A Thrush in the Sagebrush: Gene Autry at 100
Posted October 2, 2007
The following is an article excerpted from The Bloodshot Eye.
By John Beifuss
In the dozens of B Westerns he made between 1935 and 1953, singing cowboy Gene Autry – born 100 years ago this past Saturday (Sept. 29) in the tiny town of Tioga in northeast Texas – did more than croon, strum a guitar, pitch hay, pitch woo, ride horses and corral cattle rustlers, claim jumpers and card cheats.
"Rovin' Tumbleweeds" (1939) opens with Autry atop a hastily constructed sandbag levee in a driving rainstorm, vainly working to prevent the farmers and ranchers in the valley below from being flooded out of their homes, Katrina-style.
When a radio interviewer asks the cowboy for a comment, he refuses – then changes his mind and commandeers the microphone. "I just want to to tell you people we wouldn't suffer this loss of life and property if that cheap politician, Congressman Fuller, hadda put through that flood control bill," he declares, in a rare show of impatience. It's Autry's Kanye West moment – his "George Bush doesn't care about black people" declaration.
The relevance doesn't end there. Before it transforms itself into the singing cowboy's anwer to "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," "Rovin' Tumbleweeds" – directed by budget-Western specialist George Sherman – offers a sadly familiar tour of the lifestyle of the disenfranchised American.
After they become refugees due to the flood, Autry and his pals find temporary sanctuary in a Red Cross camp; are met at a county line by armed residents reluctant to share their land and amenities with "dirty" migrants; are tossed into jail; and, eventually, help themselves and their peers by staging a series of almost Farm Aid-style concerts to raise money for the migrant cause. ("Way out yonder on the prairie/ We will find a promised land," Autry croons, like a sagebrush Moses.) Autry's crusade as a "one-man relief agency" makes him so popular he agrees to run for Congress; after his election, he discovers his pet project, a flood control bill, isn't of much interest to the fat cats on Capitol Hill.
"Rovin' Tumbleweeds" was one of eight movies Autry – then one of the most popular stars in Hollywood – made for Republic Pictures in 1939. Several of them – including "Tumbleweeds" – are now on DVD from Image Entertainment, in bonus-packed discs produced by the Autry estate.
In all, 46 Autry Westerns – bearing such iconic and descriptive titles as "Guns and Guitars," "Back in the Saddle" and "Texans Never Cry" – are on DVD, with the remainder of Autry's filmography scheduled for release in the months to come. The discs include reproductions of stills and vintage promotional material; footage of the aged Autry and onetime sidekick Pat Buttram introducing the films on The Nashville Network's old "Melody Ranch Theatre" program; fascinating reprints of archival studio production records; 1940s episodes of the "Melody Ranch" radio program; and, occasionally, chapters of Autry's first starring vehicle, the crazy 1935 sci-fi Western serial, "Phantom Empire."
Gene's got the guitars and the hillbilly music, but he opts for guns over Cadillacs it's three black hats vs. one white hat in 'Home in Wyomin'
A self-made multi-millionaire and country music pioneer, Autry – who died in 1998 at the age of 91 – is the only performer with five stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, in honor of his radio, TV, film, recording and stage careers. Incredibly popular during his heyday and influential to this day, onscreen he is surprisingly unassuming – a somewhat soft-looking man, with pearly teeth and a weak chin. He exposes less skin than an old maid; his elaborately embroidered, almost dandyish shirts are buttoned to the wrists, his neck is wrapped in a kerchief, and he often even wears delicate-looking gloves. He packs a pistol but he rarely fires it; instead, he quiets bad guys with his fists or runs down danger from the back of his horse, Champion. His singing is beautiful, and every movie includes several numbers, from Autry standards ("I'm Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes" he croons in 1942's "Home in Wyomin'") to surprises (in 1941's "The Singing Hill," he introduces "Blueberry Hill," 15 years before Fats Domino made the song a hit). He exudes an almost religious aura of calm and confidence, which may explain why the story's overstimulated women – spoiled city sophisticates and bratty heiresses, primarily – fall for him. He's arguably closer to Sheriff Andy Taylor on "The Andy Griffith Show" than to John Wayne.
In "Home in Wyomin'," a cynical Chicago reporter (played by wisecracking Chick Chandler) labels Autry "a fakeroo, a phony." Responds an editor (played by the late, great Charles Lane), in a tirade delivered in front of a portrait of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: "He may be a phony to a lot of so-called sophisticates, but he isn't a phony to about a million kids who copy his walk and his talk and try to pattern their life after him. He isn't a phony to a couple of million grownups, who see in him the living example of the modern pioneer American spirit."
