role in building the mythology of the West as a continuing and vital part of American cultural identity in the 20th century. Mindful of the allure of the already-fabled western frontier, some of Edison Company's earliest silent films documented scenes from Buffalo Bill's Wild West. Four of Edison's short films, shot in 1894, featured Annie Oakley shooting targets, a Sioux ghost dance, a native buffalo dance, and a cowboy riding a bucking bronco, respectively.
Many claim the first western film is Edison's Cripple Creek Bar-room Scene, filmed in 1898. This 46 second film shows a small saloon featuring a barmaid, three men playing cards at a table, and a man sitting asleep by a stove. Another man enters, orders a drink, and proceeds to cause a ruckus. The barmaid bounces the troublemaker with the help of the card players. A round of drinks is then enjoyed by all.
While Cripple Creek Bar-room Scene captured a small slice of a western setting, the real beginning of the popularity of film westerns began with Edison's Great Train Robbery of 1903. Considered to be the first true narrative western (as well as a groundbreaking film in many technical and composition aspects), its great success at the box office sparked a flurry of other similarly-themed films.
Another fascinating element of silent westerns is observing the growth and innovation in filmmaking, as well as the genre, during the the 1910s and 1920s.
The idea of the serial character cowboy hero, for example, was first used to great success by G.M. Anderson in his "Broncho Billy" films between 1910 and 1916. While Billy's plot scenarios were not directly linked from film to film (Billy might die in one picture and would be alive and well again in the next film), audiences were drawn to see the recognizable "good bad man" role that Billy consistently embodied on the screen. Anderson shot nearly 400 western shorts for Essanay, but as of this writing, it is difficult to find many on home video. There is at least one collection of three Broncho Billy shorts on DVD: Broncho Billy Shorts, Vol. 1. This disc includes Broncho Billy and the Greaser (1914), Broncho Billy's Fatal Joke (1914), and Broncho Billy's Sentence (1915).
D.W. Griffith's films of the teens were significant in the development of the western genre, as well as for the maturation of the art of filmmaking in general. Griffith's editing techniques and his use of unusual camera angles and lighting effects were pioneering at the time. Quite a few of Griffith's westerns are available to watch today. Fighting Blood (1911), The Last Drop of Water (1911), The Massacre (1914), and The Battle of Elderbush Gulch (1914) are all available on the DVD Griffith Masterworks: Biograph Shorts (1908-1914). The Redman's View (1909) is available on the DVD D.W. Griffith: Years of Discovery (1908-1914).
Also a pioneer of early filmmaking, Thomas Ince produced consistently solid westerns in the teens. He hired out the performers, equipment, and animals from an entire wild west show to act as his regular stock western company. Ince also developed other innovations in film production methods that many studios were quick to copy as they witnessed his success. Only a few of Ince's many westerns survive today; some are available online or on DVD, including The Invaders (1912), found on Disc 1 of More Treasures From American Film Archives, and at The Internet Archive; Blazing the Trail (1912) on a VHS collection along with 3 other early westerns; Past Redemption (1913) on YouTube; Custer's Last Fight (1912) on DVD (the DVD edition of the 1924 re-release version of the film may be a compilation of Ince's 1911 Custer’s Last Stand and his 1912 Custer’s Last Fight.)
In addition to his films and his advancements in production, Ince is also known for signing William S. Hart to produce his own series of westerns.
William S. Hart became the next big cowboy star of the teens, following Broncho Billy Anderson. While Hart did not follow the serial character formula that had brought success to the Broncho Billy shorts, he did often use similar "good bad man" character types and plots. Hart's Westerns were more sentimental and dark than Anderson's, and they relied on a combination of melodrama and action. He was most likely the first western player to give screen credit to his horse. A decent sampling of Hart's work is viewable on DVD, including The Bargain (1914), The Square Deal Man (1915), The Silent Man (1917), Blue Blazes Rawden (1918), Wagon Tracks (1919), Sand (1920), The Toll Gate (1920), and his final film, Tumbleweeds (1925).
