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Western Performers Gallery

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Western Performers Gallery

This 4,000 square-foot presentation explores the various ways the west has been interpreted in literature and film. Honoring western performers who have contributed to the making and preservation of the stories and legends of the west, the gallery also displays an entirely new presentation of the museum’s extensive collection of memorabilia, including the John Wayne collection of personal firearms, artwork, and memorabilia. Significant, biographically associated artifacts, from the 101 Ranch Wild West Show to the recent western films of actor Tom Selleck, will lend a tangible feeling to extensive holdings of movie posters and portraits.

More Information About the Gallery  

The movie cowboy has long filled the public imagination with visions of gallant men riding the range and righting wrongs. There have been a series of cinema cowboy heroes throughout the past century. These fictional cowboys were so popular the line between the real and the imaginary cowboy has been permanently blurred in the public mind.

The Mythic West

The west, its landscape, its people, and its stories are a reflection of our culture's collective imagination. For 200 years, each generation has conjured up imagery depicting the glories and dangers of this region. Novelists, playwrights, and wild west show producers, carefully manipulated and invented imagery as they presented classic adventure tales of the American frontier. Those "cowboy heroes" we know and love, were created by Hollywood screenwriters and directors. The children of the 1940s and 1950s grew up watching the exploits of Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, or Hoppy in the pursuit of justice and fair play.

The West and the cowboy are very real, but we have created, through literature and film, a mythic West, an ideological landscape filled with heroic figures from our imaginations. These larger-than-life cowboy heroes elevated the public perception of real work-a-day cowboys to a legendary level.

The West as Entertainment

Toward the end of the 19th century, many towns boasted some form of opera house. Players recreated epics of the American West in vaudeville acts. Wild West shows captivated the public as well and gave many western movie stars their start. With the arrival of motion picture technology, a new American pastime developed ~ the Saturday "nickelodeon" theaters.

The Wild West Show

William F. Cody, know as "Buffalo Bill", was a noted frontiersman and scout who had gained fame in the dime novels of Ned Buntline and others. Hero of more than 1,700 dime novels, Cody performed a dramatized stage version of the first novel in 1872, and made seasonal appearances on stage until 1883, when he organized Buffalo Bill's Wild West, which toured America and Europe for 30 years. He set the standard for the variety Wild West Shows that followed. He brought the real and the legendary together. He satisfied curiosity and created entertainment. His was a circus troupe with a new twist. He did not collect animals from foreign lands but real "western" people from beyond the frontier. Audiences were able to see real cowboys and Indians. This juxtaposition of reality and imagery molded the cultural and racial perceptions of a generation of Americans and Europeans.

The Silent Cowboy, 1903-1929

The first cowboy movie star, Gilbert M. Anderson, was also known as Bronco Billy. He is credited with developing the notion of a central character in silent western movies. Other cowboy stars included William S. Hart, Tom Mix, Hoot Gibson, Ken Maynard, Tim McCoy, and Harry Carey. The silent movie era lasted almost 30 years. In 1923, The Covered Wagon became the first feature-length western epic. Five years later, The Big Hop earned the distinction of being the first western movie to incorporate sound effects during filming. By the early 1930s, Hollywood had completed the transformation from silent movies to full sound. Many early cowboy heroes like William S. Hart couldn't make the transition, but other actors like John Wayne enjoyed long and successful careers.

The "B" Westerns

From 1930 to 1950, Hollywood studios produced thousands of hour-long "B" western movies. "A" beside the movie title indicated the feature film, while "B" noted the second attraction. Over time, "B" westerns came to mean short, low-budget films appropriate for the double-feature format. They usually were produced as a series, sometimes with the same plot continued from one film to the next.

Clearly the most popular and successful of the "B" westerns were the singing cowboy films. Refined by Gene Autry, these films presented a mixture of action, music, comedy, and often romance. Roy Rogers, Tex Ritter, and Rex Allen soon joined the genre. The momentum of early "B" westerns helped sustain the careers of many veteran actors like Ken Maynard, Hoot Gibson, and Tim McCoy.

