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Western Films: From the Silver Screen To The Golden Age Of Cowboy Greats

Updated on December 31, 2011

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.

The Great Train Robbery
The Great Train Robbery

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.

John Wayne
John Wayne

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.


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    • Kosmo profile image

      Kelley 6 years ago from California

      Hey, you certainly love Westerns as much as I do. Anyway, John Wayne certainly acted in lots of B Westerns back in the 1930s, some of which I've seen. I've also seen "The Great Train Robbery," which used some very impressive special effects, including the use of mattes. Later!

    • edharewood profile image

      edharewood 6 years ago from Toronto

      Thanks CarltheCritic1291 I will be adding a number of western film related hubs in the coming weeks, so stay tuned.

      The first film I saw in a theater was a western, many moons ago, and they have remained a favorite genre of mine.

    • CarltheCritic1291 profile image

      Carl 6 years ago

      Ah yes I remember the Great Train Robbery (it's one of the first ever narrative films). I studied this in College. Western is a unique genre that comes and goes (now a days we usually see it mixed with other genre's like comedy, horror, animation, etc.) Great Hub, as a film maker, and film student I found this to be very interesting, so I voted Up, Useful, Awesome, and Interesting. Keep up the great work :)