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Universal Sound Westerns, 1929-1946

Author: Tim Lasiuta 

The World of Universal Westerns, 1929-1946

During the golden age of Hollywood, westerns were everywhere. Mascot, MGM, Monogram, Warner Brothers, Paramount, Columbia, PRC, Allied, Republic, Fox, Universal and many other studios produced the films that B Western fans of all ages love. As with any film genre, every studio was responsible for their good material, as well as their poor efforts. Strangely enough, it is not just the A class films we remember, but rather the B grade films that we have a soft spot for.

The excellence of films like Sante Fe Trail, Stagecoach, Destry Rides Again, and Shane is obvious, but film festivals revel in the misadventures of the many series films. Stagecoach will bring them in, but look out, the true fans stay for the Rocky Lane, Lash Larue, Monte Hale, Bob Baker, the Three Mesquiteers, and the classic western movie serials.

Universal Studios was a major player in the western film genre from the early days of Hollywood through to today. Joining the fray to produce sound films, they took silent stars Hoot Gibson and Ken Maynard in 1929, and by 1930, every Universal film was full sound, from dialog to special effects. As reward for their efforts, All Quiet On the Western Front won the Academy Award for Best Picture, and from that point on, Carl Laemmle was running the studio.

Due to the departure of Gibson and Maynard from their stable of stars, Carl Laemmle discontinued the production of westerns. Movie serials had now become the bread and butter of the studio, and serials like Lightning Express with Allan Ladd and The Indians Are Coming with Tim McCoy brought the kids in. By 1932, the western was in demand again, and Tom Mix joined the studio to produce 9 films. Poor health forced Mix to leave Universal, and Ken Maynard again joined Universal until Buck Jones was named the next King of the Stable after Maynard departed. Bob Baker headlined the musical western Universal entries but his presence and low production values werent quite what audiences demanded. By 1936, Gene Autry had become THE singing cowboy, and later Roy Rogers (whom Universal passed on), was about to make his mark on history. Through the mid 30's, western serials starring Johnny Mack Brown and Buck Jones kept Universal in the western fans mind.

1939 brought the classic remake, Destry Rides Again with Stewart and Dietrich to the screens, and with this momentum, they re-entered the medium budget western market with Johnny Mack Brown, Tex Ritter, and Dick Foran riding shot until 1943. Universal still produced western serials, and movies with Ritter, Brown, Grant and Rod Cameron until their merger with International in 1946.

Of the westerns I have seen (lots), the Universal efforts stand up well over time. Johnny Mack Brown, Tex Ritter, Buck Jones, Hoot Gibson, and their other stars hold just as dear a place in my heart as do Roy, Gene, Rex, and Monte. The history of the western films of any studio is often the film track of our youth. We may have had our first date at a Tex Ritter film, or our first kiss. It may have been the first B Western we saw on the late late late late show, or the first celebrity we ever met. But just as important as the films of Republic, MGM, Warner, and others, the films of Universal gave us celluloid memories that we can only smile at now, and say, I remember when.

One man who remembers when is Gene Blottner, and through his efforts we can now read about the Universal films we all loved. In Universal Sound Films, 1929-1946' (McFarland), he has undertaken the joyous, monumentous task of cataloguing each sound western produced by Universal in those years. From the early efforts of Ken Maynard to the final films of Kirby Grant, they are here. Each film write up includes:

1. Poster blurb, Greatest Gunfight in the West since the OK Corral
2. Title,
3. Release date
4. Cast
5. Credits
6. Songs
7. The Notables
8. Filming location
9. Running Time
10. Story
11. Commentary
12. Reviews
13. Summation
14. Picture of lobby card, poster if available

The greatest thing about this book is the depth of information on each film. As a certified film historian, Gene Blottner has actually watched these films. His love for the films and genre is evident. If you are a film fan, or a die hard historian, this book is truly invaluable. I can only imagine what the dust jacket would be. The amount of serious film history research that is going on today is incredible, and with efforts like Universal Sound Westerns, the past will never be boring, and lost due to apathy.

Universal Sound Westerns is available online from McFarland at www.mcfarlandpub.com and through my bookstore at suite 101, or vial snail mail at:

McFarland & Company
Box 611
Jefferson, NC
28640
1-800-253-2187

http://www.suite101.com/article.cfm/6655/106544