Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from an essay written by Thomas Schatz, the Mrs. Mary Gibbs Jones Centennial Chair in Communication.
In a culture industry fueled by formula, no genre has been more important to Hollywood than the western. From the birth of “the movies” through the classical Hollywood era (1920-1960), the western played not only a vital role as a popular narrative form — and one that would comprise nearly a fifth of all feature films from the silent era through the 1950s — but also in shaping the business of filmmaking itself. The symbiosis of movies and westerns actually began not in
Hollywood but in New Jersey and New York, where Edwin S. Porter’s “Great Train Robbery” was made in 1903. This 10-minute, one-reel film, with its sequential plot, multiple locations and climactic gunfight, set the standard for both the western and narrative filmmaking. The popularity and physical requirements of the genre, especially locations, were key reasons for the industry’s migration to Hollywood after 1910. (And the fact that most films were shot outdoors or on open-air stages, because of the requirements of early film stock and cameras, among other factors, reinforced the preference for “outdoor” subjects like the western.) By the mid-1920s, maybe half of Universal’s annual output of 60 or so feature films was westerns, most of them low-cost “oaters” starring Hoot Gibson. Running a strong but distant second among the studios was Fox Film Corporation, but its westerns, starring Buck Jones and Tom Mix, had higher production values.
The New York Times
The Film Issue: Cowboy Business