The Golden Age of Hollywood Westerns

The era of Hollywood's classic "A" westerns was signaled by the release of two important movies in 1939; John Ford's Stagecoach, starring John Wayne, and Jesse James, directed by Henry King with Tyrone Power, Henry Fonda, and Randolph Scott. Much of the success of these two films, and those that followed, was due in large measure to Hollywood's fusion of history and legend. To the American public, which was still recovering from World War I and the Great Depression, and on the brink of another World War, the west of Hollywood offered a measure of national pride, a source for national identity, and the reassurance that good would triumph over evil. The Hollywood west was composed of equal parts of fact and fiction and was dependent on both for its lasting appeal.

The years 1940 to 1970 proved to be the golden era for the classic western movie. Randolph Scott, Joel McCrea, Richard Widmark, and James Stewart all became icons of the western genre, while John Wayne became a superstar and remained one of the top box office attractions until his death in 1979.

What Makes a Western a Western?

Owen Wister's classic novel, The Virginian (1902), was a best seller for several years, and it popularized the notion of the American west as a vanishing frontier. The Virginian retained the dime novel narrative formula of a white frontier hero pitted against the western wilderness, lawless adversaries, and the Indian. Wister then added a pivotal love story between the leading man and leading lady. Perhaps most important, Wister created an archetype western hero through romantic depictions of cowboy life ~ the lone cowboy who is good with a gun.

Early 20th century films refined this hero as a "man's man," an example of masculinity, self-made without the benefit of education or family wealth. At times, he is portrayed as a paternalistic figure that prodded young cowboys through adolescence and epitomized manhood for the genre. The leading man was often a good bad-man resorting to illegal or vigilante actions when defending his honor or beset by corrupt officials. Though always deemed a cowboy, this central figure rarely demonstrates his ability with a rope or his savvy as a cattleman. Instead it is his skill with a gun that is pivotal to the story. Inevitably, the cowboy hero becomes embroiled in the violence of a west where the survival of the fittest was the rule.

It is possible so many western films have been produced that it is hard to comprehend as a single genre, but is reflected as sub-genres such as "gunfighter westerns" and "cavalry westerns." However, a generalized western character has evolved who portrays the classic characteristics of a man fleeing the constraints of the civilized East. Though the western takes its name from a geographical region, it becomes a mythical landscape; an ideological terrain. This fantasyland was created where western imagery became a backdrop for the heroic struggles of man versus man and man versus civilization.

Selected Gallery Images  

Will Rogers hat Will Rogers wore this hat while performing his comedy and trick rope act in Vaudeville under the stage name, "Cherokee Bill". To showcase his Cherokee heritage, Rogers fastened a stone arrow point in the hatband. The hat was a gift from noted movie director John Ford.

Norman Rockwell painting, Walter Brennan The museum commissioned Norman Rockwell to paint this oil portrait of Walter Brennan from life in 1972. In all, there are 26 portraits of famous western performers on display. During a movie career that spanned nearly five decades, the venerable actor appeared in more than 300 films. Brennan also starred in two extremely popular television series: The Real McCoys, for which he remains best known in his role as Grandpa Amos McCoy; and the Guns of Will Sonnett, one of his last major roles. Brennan became the first actor to receive three Academy Awards. All three awards were for Best Supporting Actor: Come and Get It in 1936, Kentucky in 1938, and The Westerner in 1940.

Model 1892, Caliber .44 Winchester rifle This Model 1892, Caliber .44 Winchester rifle with a modified loop lever became a signature of John Wayne in many western films. John Wayne has become the personification of the American West to movie fans here and abroad. He began his film career in 1926 working as an extra and a prop handler for MGM and Fox Studios while attending the University of Southern California. In 1930, Wayne, then known as Duke Morrison, was given a leading role in the film The Big Trail. For the film, Fox Studios changed his name to John Wayne.

John Wayne stock saddle John Wayne used this stock saddle, made by Ed Gilmore, in many of his later movies. After being cast in a number of "B" westerns, John Wayne's big break came in 1939 when his friend and director, John Ford, cast him as the "Ringo Kid" in the movie Stagecoach. For the next 30 years, "The Duke" reigned as one of Hollywood's biggest box office attractions and most beloved actors. In 1969, he won an Academy Award for Best Actor for his role as Rooster Cogburn in True Grit. His last western was The Shootist, released in 1976.

Gene Autry suit and guitar Gene Autry was America's favorite singing cowboy in the golden era of the 1930s. Nudie's Rodeo Tailors of North Hollywood designed this classic suit which featured "smile" pockets and Autry's brand, the Flying A. Gibson presented Autry with this custom-made guitar model J-200 #462E in 1939. He owned two of these flat-top guitars which are now very rare and valuable. The small-brimmed, white Stetson was made especially for Autry with a unique and fashionable crease. Lucchese of San Antonio, Texas, created the beautiful custom-made kangaroo boots with inlays of brown lizard and gold.