Harry Carey brought his own natural style to the westerns he made with Universal in the mid and late teens. A young John Ford directed Carey and sidekick Hoot Gibson for a number of "Cheyenne Harry" westerns; in 1917, Ford made his first feature-length western with Carey, entitled Straight Shooting (available on a VHS collection with three other early silent westerns). They continued to make westerns together for four years, until Ford left to join Fox in 1921. Nearly all of those films are not known to survive, and the few that do are difficult to locate outside of film archives.
The early 1920s produced the first epic-scale western features. The Covered Wagon (1923, Paramount), directed by James Cruze, tells the tale of two wagon trains traveling from Kansas City over the Oregon Trail to California and Oregon. The Covered Wagon (which is available on VHS) was a sensation with moviegoers; it spurred Fox to back John Ford's epic western The Iron Horse (1925, Fox) about the building of the transcontinental railroad. Ford's epic is available on DVD.
The 1920s also gave way to a new stable of cowboy stars who brought a wider range of on-screen personalities than had been seen in the teens with Broncho Billy, Hart, or Carey. Perhaps the biggest cowboy star to emerge in the twenties was Tom Mix. Mix had done a number of two-reel westerns with Selig in the teens, but he truly became a superstar when he moved to Fox. Mix's films at Fox were high-budget affairs, full of colorful personality, flashy costumes, exciting stunts, and plenty of action. A small portion of Mix's silent westerns are available on DVD, including Trailin' (1921), Sky High (1922), Just Tony (1922), The Man from Texas (1915), The Heart of Texas Ryan (1917), and Riders Of The Purple Sage (1925). A few early Mix shorts can still sometimes be found on VHS collections, including Child of the Prairies (1913), A Bear of a Story (1916), The Stagecoach Driver & The Girl (1915), How Weary Went Wooing (1915), Sagebrush Tom (1914), Roping a Bride (1916), Never Again (1915), Local Color (1913), and Angelic Attitude (1916). The Great K & A Train Robbery (1926) was also released on VHS.
While Mix was probably the brightest star of 1920s westerns, a handful of other players also won widespread popularity during that decade. Hoot Gibson, who took over Harry Carey's position as the main western attraction at Universal, became a hugely popular star for that studio. Hoot's deadpan humor and boyish charm endeared him to many viewers of the time. Only a few of Hoot's silent westerns survive. Straight Shooting (where he appeared with Carey) was released on VHS, as was The Phantom Bullet (1926).
Other popular cowboy personalities of the twenties included Art Acord, Jack Hoxie, and Pete Morrison at Universal; Tim McCoy at MGM, Buck Jones at Fox, Ken Maynard at First National, and Fred Thomson at FBO. Of course, there were many other western players over the course of the silent period, especially at the smaller studios doing serials and shorts. Likewise, there are other significant silent westerns that have not been mentioned above. To list them all here would be beyond the scope of this introduction; as many silent westerns as possible will be included in this site's weekly synopses.
As the 1920s and the silent era drew to a close, it was an uncertain time for the western. The introduction of sound to motion pictures was a technical challenge for outdoor productions like westerns, and studios were cautious as they made the transition. Some studios believed that recording outdoor sound pictures was impossible, or simply too great a financial burden. Simultaneously, the United States was in the early throes of a massive depression, causing studios to reevaluate the kinds of pictures they felt would be profitable.
A number of small, independent studios continued to churn out low-budget westerns as they made the transition from sound to talkies. These B westerns, as they would come to be known, would continue to be an entertainment staple for decades to come.
Most of the large studios slowed down their big-budget western productions around 1929-1930. Some cautiously made a few transitional pictures that were part-sound, part-silent. As we'll see in the "golden age" section of this site, after a few initial bumps in the 30s, both big- and small-budget westerns would go on to survive and thrive for decades to come.
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Classic Westerns on TCM
Westerns on Fox Movie Channel