At that point, the move west across the continent starting in 1492 had just concluded, Conngress having declaed the Frontier closed.
And the last to go were the movie companies (first to what is not Union City California, and then to Hollywood.
The history of the West being a defining characteristic of America from that time forward, and being a major them in prior media, was a natural. That the land surrounding the new studios was pretty much scrub-brush, well, what else would you expect to get?
Why a 1950-1960 revival? As if it ever went fully away, by then it was an American art form, telling themes of what made America great to a newly minted superpower. And the production is relatively simple too.
They appealed to people for whom issues were always black and white. There’s a good guy, there’s a bad desperado. Kill the desperado. Life is good.
In the 70s, films migrated towards themes with more gray area - maybe as a consequence of a new generation that had grown up with TV, maybe as a response to the no-easy-answers problems of then-recent history.
What I find more interesting is that Westerns are making a comeback.
I have a theory about this. It was because of the war.
After WWII ended, it was largely up to America to civilize Europe and Japan: they had to tame the savage Fascists (and Imperialists) and return the infrastructure to its prewar viability–and in many instances modernize it well past it’s prewar state.
The Western dealt with the same issues, just one level of metaphor removed.
If this is true–and I’m sure it is, though to what extent is of course debatable–than the resurgence in the popularity might well be because of the current unrest in the world, and our self-imposed status as “cowboy” democratizers.
(As far as pre-war Westerns, I think it’s more likely they were less metaphorical, and more literally about the settling of the American West in post Civil War America, which were of course much more recent memories for the audiences of the silent era.)
Many of the earliest films were made in southern California, because it was far from Edison (in New Jesey) and had a lot of clear, sunny days. So they saw the chaparral of the southern California landscape and thought it would be an easy backdrop–for what? Westerns, of course.
I’ve heard that up until something like 1970 the majority of films were Westerns. I’m not sure if it’s true or not, but there certainly were more of them.
I strongly suspect that it’s because they were easy to make – the plots were clear, the backgrounds were already there in place. You didn’t have to make sets. The stories were high-impact (exciting chase scenes, fights, and shot-em-ups) and easily grasped. Furthermore, there was already a built-in audience. Shows like Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show had been touring for years, and the public was acquainted with the standard features of the show. I’m sure the fact that there had been “dime novels” about the West and heroes (again, like Buffalo Bill) also helped.
With all those advantages, it would be surprising if Westerns hadn’t made it big. Science Fiction hadn’t made it big yet when films started, and special effects, although a big draw, were time-consuming and expensive. Sea dramas required special effects, too, and a lot of set building. You could make plenty of talky melodramas (or even silent dramas), but the general public almost certainly wanted movement and action for its money.
I recall hearing something about this on WNYC’s Radiolab, the last segment on this show, about pop music, specifically country music. Because America was urbanizing and industrializing rapidly, we were leaving behind our immediate rugged individualism for a new cultural identity. Even though people didn’t want to be subsistence farmers suffering from drought and poverty, they are nostalgic for community and family. Thus the skyrocketing popularity of country music and westerns well after that lifestyle became outmoded. On the one hand, big city fat cats get to pretend to be tough and genuine, and rural dwellers get validation of their values and hope for their futures. I also find it really funny that Kenny Rogers cover bands sell out stadiums in Kenya. The book referred to in the segment is here.
Westerns made good stories, and the black vs. white in many of them was very appealing. As pointed out, they were a staple of Hollywood since back in the silent days. They were cheap to make simply because the sets were built – if you wanted a new western, you could find the western set on the backlot, repaint things a bit, and you were good to go.
There were thousands of westerns made in the 1920s and 30s, so WWII is hardly a factor, especially since war films were made almost as soon as the war broke out.
There were many levels of westerns, of course, from cheap B pictures to the work of John Ford and Howard Hawks, which still hold up today as good films. Some were made for kids; others for adults. And as the simple black-and-white morality became tiring, the westerns moved toward more ambiguous heroes and antiheroes.
Lots of reasons why westerns fell out of favor, of course. One big one was that they were hard to shoot. The backlot didn’t cut it, and too many places had the trappings of the 20th century – cars, planes flying overhead, etc. If there was a jet flying in the background you’d need to reshoot the entire scene.
We tend to judge history by what remains with us rather than how they saw themselves. Movies live, but most printed materials don’t. Even so, the western genre in books, especially popular books like dime novels and pulp magazines, was by far the most numerous and best-read genre. Mysteries didn’t start to catch up until after World War I. Westerns were popular even when the west was contemporary, in the same way that spy novels were big during the Cold War.
When movies began there was a legacy of thousands of western stories to draw upon. They started making them almost immediately. Edison’s The Great Train Robbery, actually directed by Edwin Porter, was made in 1903. At twelve minutes it was one of the first to tell a complete long story. Its immediate success spurred a zillion imitators. The first big cowboy star, Tom Mix, a shooting champion, made over 300 silent movies, virtually all of them westerns. Western pulp magazines picked up the interest. Even Zorro was originally a pulp magazine character.
