Thursday, November 5, 2009
The Singing Cowboy - 1936
“The Singing Cowboy” (1936) didn’t exactly invent the genre, if we can call it that, of the singing cowboy kind of B-westerns, but it certainly cemented it.
Gene Autry, ever afterwards called The Singing Cowboy, starred as himself. Like Roy Rogers a few years later, Gene almost always played a character called Gene Autry, though unlike King of the Cowboys, Mr. Rogers, Autry was really his last name. I suppose if you just always play you in the script, you don’t have the aggravation of trying to remember your character name.
This is a Republic B-western in the grand old sense, meaning rustlers, happy-go-lucky ranch hands, a hero, a stupid sidekick, the hero’s horse who is smarter than the stupid sidekick, a certain amount of lassoing, shooting of cap pistols, and saving pouty virginal ingénues on runaway horses. You can’t beat that for entertainment. At least not for 10 cents at a matinee.
Gene and his stupid sidekick Smiley Burnette, who co-wrote the songs in this movie, live with a bunch of happy-go-lucky and very musical ranch hands. Their boss’s daughter, a moppet who adores Gene is something of a cross between Jane Withers and Jane Withers, only played by Ann Gilles (also billed as Gillis). We see a cathedral-style radio in the bunkhouse, which seems quaint when we consider the more futuristic technology to come later on in the plot.
The ranch boss has a partner, played by Lon Chaney, Jr. who is the villain of the piece. Mr. Chaney, Jr. will have a better break in his career playing the sadly tormented wolfman in a few years, and the tragic Lennie in “Of Mice and Men.” Right now, he doesn’t have too much to do. Except steal horses from his partner. It’s the Great Depression and Lon, Jr. has to pay his bills.
The boss catches him, and throws us a heap ‘o plot exposition with the line, “So, it’s my old partner who’s been stealing the stock! Figure you could bankrupt me, make me sell off my share of the ranch to you! Is that it?”
Yeah, that’s it. This is one of the fun things about B-westerns. We don’t have to wait too long for the plot to unfold. They just spill it in first few minutes, like an ansty little kid bursting with a secret.
There is a fight. (“You’re nothing but a double-crossing skunk!”) The boss gets shot (dies in Gene’s arms and gives him guardianship of the moppet). A fire starts in the barn. The moppet runs inside to save kittens, and gets trampled by panicked horses.
So, let’s see. In the first ten minutes you’ve got a villain out to get the ranch, a murder, arson, and a moppet totally paralyzed from the neck down (except when she forgets and moves her arms), who needs a $10,000 operation. YE GADS! And the healthcare bill is still being debated in Congress!
But in lieu of national healthcare, Gene has another idea. He and the ranch hands are going on the radio and get rich and famous!
It doesn’t work. Radio doesn’t want them. They start on Plan B. Television.
Keeping in mind this is a 1936 movie, it’s really quite charming to see what they imagined television would be, if were there such a crazy thing. In some ways their idea of the future medium was really remarkably…stupid. Like the broadcast station inside the chuck wagon they haul from town to town. There are a couple of antenna on the floppy canvas chuck wagon roof that look like either leftovers from some Crash Corrigan serial, or maybe some old Christmas decorations. You could do better with aluminum foil and a wire coat hanger.
The other really interesting, really stupid, aspect is the apparent fact that you do not need television cameras to broadcast on television. There are never any cameras on Gene and his singing ranch hands while they perform their shows everywhere the broadcast chuck wagon stops. They just magically appear on television screens. Nor does television apparently require electricity.
The screens, large flat things mounted on the walls of everywhere, from the sponsor’s office (Chuck Wagon Coffee), to the moppet’s hospital room, look almost like our flat screens today. Well, they got something right, anyway.
Their sponsor (another thing they got right about future television), has a runaway daughter, played by Lois Wilde, who wants to be a singer. She is the pouty virginal ingénue whom Gene saves from a runaway horse. She joins the troupe of contestants on the amateur hour TV show on which Gene stars. Another group trying out for the show is a trio of black cowboys headed by Fred “Snowflake” Toones. Though they are as silly and cartoonish as everybody else on this TV show, it is one of the few times during this era where African-American performers are not demeaned, though there is some coy banter about referring to these cowpokes as being very sunburned. “Snowflake” gets to be a musical cowboy in this movie. In just about all his other many films, he was a porter or a bootblack.