Suggested Readings & Links  

The following materials are available for review in the Research Center.

PN1995.9W4A442005 Peter C. Rollins and John E. O'Connor. Hollywood's West: The American Frontier in Film, Television, and History. The University Press of Kentucky [2005].

Loy, Philip R. Westerns in a Changing America, 1955-2000. McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers [2004].

Loy, Philip R. Westerns and American Culture, 1930-1955. McFarland, [2001].

PN1995.9.W4B59 2000 Blottner, Gene. Universal-International Westerns, 1947-1963: The Complete Filmography. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, [2000].

PN1995.9.W4B66 1996 Cameron, Ian Alexander and Pye, Douglas. Book of Westerns. New York: Continuum, [1996].

PN2285.C6 Corneau, Ernest N. Hall of Fame of Western Film Stars. North Quincy: Christopher Pub. House, [1969].

PN1995.9.W4H28 1994 Hake, Theodore L. Hake's Guide to Cowboy Character Collectibles: an Illustrated Price Guide Covering 50 Years of Movie & TV Cowboy Heroes. Radnor, PA: Wallace-Homestead, [1994].

PN2287.H3A3 1994 Hart, William Surrey and Ridge, Martin. My Life East and West. Chicago: Lakeside Press, [1994].

PN 1995.9.W4M25 1999 Magers, Boyd and Fitzgerald, Michael G. Westerns Women: Interviews with 50 Leading Ladies of Movie and Television Westerns from the 1930s to the 1960s. Jefferson, N.C: McFarland & Co., Publishers, [1999].

PN2287.W454M27 1996 Marill, Alvin H. The Ultimate John Wayne Trivia Book. Secaucus: Carol Pub. Group, [1996].

PN1995.9.H56N48 1988 Nevins, Francis M. The Films of Hopalong Cassidy. Waynesville: World of Yesterday, [1988].

Pattie, Jane. John Wayne: There Rode a Legend. [s.l.]: Western Classics, [2000].

PN1995.9.W4B24 1998 Pearson, Roberta E. Back in the Saddle Again: New Essays on the Western. London: British Film Institute, [1998].

NK808.R53 1995 Rinker, Harry L. Hopalong Cassidy: King of the Cowboy Merchandisers with Value Guide. Atglen: Schiffer Publishing Ltd., [1995].

PN2287.W454R63 1995 Roberts, Randy and Olson, James Stuart. John Wayne: American. New York: Free Press, [1995].

PN2287.R73A34 Rogers, Roy and Stowers, Carlton. Happy Trails: The Story of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. Waco: Word Books, [1979].

PN2287.R73R64 1987 Rothel, David. The Roy Rogers Book. Madison: Empire Publishing Co., [1987].

PN1995.9.W4R67 Rothel, David. The Singing Cowboys. New York: A. S. Barnes, [1978].

ML3477.7.04S3 1983 Savage, William W. Singing Cowboys and All that Jazz: A Short History of Popular Music in Oklahoma. 1st ed. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, [1983].

PN1995.9.W4S44 1990 Sennett, Ted. Great Hollywood Westerns. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. Publishers, [1990].

PN2287.S67 S6 1974 Smith, Ella. Starring Miss Barbara Stanwyck. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., [1974].

PN2287.H617T46 1987 Thornton, H. E. Western Adventures of Tim Holt. privately printed, [1987].

PN1992.8.W4W47 1987 West, Richard. Television Westerns: Major and Minor Series, 1946-1978. Jefferson, N.C: McFarland, [1987].

PN2287.E37Z59 1993 Zmijewsky, Boris and Pfeiffer, Lee. The Films of Clint Eastwood. New York: Carol Pub. Group, [1993].

PN2287.W454Z58 1983 Zmijewsky, Steve and Ricci, Mark. The Complete Films of John Wayne. Secaucus: Citadel Press, [1983].

PN 1995.9 .W4 H65 2001 Etulain, Richard W. and Glenda Riley. The Hollywood West: Lives of Film Legends Who Shaped It. Golden, CO : Fulcrum Publishing, 2001.

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