Cowboys of the 50s

Written by michael brent
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Cowboys of the 50s
Numerous cowboy stars of Western films and TV series were popular in the 1950s. (Comstock/Comstock/Getty Images)

During the 1950s, one of the most popular genres in film and the new medium of TV was the western. During this era, the image of the cowboy varied considerably, ranging from the so-called "singing cowboys" marketed to children to the archetypical strong, silent heroes portrayed by John Wayne in adult-oriented films. During the 1950s, TV further popularised the genre, providing a home for the genre's fading film actors and a launching pad for emerging cowboy stars.

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John Wayne and John Ford

The collaboration between actor John Wayne and director John Ford resulted in some of the most iconic movie Westerns. Separately, both Wayne and Ford were involved in various films during this decade, but a pair of westerns they made during the 1950s remain high points in the careers of both men, cementing the image of the cowboy as reluctant hero. In the 1950 film "Rio Grande," Wayne plays a former Union officer after the Civil War who is tasked with training new recruits at a fort that is attacked by Apaches. In the 1956 classic "The Searchers," Wayne again plays a Civil War veteran, this time hunting for his niece after she's been kidnapped by American Indians.

The Singing Cowboys

Roy Rogers and Gene Autrey were the era's two most famous singing cowboys, known for their flamboyant fringed outfits and their penchant for breaking into song in the midst of their movies. Autrey was a hugely popular star in both films and music. By the early 1950s, however, his career was already on the wane when he found new success on TV with "The Gene Autrey Show," which ran from 1950 until 1956. Singing cowboy Roy Rogers, who typically appeared with his horse, Trigger, was also a popular film star who turned to TV at about the same time as Autrey. "The Roy Rogers Show" aired from 1951 until 1957.

Cowboys on TV

TV in the 1950s was dominated by westerns. Among the most popular of these was "Wagon Train," which followed a group of pioneers on their way from Missouri to California, a trip that ultimately lasted from 1957 until 1965. Other popular TV westerns include "Have Gun, Will Travel," "The Lone Ranger," "Bat Masterson" and "Death Valley Days." The most popular TV western in TV history, however, remains "Gunsmoke," which debuted in 1955 and ran for 20 seasons, making a star out of James Arness and launching the acting careers of Dennis Weaver and Burt Reynolds.

Kids and Cowboys

The mythologised image of the old-West cowboy was a huge hit with boys during the 1950s. In addition to the movies and TV series churned out by Hollywood, toy manufacturers joined in on the cowboy craze. From hats to cap guns to spurs to badges, toymakers marketed cowboy-themed products to children who couldn't seem to get enough. The era's most popular children's show was "Howdy Doody." Both puppet Howdy and human host "Buffalo" Bob Smith wore cowboy attire. During the 1950s, western-movie sidekick Andy Devine appeared simultaneously in TV series "The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickock" and as host of his own children's show, "Andy's Gang," which ran from 1955 until 1960.

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