Speaking of complexions, one can’t help but notice that Gene Autry’s lip makeup is just a tad too heavy. In some scenes he could give Pola Negri a run for her money.
In one funny scene, the ingénue is hiding from her rich daddy’s henchmen who want to bring her back so she can marry a drip. Gene helps her hide. She dons cowboy clothes and starts smearing shaving cream all over her face, pretending to be one of the boys shaving when they interrogate Gene. Hiding in plain sight is always a good gag. After they leave she of course exclaims in relief,
“Gee, that was the closest shave I ever had!”
Yes, I laughed, and I’m not ashamed.
Gene also makes a funny remark when he fails to earn enough for the moppet’s operation and doubts he can borrow it, “Banks don’t loan money on bad risks.” Sure they don’t.
Lon Chaney, Jr. pops back around with his mean hombres to sabotage the show, but Gene performs various acts of courage, like leaping off his horse, Champion (who gets his own screen credit), onto moving autos, driving the runaway broadcast chuck wagon over treacherous mountain roads, and a dangerous amount of yodeling.
This being a move about The Singing Cowboy, Gene or somebody else bursts into song about every minute and a half. By the end of the hour, he saves the ingénue (not only from bad guys, but from her drippy fiancé and mostly from herself), gets the cash for the moppet’s operation, and sings another song.
One aspect of this movie, and movies like it, is the fond familiarity with the kind of dialogue used. You’ve heard it before. Remember where? It sounds like the kind of dialogue we used as children when mimicking these scenarios. It was always “they got me!”, “reach for the sky,” or “say your prayers” (which Yosemite Sam also used to warn Bug Bunny he was about to shoot him).
I can recall rather elaborate backyard plots of make believe mayhem, complicated by sudden and previously unknown patches of quicksand at the bottom of the back stairs, or interrupted by kid brothers who didn’t die like they were supposed to (or forgot to count to 10 before getting up), the dog who ran away with somebody’s red felt cowboy hat in his mouth, or mom hollering for us at suppertime.
I’ve watched children play these days with various space toys, like the light sabers from the Star Wars franchise, and mostly what they do is slash at each other and run around, laughing and running, and whacking each other. There is very little dialogue. I can remember seeing some kid with a Harry Potter getup, carrying a wand and I thought, ah, now we’re going to see some real daytime drama. But no. All he did was run up to the other kids and whack them on the head with the wand, and run away, laughing.
Our games, back in the day, were so drawn out (sometimes over the course of an afternoon, sometimes over the course of the summer), because we had so much dialogue we had to make up. (“No, you don’t say that! I say that! You fall down! Then you take Joey to jail!”)
There was a protocol to those B-movie or television serial pantomimes that required justice being somehow served, and there was a solemnity to the proceedings. We carried this playacting to the very edges of what we knew as reality, like pet funerals. I don’t think there was anything more solemn as a child-orchestrated pet funeral. Especially the part where the guests step up to “say a few words” as Henry Fonda put it in “The Grapes of Wrath” (1939) when they buried Charley Grapewin on the side of Route 66.
(Boy takes off his ball cap, puts it over his heart. “He was a good turtle….”) and then perhaps a sloppy and off-key rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” or humming “Taps” through kazoos.
Maybe those silly B-westerns taught us the protocol of consequence. “The Singing Cowboy” was slim on plot, but had bucketsful of consequences. For every action, good or bad, there was an almost immediate consequence.
That Gene Autry actually would get his own real television show in the early 1950s, and sell a prodigious amount of merchandise to kids, may or may not have been coincidental. I don’t think even Gene, as canny as he was, could have predicted that in 1936. But he made a huge impact on kids, and maybe the money he made off them evened everything out.
Consider that in response to children who were his biggest fans, Gene Autry took the rather kindly responsibility to draw up a code of conduct for them, if they really wanted to be his special hombres. It was called The Cowboy Code:
The Cowboy must never shoot first, hit a smaller man, or take unfair advantage.
He must never go back on his word, or a trust confided in him.
He must always tell the truth.
He must be gentle with children, the elderly, and animals.
He must not advocate or possess racially or religiously intolerant ideas.
He must help people in distress.
He must be a good worker.
He must keep himself clean in thought, speech, action, and personal habits.
He must respect women, parents, and his nation's laws.
The Cowboy is a patriot.
Gene joked about himself, that he was not the best singer, or a very good actor or even horse rider. Some movie stars take themselves way too seriously. Some, like Gene, take their stardom seriously.