Westerns were proportionally less popular and fewer in number in the 1940s to 1960s in the movies than earlier. All the big stars made some, but the switch to other genres was almost complete by then. Westerns had mostly shifted over to less expensive b-movies, with Roy Rogers and Gene Autry making dozens because they could sing and the songs cross-promoted with radio. They could also easily move over to television, which used westerns heavily for the same reason that people have said that the movies used westerns: they were cheap to make, allowed for any number of plots, had more interesting scenery, and were black and white in days when the public liked its characters black and white. The sixties killed that era and poof, the westerns disappeared too.
The Myth of the Frontier is the central myth in American life, which is why westerns started being popular as far back as James Fenimore Cooper, who wrote his first Leatherstocking book in 1823. As long as people could imagine the west as an open land of adventure, something true until long past 1890, probably until World War II, the western represented that myth. Afterward science fiction began to take up the mantle. Boldly go where no man has gone before? Hello?
OK, to be fair, I only thought that “the Frontier” to which many federal laws applied was defined by congress as that area which had no more than some certain population density or some related thing, possibly as determined by the Census every 10 years.
Once 1890 rolled around, the evidence was in (to no one’s surprise by then) that the criteria set by Congress was over and done with forever.
The Census was just a tool, it was Congress that set the conditions that defined “Frontier” - I don’t have a cite other than my recalling history class from high school. But you could look it up yourself I am sure
My pet theory is that as spectators, we tend to like something to cheer for. In this day and age, all of the sports channels available in one’s living room provide us a cheering focus. There is also enough black / white programming for the non-sports viewer to get the cheering fix in. Westerns now share a market with other outlets for that.
They were simple morality plays that could translate to any audience and had slightly believable violence. Traditional drama needs bloody violence. Pretty scenery. Also they were inexpensive to make. You could use the same sets and costumes and props. Any plot can be adapted to a western. And even the same kind of towns still existed in the American west with enough old buildings that you could almost recognize them. I remember visiting old mining towns when I was a youth and you could see it and pretend Bonanza was really part of Virginia City, and in fact, old Virginia City in the 60s and 70s looked even more like a Western town than the set in Bonanza did.
Sir John Hackett theorized in The Third World War: August 1985 that Westerns would probably be the most popular TV programming in the wartime UK and US, but mainly for less deep reasons: the Western was a morality play where the good guys and bad guys were easily identifiable, and the good guys almost always won. I can see how GIs returning to post WWII America would have appreciated them in the same way.
In addition to the ‘cheap to make’ reason (which I think’s the big one) there’s hardly a plot that can’t be adapted to a western setting.
Romeo & Juliet- one can be Anglo and the other Mexican/Indian/Chinese or just a rival rancher
Merchant of Venice- Displaced Yankee rancher must borrow money from the crazed ex Confederate rancher (or vice versa) and then his herd dies
Henry IV Part 1- ranch heir falls in with a dissolute saloon crowd as his dad takes over half the territory and fights range wars
Not saying any of the above were actually made.
Old Hollywood was famous for scripts from staff writers ending up unrecognizable. A script about a boxer falling in love with a debutante might end up being about a coal miner falling in love with a princess. Many of them were probably adapted to westerns since as mentioned above the sets were built and the locations were studio owned.
Tangentially related: here are some sites on the RKO backlotthat was the most famous series of streets in the world. They were Atlanta in GONE WITH THE WIND, they were Mayberry in Andy Griffith, they were Virginia City in Bonanza and they were used in several episodes of STAR TREK (including City on the Edge of Forever where you can actually read ‘Floyd’s Barber Shop’ on the building they’re passing) and many other movies and TV shows you’d recognize. They were deliberately built so that the architecture was vague enough that with a bunch of gravel and wagons and horses and extras in cowboy wear they could be an old west town, then by bulldozing the gravel off and putting out vintage automobiles and extras in flapper era wear it could be Al Capone’s Chicago for (the TV series) The Untouchables. The more modern looking buildings were towards one end of the street so that if you were shooting a western just avoid that side of “town”, so Westerns were always easy. (It’s interesting to me that when Andy and Barney were standing outside the courthouse the actors could see the ruins of Tara and the Atlanta depot.)
OTOH, if you had a movie script that was set in Renaissance England or modern day downtown NYC, it’d be a lot more expensive because it would be impossible to make the sets look like that.
Westerns look good in color. When RCA moved to push color TV sales in the late 1950s, its NBC subsidiary needed color programming that looked good, while being relatively cheap to produce. And then came Bonanza: television’s first 60-minute color series.
In a *Mad Magazine * parody of The Virginian (a 90-minute color western) there’s a joke that since the production is so long, all the lead characters get time off and the only constant is the scenery.