Although Autry's films were aimed at young people (Smiley Burnette's "Frog Millhouse" is a particularly cartoonish sidekick) and theoretically undemanding audiences, the movies grapple with many of the themes found in the more acclaimed adult Westerns of such directors as John Ford and Anthony Mann: the tension between the preservation of tradition and the encroachment of "civilization"; the need for a freelance hero versus the requirements of law and community, and so on. But unlike many adult Westerns, the Autry films (like "The Andy Griffith Show") ultimately provide reassurance and comfort for audiences troubled by change and distrustful of modernity. Autry and his musical comrades exist in a veritable Peaceable Kingdom, a land of "trees and rivers and cattle, friendly horses and friendly people," as pint-sized vocal powerhouse and frequent Autry cowgirl co-star Mary Lee comments in "The Singing Hill." (Of course, there's always a snake in the garden: In many films, Autry's band features virtuoso fiddle-player Spade Cooley, a future wife-murderer.)
Despite his "squareness," Gene could resonate as a role model today for a new generation of young people, who might respect the singing cowboy as not just Clean Gene but Green Gene – a true conservationist. "Yessir, the ol' Earth and I been friends for a long time," Autry observes in "Home in Wyomin.' " "I know every line in her face and every sound in her voice." As Autry sings in 1940's "Rancho Grande": "Give me my ranch and my cattle/ Far from the great city's rattle..." Looking out over a Western valley in that film, he comments: "I guess you could drop any one of your great Eastern cities down there and lose it." Responds Eastern heiress June Storey, in a rare acknowledgment of the threatening aspect of the wilderness: "You could lose your mind here, too."
The Autry filmography includes at least one masterpiece: director Joseph Santley's "Melody Ranch" (1940), a Republic Pictures production that was both relatively lavish (the publicized budget was $500,000) and lengthy (84 minutes, at a time when many Autry features weren't much longer than an hour). The cast was top-notch, too, showcasing the comic relief of Jimmy Durante, George 'Gabby' Hayes and radio's "Vera Vague," Barbara Allen; "Park Avenue maverick" Ann Miller as a tap-dancing romantic interest; and such familiar character actors as Barton MacLane and Jerome Cowan.
If Pirandello had written singing cowboy epics, this would be it. "Melody Ranch" – selected by the Library of Congress for the National Film Registry in 2002 – uses the conventions of the cowboy genre to explore questions of illusion versus authenticity and to comment on the pressures of maintaining a public persona while also being true to oneself.
As the film begins, Autry and his cowpunching brethren are harmonizing around a prairie campfire: "Stake your claim/ On Melody Raaanch..."
The camera then pulls back to reveal the prairie is fake: We're indoors, looking at the stage set for Autry's New York-based radio program, sponsored by Nose Posse head cold remedy (promoted by Durante, of course). The show's co-star, "Rodeo Rose," is actually a spoiled "society dame" (Miller) who prefers mink to calico.
Autry's reputation is put on the line when representatives of his Western hometown of Torpedo arrive, asking him to return as honorary sheriff and restore order. Gene is initially reluctant, but the residents of Torpedo seem sure he won't let them down. "Never was a better man than Gene when it comes to pickin' a hoss or a gal,'' says old-timer 'Gabby' Hayes, as he looks Rose up and down.
Autry's radio producers decide their star's ratings might improve if he broadcast from location while pursuing some actual cowboy heroics. "Gene, you've got to show the public you're still the same old Autry – mingling wit' mustangs, chasin' cattle, broncin' the broncos, and still able to sing like a t'rush in the sagebrush," says Autry's city-slicker sidekick (Durante).
When Autry arrives to clean up the town and prove he hasn't gone soft, he's met by a schoolteacher (Allen), who rhymes: "Welcome home our conquering hero/ Boots and spurs and gay sombrero..." No wonder the bad guys fire ribs as well as bullets, making fun of Gene with a parody of his signature song, "Back in the Saddle": "Go back to the city again/ Where a fellow is a champ/ If he licks a postage stamp/ Go back to the city again." Observes Durante of the ridicule: "It's tragic! It's Waterloo! It's Armageddon! And Ar'm-a-gettin' outta here!" Of course, Autry eventually proves as heroic in the "real life" of the film as he is in "reel" life. "Melody Ranch" is irresistible entertainment.
For more on Autry, visit the Autry website. For the star's definitive life story, read Holly George-Warren's recent biography, "Public Cowboy No. 1: The Life and Times of Gene Autry." Also indispensable and also published this year in connection with the Autrey Centennial is Boyd Magers' definitive look at Autry in the movies and on TV, "Gene Autry Westerns."