Tuesday, January 11, 2011

1950's trauma: Shocked by radio Westerns

The 1950's (and in particular, the years of 1955 on) saw a tide of Westerns sweep over radio at an enormous rate.

These weren't the Westerns folks were used to listening to.  In the 1930's and '40's, radio was ripe with such easy-going kid fare as The Lone Ranger, The Cisco Kid, Hopalong Cassidy, Sgt. Preston and the Challenge of the Yukon plus a whole mini-genre of happy-as-all-get-out singing cowboys like Roy Rogers, Dale Evans and Gene Autry.

Any title or name in the above paragraph bears the fruit of complete trust that you'd have in letting your child listen to those particular programs.  There would be no suggestion of sex of any kind (and probably no kissing either.)  There might be some shooting, but rest assured, The Lone Ranger and Roy Rogers were always aiming for the outlaw's hand.  Why, Sgt. Preston rarely ever used a gun at all; he more often than not allowed his trusty dog to rip the flesh from the bones of frigid criminals (and radio dogs inflicting bodily damage seemingly has no effect on listening audiences of any age!)

And then you had the simple Western, such as The Six-Shooter, where Brit Ponsit was an ex-gunslinger (but a good guy) whose aim at life was to visit friends and neighbors each week.  Unless really provoked, the only damage he wanted to do was to consume a whole pan of cornbread.   Played by the almost milquetoast (or at the very least, quiet and empathetic) Jimmy Stewart, violence was the last thing on the mind of the listener.  The Six Shooter is a calm -almost sad-  show; after all the show's main theme music is slow and yes, sad.
Then when 'the wave' hit, it must has greatly shocked those radio listeners, especially those who did not have television or rarely went to see films at their local theaters.

Gunsmoke, for instance, revolved around Matt Dillon, easily one of the toughest radio characters ever.  He didn't want to have to shoot someone. He would rather mangle someone with his hands and did so often, incorporating thoughts of bloody body parts everywhere in the radio listener's mind.

Not only that but Dillon was not married.  His favorite hangout was the Long Branch Saloon and the writers, directors and actors made no bones about it: the iniquity den was loaded with prostitutes (it attracted the cattlemen who had just got paid.) And to top it all off (no pun intended) Dillon had a girl at the saloon who wanted him to marry her (Kitty.)

While no one came right out in the open and said, "Kitty is a prostitute and Matt probably doesn't have to pay" - you certainly get that idea while listening to the show.  And somewhere, Roy Rogers was probably freaking out over this.

There exists, somewhere (because I used to have it) some audio clips of Matt  and Kitty [in character] "having sex" in a squeaky bed - I kid you not.)  But I can't seem to find them anywhere now.

In the beginning weeks of Gunsmoke, Doc's character was potrayed as being a greedy businessman who attended to burials rather than the cheerful, sympathetic doctor of Dodge City. 

And Gunsmoke was just one show.  Have Gun Will Travel was clearly about a hired gun name Paladin.  Generally, he would rather not kill.  But then again, he did so often - and got paid for it.

Other shows like Luke Slaughter of Tombstone, Frontier Town and even Frontier Gentleman are vivid with all sorts of people getting killed (Luke Slaughter's last name isn't that by accident) including pseudo-genocidal cleansing of Indians from America's Western breach.

John Dehner as the Frontier Gentleman was a vicious bare-knuckled fighter and I don't ever recall losing at fisticuffs.

So when the tide came, there must have been some sort of cultural trauma, because it all happened at once.


  1. What a great survey of radio westerns history! I can't believe they portrayed a bed squeaking under Matt and Kitty. No way! (I hope you find that clip.) But a great image among other great images that show the shift from romantic westerns to more gritty ones.

  2. Thanks for your omments.

    I will continue to look for the clip, I assure you it's around (it's in a blooper "reel")

  3. I will add that the tv screens at the time were beginning to fill with westerns. Rawhide and Wagon Train were favorites. Also, Johnny Yuma a little later and the Rifleman. To your list of later radio ones I would add Fort Laramie and Tales of the Texas Rangers (although stories involved the years in late 30s and 40s.) Would the Tales of the Texas Rangers be more police story or western, not sure.

    Lastly, I like your new format which allow me to find this review.


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