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Western Films: From the Silver Screen To The Golden Age Of Cowboy Greats
Popular opinion falsely holds that The Great Train Robbery was the first story film produced. It was neither the first story film nor the first western film. What it was however, was the first film to be a box-office hit, appealing to audiences with the story it told as well as the novelty of the film medium. It also became the template for the thousands of western films that would follow, with its narrative story of crime, chase and capture.
But The Great Train Robbery also introduced the first actor to become a cowboy stars, though fame for Gilbert M. "Broncho Billy" Anderson was still five years in the future. The early silent films, Western and non-Western, had no stars—the studios were aware that actors are most easily replaced when no one knows their names. When the star system was established later, it was by audience demand.
The Golden Age of Cowboy Greats
Immediately following the introduction of the "talkies,” in 1927-28 Western films seemed to decline in popularity and the major Hollywood studios, predicted the death of Western films and rapidly abandoned Westerns. The belief was that the genre was only suited to the silent film - like that other action-oriented silent-film staple, slapstick comedy - and studios began to phase down their production of Westerns. The genre continued to be served by smaller studios and producers, who churned out countless "B" movie - low-budget features - and serials in the 1930s. By the late 1930s the Western film was widely regarded as a 'pulp' genre in Hollywood.
But the western audience saw it differently and would prove the studios wrong. After audiences got over the fascination of sound and productions ceased to be a draw merely for this feature, Westerns came back bigger than ever. A 1929 Cisco Kid adventure starring Warner Baxter, “In Old Arizona", introduced cinema audiences to the dynamic audio impact of blazing six-guns and thundering hooves. Raoul Walsh, the director of In Old Arizona, also brought the first appearance of John Wayne in the first sound epic, "The Big Trail ".
The 30s: "B" Movie
With the introduction of the double bill, the "B" movie gave the silent cowboy stars their Hollywood home. These cheaply made, but frequently very entertaining films joined the serial as a steady source of employment. Through most of the 30s, the "B"s and the serials were the sole Westerns being made, aside from literary adaptations like The Virginian and Drums Along the Mohawk and occasional epics like Cimarron and The Texas Rangers.
The era of the "A" Westerns came at the end of the decade of the 30s. The sudden upsurge in production quality at this time is not clear, but conjecture holds one possible reason, that as war appeared imminent in Europe, America had turned introspective, reflecting on her own past.
The late 40s and the 50s
The best Westerns of the late 40s and the 50s continued to feature the action and daring that had made the Western film popular, while enhancing the action's impact by incorporating the psychological and emotional elements. Some of the best examples of films that testified to this new maturity in Western films include, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, High Noon, The Gunfighter, Shane and The Naked Spur.