Hollywood was built on Western movies. After The Great Train Robbery of 1903 based its plot on a Butch Cassidy holdup three years earlier in Wyoming, frontier adventure became not only the meat and potatoes of the movie business but the paradigm for all action pictures. By 1910 one out of five movies made was a Western, and Bronco Billy Anderson became Hollywood's first star, playing a cowboy hero in over five hundred two-reelers, made at the rate of one each week. Although The Great Train Robbery had been filmed in New Jersey, moviemakers soon settled in Southern California, where they found easy access to high desert locations, cactus fields, ranch land, and a culture rich with such photogenic skills as riding, roping, and cattle punching. Early directors feasted on the West because it offered everything audiences wanted: fast action, wondrous scenery, moral lessons, bad guys to hiss, fair ladies in distress, and manly men to admire. It is impossible to imagine what American movies would have been if there hadn't been a lore of the Wild West to inspire them.

Long before Roy Rogers and Dale Evans were born, the hard realities of the American frontier had already been swallowed up into a rousing epic tale of horsemen, covered wagons, Indian wars, and an awesome untamed landscape. The facts of history became material for a saga that combined the moral purpose of King Arthur's knights with the bravura of Greek mythology. No fictional world ever created has been so elaborate in its detail or so rich with potential for allegory. The star of this national morality play was the cowboy, who had been transformed from what he actually had been—a hired hand on a horse—into America's greatest hero, a handsome paladin always ready for adventure, free as the wind, honest, and good.

The West became America's national fable at a time when this country needed a new mythology and a hero to match. The frontier had been declared closed by historian Frederick Jackson Turner in 1893; and as the twentieth century promised bigger cities with crowded streets and noisy cars and grimy factory jobs and an ever-more-intrusive government to control it all, America turned to the wide open spaces of the West for spiritual reassurance, and to cowboys for a moral compass. For young Leonard Slye, who got to see a cowboy movie when his father, working at the shoe factory, had a spare dime, and for Frances Smith, who imagined riding off into the sunset with her cowboy hero, the Wild West was less history than it was a fabulous vision of paradise lost—American style.

In Buffalo Bill's Wild West shows, as well as in rodeos and dime novels, the story of the frontier had become a beloved epic adventure bristling with all the good, simple ideals that twentieth-century life seemed to threaten—bravery, self-reliance, and the eternal promise of open range. In Owen Wister's best-selling book The Virginian, published in 1902, America first met the quintessential cowboy protagonist: a strong, silent gent who was wily, tough, dangerous, and gallant. Most important of all, the Virginian lived by what became known as the Code of the West—ironclad rules of honor and conduct that arose from the real details of frontier life but were fit for a citizen of Mount Olympus. America's cowboy hero, by the time he became a staple of the movies, was already considered virtuous and invincible—a mounted warrior with Victorian standards of right and wrong and frontier survival skills.

The power of this ideal, which stayed a fundamental part of cowboy pictures for a good half century, could be magical. 


Take the case of William Boyd, the movies' Hopalong Cassidy. Boyd had a good career as a motion picture headliner in the   1920s,   starring  in  such  non-Westerns  as  Cecil  B. DeMille's The Volga Boatmen (1926), and with Lupe Velez in D. W. Griffith's Lady of the Pavements (1929); off-screen he was notorious in the movie colony as a roguish party animal who drank, dated, and stayed up all night having fun. 

He was on top of the world, but in 1931 a strange twist of fate changed his life: a different, older actor, also named William Boyd, was arrested by Hollywood police on a morals charge. Newspapermen who knew the young William Boyd's wild ways simply assumed that it was he who had been pinched, and they ran his picture, by mistake, with arrest reports in the papers. Young Boyd's reputation was ruined, and he turned to the bottle to drown his sorrow. He became even more notorious as a drunkard and his career went to pot; no one would hire him. In 1934 he sobered up enough to land the role of Hopalong Cassidy, which turned out to be such a hit that he played Hoppy for the rest of his life. He also quit drinking; he quit smoking; he stopped going to wild parties; and he is reported to have stayed faithful to his wife until the day he died, in 1972. William Boyd had been transformed into a genuine good guy by his role as white-hatted Hoppy. 


William S. Hart, the star who did the most to establish the image of Hollywood's cowboy as a strict enforcer of virtue in movies he made during the 'teens, fell out of fashion in the Jazz Age. Hart's vision of the West had been severe, and he had been a stickler for realism in the way towns looked (dusty, gray, windswept) and the way he, the hero, dressed (in rugged, practical cattle hand's clothes). Westerns remained fundamentally moral tales even in the libertine 1920s, but they developed a new sense of style. Celluloid cowboys soon supplemented their moral purity with another trait for which actual cowpunchers hadn't exactly been famous: they were incredible fashion plates. 


Tom Mix was the first saddle dandy, who so loved the trappings of his role that he sometimes rode to the premieres of his movies on top of a custom Cadillac that Harley Earl had designed for him with a saddle built into the roof. His full-bore buckaroo attire set a standard that movie cowboys would emulate for years. Bearing only a symbolic connection to the tough, leathery clothing real ranch hands wore, his outfits were more like regal vestments suited to a potentate. He delighted in solid white pearl-button shirts and matching riding britches; he sported an immaculate white, high-peaked ten-gallon hat and a horsehair belt with diamond buckle and the inscription tom mix, America's champion cowboy. Mix, who had actually served as a U.S. deputy marshal in Oklahoma, learned showmanship while working with the 101 Ranch Show; and it was mostly because of his success as one of the 1920s biggest superstars that the realistic, near-documentary look of early cowboy movies gave way to a more flamboyant sense of Western high style.


