Dixie cowboys
: Hollywood and 1930s westerns

  • Peter Stanfield

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

Abstract

This thesis takes the 1930s Western as its object of study. Against received critical wisdom, it explains why Hollywood invested in the genre in 1930/31, why it withdrew from producing Westerns at the end of this season and why it made a limited return to production in 1936/37, before more successfully reintegrating Westerns into its production schedules during 1939/40. My primary objective is to consider the genre, not through abstract modelling of generic archetypes, but more concretely within the history of Hollywood's 'production cycles'. Further, through an examination of 'why' Hollywood did or did not produce Westerns in the 1930s, I intend to confront and revise ways in which the genre is conceptualised. While most histories of the Western ignore or marginalize B Westerns, this study places them at the centre of the debate. One of the features which differentiates B Westerns is the singing cowboy. I want to consider how this figure embodies Western films' relationship to Western music as formulated within the recording and radio industries. A further area of analysis, which has remained untheorised to date, is that B Westerns are intimately tied to questions of Southern American identity. The 'Dixie Cowboys' of my title alludes to an ideological displacement which relocates concerns of Southern identity on to the terrain of the Western. The displacement of the South into the Western operates in two distinct domains - A-feature Westerns and B Westerns. This distinction will be explored on the basis of content, audience and industry perception. I have based the study on an empirical investigation to understand why Hollywood produced Westerns and to frame a new method for approaching textual readings of the films. These readings have repositioned critical orthodoxies as a result of respecting the parameters established and sanctioned by both the industry and its initial consumers: the press, fan magazines, censorship boards and industry correspondence. Most critical writings on Westerns and society assume that there are grounds for reading of the films allegorically. I have retrieved this general approach but have allowed the material studies to determine what readings these might be for a contemporary audience. While an audience is hypothetically free to read whatever it cares to within a particular film or group of films, this study has argued that Hollywood and its media satellites offered historical and cultural boundaries by which those readings were most likely set. Thus late 1930s Westerns were deliberately 'double-coded': received both as 'harmless entertainment' and as engaged on a political, social and cultural front. This engagement might be with the escalating conflict in Europe or Asia, or with a nation divided by the Depression, or on the role of women within films and by extension society, the representation of adult sexual and leisure activities, or with ethnic assimilation. But as I have argued, this was not because Hollywood had found a social conscience, at least not primarily, but because it fount it politically and therefore financially expedient. The genre's 'fall' and 'renaissance', then is less to do with any notion of zeitgeist than with the particular needs of Hollywood in maintaining a stable context within which it could best control and exploit its markets.
Date of Award1999
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Nottingham Trent University

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