Tom Mix was abetted in his quest for finery and fringe by the greatest parade saddlemaker of all time, Edward Bohlin. Bohlin, a young Swedish immigrant, came to visit Hollywood in the 1920s from Cody, Wyoming, where he had set up a leather shop. When Tom Mix saw the fancy alligator-skin boots and calfskin coat Bohlin wore to a show one night, he literally bought them off his feet and back and encouraged Bohlin to set up shop in Hollywood. Soon known as "the Michelangelo of saddlecraft," Bohlin crafted silver-encrusted, elaborately tooled parade saddles, bridles, gunbelts, and boots the likes of which the world had never seen. All of the movies' best-dressed cowboy horses wore Bohlin attire. To this day, Roy Rogers wears a hand-tooled belt and saddle-shaped ring his good friend Ed Bohlin crafted for him; and the finest saddles in his collection are all Bohlin originals.


Well before Roy Rogers acted in his first movie, the public's image of the cowboy had become more show business than cow business. Even in the early days of the Sons of the Pioneers, Roy recalls adding silver conchas and fringe to their stage outfits to give them a more resplendent Western look. By the early 1930s, deluxe ranch wear was in vogue, and not only among cowboy movie stars. Dude ranches had become a passion among Americans who could afford to visit them; the Santa Fe railroad lured thousands to visit the Southwest (and come home wearing Indian jewelry and cowboy hats), and championship rodeo had become a glittering annual event in New York, Boston, and Chicago as well as in more traditional cowboy capitals such as Cheyenne and Pendleton.


In 1930 a tailor named Rodeo Ben opened a shop in Philadelphia known as "The East's Most Western Store." Ben set the sartorial standards for movie cowboys as Ed Bohlin did for their horses; Tom Mix became his best customer, and after Tom, it was de rigueur for any serious sagebrush celebrity to outfit himself with tasseled, embroidered, brightly colored outfits made by Ben. Ben later went on to market his marvels to the public at large, inventing snap-button shirts (in 1933, when he saw a cowboy on a bucking horse get hung up by his button-front shirt on the saddle horn) and Wranglers, the first zip-fly jeans. Western clothing authority Tyler Beard reports that Ben had a deal with Roy Rogers and Gene Autry that he would never make a similar outfit for both of them.


Curiously, Western movies had been considered an endangered form in the 1920s. Cowboys were, after all, relics of the nineteenth century; and after Charles Lindbergh became the nation's darling by flying solo over the Atlantic, how could a mere hero on horseback command respect? The Jazz Age loved anything modern, which cowboys most certainly were not, and in an era that was learning to find its thrills in action-packed gangster melodramas and sophisticated bedroom comedies, some critics came to see Westerns as a mere vestige of movies' early days. Furthermore, the coming of sound to motion pictures seemed to make horse operas obsolete because they told their stories via action rather than dialogue. Who'd want to sit in a theater and listen to a couple of tobacco-chewing cowboys have a conversation about oats and hay and horseshoes?


On the other hand, a clean-cut singing cowboy proved to be something else! 


About the time Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers were making a name for themselves around Los Angeles performing the kind of rich-harmony, modern cowboy music that would eventually be called Western swing, a former telegraph operator from Oklahoma named Gene Autry was making a splash as a performer on the "National Barn Dance" radio show in Chicago. Gene Autry appeared in the Ken Maynard Western, In Old Santa Fe, to sing a few cowboy songs as a kind of novelty act. What was curious about this movie was that it wasn't set in old Sante Fe. It took place in the twentieth century, on a dude ranch, and its bad guys were gangsters with Tommy guns. The picture was a hit, Gene became a star, and the up-to-date setting established a pattern for all of his early pictures, as well as for many of the Westerns Roy Rogers later made: the juxtaposition of contemporary life and cowboy values. Billed as "The Singing Cowboy," Gene Autry revived Westerns by making them look—and sound—modern.

As it turned out, the old-fashioned good guy wasn't nearly as dead as he had seemed in 1929 when Photoplay magazine declared that the new age of airplane travel had put "the cowboy into discard as a type of national hero [who has] slunk away into the brush, never to return." The overwhelming national anxiety generated by the Great Depression in the 1930s caused many Americans to reconsider the high-riding buckaroo and his "old-fashioned" values. Culturally speaking, you could say that the Roaring Twenties had left the nation with a hangover, the kind of ache that makes you promise to be good and pure of heart and never sin again. In that frame of mind, the clear-eyed, strong, steady cowboy that the movies had polished to a fare-thee-well was a timely hero. Goodness was his middle name.

When war began to loom in Europe and twentieth-century wickedness took on a distinctly foreign face, there was something especially reassuring about America's indigenous good guy, the cowboy. His down-home skills, his confidence, his unalterable sense of right and wrong, and the fact that he always got his man made him the perfect defender of the American way of life. 

The 1930s were the golden age for B-Westerns, series pictures produced quickly and cheaply for an audience that included (but wasn't limited to) children. 

Roy Rogers and Gene Autry were the top stars of these pictures, each of which contained a clear moral point in its adventure. Like often-told folktales, the plots and characters of Roy's and Gene's pictures were familiar, and their lessons were always reassuring. 

Even if Nazis or foreign agents weren't the bad guys, the message was still the same inspiring one: good old cowboy values—American values—were certain to prevail.

For Roy Rogers, playing an all-American good guy was no stretch. He grew up in the hollers of Duck Run, Ohio, believing in cowboy values long before he ever dreamed he would be the movie's greatest symbol of them.

Jane  and  Michael  Stern